Scotland’s Oldest Bridges.

A map-based catalogue of the oldest masonry bridges in Scotland. 

Septimius Severus. 193-211 AD. As (10.33gm). Struck 208 ADLauriate bust right, drapery on left shoulder/Bridge with arches, towers at both ends,boat below.RIC IV 786a;BMCRE 857 note;Cohen 523.

The Roman historian, Herodian of Antioch (Ref) suggests that In the spring and early summer of 208AD Septimius Severus’s army was somewhere around the Forth-Clyde isthmus, probably quite near the Antonine wall.

“After the troops had crossed the rivers and the earthworks which marked the boundary of the Roman empire in this region frequent battles and skirmishes occurred.........”

Several coins had been struck celebrating the emperor’s arrival in Britain in 207, but one in particular, firmly dated to 208, features a permanent bridge over a river with two towers and a single arch. It is a bronze As.

The Emperor himself was with the army and so were his sons Caracalla and Geta. Caracalla, the immediate heir, joined his father on the march. Large, 165-acre marching camps are found through the Pennines. These imply the steady progress of an army of more than 40,000 men: perhaps two or three  legions plus a very large body of auxiliary foot-soldiers, cavalry, horses, equipment and baggage. Once the Forth Valley was reached it seems that a contingent was retained there and a smaller (130-acre camp size) division took a further advance up through the east of the country. There was also support from the navy, perhaps with reinforcements, through Carpow and the Tay estuary. The army was huge. Clearly, the Romans were expecting resistance in considerable strength. Their intelligence proved to be accurate. Cassius Dio (Ref) records- “... as he advanced through the country he experienced countless hardships in cutting down the forests, levelling the heights, filling up the swamps, and bridging the rivers; but he fought no battle and beheld no enemy in battle array. The enemy purposely put sheep and cattle in front of the soldiers for them to seize, in order that they might be lured on still further until they were worn out; for in fact the water caused great suffering to the Romans, and when they became scattered, they would be attacked. Then, unable to walk, they would be slain by their own men, in order to avoid capture, so that a full fifty thousand died.”  

The casualty figure is unlikely, even absurd, although it is hard to explain any motive for exaggeration. It certainly suggests significant slaughter with shocking losses, probably on both sides. And yet Cassius Dio and Herodian report no single major battle. It appears that the Romans found themselves in a nightmare of guerilla activity. In terms of manpower, this must rank as the largest conflict in Scottish history. It ended with the withdrawal of the army in 210 and the emperor’s death, from illness, in York, in 211. It seems likely that Dio Cassius’s ‘bridging the rivers’ took place in the earlier, less frenetic, part of the campaign when the army was further south, closer to the ‘earthworks’ described by Herodian. It is interesting that as far back as the first century AD Tacitus writes of “crossing into Caledonia” (The Agricola 10 (Ref)) and that the country beyond “...might be called another island” (The Agricola 23).

Nicholas Reed (Ref) discusses the significance of the coin from 208AD. He also addresses a second coin which shows a pontoon bridge of boats. This latter is dated at 209AD. He expects a Scottish location for both. His analysis is complex and rather contorted: in summary, he proposes Carpow on the Tay as a probable site for the permanent bridge and Queensferry on the Forth for the pontoon crossing.

Reed’s analysis needs to be revisited. It was with some reluctance that he had excluded Stirling as a candidate- a conclusion based on a complex analysis of the location of 63 acre Severan marching camps in the region which made Stirling unlikely. However, more recent findings by Wooliscroft (Ref) suggest that the provenance of the 63 acre camps may be less certain: they might be Antonine (140AD) rather than Severan (208AD), so a bridge over the Forth in the Stirling area now becomes more possible for the location of the permanent bridge on Severus’s coin.  Also, Reed ignored Camelon on the River Carron as a possible candidate. Nimmo (Ref), in 1773, claimed the discovery of bridge foundations stones about 300m upstream from the present Larbert Bridge, which he suggested were on the line of the Roman causeway. The Carron river was tidal and navigable; Camelon was a crucial Roman army station, probably serviced by the navy, and now revealed to have large numbers of overlapping marching camps from all of the different Roman periods. Other candidates might include Bertha on the Tay and Newstead on the Tweed. 

Is the bridge on the coin a likeness, or is it no more than a bridge-symbol?  The latter is more probable since vaulted-arched bridges were rare (see Reputed Roman Bridges section). If it is no more than a symbol that might also imply that the bridge may not have been of a single span. 

Page last updated Oct.2020