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"The Finest Road In The World - The Story Of Travel And Transport In The Scottish Highlands" by James Miller: Edinburgh meeting of 17 April 2018.

Jim Millerd

Jim Miller

© John Yellowlees, 2018

Jim Miller's interest in Highland transport is as an amateur historian, and his title comes from Bishop Richard Forbes's description in 1762 of the Ord of Caithness on the A9 whose notorious hairpin bend did not detract from its scenic attraction.

Caithness feels to its residents like an island, for there are only three routes out by land - the A9, the North Coast road and the railway through Forsinard, which is known locally as Frozen Hard. At the Ord the old alignment has now been consigned to retirement.

Some parts of the history of travel in the Highlands have been told before. An early historian of the Highland roads was A.R.B. Haldane, whose The Drove Roads of Scotland in 1952 was followed by New Ways through the Glens in 1962 and a history of the postal services in 1971. Everyone knows about General George Wade who was the first to build "made" roads in the Highlands, but few are aware of his successor William Caulfeild who actually built a greater mileage. Not much has been written about the stagecoach services which continued into the 1850s or about coastal shipping which still took passengers between Wick and Leith until the Second World War.

Until the coming of the railways, walking was the main mode of transport for those who could not afford a horse, and it could take eight days to get from Caithness to Edinburgh. People nevertheless did travel widely, expecting some disruption, and the first network was provided by the drove roads along which cattle were walked from the Highlands and Islands to the Falkirk Tryst. D.G. Moir's account of Scottish hill tracks in 1947 shows that the walker or rider had a greater choice of routes than now are on offer to the motorist. It was Wade who routed the future A9 via Drumuichdar in preference to other routes through the Cairngorms. G.M. Fraser's account of the old Deeside roads identifies 27 ferries and 36 fords along the Dee between Braemar and Aberdeen, where now there are only 16 bridges.

It was the unrest in the Highlands after the Hanoverian Succession in 1714 that highlighted the need for improvement. In 1719 troops despatched to confront invading Spaniards at Glen Shiel took four days to reach the area from Inverness. Wade emphasised the need to improve the roads so that the military could move quickly.

Wade set out to provide roads with a standard width of sixteen feet. In places where his men could not dig down through the peat to bedrock the road was floated on timber. He regarded the bridge over the Tay at Aberfeldy, built in 1732-3 for £3500, as his finest achievement. Caulfeild built 700 miles to Wade's 250, and his additions included Cockbridge-Tomintoul by the Well O'Lecht in 1753 and Contin-Poolewe in 1762-3. However some potential routes remained unbuilt, and Ruthven-Braemar through Glen Feshie is today the preserve of walkers. On visiting the Corrieyairack Pass, the fearless Lady Sarah Murray felt her mind raised to a state of awe and she almost forgot that she belonged to this world until the postillion reminded her that it was time to re-enter the carriage.

The Commissioners of Supply in the various counties required local men to give six days a year working on maintaining local roads, but the French Revolution led to new concerns and in 1803 a new Commission for Highland Roads and Bridges was formed under the direction of Thomas Telford. At the same time another Commission, also under Telford's direction, built the Caledonian Canal. The Commission for Roads and Bridges oversaw the construction of some 875 miles of road and many bridges, much of the present network in the northern Highlands. The Craigellachie Bridge across the Spey was assembled on site from ironwork cast in Denbighshire.

The new roads and improved journey times allowed stagecoaches to flourish until the coming of the railways. The coaches found a new role as feeders to the rail stations, and the last service was the Caberfeidh from Kingussie to Fort William still operating until 1914. The last coachman lived until 1951.

The railways spread rapidly, starting with Elgin-Lossiemouth in 1853 and Inverness-Nairn in 1855. The line north from Aberdeen reached Keith in 1856 before becoming a through route two years later, Inverness-Dingwall opened in 1862 extending to Thurso and Wick in 1874. The Caledonian reached Oban in 1880, the North British opened to Fort William in 1894 before extending to Mallaig in 1901.

Motor cars made their debut with the turn of the century, and in 1905 44 cars set off on a four-day 595-mile Cairngorm endurance trial which 15 completed. 1906 saw a Lands End-John O'Groats motor cycle rally. After the First World War the roads were numbered in an A8xx sequence west of the A9 and A9xx east of it. In 1935 the A9 was extended to John O'Groats and later Scrabster, the Wick road from Latheronwheel onwards becoming the A99 but now it is all part of the NC500 banner whose success is bringing its own problems.

In September 1934 transport minister Leslie Hore-Belisha inaugurated the upgraded A82 just as Nessie stirred from the depths of Loch Ness, and the two were bound together in delivering untold benefits for tourism.

Highland aviation began with Captain Ted Fresson offering aerial displays, but he had the sense to offer free trips for councillors, and in 1933 flights began between Inverness's old Longman airstrip and Orkney. John Sword inaugurated in the same year a Glasgow-Campbeltown route. Eric Gander Dower began Dyce-Thurso-Orkney flights in 1935, extending to Shetland in 1936 and Newcastle-Stavanger in 1937. Captain I. Glyn-Roberts of West of Scotland Air Services began flights from Renfrew landing on the beach on Barra in 1935. For many years road deliveries to the Noss Head lighthouse crossed the runway at Wick.

Coach travel was only as fast as the roads would permit, and in the 1950s a summer service leaving Wick at 3pm did not get into Edinburgh until 7am. From the late 1960s a new programme of upgrading the A9 past Inverness was adopted which led to crossings of the Cromarty Firth in 1979, Beauly Firth in 1982 and the Dornoch Firth a decade later. Ballachulish had been bridged in 1975, Kylesku in 1984, and the Skye Bridge in 1995 brought the highest tolls in Britain until they were bought out a decade later.

Development of the Highland transport networks shows the need for adaptability, with traffic growth having to be absorbed by turning single-track roads into single-carriageway ones and then, as concern mounted about fatalities, into dual carriageways. With recurrent accidents on difficult stretches such as the Braes of Berriedale, improvements may have to take account of local challenges like the location of a cemetery, and there should be a much greater role for rail freight. HV Morton wrote in 1932 that beyond Helmsdale the road became serious, and in the winter time the Ord of Caithness must be one of the most terrifying : today the Ord is not the obstacle that it once was, but it is as well to heed the advice on a memorial to a vagrant who perished there in 1878: "be ye also ready".

Report and photograph by John Yellowlees.

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