The Official Ferrari Magazine: Caledonia calling

The last time a technologically advanced visitor from Rome arrived in Scotland, it didn’t end well. Two millennia later, a Ferrari Roma follows ancient legionnaires along the Antonine Wall, bringing grand tourer comfort to an enchanting environment.

As far as the Roman Empire was concerned, Scotland was the end of the world. By the end of the first century Anno Domini, Rome had most of Britain under its control. Yet it was a different story in the northernmost area known as Caledonia; a dramatically beautiful but punishingly wild place, held by fierce warrior tribes who refused to bow to the technologically-advanced invaders.

The furthest the Romans got is marked by the Antonine Wall; a turf fortification that runs along Scotland’s 63km-long waist just north of Edinburgh and Glasgow. It stretches between the River Clyde to the west and the Forth to the east. This was the most northerly point that the Empire settled on Earth during their 500-year reign, and soon they would be forced to retreat. Constructed from 142 AD, under the orders of Emperor Antoninus Pius, the Romans abandoned the Antonine Wall in 162 AD and backtracked 160km south to Hadrian’s Wall, striking through what are now the English counties of Cumbria, Northumberland and Durham, which had been built a generation before.

Armed with a Ferrari Roma, what follows is a playful retaliation against the insurmountable Highlands 1,859 years later.

Well, when I say retaliation, what I really mean is a leisurely drive along the A and B roads that run parallel to the Antonine Wall, only parts of which remain visible. My grigio-alloy Roma’s urbane grand touring body and cosy dual-cockpit interior offers protection from the still-brutal Scottish elements, and its 620 PS twin-turbocharged V8 proves that Italian engineering has continued a stratospheric ascent in innovation. This time the natives would surrender to its charms – in most cases.

My road trip starts at Blackness Castle; as bleak and foreboding as its name suggests. The 15th century towers gaze across the Firth of Forth to the Royal Navy dockyard at Rosyth. The United Kingdom’s aircraft carriers, frigates and ballistic nuclear submarines use this as a base today, but back in the mid-second century AD the estuary would have been teeming with Roman long ships, powered by enslaved oarsmen.

Across the road from Blackness’ concrete pier and some rather dreary flats is the Lobster Pot pub, painted a Mediterranean shade of yellow. ‘Blackness – twinned with St Tropez’ reads a wry wall sign. Consider the Roma an envoy of glamour.

The easternmost end of the Antonine Wall started 2.5km away at Carriden, though there are no visible remains. The first hints of an ancient ditch and fortlet can be found one village over, in Bo’ness, which has a fascinating motorsport heritage. Established in 1932 and situated on the Kinneil Estate, the Bo’ness Hill Climb is Scotland’s earliest purpose-built motor racing course, crossing the Antonine Wall itself. Legendary drivers Stirling Moss, Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart competed here in the 1950s and early ‘60s, and there’s a little bit of Ferrari history too.

In 1949, industrialist and occasional Formula One driver Dennis Poore – who bankrolled the founding of Autosport magazine – arrived in Bo’ness with an ex-Scuderia Ferrari Alfa Romeo Tipo 8C-35 Monoposto, complete with Cavallino Rampante shields. Originally raced by the great Tazio Nuvolari in 1935-36, Poore changed the grand prix car’s scarlet paintwork to Westminster green and won the ’49 hill climb with a time of 33.9 seconds, the course being just 800m in length. The Bo’ness Hill Climb continues to this day – or almost, because it was cancelled in 2020 due to the reason for which no one needs reminding. Kindly, the landowner has granted me permission to test the track out for myself. Having not felt the caress of racing rubber for at least 18 months, it’s as slippery and hazardous as one of the conger eels you’ll find in the depths of the nearby Forth.

Continuing westwards, Watling Lodge is home to one of the best-preserved stretches of Antonine Wall, which goes some way to demonstrate the depth of the defensive ditch which the Romans dug and the height of the turf rampart that they built, packing the earth 3m high and 5m wide above a stone foundation. This would have been topped with an imposing wooden palisade. Behind ran a military road, and 19 forts were spread the length of the rampart, staffed by hundreds of Roman soldiers guarding the frontier.

Close by is Rough Castle, the best-preserved of these forts. The foundations were first excavated in the early 20th century and reveal the commander’s villa, barracks, a bath house and a granary. There are also geometrically-arranged holes left from pit traps, or Lilia, which would have contained sharpened stakes as an obstacle for attackers. What did you expect, a welcome mat?

Beyond Bonnybridge, I take the B816 past Seabegs Wood, where the wall and the military way are still visible and peppered with attractive woodland. The road is starting to dry after the morning’s showers and it follows the ribbon of the Forth and Clyde Canal. I select Race mode on the Manettino just to hear the full bore of the Roma’s incredible engine. The Roman legions usually marched in silence to maintain order in the ranks but, once they encountered the enemy, their lines would erupt with a war cry known as Barritus; a guttural bellow described by the chronicler Tactitus as “a harsh, intermittent roar” that built in volume when the troops held their shields to their mouths “so the sound is amplified into a deeper crescendo by the reverberation”. My right foot has a similar effect.

The smart Glasgow suburb of Bearsden has two sites of interest. The first is New Kilpatrick Cemetery where, among 19th and 20th century tombs and graves, the stone foundations of the Antonine Wall are exposed, including its stone kerbs, cobble in-fill and water drainage culverts. The second is the Bearsden Bath House, where the regiment would make its ritual ablutions and relax away from the fighting. The remnants, which were unearthed by unsuspecting builders in the 1970s, reveal hot and cold baths and several steam rooms. The ruin is now overlooked by a four-storey pensioners’ home.

I arrive at the northern bank of the Clyde. The Antonine Wall would have ended here, in the West Dunbartonshire village of Old Kilpatrick, but there’s little sign of it left to observe. Interestingly, we’re less than three miles from the modest Milton bungalow in which the aforementioned Jackie Stewart was raised and learned mechanics in the family garage, before going on to win three F1 world championships. He also raced Ferrari’s 250 GTO, 250 LM, 275 P2 and 330 P4 in a number of prestigious endurance races in the mid-1960s.

The Roma’s final destination is Bowling Harbour, boasting an enchanting view down the Clyde to the lochs beyond. Ferrari has been given permission to photograph and film me reaching this finish line, with sailing berths and fishing boats as a backdrop. Despite the harbour master being on hand, a houseboat resident is not having any of it. Triggered by a (I promise) gentle blip of the throttle, she’s up on deck and marching towards us, complaining mainly about the rent she’s being charged by Scottish Canals. She’s a rather substantial lady, clad in black and orange spandex. She declines to leave us be, and seems a little unhinged. If we don’t leave now she’ll lock the gate and shut us in. Just as it was some two millennia ago, when the angry Picts drove the Romans back, I feel urged to retreat from the Antonine Wall.

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