Road Tolls in Scotland

The lonely Edinton Toll on the Great North Road (A9), a 1931 Valentine image.

I have, in my collection, a large and rather daunting book published in 1859 titled Report of the Commissioners for inquiring into matters relating to Public Roads in Scotland. Within its 736 pages are a vast number of facts and statistics concerning all the roads in Scotland, together with detailed accounts given by local officials ranging from factors and agents to farmers.

I hope the chapter in my book, The Immeasurable Wilds, has entertained readers more than they might have expected, for the story of the road construction in the Highlands under the supervision of Thomas Telford is not without interest. As in the rest of the British Isles, tolls were seen as a way of paying for the building and maintenance of these roads, and maps of the period often mark 'turnpike roads' to differentiate them from district roads and tracks. However, in the far north, it appears that tolls were rarely imposed. At Bonar Bridge, for example, the toll house was never occupied as the traffic was too infrequent to support a toll-keeper. The toll house at Helmsdale, on the other hand, was occupied, but the man who rented it never demanded the fee: his whisky sales gave him sufficient income and he never bothered to collect money from those using the facilities of the bridge or road. The plan of Helmsdale in James Loch's Improvements (1820) does not show a toll house, and George Dempster in the 1859 Report suggests that "...they [tolls] are manifestly unsuited to such an extensive and thinly peopled district. They were, in fact tried for a few years, bars having been erected at Bonar Bridge and Helmsdale: but it was found that the receipts were small, and that these bars pressed unequally on the neighbourhood."

Plan of Helmsdale, taken from James Loch's "Improvements on the Estates of the Marquis of Stafford", 1820.

Indeed, the system of tolls was increasingly criticised by the 1850s, and one of the reasons for the 1859 report was to see if a fairer means of financing road construction and maintenance could be achieved. The roads on some areas were being heavily charged, while others allowed free travel for miles. The Report shows that Perth had 88 tolls, Aberdeen 83, and Ayr a remarkable 172 tolls, while Inverness had 2, and the counties to the north, none.


Matters came to a head in Dunkeld in 1867.


The bridge at Dunkeld had been constructed by Thomas Telford in 1809 at a cost of £26, 951, 7s, 4d. To pay for this, the Duke of Atholl had been given permission to take out a loan of up to £18,000, and in return he was allowed to keep the revenue raised from the road. The 1859 report shows that in the year 1856-1857, £1,417, 13s, 10d was taken, while the sum in 1857-1858 was £1,541, 8s,6d. Robert Carrington, the clerk to the Atholl Turnpike confirmed that he had deposited the profit from the revenue after deduction of expenses in the Atholl account of the Union Bank of Scotland, "but it will not appear from the bank books from what source these funds have been derived." In other words, the sum was not disclosed, but the locals had no doubt that by the 1860s, the toll revenues had more that paid for the Duke's outlay on the bridge construction, and he was now making a healthy profit.

Aerial view of Dunkeld, showing the toll on the bridge on the right.

In 1868, under the supervision of a local business man known as Dundonnachie, the residents took matters into their own hands. On the 8th and the 10th of February, their leader walked across the bridge in both directions, declaring that he refused to pay the tolls. On the evening of the 10th, the gates were removed from their hinges and thrown into the River Tay. They were later replaced, but a further assault was made on them in June of that year, and two more in July. The police were unable to cope, and a detachment of the Black Watch was sent to establish order. No further attacks were made, and Dundonnachie, a local hero, was nevertheless put on trial and sentenced to two months imprisonment. His businesses suffered as a result of all this, and he found himself bankrupt. He ended his days in America.

Dismantling the gates at Dunkeld. A contemporary photograph, issued as a CDV by J. Murray of Birnam, Dunkeld. Dundonnachie can be seen in his kilt standing on the right.

Other complainants adopted less violent protests. A farmer in Ayr, John Tennant, stated in the 1859 Report "I object greatly to the system of toll-bars as inconvenient and expensive; and I think these sentiments are shared in general by the farmers in Ayrshire..." He suggested an assessment on their farms in lieu of tolls. Remember, Ayrshire had a totalof 172 tolls, almost twice that of any other county in Scotland. I am not sure quite why there were so many more in this shire. Mr John Tennant was not the only observer to point out that "owing to the introduction of railways, and the diversion of the traffic, the turnpike roads are now very much in the same position as statute labiur roads." The railways much reduced the income from turnpike roads, and the system was finally abolished in 1878 with the Road and Bridges (Scotland) Act which decreed that "all highways shall be open to the public free from tolls and other exactions."


Here are some old toll houses:


Another view of the Edinton toll house on the Great North Road.           Rotearn's Old Tollhouse, Sheriffmuir Road, Greenloaning, Perthshire.

The Old Toll House, Conon Bridge, Ross-shire. The Report is a little confusing regarding the number of tolls in the county. The table on pages 30 - 31 (Appendix B) suggests there were no road tolls in Ross-shire, but the Report (page clvii) states there were 6.

A Picturesque toll house in Strichen, Aberdeenshire, with the owner in the garden.

More picturesque properties, at the end of the bridge over the Findhorn at Elgin. I suspect one of these was a toll house - the report states that "there is a pontage on the bridge which was let up to Whitsunday 1858." £444, 6s 7d was raised 1857 - 1858. The photo comes from a magic slide, and is dated 1929.

The toll house at Deveron Bridge, Turriff, Aberdeenshire. It came on the market during the 1990s, when it was declared that the house had been moved 8 metres! Presumably for road improvements.

The General Abstract Table, taken fron the 1859 Report, showing the details for each of the counties. The number of tolls in each county is shown in the 4th column on the left.