Roads in the Highlands

Posting in Scotland, a Gillray caricature under the pseudonym of C. Loraine Smith.

General complaints about the roads in the Highlands:

Aberdeenshire, "In 1720, I could not in chariote [sic] get my wife from Aberdeen to Monymusk." (Sir Archibald Grant, quoted in "....Northern Rural Life in the 18th century" (1877).

In 1720, Alexander Jaffray of Kingswell was appointed "General Surveyor of all the Highways and bridges within the countie, who is to ryde and run the same, and make report what bridges or causeways may be necessary to be built or repaired within the county."

Still bad in 1740: "There was no road in the county of Aberdeen on which wheels of any kindcould be dragged; weighty burdens of every kind were of course carried on horseback." (Northern Rural Life).

Also in 1751: Lady Dowager of Forbes complained that "The public road 'twixt Inverury and Castle Forbes is quite impassable in several parts thereof, particularly that part 'twixt Pittodery'd Dykes and Overhall which is dangerous to pass with wheel carriages, and that lately her ladyship's chaise had stuck there and broke the graith [harness]."

John Macky's tour 1723: in Galloway, his party suffered "a road so stony and uneven that I was obliged to alight, and with much ado [we] led our horses." Similarly at Stonehaven, he complained of "eight miles of a very stony road."

James Hogg's tour 1803: on Lewis, "Our road, after carrying us straight on for ten miles, like several of the Highland roads, left us all at once in the midst of a trackless morass."

General Wade's roads:

There is general agreement amongst travellers that his roads "...go up and down mountains, never dreaming that he could wind round the bases of them...."(Sarah Murray).

John MacCulloch  notes Wade's "..determination of pursuing straight lines, and of defying nature and wheeled carriages, both at one valiant effort of courage and science..."

Robert Southey, on the way to Fort Augustus: "...he seems to have followed the old horse track, rather than surveying the country like an engineer. Very often he crosses the hill with great difficulty and labour, when both might have been avoided by keeping to the valley."

According to LTC Rolt, in his biography of Thomas Telford, the latter "...thought little of Wade's roads...their routes had been badly surveyed. Their gradients were often needlessly steep...."

But all were impressed by Wade's road along Loch Ness, "...levelled with great labour and exactness...." (Dr Johnson).

John Knox: "This road [at Loch Ness] is often cut through the rock; it was made for the army. Although it's too narrow, it's pretty good."

Translation of the latin inscription mounted onto Wade's bridge at Aberfeldy:

Admire the military road beyond the limits of the Roman territory. The bridge extending on this side and that one thousand, two hundred and fifty feet. Biding defiance to deserts and marshes, cut through rock and mountain, and as you see, spanning the indignant Tay. This arduous work was by his own skill and ten years' labour of his soldiers, brought to completion by General Wade, Commander of the forces in Scotland. Behold what mighty works can be effected under the Royal auspices of George the Second! 

But for Robert Southey, the bridge is ".....creditable neither to the skill nor taste of the architect."

Road Building in the Highlands:

1) Whilst many of the roads in the Highlands were built as a result of government money, and large projects overseen by the likes of General Wade and Thomas Telford, some were the result of the needs of local landowners. A good and early example of the latter is given by Hugh Paton, in one of his "Biographical Sketches" that accompany the wonderful caricatures by John Kay, published in 1838. The one in question describes the achievements of Sir John Sinclair (in my copy, page 61 of Volume II). Sinclair was an antiquarian responsible for, amongst other things, the first Statistical Account of Scotland. In 1770, aged 18, he succeeded to the family property in Caithness on the death of his father:

The whole of Caithness, and in fact all of the northern counties , were then in a waste and unproductive condition. ....A remarkable instance of enterprise was exhibited by the young laird by the formation of a road over the hill of Ben Cheilt, which it was believed the whole 'statute labour' of the county would be incapable of effecting.... Having previously surveyed the ground , and marked out the intended line, he appointed a day of meeting, when upwards of twelve hundred farmers and labourers assembled - and, being plentifully supplied with tools and provisions, 'a road, which had hardly been passable for horses in the morning, became passable for carriages before night.'

2) Duncan's Itinerary.

In response to the need for road atlases in the early 19th century, a series of books titled Duncan's Itinerary were published between 1805 and c.1830. I have 4 editions: a 2nd Edition dated 1808, a 4th Edition dated 1820.....The 2nd. Edition shows a road on the map extending from Thurso to Tongue. This was the road that John MacCulloch found marked on his map by Arrowsmith, and described as being "very much like the rest of Mr Arrowsmith's Highland roads, which intersect the county in all directions as if they had been surveyed by Telford and paved by MacAdam, but were never seen or heard of by mortal man except the apprentices who work at his long table in Soho Square." The 2nd edition of Duncan's Itinerary makes no comment on the state of this road - I suspect the editor knew nothing about it. Instead, he describes the Reay country, in particular "the Bay of Tongue [which] is a beautiful seat of Lord Reay" and other sights including Smoo Cave. By 1820, the advice is rather more specific: 

There is no made road further than two miles beyond Reay Kirk. Travellerrs going in the direction of Tongue and Durness should endeavour to procure a guide, as without one he may deviate from the path, which is only what the Highlanders call a bridle road, and few houses to be met with. The traveller will do well to fill his flask and supply his scrip [food bag] at Reay Kirk Inn, as he may rest assured he will require their aid before he reaches Tongue. The natives he will find very hospitable.

(To be continued)

Detail from the 1808 map in the 2nd edition of Duncan's Itinerary,