True Highlands Blog
When driving through Scotland, it’s all too easy to get distracted by the scenery. The mountains, beaches and moorland can capture your attention without you even noticing. Beneath the wheels of your car however, there are often engineering marvels that you can pass over without even noticing. Bridges and crossings with a fascinating history or legend you may be unaware of.
One of the most well-known is the 14th century Brig o’ Doon near Alloway. A single arch stone bridge, it was made famous after Robert Burns featured it in his epic poem Tam O’ Shanter. In the final verse, as Tam is returning home late and drunk, he disturbs a coven of witches and warlocks and is chased by them. Fleeing on horseback he rides his trusty mare, Meg, for the nearby bridge, as witches cannot follow over running water, narrowly escaping as Nannie the witch is only able to grab the horse’s tail, which comes away in her hands. To this day the line of the cobbled roadway is still cranked in plan, due to the ancient belief that this irregular form deterred witches from crossing. The bridge is still in use and has become a spot of pilgrimage for Burns enthusiasts from all over the world.
The evocatively named “Bridge over the Atlantic” connects the slate island of Seil to the mainland. The bridge, which dates from 1793, has a distinctive arch to it that allows large vessels to pass under it and was originally designed by Thomas Telford. Just beside the bridge is an old 18th century Inn called Tigh an Truish (affectionately known to locals as the TNT). The name translates from Gaelic as ‘the house of the trousers’. In the aftermath of the Jacobite rebellion in 1745 the wearing of kilts was outlawed, so locals would stop here and change into trousers before heading to the mainland and then back into their traditional garb on arrival home.
As you cruise leisurely across the Skye bridge it’s easy to forget just how awkward it used to be to visit this most scenic of islands. A Calmac ferry used to carry visitors across the narrow straights; a slow journey made worse by the queues that could stretch for miles in the summer. After opening in 1995 it took many years of campaigning, not least by the infamous activist Robbie the Pict, until finally in 2004 the tolls were abolished. If you think tolls are a modern phenomenon, then think again. Around the year 900 a Norse princess, nicknamed Saucy Mary, inhabited the castle that overlooks the crossing. She ran a heavy chain across the sound and levied a toll on all ships who wished to pass. The alternative being a long detour via the stormy seas of the Minch.
Further west on the Isle of Skye, at the foot of the Waternish peninsula, you can find the Fairy Bridge, scene of one of Skye’s most enduring myths. This bridge marks the place where a fairy wife of a MacLeod chief said her final farewell to her husband before she left him to live amongst her own people. The story doesn’t end there though; one day, in response to the cries of her young infant, the fairy wife did return to comfort him. She wrapped the child in a Faerie shawl which has been preserved ever since. It is the famed Faerie Flag of the MacLeod clan, which is still kept at Dunvegan Castle.
A curious relic that tells of an important part in the post-war history of the Western Isles is the “Bridge to Nowhere.” This bridge does in actual fact – go nowhere. Despite being in relatively good condition, the road on the far side of it gradually peters out into a boggy track. Constructed in 1920 on the instructions of Lord Leverhulme, the bridge was supposed to be an important part of the road that was to join Stornoway and Ness along the coast. Crofters returning from the war were very much resistant to the vision that the English industrialist had for the islands, and were quite rightly more interested in land rights. It was a classic clash of cultures and ideas and eventually the grand plans for the islands would come to nothing. The bridge is a striking reminder of the failures of incomers to understand the communities here but, much to the amusement of the local population, it has become an unlikely tourist attraction, since its featuring in the recent Peter May books set on Lewis.
Without a doubt one of the strangest bridges in Scotland, and indeed one of the creepiest, is the suicide bridge of Overtoun. But this bridge is not famous for people jumping off, there is apparently a malevolent force here that lures dogs to their death. Esoteric phenomena can be hard to quantify but the statistics here do not lie. Over 50 dogs have, in recent years, climbed the parapet of their own accord and jumped to their death. Many have survived the fall only to return immediately and do the same thing again. Whether this is due to canine sensitivity to the spirit world, or maybe a unique scent that lures the curious, nobody knows for sure. To be on the safe side, after consultations with the SSPCA, signs now advise dog owners of the necessity of keeping their pets on the lead at all times.
The oldest stone bridge in the Highlands can be seen beside the route of the old A9 in Carrbridge. Built in 1717, this packhorse bridge was primarily built to ensure that funerals did not have to be delayed when the river was in spate and unfordable. Damaged beyond repair in the great flood of 1829, the fragile arch is however still standing despite its somewhat precarious appearance. It has now become a famous local landmark, although walking over it is not recommended thrill seeking tourists and local children still occasionally jump from it into the river below.
As the new Forth Bridge nears completion its worth sparing a thought for what may have been the first crossing. Tantalisingly, only a few clues remain as to the exact location to what would have been a major feat of engineering in its day. In AD 208 a Roman coin was struck to celebrate the military successes of the Roman Emperor Severus in Scotland. The reverse of the coin quite clearly shows a large and detailed bridge. Recent archaeological finds have placed Roman campaigns well north of the Clyde valley at this time, as well as there being evidence of a garrison in Crammond. Was this the first Forth Bridge? Severus was responsible for rebuilding the Antonine wall so why build a crossing? Academics and Roman scholars can’t seem to agree, but it’s intriguing to think that the Romans once could have had far different plans for what they referred to as Caledonia?Tags: bridge to nowhere lewis, bridges of scotland, brig o doon bridge, brigdge over the atlantic, carrbridge, dunvegan castle, emperor severus, engineering of scotland, faerie bridge skye, fairy bridge skye, new forth bridge, peter may trilogy, robert burns poem, saucy mary, skye bridge, suicide bridge overtoun, tam o shanter