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The Social and Economic Condition of the Highlands of Scotland Since 1800
Development of the Highlands



FROM the peculiar configuration of the Highlands this region of Scotland was completely isolated from the rest of the kingdom, until the disturbed state of the country in 1715 forced the Government to consider a scheme for the construction of military roads in the Highlands, so that the Royal forces might with ease be able to enter a hitherto impenetrable part of the kingdom. General Wade was therefore commissioned to construct about 250 miles of roads in the Highlands, and although we cannot rank the General as a first-class engineer, yet, as the "Irish" couplet puts it:

"Had you seen these roads before they were made,
You would lift up both hands and bless General Wade."

It was not, however, until the year 1803 that 'any material benefit was derived from the construction of roads; for General Wade's roads, well suited as they were for military purposes, were from the nature of their construction entirely inadequate -and unsuited for the commerce of the country. It was left to Thomas Telford to intersect the Highlands with a net-work of roads, which to this day :stand unrivalled in Scotland.

In 1803 Parliament passed an Act granting .20,000 towards making roads and bridges in the Highlands, and for enabling the proprietors to charge their estates with a proportion of the expense of maintaining the different lines of communication.

Subsequent grants were made for the same purpose, and by 1820 no less than 875 miles of road were made, at a cost to Parliament of 267,000, to the counties of 214,000, and to individual proprietors of estates of 60,000. The whole of these lines were then under one management, and the maintenance cost about 10,000 per annum. This amount was chiefly raised by tolls, which, however, were considered such a grievance that a Royal Commission was appointed in 1859 which recommended the total abolition of tolls in Scotland. In 1883, under a general act passed in 1878, tolls ceased to be collected on any road in Scotland, and these are now maintained by a general assessment, and managed by County Road Boards.

"The extent of roads, completed by means of the, Highland Road and Bridge Act, and absolutely placed under our care by the Road Repair Act, is no less than 400 miles, and 60 miles more await only the formality of exonerating the contractors. Besides these, 270 miles are under contract and in various stages of progress, and at least 170 miles more will hereafter be placed under contract and finished, presenting a total of 900 miles, and proving how eagerly the inhabitants of the Highlands. have availed themselves of the liberal assistance held out to them by the Government for the improvement of their country. Independently of the above extent of roads, the bridges built and constructed under distinct contracts have cost the-public 30,000 and the contributors upwards of 40,000."

It may be imagined what an impetus would have been given to commerce in the Highlands after thug being intersected with so many roads. Before the commencement of the last century no public coach or other regular vehicle of conveyance existed in the Highlands. In 1800 an attempt was made to establish coaches between Inverness and Aberdeen, but from the wretched state of the roads at that time, and the little intercourse that took place. it was found necessary to discontinue them, and it was not till 1806 and 1811 that coaches were regularly established on this route. In 1832 no less than seven different stage coaches passed to and from Inverness, making forty-four coaches arriving, at, and the same number departing from it in the course of every week. Three of these included the mail run between Inverness and Aberdeen, and between Inverness and Perth over the Highland road; two between Inverness and Dingwall, Invergordon, Cromarty, and Tain; and the mail coach between Inverness, Wick, and Thurso, extending from London, made in a direct line eight hundred miles. There was also a coach from Inverness to Oban, which ran over a considerable part of the military road.


THE next step towards opening up the Highlands was the construction of the Crinan and Caledonian Canals. The Caledonian Canal is the largest of its kind in the United Kingdom, and passes through some of the most picturesque and romantic scenery in the Highlands. The estimated cost of constructing the work was 474,531, whereas the actual expenditure amounted to about one and a quarter million pounds sterling. From the Canal Commissioners' report in 1831 it .appears that the total expenditure from 20th October, 1803, to the 1st May, 1831, was 990,559 10s. 9 d. The total length of the canal from east to west sea is 59 miles, 16 chains, of which distance 37 miles 41 chains is formed of natural waterway, leaving 21 miles 55 chains, which required to be cut. Throughout the entire canal there are 29 locks, each being 40 feet wide and 172 feet long. At the Inverness entrance of the canal from the Beauly Firth there is a large basin or floating dock covering 32 acres.

The Caledonian Canal was opened in October, 1822, by Charles Grant, Esq., one of the Canal ,Commissioners, and for a long period member of Parliament for Inverness-shire. The canal has done a great deal towards opening up and facilitating intercourse with the central Highlands, but still the anticipations of the promoters have not been fully realised. It was expected that all the coasting trade would pass along this waterway, and thus save rounding the stormy Cape Wrath, but a very small proportion of this class of vessel patronises the route, although the Commissioners gave every inducement by lowering the dues to a minimum with little good effect. As it is, the concern is a dead loss to the nation. Mr. David MacBrayne's excellent fleet of Highland steamers ply regularly through the canal between Inverness the Western Isles, and Glasgow. It is a favourite tourist route, and for grandeur and picturesqueness in scenery without a rival in Scotland.


BUT the most important factor in developing the Highlands has been the construction of railways, and, although the first portion of the Highland system of railways was opened in 1854, still at this date we have only a little over 600 miles of railway in the Highlands. At the same time we feel truly thankful for what noblemen and capitalists in the country have done for us, yet there is a wide field for developing railways in the northern and central Highlands. A comparison with any part of Ireland will illustrate how Scotland is comparatively isolated in this direction. I am glad to notice that the attention of the present
Government is engaged at this moment in considering the advisability of granting a subsidy towards constructing railways and tramways in the Highlands and Islands,

[When the Light Railways Act was passed, it was thought that a great impetus would be given to railway development in the Highlands. It is now ten years since the Act has been in force, yet during that period only 21 miles of railway have been constructed, and 52J miles sanctioned but not yet carried out, under its powers. For pioneer or developing lines, the Act is still too severe, and until more latitude in construction is granted, and more liberal subsidies are provided by the Government, there is but little hope for any further extensions of railways in the Highlands, of the character and cost compatible with the requirements of the traffic.

Mr. T. R. Price, C.M.G., General Manager of the Central South African Railways, in his valuable and comprehensive report on the "Construction and Working of Light and Narrow Gauge Railways," strongly advocates the construction of 2 ft. gauges in localities where traffic will not warrant the standard gauge. I take the liberty of making two extracts from Mr. Price's report:—

"The extent of and the importance attached to what are known in Europe as secondary railways of a lighter type .and narrower gauge than the standard (4 ft. 8fr in. as in England and America) is further indicated by the information furnished and the attention given to the subject at the recent International Railway Congress at Washington, as well as at previous Congresses. It is made clear that similar reasons to those which obtained in Belgium, to which reference has been made, have compelled the adoption of similar action in the other European States and elsewhere.

"It is also clear, from the discussions at the Congress and the comments in the American newspapers, that it is at last. realised, both in America and in England, that this question can be no longer neglected.

"The resolution passed by the section of the International Congress which dealt with the question is as follows:-

"'Light railways merit in the highest degree the attention of public authorities. Their construction makes it possible to encourage the progress and development of districts which previously have remained in the background, and it is accordingly not only the interest but the duty of the Governments to assist them. It is desirable, therefore, not to adhere to old types and old methods of construction,. operation, and regulation, but to introduce every facility possible adaptable to local needs and available resources." As the extent to which this principle of light or, secondary railways of narrower gauge than the standard railways has been acted upon is not, I believe, generally known, I have prepared a statement (Appendix K.) setting out the gauges and lengths of the standard and of the narrower lines constructed in the various countries by 1904'. summarized from the compilation by the Editor of the Universal Directory of Railway Officials. The information will, I think, be regarded as instructive. A noticeable feature is that in two such densely peopled countries as. Belgium and India, the mileages of the narrower gauge railways closely approximate to those of the standard gauge-lines.

Turning to another source, the following extracts from an important report of the Government of India (Annexure D to Appendix L) on the type and gauge of railway to be provided (the whole report and annexures are especially well worth reading), serve as useful guides:-

"It was agreed that the justification of light 2 ft. commercial feeder lines must be sought from experiment, there. being no sufficient data available for the formation of any reliable opinion or forecast of their success ; but in arriving meantime at the conclusion that the 2 ft. should be the standard for all feeders not following the parent gauge, the Conference considered such a conclusion to be warranted by the consideration that the lesser of the two light gauges was sufficient to carry all traffic offering, up to the point when the amount of that traffic was sufficient to warrant the substitution of the parent gauge. It was further agreed that to be commercially successful such feeders should be constructed and worked on the cheapest lines possible, compatible with normal expenditure on maintenance, the rails not to be lighter than from 20 to 25 lbs. per yard, the rolling stock to be simple and as light and easy to handle as possible.'

" Reference may be made to the same despatches as quoted above in respect to the question of gauge. Again in the opening paragraphs of Colonel Conway-Gordon's note, which forms an enclosure to Government of India despatch No. 48 R of April 22nd, 1884, to Secretary of State, it was pointed out "'"That the principle underlying all questions of gauge is that a machine is, comparatively speaking, economical only when working at its full power. The best gauge for any particular railway is, therefore, merely a question of the amount and description of traffic that will probably be conveyed on the line."'

"`Mr. E. Calthrop, in his "Economics of Light Railway 'Construction," says:-

"`"It is well to point out that there is a great principle underlying the question of gauge. A railway is a machine, and, like any other machine, is economical only when working within a reasonable measure of its full power. In a recognition and observance of this principle lies the whole art and mystery of the financial success which has attended the working of narrow-gauge feeder lines on the Continent and in India, in districts where a standard gauge line would not only starve, but would lose money at the end of the chapter." "Vide Report by Mr. T. R. PRICE, C.M.G., to the Cape Parliament.]

and I fail to see how the loyal Scottish Celt is not as fully entitled to Government aid as his more boisterous brother beyond the Irish Sea. Before the opening of railways in the north, an inside seat in the coach from Inverness to Perth cost 60s., and an outside seat 35s. By rail you can now get a return fare to London for 3; and you can also perform the return journey to the-metropolis in less time than the coach took to run from Inverness to Perth.

The cost of constructing a 2 ft. gauge, on the average, will cost 2000 to 2500 per mile, including the necessary rolling stock; but, while prepared to advocate the building of 2 ft. gauge lines in the-Hebridean Islands for the development of the fisheries, and also for " cul de sac" lines on the-mainland, I do not advocate the construction of 2 ft. gauge lines in districts on the mainland, as, for instance, from Pitlochry to Kinloch Rannoch, or from Garve to Ullapool, where the apparent traffic is considerable. In such localities a 3 ft. gauge would be necessary, and sufficient for all time to cope with present or prospective traffic.

A 2 ft. gauge should be constructed at once encircling the Isle of Skye, touching at the numerous fishing villages along the coast, with a terminus at Kyle of Lochalsh, whence a steam ferry would convey the train loads of fish to the Highland Railway terminus on the mainland. These light railways, should, where possible, be constructed along the main roads, thus avoiding the cost of earthwork and in many cases bridges. The space taken up by the track would not inconvenience the small amount •of vehicular traffic on any of these roads.

In connection with light railways of the parent gauge, a standard similar to our Colonial railways .should be adopted by the Light Railway Commissioners. It will then be possible to build a line of 4 ft. 82 in. gauge for 4000 to 5000 per mile, and in very many districts, with favourable contours, such lines can be constructed on a dividend-paying basis.

There are no known minerals except granite in the Highlands of sufficient value ever to yield wealth to the country, and this region must therefore look largely to its fisheries as the future source of prosperity; and it is most important that everything which science and money can accomplish should be employed in developing this great industry. The fishing centres should have direct railway communication with the interior of the country, and cheap and rapid means of transit to the large English towns and thickly populated districts; and the Government should construct safe and commodious harbours, as well as make liberal grants-to fully equip the fishing fleet. I should also like to see a fishery school established at Inverness, or some central station in the Highlands, where young fishermen and boys could receive technical training and instruction in making fishing gear, as well as-in constructing and repairing boats. And last, but not least, all the tillable lands in the Highlands should be allotted to the surplus population of congested districts, and light or narrow gauge railways constructed through the newly settled glens. When these things are done we shall have an enriched nation and a peaceful, contented, and prosperous peasantry—their country's stay and their nation's pride.


HERE is another source of industry which might yield a large income if properly and scientifically developed. I refer to the thousands of acres of peat-mosses scattered over the Highlands. The primitive method of making peat suitable for fuel by cutting the turf into rectangular blocks and drying them in small stacks in the open air—and that in a climate so uncertain —is so crude that, in an age steeped in scientific discoveries, one marvels that this remnant of what one might call barbarism should possibly exist, for no matter how the cubes are left drying, a large proportion of water will be retained. Notwithstanding this, thousands of tons of peat are annually consumed as a fuel; and in many districts in the Highlands of Scotland and Ireland this is the only fuel used. Experiments made by Sir Archibald Geikie put the constituent elements of peat after being dried at 100 degrees, C. carbon, 60.48; hydrogen, 6.10; oxygen, 32.55; nitrogen, 0.88. The large proportion of water which cannot be extracted from peat is the great obstacle to its use as a fuel, but under a pressure of 6000 atmospheres, peat may be converted into as hard, black, and brilliant a substance, and having the same aspect as physical coal.

If a syndicate were formed having an efficient stock of cutting, compressing, and drying machinery, a lucrative enterprise might be established in the Highlands, benefiting both the promoters and the inhabitants. A fuel thus manufactured would be equal in many respects to coal, and the cost not more than half what that mineral costs. In the large peat-moss of Lancashire, lying between Liverpool and Manchester, a considerable trade is carried on in manufacturing the most fibrous portion of the peat into material for litter.

I fear some sceptical reader will say that many Highland proprietors have tried the "improvement scheme" with but poor success. Sir James Matheson of Lewis expended in six years the sum of 67,980 more than the entire revenue derived from his estate in three years. The late Mr. James Fletcher of Rosehaugh informed me that for twelve years after purchasing his Black Isle properties he annually expended over 10,000 on improvements, this being more than his entire rental, with the result that there is not at the present time in all the Highlands an estate so well equipped with houses and farm offices and intersected with such ,excellent roads. The Duke of Argyll between 1846 and 1852 spent 1790 in addition to the revenue derived from his property in the island of Mull; and the Duke of Sutherland spent 254,900 on the reclamation works at Lairg; while nearly every proprietor throughout the islands has spent more or less in developing and improving his estates. But can it be said that those sums of money were expended to no purpose? Certainly not; for every penny judiciously spent, the property was proportionally enhanced in value. A brief glance at the rental roll twenty or thirty years ago compared with that of to-day will demonstrate that those expenditures were good investments, which other things being equal, have paid well, or will pay well, in the end. Recent and prospective legislation on the land question places landlords in a position from which we cannot expect them to expend much capital on improvements; and it is therefore the more necessary for them to allot their unoccupied .lands at a fair figure, and allow the crofter to bring them into cultivation. The country will thereby retain the people, and the capital which they would take with them if they emigrated, and in the place of as now

"The flocks of a stranger the long glens are roaming,
Where a thousand fair homesteads smoked bonnie at gloaming;
Our wee crofts run wild wi' the bracken and heather,
And our gables stand ruinous and bare to the weather."

We would then have instead of the dreary and barren moorland and deserted and lonely glen, rich fields of waving golden grain, and happy homes ,of virtuous women and brave and pious men.

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