Hadrian’s Wall and Scotland Travel Blog

My wife Pam and I were lucky enough to get to spend a few weeks in northern England and Scotland with my sister Gage and our nephews Gabriel and Christian this summer. Both Pam and I are classicists, so the travel had a heavy Roman focus, and this was also our first chance to explore my roots together. Hiking Hadrian’s Wall was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The path has only been a national heritage site for a few years, and it is still blessedly free of all but history buffs and trekkers, even though it has some of the best museums we have seen! Hadrian’s Wall was not the furthest north wall the Romans made, but its route is much better known than the Antonine Wall (if it is heavily reconstructed).

After leaving Hadrian’s Wall at Carlisle, we journeyed from the south to the north of Scotland, including a hike in the remotest part of the isle of Skye; however, there were two monuments we found that will always be great high points for me. They remind me that going off the beaten path is often the most memorable part of travel, and that taking a chance provides the greatest reward (though I don’t know how I would feel if we had failed at either attempt!).

As we drove into southern Scotland after Hadrian’s Wall, we began exploring Johnston sites. We were sad to note that our Border Reiver ancestors were not very nice people! Visits to the area of the Dryfe Sands ambush and the Devil’s Beef Tub cattle-hiding area verified that observation. Dryfe Sands was near Lockerbie, and thus we were able, in the pouring rain, also to visit the memorial to all those who died in the bombing of flight 103.

As we drove north to Moffat we recalled that the main Johnston Castle was a few miles off the route—it has not been a tourist attraction for years (perhaps my sister’s films will rebuild Johnston tourism!). We had found a description of what the site should look like, and as we neared the area where we knew it to be we looked closely at each high escarpment, and after thirty minutes or so we saw low walls on one…we got out and saw a mid-twentieth-century marker verifying that we had found it! It was a long castle with a high turret still largely upright, though with trees growing out of the top. We scrambled up the hillside, and investigated the ruins, feeling like early modern explorers, with no other humans in sight!

There was not only a feeling of accomplishment at finding and exploring the sixteenth-century castle, but standing on the walls and seeing the next generation, our children and nephews, running in the forest paths brought a profound sense of joy. The Johnstons have left the internecine rivalries that made the castle necessary, and now the scions, the children of my sister and her Assyrian-Aramaic husband, have more near-eastern blood than Scottish!

Gage’s husband Jack joined us in Edinburgh, and, after a week traveling around the north of Scotland, we were retuning down the highland highway to fly out of Glasgow. My students and I had spent the spring reading Tacitus’ account of the great Roman Governor of Britain, Agricola, and I knew archaeologists had discovered in the sixties the furthest northern fort that he had built—amazingly it was north of Edinburgh on the Tay, at the foot of the highlands.

My family was good enough to indulge me in search for the site, which no longer makes popular archaeological maps, though it is the only first-century Roman fort that is neither lost nor built over. It had to be abandoned in the late-first century as other imperial needs became pressing. I knew roughly where it was, and thought I could find the nearest intersection, but when we stopped at an auto repair place in the tiny hamlet of Spittalfield, one of the workers lived on the street with a decades-old, over-grown “Roman Camp” sign on it. He said no one had tried to walk or drive there in decades.

That was just the challenge for me, and more importantly for my super-achieving brother-in-law. We found the intersection (we took pictures of the grown-over sign), and started driving through increasingly overgrown paths, guessing we had to drive down to the Tay and then back up to the plateau. With no indication other than an occasional forty-year-old arrow, we drove along the river and by some remote houses and up an incline to a fenced field.

But wait, there were signs near the gate! One said “Roman Camp,” and the other was a yellowed sheet of paper briefly explaining what Inchtuthil (that the Romans called Castra Pinnata) was. Apparently after archaeology was completed by Sir Ian Richmond in the sixties, a site without impressive ruins was not deemed significant to the Historical Trust. We walked around the periphery of it and tried to identify the ditches and layout. I thought to jump the fence and investigate more, but my brother-in-law, a much more adventurous man than I, said that was unwise. He was looking at the cows. Cows?

These cows were not behaving like we had seen many others do…they were almost like a hive mind, and they ran rather than maeandering. We looked more closely at them as they ran toward us. These were bulls, and they looked mean. My nephew hid behind me! We would not be able to do close archaeological inquiry of our own, but we had found it, and we had a good story!

Now we will be able to help folks find these sites, and we have a clear mental image of them, with pictures, for our family, students and colleagues. We of course got to do many things we had always wanted to do, and were an agreeable group for making detours meaningful to each of us. We went to Anglican or Episcopal churches each Sunday—strangely all the churches we attended were called Saint John’s. Gage and I took the others to visit the huge commune of Findhorn, near Inverness, to which our mother had taken us when we were idealistic teenagers.

Now, as idealistic adults, we went to stunning castles like Dunvegan on Skye and the reconstructed fairy-tale Eilean Donan, and saw the best battlefield presentation in the world at Culloden (as it turns out, not the last armed conflict between residents of the British isles!). But it was the discoveries that will stick with me the longest. When you travel, don’t hesitate to leave the beaten path.