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In the Shadow of Cairngorm
XXV. Roads and Bridges


THE things we are accustomed to we do not appreciate as we ought. What comes without effort is accepted without thought. Thus it is with our roads; we take them as we do our common mercies. It is hard to imagine a time when things were otherwise—when in the Highlands there were not only no railways or telegraph wires, but no stage-coaches, no carriages, no roads; and when travel from place to place was difficult and even dangerous. Cockburn, in his "Memorials," tells of the discomforts in his day; and Lord Lovat, of the '45, gives an amusing description of a journey south from the Aird, and of the breakdowns and the mishaps by the way. He says:—"I brought my wheel-wright with me the length of Aviemore, in case of accidents, and there I parted with him, because he declared my chariot would go safe enough to London; but I was not eight miles from the place, when on the plain road, the axle-tree of the hind-wheels broke in two, so that my girles were forced to go on bare horses behind footmen, and I was obliged to ride myself, tho’ I was very tender, and the day very cold (31 July). I came with that equipage to Ruthven late at night, and my chariot was pulled there by force of men, where I got an English Wheel-wright and a Smith, who wrought two days mending my chariot; and after paying very dear for their work, and for my quarters two nights, I was not gone four miles from Ruthven, when it broke again, so that I was in a miserable condition till I came to Dalnaceardach." Here repairs were again made, but at the hill of Drummond further trouble arose. This time the fore-axle-tree gave way, and "wrights and carts and smiths" had to be brought to the assistance of the unfortunate travellers. Drumuachdar was then as hard to cross as the Alps.

The Romans were the great road-makers. Their roads started from the golden pillar in the Forum at Rome, "traversed Italy, pervaded the provinces, and were terminated only by the frontiers of the Empire." Gibbon says:—"The public roads were accurately divided by milestones, and ran in a direct line from one city to another, with very little respect for obstacles, either of nature, or of private property." . . . "They united the subjects of the most distant provinces by an easy and familiar intercourse, but their primary object had been to facilitate the marching of the legions, nor was any country considered as completely subdued till it had been rendered in all its parts pervious to the arms and the authority of the Conqueror." The Appian Way, made by Appius Claudius, A.U. 441 was called the "Queen of Roads." The Romans made roads through England and the south of Scotland; and they are said to have even penetrated to the far north. In our parish, on the line from Braemar to Burghead, there are traces here and there, as at Lynbreck and Congash, of what are marked in the Ordnance Maps as Roman roads. But it is very doubtful if the Romans had anything to do with them. They are more likely to have been old cattle tracks, or roads made by the Church. In the Reg. Moraviense, mention is made of the "Via Regia" in the time of Alexander II., 1236; and again, in 1253, there is reference to the road running from the Standing Stones, at Finlarig, to Findhorn. Cosmo Innes says that more progress was made in Scotland in the reigns of Alexander II. and Alexander III. than till the Union of 1707. The Via Regia is often referred to in charters, with the right of way and pasturage that pertained to it, and there seems to be a trace of it in the old road at Tulloch, south of Staor-na-mannach, which is still called Rathad an Righ, "The King’s Road." In road improvements England was before Scotland, and the south of Scotland before the north. The first great advance in the Highlands was made by General Wade. Great trunk lines, with branches in different directions, were executed by him. By 1770, it is said, he had made some 800 miles of roads, and about 1000 bridges. His plan was to go right on, up hill and down dale, with as little deviation as possible. In travelling from Blair Athol to Kingussie it is possible at some points to mark the old and the new roads. Wade’s roads, with his round arched bridges, may be seen well up on the hill. Lower down is the coach road, made by the Commissioners of Highland Roads and Bridges, winding along the glen, while the Highland Railway holds on its course, sometimes on the same side of the glen and sometimes on the other. The road from Castleton to the coast, made by Wade, passes through our parish; and interesting bits, with remains of bridges, may be seen between Dirdow and Grantown. The bridge over the Spey is one of Wade’s bridges. Originally it had the usual steep fall at the north side, but the road having been raised to the level of the arch, the peculiarity is not now so perceptible. At the Abernethy end stands a slab, partly mutilated, with the following inscription:—"A.D. 1754. 5 Companies of the 33rd Regiment, Honourable Lord Charles Hay, Colonel. Finished." This bridge suffered from the great flood of 1829 (cf. Lauder). The new roads were not at first popular. Both chiefs and clansmen disliked them. Tennant says:—"These publick works were at first very disagreeable to the old Chieftains, and lessened their influence greatly; for by admitting strangers among them, their Clans were taught that the Lairds were not the first of men." Buckle, in his "History of Civilisation," speaks to the same effect:—"Roads were cut through their country, and for the first time travellers from the South began to mingle with them, in their hitherto inaccessible wilds." The people, on the other hand, not only complained that they brought in strangers, but that they broke up their old customs. They said that the rough, stony ways were not suited to their unshod horses, and that they preferred the grass and the heather. It is curious to find objections of the same sort rife in Asia Minor in the present day. Professor Ramsav says:—-" The surface of the new roads is not suitable for the feet of the animals, which carry goods, for the small, loose stones annoy them. Hence the Muleteers prefer the old narrow tracks, which are better adapted to the animals’ feet." In a work on the Highlands, by the Rev. Alexander Irvine, of Rannoch, 1802, we have a statement which strikingly illustrates the old state of things:—

"The Braes of Perth and Inverness shires have no communication; hence in winter many lives are lost. . . . You would think that, like the ancient barbarians of the north of Europe, the Highlanders delighted in being separated by frightful deserts. A person is astonished to see the natives scrambling with beasts of burden (there are no carts) over precipices that would frighten a stranger. It will require a day to travel over those rugged surfaces only 12 miles by any person but a native. The common rate is at a mile an hour. From Inverness to the Point of Kintail what a road! if it can be so called, for it is hardly agreed upon by travellers which is the line, every one making one for himself. If you cross over to the islands you are every moment in danger of straying or perishing. The paths, such as they are, take such oblique and whimsical directions, not even excepting General Wade’s roads across the Grampians, that they seem hardly to have been drawn by rational beings. Our sheep follow better lines; they tread round the side of the hill, and when they ascend or descend they select the easiest and safest track. I suppose the Highland roads in general have remained in those perplexities and curvations which they had when the boar and the wolf contended with the natives for their possessions, and when each tribe traced the wary mate, to attack, or escape the incursions of, one another."

After General Wade, the great road-makers were Telford and Mitchell. Southey, after referring to Telford’s grand work of bridging the Menai Straits—

"Structure of more ambitious enterprise
Than minstrel in the age of old romance
To their own Merlin’s magic lore ascribed,"

goes on to describe his achievements in his own native land:-

"Where his roads,
In beautiful and sinuous line far seen,
Wind with the vale, and win the long ascent.
Now o’er the deep morass sustain’d, and now
Opening a passage through the wilds subdued."

It was by Telford that the present bridge at Abernethy, which came in place of the old bridge higher up, and the new road to Boat of Garten, was designed. Much was done by the Lairds of Grant for the improvement of the parish roads. It is said that in Sir James’s time 130 miles of new roads were made, and the good work, under the Parish Council, is still being carried on. In the beginning of the century, Grantown bridge was the only one between the two Craigellachies; now, counting the railway bridges, there are nine bridges in this district spanning the Spey. The Highland and Speyside Railways were opened in 1863. If roads and bridges form an important factor in the civilisation of a country, much more may this be said of railways. The benefits they have conferred are incalculable. One signal advantage is the influx of "summer visitors," who leave much money in the country, and whose kindly intercourse with the people, and generous help of the poor and needy, deserve grateful acknowledgment.

"Ha! we start the ancient stillness,
Swinging down the long incline;
Over Spey, by Rothiemurchus,
Forests of primeval pine.

"‘Boar of Badenoch,’ ‘Sow of Athole,’
Hill by hill behind we cast;
Rock and craig and moorland reeling,
Scarce Craig-Ellachie stands fast.

"Dark Glenmore and cloven Glen Feshie,
Loud along these desolate tracts,
Hear the shrieking whistle louder
Than their headlong cataracts.

"On, still on—let drear Culloden,
For Clan-slogans hear the scream;
Shake—ye woods by Beauly river;
Start, thou beauty-haunted Dhruim.

"Northward still the iron-horses!
Naught may stay their destined path,
Till they snort by Pentland surges,
Stem the cliffs of far Cape Wrath.

"Must then pass, quite disappearing,
From their glens the ancient Gael?
In and in, must Saxon struggle?
Southron, Cockney more prevail?

"Clans long gone, and pibrochs going,
Shall the patriarchal tongue,
From these mountains fade for ever,
With its names and memories hung?

"Oh! you say, it little recketh,—
Let the ancient manners go,
Heaven will work, through their destroying,
Some end greater than you know!

"Be it so! but will Invention,
With her smooth mechanic arts,
Raise, when gone, the old Highland warriors,
Bring again warm Highland hearts?

"Nay! whate’er of good they herald,
Whereso’ comes that hideous roar,
The old charm is disenchanted,
The old Highlands are no more!

"Yet, I know, there lie, all lonely,
Still to feed thought’s loftiest mood,
Countless glens, undesecrated,
Many an awful solitude!

"Many a burn, in unknown corries,
Down dark linns the white foam flings,
Fringed with ruddy-berried rowans,
Fed from everlasting springs.

"Still there sleep unnumber’d lochans
Craig-begirt ‘mid deserts dumb,
Where no human road yet travels,
Never tourist’s foot hath come!

"If e’en these should fail, I’ll get me
To some rock roar’d round by seas,
There to drink calm nature’s freedom
Till they bridge the Hebrides."

—"A Cry from Craigellachie," by The late Prof Shairp,
"Odds and Ends,"
1866,


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