True Highlands Blog
Roads tell stories and the paths, tracks and highways of the highlands are no exception. The history of our country can be told by the seemingly innocuous routes that scramble through our mountains or even the motorways we drive on every day. These are a few of our favourites, stories of anti-government rebellions, of cattle thieves, social control, economic independence, oppression and ultimately freedom.
The Jacobite rebellion of 1715 created such a panic among the British government that a plan was hatched to develop a road network to link a series of fortified barracks across the most hostile parts of the highlands to the more friendly territory of the Lowlands. The Romans did not spend any great length of time north of the border so this was in fact the very first road building programme in the country. General George Wade is the most famous of the names associated with this period, in the 1730s he was to be in charge of building four military roads that connected strategic locations such as Inverness, Fort Augustus, Fort William, Dalwhinnie and Dunkeld. Motorways and main roads now cover many of these ancient byways but for a flavour of what it must have been like to traverse the mountains back then, a trip to the Corrieyairack pass is recommended. Built in 1731 this road, which links Laggan to Fort Augustus is a scheduled ancient monument and is not suitable for motor vehicles due to its surface being unrepaired. If you have a mountain bike however you will find it is one of the most fun days out you can find in the area. Steep, remote and challenging, and an amazing legacy to a visionary engineer.
General Wades successor William Caulfield was to continue with the extensive road building programme throughout the highlands overseeing a total of over 800 miles of track including large parts of what is now known as the West Highland Way, indeed one of the most recognisable landmarks on the hike, the Kingshouse Hotel originated to serve those working on the road. Looking at a maps of the current road network it is amazing how little has changed.
With the changing political climate in the years after Caulfield’s retirement roadbuilding on such a scale became unfashionable and new projects were largely determined by economic instead of political factors.
Before the arrival of organised road building drove roads were used to transport cattle between remote locations. One of the most famous of these is Bealach Na Ba in Applecross. Now properly surfaced although still single track this amazing road zig-zags up from sea level to a height of 626 metres. Before the 1950s, when this was a gravel path and the only connection this area had with the outside world bad weather would mean communities would be cut off for weeks at a time. The Gaelic name translates as pass of the cattle and this is indeed how the road originates, with farmers making a safe way through the hills to take their cattle to market. It’s a breath-taking drive today but we can only imagine what an epic adventure it must have been hundreds of years ago.
Applecross is also the location for a number of coffin roads. These paths were used by burial parties going to Clachan church at Applecross Bay. The various cairns along the route indicate where the procession would have rested and drank to the deceased. These are both rough and arduous roads and it is entirely understandable that people would need frequent rests along the way. The Applecross Heritage Centre has a bier in its collection, which was used to carry the coffin.
The Lairig Unapool is known as the Marble Road, its name tells us of the industry that once thrived here, the disrepair of the track a reminder of the precarious nature of some rural Highland Industries. In the early 1820s marble was quarried at Ledmore and brought down to Unapool to be transported for sale. The first section of track from Ledmore as far as Advreck castle is now part of the main road but the path from there over to Unapool is still clearly visible and makes a fine hike or mountain bike ride.
The most expensive road ever built on Skye was not built for transporting people, cattle or even mail, it was built as a result of the diatomite industry. This mineral, which was added to nitro-glycerine to make dynamite was extracted at Loch Cuithir and was originally transported to Inver tote in the late 1800s by purpose built tramway. Production continued in one form or another up until the 1950s but by this time the tram was in disrepair and an unsurfaced road was in use. This old route now makes the best approach for hill walkers heading to the east side of the Trotternish ridge and the peak of Sgurr a’Mhadaidh Ruaidh.
Posties were a hardy sort back in the day, if ever proof were needed then a hike along the old post road round the north shore of Loch Maree will demonstrate just how committed they must have been. This was originally a cattle droving path before 150 years ago becoming the route the mail would take from Dingwall to the harbour at Poolewe. It’s a fantastic and challenging walk, starting from the hotel in Kinlochewe which actually used to be a drovers inn and taking in a number of fascinating historical sights which are now rarely visited due to the main road taking the south side of the loch.
Cattle thieves are responsible for a large number of the paths we take through the mountains, my personal favourite is the Thieves Road in the Cairngorms National Park. It skirts the mountains from Nethy-bridge through to Glenfeshie, following one of the discreet routes cattle reivers would have taken south. Alternatively the three great passes of the Cairngorms, the Lairig an Laoigh (Pass of the Calves), the Lairig Ghru and Glen Feshie offer challenging and committed hikes from West to East, which can be linked up to create a circular trip. All of these rugged passes were used for driving cattle to market over staggering distances, and the paths would have been kept clear of boulders by locals right up until the mid 19th century.
Projects to alleviate famine in rural crofting areas in the mid 1800 took on many forms. Often wealthy landowners would provide employment for destitute locals on vanity projects like monuments, believing if they simply gave the starving people financial assistance it would make them lazy. One of the most useful of these projects is what is locally known as the committee road in North Uist, an all too rare example of a workfare programme that actually benefited generations of islanders and is still one of the main roads in use today.
So the next time you take a drive in the highlands or a hike into the hills why not stop for a moment to ponder the hidden history of what lies beneath your feet. These old byways with their evocative names are like monuments to a different country and travelling down them gives us a tangible link to our past.
Tags: applecross, byways, cairngorms, cattle, coffin road, drove roads, hiking, history, mountain pass, post road, walking