Back to top

The Roman Wall

1 The Roman Wall: A Historical, Topographical, and Descriptive Account of the Barrier of the Lower Isthmus, extended from the Solway to the Tyne. By the Rev. J. C. Bruce, M. A.

2 In glancing along the map of the wall, and contrasting the old Roman names of the stations with the names now attached to them, or the spots which they once occupied, we can trace no resemblance whatever between Segedunum and Wallsend, Condercum and Benwell, Vindobala and Rutchester, Hunnum and Halton Chesters, Procolitia and Carrowburgh, &c. But at length, near the western limits of the countty of Northumberland, there occurs a station which the Romans called Magna. Is not the modern name of this place, Carvoran, simply a translation of the original into the native British language?—ED.

When the testy Laird of Monkbarns had, to the great relief of Mrs. Macleuchar, been at length safely deposited in the Hawes Fly, or Queensferry Diligence, and by the lapse of time and the motion of the lumbering vehicle, had become repossessed of his equanimity, the prized folio, which had such a dulcifying tendency as to banish the last traces of impatience and wrath, was Sandy Gordon's 'Itinerarium Septentrionale.' This learned folio was so highly appreciated in its own day, that a Latin edition was published on the continent for the benefit of all European scholars; yet it is no exaggeration to say, that nine-tenths of modern readers would deem it too severe a penance for any ordinary backsliding to be condemned to read it through. It is in fact a most excellent type of the old school of antiquarian treatises, and doubtless was selected as such, when Sir Walter Scott resolved to have a laugh at one of his own favourite hobbies.

Sir Walter Scott did good service in many ways when he produced his inimitable satire. Yet few more memorable instances could be produced of the inconsistency of the human mind than the occupation of Scott at the very time when he was penning his amusing picture of the antiquarian horder of 'auld nick-nackets:' he was himself expending one of the largest incomes ever derived from literature in an attempt to realise a practical romance— a modern antiquity—not a whit less extravagant than his own credulous hero's agger and vallum on the Kaim of Kinprunes, or its never-to-be-forgotten sacrificial patera, or 'lang ladle.'

It is not, perhaps, the least valuable of the results which have been indirectly traced to the writings of the great Scottish novelist, that men begin to look upon the study of antiquities, not as a research into obsolete and lifeless curiosities, but as the readiest means of restoring to us the living past, and repeopling it with the old actors, not as stuffed or pained automatons, but as actual men and women like ourselves, each 'in his habit as he lived.' And it is wonderful how much can be done, and how much remains to be done, in the way of thus revivifying the past. In our own British island there exist even now the remains of the well-defined barrier, of of which the old Roman practically said: 'Here shall be the bounds of civilisation with its attendant arts, and beyond it all shall be as though it were not!' It is not, therefore, without good reason that men of learning and patient research have deemed their time well spent in exploring this remarkable work, which stretches from the banks of the Tyne, in the neighbourhood of Newcastle—where its termination still oddly enough gives the name to our Wall's-end coal!— to the border of the Solway Firth, on the northern skirts of modern England. There has appeared within the last few months a new and comparatively popular account of this singular structure,1 to which we would draw the attention of our readers, being convinced that it will amply repay a perusal. 'A dead wall,' says the historian, 'may seem to most a very unpromising subject. The stones are indeed inanimate; but he who has a head to think and an heart to feel, will find them suggestive of bright ideals and melting sympathies. A large part of the knowledge which we possess of the early history of our country has been dug out of the ground. The spade and plough of the rustic have often exposed documents which have revealed the movements, as well as the modes of thought and feeling, of those who have slept in the dust for centuries. The casual wanderer by the relics of the wall will probably get those vivid glances into Roman character, and acquire that personal interest in Roman story, which will give to the prosaic records of chroniclers a reality and charm which they did not before possess.'

Such is the spirit in which we are invited to retrace the half-obliterated vestiges of the old barrier, and to seek to reanimate the Roman warder and his barbarian foe. We accordingly find, under such guidance, that much of historical and personal interest is recoverable, and we obtain glimpses of curious import into that old state of things which existed some fifteen or sixteen hundred years ago on the debatable lands afterwards so famous in Border legend and song. 'I confess,' says Horsley, 'that when I view some part of the country in the north of England, where the Romans had their military wars and stations, that question naturally arises which has been so often proposed—What could move them to march so far to conquer such a country? It appears wild and desolate enough at present, but must have been more so at that time, from the accounts the Roman historians have given us of it. I shall leave the Caledonian Galgacus, or Tacitus for him, to return the answer—If the enemy was rich, their covetousness moved them; if poor, their ambition. And when they added further desolation to a desolate country, this was their peace.'

Those, however, who have devoted most time and care to the study of the records treasured up in such archæological chronicles, are nearly unanimous in the conclusions they arrive at, that Britain was neither a very poor nor a very barbarous country at the period of its invasion by the Romans. 'There are few evils,' says Mr. Bruce, 'in the fibres of whose roots the love of money will not be found. Gold was another secret but powerful cause of the hardships which the Romans themselves underwent, and of the countless ills which they mercilessly inflicted upon the miserable islanders. The British chiefs in general appear to have had considerable riches among them. Cæsar acquired a large booty in his two descents upon our shore. Prasutagus, the king of the Iceni, died possessed of very great wealth. To a few states in the south, and within a few years after their first subjection, the philosophical Seneca lent more than L.480,000 of our money upon good security, and at exorbitant interest; and Severus got a prodigious mass of riches in this land.' So, too, the abundance of gold relics; torcs, or collars for the neck, armillæ, and bracelets for the arms and wrists, and even breastplates and body-armour, all made of pure gold, and now from time to time brought to light, all attest the abundance of the precious metals in this country in early times, and add to the probability, which is confirmed by other evidence, that prior to the Roman era our islands abounded in native gold.

The contrast between the Roman and native relics is not the least remarkable and interesting feature in these investigations. The native relics consist of the weapons and implements of stone, bronze, or iron, and the personal ornaments of gold—interesting only as evidences of the progress in arts or military skill of those to whom they belonged. Their conquerors, on the contrary, have left us definite literary records, altogether independent of the classic histories which were written for the purpose of preserving a memory of these times. Along the whole line of the wall have been found inscribed tablets, columns, altars, and innumerable coins. Some of the sepulchral tablets especially interest us. One is dedicated to Anicius Ingenuus, physician in ordinary to the first Tungrian cohort—a curious and unique piece of evidence, so far as Britain is concerned, of the attachment of a medical staff to the Roman army. Another is dedicated, by a bereaved husband, 'To his matchless wife, with whom he had lived twenty-seven years without a single quarrel!'—a couple whose incomparable fidelity may justly challenge comparison with the foremost of modern candidates for the Dunmow flitch of bacon.

Among the legends and traditions of 'The Wall,' not a few curious, though distorted memories of the old Roman supremacy, as well as of the lawless freedom which succeeded to them, may still be traced, though these are now rapidly fading before the march of the iron highway and the electric wires. Mr Bruce observes: "'There are no old people upon the wall now," as a man of threescore lately said to me when I was endeavouring to persuade him to gather up from his still more ancient neighbours the fireside lore of bygone times.' It is not a little singular, however, to find, as one of the most widespread traditions of this frontier line, the existence of an ingenious Roman substitute for the electric telegraph. 'In this wall,' says an old writer—Sir Christopher Ridley—'was theyr a trunck of brass, or whatever kynd of mettal, which went from one place to another along the wall, and came into the captaynes chamber, wherat they had watchers for the same, and yf theyr had bene stryfe or business betwyxt the enemies, and that the watchman did blow a horn in at the end of the trunke, that came into the chamber, and so from one to one.' Nearly the same tradition exists at the present day along some portions of the line of the more northerly or Scottish Roman Wall, which extended between the Clyde and the Forth; and the clay-pipes and flue-tiles used for the stoves and baths of the old Roman villas are triumphantly produced in proof of its truth.

The traces of Roman and native civilisation along the line of the wall are of the most varied kind; but not less interesting to us is the evidence afforded of the changing influences on which the existence of the most important cities and stations depended. The Romans made it one of their earliest and most indispensable tasks in every new province, to construct great military roads, at the junctions of which, or on the most convenient stations along their course, were speedily established camps or military posts, which again, in many cases, became the nucleus of large towns, and gave rise to many of the chief modern cities; and it is a remarkable evidence of the sagacious policy of imperial Rome, that one of the very first steps taken by the English government after the northern rebellion of 1745, was the reconstruction of the old military way between Newcastle and Carlisle, almost precisely on the line of Hadrian's Roman road.

We have seen, however, in our own day, an entirely new system of roads introduced—namely, the railways; and already the most remarkable changes are resulting from it. Towns, such as St. Albans, where formerly hundreds of stage-coaches, postchaises, and gentlemen's carriages used to change horses daily, are now utterly deserted and grass-grown. They are like some sea-ports on a forsaken beach, or like towns along the bank of a river which has abandoned its course. Meanwhile the current flows abundantly in the new channel, and large towns are already springing up at Crewe, Blisworth, and others of the chief points of junction of the great trunk-lines. A precisely similar result seems to have followed the desertion of the old Roman Wall, and the abandonment of the great military roads which its defenders had maintained; and the curious antiquary now exhumes from beneath the wild heath, or the lone sheep-pastures, which seem to the common eye as if the hand of man had never disturbed them, evidences of wealth, luxury, abundant population, and all the appliances of domestic convenience which were familiar to the native of Italy in the second and third century.

'For the most part, the stations—cities which for centuries were the abodes of busy men, and which resounded with the hum of multitudes and the clash of arms—now present a scene of utter desolation. The wayfarer may pass through them without knowing it; the streets are leveled, the temples are overthrown, and the sons and daughters of Italy, Mauritania, and Spain, whose adopted homes they were, no longer encounter him. The sheep, depasturing the grass-grown ruins, look listlessly upon the passer-by; and the curlew, wheeling above his head, screams as at the presence of an intruder.' One can scarcely turn up the soil without meeting not only with bronze relics and personal ornaments, fragments of Roman pottery, and other imperishable articles, but also with the bones of oxen, the tusks of boars, deers' horns, and other animal remains; while as for Roman coins, we are almost tempted to fancy their owners must have sown them broadcast, they are met with in such quantities wherever the ground is disturbed.

'It is not a little remarkable,' says Mr Bruce, 'that the names of the stations, which must have been household words in the days of Roman occupation, have for the most part been obliterated from the local vocabulary. They are now only to be recalled, and that with difficulty, by exhuming the stony records of the past, and comparing them with the notices of contemporaneous geographers. The truth is, that military reasons dictated the choice of the stations—commercial facilities gave rise to modern cities. Long may the mere military outpost be consigned to the shepherd's use, whilst the wharf and the warehouse are beset by a busy crowd.'2

A very different transition-stage, however, had to be passed through before the military outpost gave place to the warehouse and thronging wharf, such as now crowd the site of the old Pons Aeilli, or Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Instead of the classic names of the Notitia, we stumble upon such terms as Busy-gap, Bogle-hole, and the more ominous title of Bloody-gap. While yet Scotland and England were rival kingdoms, it was the policy of the governments of both countries to maintain on the Borders a body of men inured to arms, and to encourage a constant system of mutual aggression and wrongs. When the policy of Elizabeth and the accession of James to the throne of England allayed the national strife, the stern warriors of the Border degenerated into sheep-stealers; and instead of dying in the fray, or yielding their necks honourably to the headsman's stroke, they burdened by the score the gallows-tree at Newcastle or Carlisle. It is impossible to imagine the desolation and misery occasioned by such a state of society. Bernard Gilpin, the 'apostle of the north,' was esteemed a brave man, because he annually ventured as far as Rothbury, to preach the gospel of peace to the lawless people of the vale of Coquet. Camden and Sir Robert Cotton, though ardently desirous of examining the wall, durst not venture in their progresss eastward beyond Carvoran. 'From thence,' says the illustrious author of the 'Brittania,' writing about 1580, 'the wall goeth forward more aslope by Iverton, Forsten, and Chester-in-the-Wall, near to Busy-gap, a place infamous for thieving and robbing, where stood some castles (Chesters they called them), as I have heard, but I could not with safety take the full survey of it, for the rank robbers thereabouts.' Mr Bruce adds some curious evidence of the ill-repute of this same transmural region. In the sixteenth century, an act of the merchants of Newcastle forbids any guild-brother from taking as an apprentice any one born in Tyndale, Liddisdale, or any such like places, under a penalty of L.20; assigning as the reason a notorious fact, that the dishonesty and vice of these regions is hereditary, and propagated in the blood! 'The parties there brought up are known, either by education or nature, not to be of honest conversation; they commit frequent thefts, and other felonies, proceeding from such lewd and wicked progenitors!' Fully a century later, curious evidence exists to shew that the old prejudices against these Bordermen had in nowise diminished—a case of prosecution for defamation being on record so late as the middle of the seventeenth century, because a baker of Newcastle had styled a brother freeman 'a Bussy-gap rogue!'

Scott's 'Border Minstrelsy' supplies abundant and familiar illustration of the strange lawless system that prevailed on the debatable lands lying between the two kingdoms long after Scotland and England hand become one. It was quaintly remarked by a reviewer, after referring to some of the forays and cattle-raids of the old Border Scotts, that Sir Walter had been at more pains to trace his descent from thieves than most men would take to prove their ancestors honest men! We cannot spare room here, however, for following further the lively adventures of the Busy-gap Rogues, though they retained their hereditary character down to the reign of George III.

No less curious are the mediæval traditions that linger about the precincts of the old wall in the wilder districts of Northumberland. At Sewingshields, for example, is the locality of the familiar tradition of the renowned King Arthur, who, with his Queen Guenever, his lords and ladies, hawks and hounds, lie to this day enchanted in an unknown cave in the crags, under a spell, only to be broken when some one shall first blow a bugle-horn which lies near the entrance of the cave, and then, with the sword that lies beside it, cut a garter through which binds it to the wall. Some fifty years ago, so says veracious tradition, the farmer of Sewingshields discovered, under the ruins of the old castle, a subterranean passage unknown to him before. He entered, and made his way along a low vaulted arch, his courage sinking at every step as he trod amid toads and slimy lizards, and startled at the flight of dark-winged bats, disturbed by his intrusion. At length a dim light appeared before him, and following its guidance, the bold Northumbrian farmer stood under the fretted roof of a vast subterranean hall, strangely lighted by an unearthly glow. King Arthur, with his queen and court, slumbered on a circle of thrones and couches round the walls, and at their feet were thirty couples of gigantic wolf-hounds. On a stone table in the middle of the hall lay the spell-dissolving horn, sword, and garter. The farmer seized the sword, and as he drew it from the scabbard, the eyes of the monarch and his courtiers opened. He cut the garter, and they sat up, and the dogs shook themselves from the sleep of centuries. But the courage of the intruder failed him—the sword slowly returned to its scabbard; and as the strange court sunk again back to their spell-bound slumbers, King Arthur exclaimed:
'Oh wo betide the evil day
On which this witless wight was born!
Who drew the sword, the garter cut,
But never blew the bugle-horn!'

The farmer was so terror-stricken that he could never afterwards tell how he escaped, or find again the entrance to the enchanted hall.

Such is our modern version of the curious myth of the good King Arthur, who Merlin swore should come again to rule. In many forms it has survived through changing centuries, and is well worth considering for the truths it embodies under its quaint imagery. Meanwhile, however, it will suffice to shew how many pleasant topics may be suggested to the rambler along the course of the old Roman barrier, which once stretched its unbroken line of forts, curtain walls, and military way, from Segedunum, or Wallsend, near the mouth of the Tyne, to Bowness on the Solway Firth. To those who desire to become familiar with the history and antiquities of this remarkable monument of the military arts of ancient Rome, we recommend Mr Bruce's work, from which we have extracted some of the above passages. To the antiquary its attractions are great, abounding as it does with engravings of altars and inscriptions, maps, sections, and ground-plans of all that most command his study, and many of these being entirely new, and derived from the enthusiastic author's own personal observations. What we have said above, however, will suffice to shew that others besides the professed antiquary will find in the work matter to attract, to instruct, and to amuse; and we should think little of that mind which, amid all the stirring interest of the present, can spare no thought for that older state of being from whence the present has sprung, and to which it owes a reverence in some degree akin to that which is due the parent from the child.