The Wall That Defined Scotland's Frontier 2,000 Years Ago To Today : Parallels The Roman emperor Hadrian built a wall two millennia ago that kept the Scottish out. On Sept. 18, the Scots hold an independence vote to decide if they want to separate from Britain.
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The Wall That Defined Scotland's Frontier 2,000 Years Ago To Today

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The Wall That Defined Scotland's Frontier 2,000 Years Ago To Today

The Wall That Defined Scotland's Frontier 2,000 Years Ago To Today

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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About 2,000 years ago, the Roman Empire stretched from the Middle East all the way across Western Europe. A wall marked the Empire's northernmost boundary, at one point, less than a mile from today's border between England and Scotland. Now the organization that maintains the wall has lost its funding. NPR's Ari Shapiro went to visit.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: For most people, a hike along Hadrian's Wall demands only the most basic equipment - a water bottle, a sturdy pair of shoes - and this being England, of course, rain gear. Nine-year-old Alisha Martin is working a more authentic look.

ALISHA MARTIN: I'm in costume because it's Hadrian's Wall.

SHAPIRO: A Roman costume with a helmet and a shield and a sword. What do you know about Hadrian's Wall?

ALISHA: Hadrian built it to keep out the barbarians.

SHAPIRO: And who was Hadrian?

ALISHA: Hadrian was an emperor, I think? Yeah, emperor.

SHAPIRO: Not bad for a 9-year-old. David Fletcher is another tourist hiking the wall with his wife, Kath.

DAVID FLETCHER: The Romans, who were occupying England at the time, were a bit cheesed off with the Scottish people who kept stealing their sheep.

KATH FLETCHER: Marauding. Marauding tribes.

D. FLETCHER: And Hadrian said enough is enough.

SHAPIRO: The wall took six years to build. It originally stood 15 feet high. The Romans put a major fort every five miles along its length. Linda Tuttiett is chief executive of the Hadrian's Wall Trust.

LINDA TUTTIETT: There's quite strong evidence that the wall was painted white in Roman times. So as you can imagine, that would've been visible for miles and miles and miles away.

SHAPIRO: A grand statement about the Empire's size and strength. And it also says something about the people who withstood the massive Roman Empire.

TUTTIETT: It's a testimony to the strength of feeling and character of the Scots as they were at the time living up in the north of Scotland.

SHAPIRO: Well, and perhaps as they are today given that they're about to vote on independence.

TUTTIETT: Well, indeed, indeed. Who knows how that strength of character has developed.

SHAPIRO: Two thousand years later, this wall near the Scottish border is a lot less imposing. It's no longer white. The forts are gone. It looks like a garden wall, running along cliffs and hills surrounded by heather and scrubby trees. Hadrian's Wall stretches from one horizon to the other, now standing only a few feet tall.

TUTTIETT: Many, many of the farms and barns and churches across Hadrian's Wall are built out of the very stone of the wall.

SHAPIRO: The Romans were great stonemasons. So after the Empire fell, people took those nicely cut stones for their own buildings. Today, the wall is a UNESCO heritage site, and Tuttiett's organization has led the preservation effort - planting new grass, coordinating archaeological programs and making sure nobody takes a stone for themselves. At least, that's what her organization used to do. Government funding dried up. And now, the trust has been forced to close.

STEVE TAYLOR: You know, you really hate to see it disappear 'cause it is a great link to the past.

SHAPIRO: Steve Taylor is an American tourist visiting the wall from Houston, Texas.

TAYLOR: And at the same time, you kind of wonder how long - do you keep it around forever? And I don't know the answer to that. That's a great question.

SHAPIRO: Nobody expects the wall to disappear, but it won't be kept up like before.

DR. ANDREW BURLEIGH: Wall maintenance has been a bit of an issue for almost, well, almost 100 years (Laughter) so these aren't new issues that are cropping up.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Andrew Burleigh is the archaeologist who runs excavations at a nearby Roman fort called Vindolanda. He is the third generation of his family to excavate this site. He says studying ancient history gives him a long view of borders and empires.

BURLEIGH: Frontiers are not permanent things. Hadrian's Wall is a great example of that. I mean, you know, it took a mighty Roman army here for almost 300 years to maintain this barrier between peoples.

SHAPIRO: As an Englishman, Burleigh won't be voting on Scottish independence next month, but he says his personal view is why shove up more walls? He thinks better to bring barriers down than put new ones up. Ari Shapiro, NPR News.

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