Although military roads are strongly protected in Scotland being the only type of road that is routinely Scheduled as Ancient Monuments, along with Roman roads, it is difficult to underestimate the amount of money and engineering that went into the huge project to develop a new road network in Scotland. Of course, much of this was not completely new as routes had been used for many centuries but themilitary under General Wade and later Major Caulfeild formalised and surfaced these routes.
Before the Military roads, the responsibility of building and maintaining roads fell to the Justices of the Peace who had little powers of enforcement and were working with, by and large, a populace apathetic to improving the roads. An Act of Parliament was passed in 1669 that made it obligatory for tenants to work for six days each year for three successive years on road building – failure to do so was punishable by having goods seized. While this ensured a workforce for the road network, this new workforce were mostly agricultural workers with little knowledge of road building. What people turned out to perform their statute labour would not have made a big impact on the size and quality of the road network and so Scotland’s Highlands were poorly served by wide, engineered and surfaced roads during the Jacobite risings of the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
Wade was an Irish soldier who had risen through the ranks performing in many conflicts including the most recent Jacobite rising in 1715 when he was dispatched to the Jacobite sympathiser area of Bath to prevent unrest. He rose to the rank of Major General in 1714 having started his career as a lowly ensign in 1690. He was elected to the House of Commons for one of the most rotten of rotten burghs – Hinton – in 1714 and the less rotten but more Jacobite friendly constituency of Bath in 1722.
After Simon Fraser ‘Lord Lovat’ sent a ‘memorial’ to George I in 1724 complaining of the recent decision to disband the local Highlander companies of soldiers and requesting these be reinstated, Wade was sent to Scotland to inspect the country and objectively report back as to how best to pacify the Highlands and stop the frequent Jacobite activity. Reported back with much the same recommendations that Simon Local had previously suggested as well as proposing that new forts be built at Killichuimen (Fort Augustus) and at Inverness and roads to link these and the older forts.
After starting work in 1725, Wade realised that it wasn’t enough to simply rebuild and refurbish barracks at disparate points in the Highlands and that there was a need to improve communications and increase the ability to mobilise troops all across the Highlands. He successfully petitioned for a budget to continually build and repair roads in the Highlands and work began with 500 soldiers at a time in 1726 with the road from Inverness to Fort William, then tackling Dunkeld to Inverness, then Crieff to Dalnacardoch and his final road linking Dalwhinnie to Fort Augustus (the famous Corrieyairack Pass). Wade was understandably proud of the Corrieyairack as it appears in the background of his portrait by Raeburn but it may have been an act of hubris to pick this route as it is so high that it was unpassable for long periods of the year and was (and still is) very expensive to maintain. Wade left his post in Scotland in 1740 having built around 250 miles of road and 40 bridges.
Considering the continuance of the term ‘Wade roads’ to describe all military roads it is remarkable that Wade was only responsible for around a quarter of the military roads built in Scotland in this period. Wade’s successor was his assistant Major William Caulfeild who went on to build another 900 miles of road and 600 bridges. It may be because Wade was the first trailblazer to start building the roads or, cynics may argue, it was due to his superior rank, that Wade is generally recognised as the builder of the military roads before Caulfeild. Caulfeild certainly felt no rancour about this as he named his son Wade Toby after him, a tradition apparently still in continuance in the family.
Among the roads Caulfeild went on to build were Tyndrum to Fort William, Dumbarton to Inveraray, Tarbet to Crianlarich, Fort Augustus to Bernera, Blairgowrie to Inverness and (the only road south of the central belt) Bridge of Sark to Portpatrick. This final road was more to speed military traffic to Ireland than for militarising Scotland but is a military road nonetheless.
The aim was for the roads to be 16 feet wide but this seems to have been difficult to achieve or erosion has taken away the edges of the roads as surviving sections are rarely more than 11 feet. The carriageway was generally bounded by a back drain on the uphill side of the road with another ditch or stone filled channel on the downhill side of the road. The carriageway was excavated to a depth of ¾ to 1 metre with the bottom half filled with compacted stones and boulders and the top half filled with compacted gravel. Both Wade and Caulfeild felt pleased if a soldier could complete a yard and a half in one day.
In marked contrast to current practice, there are no records of landowners having been consulted or compensated in any way before the roads were built across their land. It is probable that landowners did not really care as it was the nineteenth century when great tracts of land started to be parcelled up and privatised.
The waning of the threat of Jacobites and the huge expense of maintaining the massive network of roads dissuaded the military from continuing to invest in it. Soldiers were fully withdrawn from building the roads in 1790 and maintenance of the entire network was transferred to the Highland Roads and Bridges Commission that had been created in 1803 to build new roads. 1814 spelled the very end of involvement in roads in Scotland by the military and ushered in the age of another great road engineer – Thomas Telford.
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