Walking along the Forth & Clyde Canal the other day, I was twice passed by a young man of Levantine appearance happily cycling up and down the towpath. The Canal often follows the line of the Antonine Wall (the Roman Wall built before Hadrian’s) and a small post-industrial town on the outskirts of Glasgow shares the prestige of this piece of World Heritage with other sites of Roman forts. The town’s museum records:
After the wall was built the legionaries returned to their headquarters in the south of Britain. Those left to man the forts were called auxiliary troops. They were soldiers who came from the occupied countries in the Roman Empire such as Syria, Germany, Spain and Gaul (part of France).
(Auld Kirk Museum display)
Having grown up in the vicinity of the Wall, reading the urgent prose of George R.R. Martin (“We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. “The wildings are dead.” – is the magnificent start of A Game of Thrones) I immediately associate his Wall with ours. Which makes me one of the wildings. I assure you we are not dead but alive and well and living in Kirkintilloch – and all over the globe.
Although I may have some ancestors among the aboriginal Picts north of the Wall (who themselves migrated here in the wake of our Neolithic ancestors) most of my paternal and maternal ancestors can be traced back to the Scots who at that time were across the Irish Sea and so more of a threat as occasional raiders than as native people resisting foreign occupation.
Which means that, in all probability, there were Syrians in Caer Pen Tulloch (the fort on the hill in Brythonic Celtic – yes the ‘Welsh’ were here before we were) before there were Scots. The name change, from ‘fort’ to ‘church’ on the hill, did not occur with the centuries’ later migration of the (Irish) Scots, who spoke Goidelic Celtic – or Gaelic – but with the migration of the Angles from the south centuries still later. ‘Kirk’, and its variants, means ‘church’ in many branches of Germanic language, including Scots.
Take out the dragons, suspend disbelief on the magic, and the bloody and beautiful world that Martin describes reads remarkably like ours. An anachronistic mixture of High Middle Ages and Renaissance to be sure, but still more like than not. Refreshingly free of Tolkein’s tendency to treat all women as embodiments of the Eternal Feminine, Martin depicts a spectrum of agency for good and ill irrespective of gender. He also shows up the tragic irony of wave after wave of incomers claiming sovereignty and aboriginal rights.
There were Syrians in Kirkintilloch before there were Scots. There were Syrians and other Levantine, European and North African people living south of the Antonine Wall all the way to the Channel, before there were English people here.
20 centuries later, the English and the Scots, and those colonised by our descendents, brought the doom of modern dragonfire to the cradle of civilisation in the Near and Middle East, for oil.
Syrians have returned to Kirkintilloch and may be seen cycling happily along the canal following the path of the Wall their ancestors built and manned so many centuries ago.
Fàilte gu Alba a-rithist: welcome back.
Thanks to George Hodan for releasing “Hadrian’s Wall” into the Public Domain.