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The History of Stirlingshire
Chapter I. The Forts of Agricola


The county of Stirling, from its situation upon the isthmus between the firths of Clyde and Forth, together with its direct passage from the northern to the southern parts of the island, has been the scene of many memorable transactions. There are indeed few shires in Scotland that can show the site of so many ancient monuments; nor does it yield to any in point of those modern improvements which have led to the advancement of commerce and manufactures. An account of the principal operations and events that have happened here, from the Roman invasion until the present day, may prove interesting alike to the antiquarian and general reader.

The first buildings, regarding the antiquity and original design of which we have any authentic record, are the praesidia, or forts, erected about the close of the first century by Julius Agricola. Tacitus, in his life of that General, informs us, that, in his fourth campaign, he built forts upon the narrow isthmus between the firths of Glota and Bodotria, namely, Clyde and Forth, with an intention to secure his conquests upon the south, and to confine the natives of the country as within another island. These forts appear to have been erected in the same tract where Lollius Urbicus afterwards raised the wall which now goes by the name of Graham’s Dyke. No vestiges of such works are to be seen in any other part of that isthmus; and, that these fabrics we are about to mention, were built in a more early period than the wall, is highly probable from the circumstance that the wall does not always run in a straight course, but often leaves more advantageous ground, with no other apparent object than that of coming up to some of them.

The ruins of these praesidia are still partially visible along the tract of the wall, and generally at the distance of two miles apart. Little more, however, remains at present to distinguish the spots, where even the largest of them stood, than the vestiges of the outer ditches and ramparts. Still we need not be surprised at finding buildings which were reared up in haste, and only for a temporary use, crumbled into dust, when the devastations of time have often, in a shorter space, demolished the most stately fabrics, which were originally designed for a long duration, and, in the erection of which all the art of architecture was employed. Lucan’s prediction of certain capital cities has been literally fulfilled – their ruins even being so far lost that geographers now fail to determine the spot where they stood.

Gabios, Veiosque, Coramque,
Pulvere vix tectae poterunt monstrare ruinae,
Albanosque lares, Laurentinosque penates,
Rus vacuum, quod non habitet, nisi nocte coacta,
Invitus.
         Pharsalia, vii. 391.

The Veian and the Gabian tow’rs shall fall,
And one promiscuous ruin cover all;
Nor, after length of years, a stone betray
The place where once the very ruins lay;
High Alba’s walls, and the Lavinian strand,
(A lonely desert and an empty land),
Shall scarce afford, for needful hours of rest,
A single house to their benighted guest.

Several of those old Roman stations are in the shire of Stirling; and as the castellum, or fort, at Castlecary may be reckoned among the larger sort, so it was one of the best preserved in the whole series. Castella cara, the beloved castle – the Curia Damniorum of Ptolemy. Thus, have we frequently seen the place described; but others are of opinion that the penult syllable is of Celtic origin, Caer, signifying "Hill Fort." Castle, which forms a mixed etymology, is considered a modern prefix; and in like manner we say, improperly, "the river Avon," which is also a tautology, as Avon signifies "River."

The fort just alluded to occupied a knoll immediately upon the borders of Stirlingshire, which is now the north-east end of the North British Railway viaduct; and this station, from its elevated site, must have commanded not only an extensive, but a most advantageous prospect. The ground itself, which is of a square form, comprehends several acres, and was in the past, as it is now, surrounded with a dyke of stone and mortar. Then, around the outer wall of the castellum, we find a double vallum; and here the entry had been by a large causeway intersecting the ditch. Upon the west side is a steep descent into a glen, through which the Red burn runs; while, on the north, lies the field of the freestone quarry that had supplied the fort with its stones. Castlecary has indeed been a place of great interest and benefit to the antiquary. Rarely have excavations been made within its boundaries, but relics of special significance have been got. In 1769, as workmen connected with the Forth and Clyde Canal were employed amongst the ruins in search of stones, an elegant plan of a house, in the style of Pallodio, with a sudorium, or warm bath, attached, was discovered in the south angle. There were the remains of eight apartments in all; and in one of these were also found a number of stones, standing erect, which plainly bore marks of fire. Their length was about two feet, and they had evidently been designed to support some sort of vessel, under which fire was put. In the middle of the station, where the praetorium stood, other large ruins were likewise observed; but the men, not finding stones for their purpose, soon gave over digging.

Two years later – in August, 1771 – when a body of labourers were again at similar work for the walls of the neighboring canal, various interesting relics were unearthed. Among these were fragments of urns and vases, brazen helmets and shields, together with a silver denarius of Hadrian and of Caesar Augustus. In a large hollow of the rock, about a hundred quarters of wheat were also got; but whether the grain had been so stored for the use of the Roman garrison, or had been hid there during some war in later times, cannot now be known. A short time ago we saw a portion that had been lifted from the place so recently as 1871, which was not only entire and black, but discoloured at the very core; and such an effect, we think, must have been produced through the action of fire. The Romans, when pressed by an enemy, would naturally endeavour to destroy as much of their grain as they could not remove, with the view of rendering it useless.

Not a single stone of the fort is now to be seen above ground. Its walls are utterly levelled, and its foundations grass-grown and buried beneath several inches of soil. Pity that such national heirlooms had not been placed under proper protection. Even within the last twenty years, a considerable portion of the castellum walls has been willfully razed, and the historical stones carted away for the purposes of steading-buildings and dykes; but it might be a difficult task to convince the utilitarian farmer that such grasping demolition of these real antiquities is something akin to a criminal misdemeanor.

At Bankier (Celtic, Ban Caer, "Fair Fort"), which lies about a mile north of Castlecary, Mr. Gordon, author of the Itinerarium Septentrionale, observed some ruins of a circular fortification. No vestiges, however, of the building are now discernible, although the conformation of the ground seems to invite its presence. This "castle" stood upon the top of a round hill, and consisted of a ditch nearly 24 feet in breadth, with a rampart about 20 feet high, and 350 feet in circumference. The area, too, had been regularly paved with flat freestones. In the same neighborhood, Mr. Gordon discovered sundry other ruins, some of which were so extensive as to induce him to think that a town had at one time existed in these parts. On a hill called Forebrae, above the village of Auchincloish, he speaks of meeting with a very beautiful castellum, called Cairnfaal, which had a stone wall round it, 12 feet in height, 16 feet in breadth, and 250 feet in circumference, with an entry due east of 13 feet.

Roughcastle stands two miles eastward of Castlecary, in the midst of a high and barren muir. Though all overgrown with heath, from whence it probably derives the present name (Celtic, Riach castail, "Brindled Castle"), yet the form of it, which is square, is quite distinct. Nothing remarkable is to be seen amongst the ruins of this station. It has been surrounded with a double ditch and a wall of earth. Mr. Gordon observed the foundations of a freestone wall; but there is not at present any appearance of stonework about it, except in the middle where the praetorium stood, the stones having been carried off to build houses in the neighborhood. The ramparts here were equal in length to those at Castlecary, though narrower by one-fourth. In a low and marshy piece of ground, on the west of fort, are two or three ditches, running parallel to one another, the design of which is puzzling, unless it was to hold water, which might have been conveyed into them by a small rivulet that runs within a few yards of the place.

Eastward of Roughcastle, no vestiges of any stations are now discernible, though it is not improbable that one is buried in the town of Falkirk – at least the ordinary distances lead us to suppose that one might have been there, and another not far from Polmont. But half way, however, between Roughcastle and Falkirk, and a quarter of a mile off the line of the wall, are very plain evidences of a strong fortification or camp, which go by the name of Camelon. Buchanan says, that, in his time, this place resembled the ruins of a moderate city, and that the ditches, walls, and streets, were visible. Some remains of the ramparts, which have been exceedingly strong, are still to be seen, as also the causeway or military road which passes through it, and which Buchanan probably took for a street. It is, at this distance of time, impossible to know what the original dimensions of this station have been; for all the ground around it, and even within the ramparts, has been long in constant tillage; but, from the stones and rubbish dug up in different places, there is reason to conclude, that the Roman works here have been of considerable extent. At a good distance from the present remains of the ramparts, stones of Roman workmanship have been found, and many of them with characters, which appeared to be the initials of names. Seventy-five years ago, two, nicely cut and carved, were discovered, and built up in the front of a dwelling-house in the village of Camelon, a little eastward of the old station.

As the old Britons usually distinguished the places where Roman camps had been, by the name of Caer, that word signifying in their language a fortified place or castle; so a village and farm in this neighborhood still go by the name of Caer-muirs. According to tradition, the stone of the church, and of other old buildings in the town of Falkirk, were brought from Camelon, the ruins of which are now so far disfigured, as to consist only of rubbish, with a few yards of the earthen aggers that formed the northern and southern ramparts. Sir Robert Sibbald, writing in the early part of last century, speaks of an anchor and various Roman coins which had been discovered here, and describes the vestiges of regular streets, with vaults underneath. But a comparatively recent period afforded a rich supply of the latter relics including an alabaster vase or tazza, the neck of a wine-jar, and several sorts of iron instruments. These were disclosed by the cutting of the Polmont Junction Railway, in 1851, which exposed a drain of remarkable size, built of squared blocks of freestone, and covered with slabs of the same material. About twelve years ago, the task of excavating this drain was heartily taken up by a few local antiquaries, in company with the late Sir James Simpson of Edinburgh. Penetrating as far as was practicable on each side of the railway cutting, they reached strong foundations of walls, two on the south and one on the north side of the line. The points on which they struck were the corners of the buildings, which were found to rest on a pavement of flagstones bedded in clay. Above these walls and all around was an accumulated mass of debris of ruined houses, through which were scattered bones of the ox, sheep, pig, and deer; fragments of pottery, some of which were of Samian ware; handles of amphorae, one bearing distinct letters; many bricks, and bits of tile flues. A circular disc of bronze, about the size of a florin, attached to a nail, was found in one of the buildings, together with the shell of an oyster, and considerable quantities of charred wood. On a large square brick was the impression of a dog’s foot – a stamp which has been noticed in Roman bricks found near Hexham, and in the buried city of Uriconium, near Shrewsbury.

The stones dug up from the ruins of Castlecary and Camelon have been generally of a much smaller size than those which compose the Gothic or more modern buildings. Many of them are of a triangular form, and bear evidence of having been strongly cemented with mortar, in which the strength of the Roman structures seems chiefly to have consisted.

It is not improbable that Agricola set out from the camp at Camelon, when he marched to the passage of the Forth, and the invasion of Caledonia, in his sixth campaign; and we may suppose it to have been also occupied by the Roman armies in the subsequent expeditions of Severus and Caracalla; for it appears to have been the largest and most commodious of the castra stativa, which they possessed upon the south side of that river, as that of Ardoch was upon the north. And, moreover, after their fleet had found the way into the firth, provisions could be brought up the Carron by small craft, and landed within a short distance of this station.

Eighty years ago, a small tumulus resembling a Roman speculatorium, or watch-tower, and much of the same form and dimensions with those upon the wall of Antoninus, stood at the east end of the village of Larbert; but was demolished by the present main road from Stirling which stretches in this direction. This mount, if it was of so high antiquity, might, though situated on the opposite side of the river, be an advanced post, or a sentinel’s turret, while the camp lay at Camelon.

These praesidia, however, must have been very little occupied by the Romans; for after the departure of Agricola, they abandoned all their conquests in Scotland, and seem for some time to have had very little footing in Britain. Indeed, it would appear that there were no Roman forces in Scotland from that period, except in the southern parts, until the arrival of Lollius Urbicus, in the reign of Antoninus. Agricola, too, usually led his army into England for winter quarters; and we can hardly suppose that he left garrisons in his praesidia, during the two winters he continued in the island after their erection. Except in the case of three or four, there is not, throughout the whole tract, any appearance of stone buildings, nor of any conveniences for accommodating soldiers in winter. We find no inscriptions upon any of them, apart from those that belong to the reign of Antoninus; and, if they were planted with garrisons after the wall was built in his reign, it must have been only for a short time; for, soon afterwards, the Romans again lost all this part of the island, till the time of Severus, who, after an unsuccessful expedition into Caledonia, found it necessary to relinquish the wall of Antoninus, and fix the boundary of the empire by a new wall in the north of England.


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