A wall and a wheel, from sea to sea

Both my parents were great readers and history buffs. My dad read any period of history, while my mom held a particular interest in the history of Britain. I wouldn’t be surprised if she could have recited the names of the kings and queens of England in order along with the dates of their rule. I say this because she could recite all the American presidents in order, the 50 state capitols alphabetically either by state or by capitol, and, in a dazzling triumph, all the names in our family (at the time numbering over 100) alphabetically either by first name or last name, or by birth date. I know. Incredible.

I didn’t inherit that talent but my sister did. But back to British history; it’s daunting. There’s just so damn much of it. When we first got to Scotland we bought a big fat book of Scottish History but except for making good use of the index to answer specific questions, neither of us has managed to wade through something both my parents would have gobbled up.

By now you’re familiar with our mode of travel: go somewhere, look around, figure out what you’re looking at. In this case we found ourselves near something on the map called the Antonine Wall. We know about Hadrian’s Wall of course, and Jack has that on his Must See List. But the Antonine Wall? Never heard of it.

While Jack took a personal day, I strode through the woods along John Muir Way toward something called Rough Castle Fort along the Antonine Wall. It had rained the night before and the trail was soft in parts.

After about a mile and a half I emerged from the forest to what looked like a big lumpy field. This, a placard informed me, was the fort and the wall.

Most of the ancient sites we’ve visited have been excavated and either preserved as is or reconstructed to varying degrees. This one, with no visible evidence of excavation, is a mystery. There are placards with artists’ renderings of the buildings but looking around you really need to use your imagination.

Artist’s idea of the fort.
The present view from the same spot.

Unlike Hadrian’s Wall, constructed of stone, Antonine Wall, begun 20 years later, was earthworks on a stone foundation. Nearly 2000 years of natural forces have understandably had an effect. It’s difficult to capture what the eye can see while walking through the space. The photo below is about as good as I could get to show the remains of the wall.

The wall ran 39 miles, from the Firth of Clyde to the Firth of Forth and marked the northern frontier of the Roman Empire. It was 3 meters high and 5 meters wide at the base with a deep ditch on the north side. The ditch is how you can tell where the wall was.

An early 1900s excavation uncovered lines of defensive pits which would have had sharpened sticks at the bottom.

There were originally 19 forts along the Antonine Wall with smaller fortlets inbetween. Nevertheless, the Romans abandoned the wall only eight years after completion and retreated back to Hadrian’s Wall. It seems they couldn’t subdue the Caledonians.

Wikipedia tells me Rough Castle is the best preserved of the forts along the northern Roman frontier. Earlier excavations were covered up again and more recent research depends more on technology like LIDAR. Today it’s just a pretty place with a brief but significant history.

From the fort I followed the Union Canal, part of the Scottish canal system. The swans on this day were undisturbed by narrowboat traffic.

Until the 1930s the Union Canal was connected to the Forth and Clyde Canal by a system of 11 locks, dropping boats 115 feet and completing a continuous waterway from Glasgow to Edinburgh. It took almost a day to pass through the flight of locks. By the ‘30s the route fell into disuse, the locks were dismantled, and in the 1960s the Forth and Clyde Canal was closed.

Around the bend, the Union Canal goes through the Rough Castle Tunnel, illuminated for some reason with constantly changing colored lights.

The view from above the tunnel facing East.

On the other side of the tunnel the canal appears to end in mid-air, but this is where the story gets good.

In the 1990s the British Waterways Board and the Millenium Commission, along with other entities, sought a way to reestablish the link between the Union Canal and the Forth and Clyde Canal. The result is the Falkirk Wheel, a rotating boat lift that replaces 9 of the original 11 locks, raising boats 79 feet and making a continuous sea-to-sea passage along the two canals possible again.

Aerial view borrowed from the internet.

The wheel not only benefits the narrowboaters navigating the Scottish canals, but also draws tourists from all over to see this one-of-a-kind feat of 21st century engineering and design. I recommend reading the whole story here. It’s fascinating. Tourists can ride on modified narrowboats, lifted from the Forth and Clyde Canal to the Union Canal, then along the canal to the first lock and back to the Wheel for the lift back down. Even on a chilly weekday when we were there it was busy.

Without a drone or a helicopter it’s difficult to photograph the entire structure, so I recommend googling for some better overall photos and videos. We enjoyed sitting in the café on a drizzly day watching the mechanism and the delighted visitors boarding the boats for the slow-motion watery elevator.

The best part for us is that for a small fee we could spend the night and enjoy the services from the marina. Once the tours were over for the day, we had the place to ourselves.

While I was out taking pictures a huge flock of geese flew by, loudly announcing their passage. I watched until they disappeared, then went inside our cozy home for dinner.

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