As Roman roads and the eighteenth-century military roads receive much of the attention of historians, the sense that not much was built in between was created. It is likely that the immediate post-Roman period was something of a hiatus for road building with people continuing to use the existing Roman roads but the early medieval period saw the start of a new phase of building.
The return of David I to Scotland from exile in England is seen as a milestone in terms of Scotland’s development in general and the road network as a key part of that. David set about transforming Scotland along the Norman lines of his adopted home bringing about a form of feudalism setting up mostly French knights in new layers of civil bureaucracy such as Sheriffdoms and Justiciars. His civil reforms impacted on smaller parcels of land where he reinforced the parish system of parish churches being tied to bigger mother churches. He was also keen to empower the church to manage large tracts of land and endowed many ecclesiastical orders with monasteries including the Tironensians at Selkirk Abbey (shortly after to be relocated to Kelso), Augustinians at Holyrood Abbey and Cistercians at Melrose as well as many smaller priories and churches. Finally, and possibly most importantly, he created town burghs that had trading rights and markets. David’s reforms brought in a large number of new landed gentry, new powerful clerics and a new economic class in towns. The new monasteries built roads to make their land productive while the burghs built roads to enable people to visit and trade goods at markets.
Evidence of roads in the medieval period comes from many sources such as place names where the prevalence of ‘gate’ in the names of routes generally indicates a medieval age such as in the Haxalgate, Hexpethgate and the Girthgate. Gate simply means road, unless it appears in conjunction with a specific place where it probably relates to a gate over a road.
There is documentary evidence showing routes on maps such as the two cartouches on the Gough Map, which dates to between 1355 and 1366, that name the Capell and the Causey Mounth passes. The Gough Map is commonly thought to have been a road map that was created from the knowledge of people who were present during Edward I’s incursions into Scotland. Fortunately, Edward I’s itineraries from his time in Scotland are also extant and they indicate some of the routes that he must have used such as the Wheel Causeway. We are also fortunate in Scotland to have a fantastically detailed series of maps that was surveyed immediately post-medieval (around 1600) by Timothy Pont. While these only show one road (the Causey Mounth in Aberdeenshire) there are 121 bridges in Pont’s manuscript maps suggesting a network of routes if not made roads as we would understand them nowadays.
While there were certainly rough roads and routes being developed in the medieval period there were precious few wheeled carts in Scotland. Most haulage was done either by packhorse with panniers or by horses with a ‘slipe’ harnessed to them. The slipe was very different from a cart because it had no wheels, it was simply two planks strapped to a horse linked by a lattice of wood to make a platform with a wooden fence barrier towards the ground to stop goods falling to the ground. Use of these was partly a result of the poor quality of the road network but also a cause of it. They were still being used in the 18th century to the annoyance of the military road engineers who saw their road surfacing continually being stripped away. Indeed wheeled vehicles don’t appear to have been very common in Scotland until the latter half of the 18th century as many respondents to the Old Statistical Account (collected between 1791 – 1799) make clear.
Road building increased throughout the medieval period as monasteries became bigger and needed more resources to serve their community. There was a strong need for road building in order to transport goods – another indicator of a medieval road is where a name includes an important medieval commodity. Salters roads are a good example of roads primarily developed for a specific commodity important to people in the medieval period. There is a long salters road, largely under tarmac now, that leaves Prestonpans to head south to Soutra hospital. This road had an offshoot that passed Dalkeith to serve the monks at Newbattle Abbey. Some fish roads are likely to date from the medieval period as they brought fish to the courts inland. A famous, though long lost, medieval fish road was called the King’s Cadger’s Road that was said to have been used by a favoured Cadger to bring fresh fish from Usan (near Montrose) to the Royal residence in Forfar when the King visited. There is also a butter road that is recorded heading north from Carnbo in west Fife, which is said to have been used by monks to carry butter from the Abbey in Culross to the Royal court in Scone – although both these places are on watercourses and so it might have been quicker to have sailed the butter round.