|Location Map ( geo)|
|To:||Fort Augustus (NH371073)|
|Distance:||23 miles (37 km)|
The Corrieyairick Pass is the highest point on General Wade's Military Road between the barracks at Kilchumein, Fort Augustus and the main Crieff-Abefeldy-Inverness Road, meeting it at Dalwhinnie. Later, a northern spur was added at the eastern end, meeting the main road near the barracks at Ruthven. These two arms met just south of Laggan.
The Jacobite Rebellion of 1715 caught the new British Government out somewhat, as the 'rebel' Highlanders were able to move much more easily across the rugged Scottish landscape than the Army could. It was therefore decided that a network of roads connecting the barracks and forts together would be of great advantage to the Army in keeping the peace in the volatile Highlands.
The job of building these roads fell to General George Wade and he soon set about constructing the first road, linking Fort William to Fort George, Inverness through the Great Glen. In 1731 the road across Corrieyairack was started, a road which consisted of a mere five stone bridges, including the two-arched Garva Bridge across the Spey. All other streams were initially forded, although it is clear that additional bridges were subsequently provided.
The road seems to have been rapidly built, and a journey by coach across the pass was described in the Gentleman's Magazine the same year. Its almost lyrical prose praised Wade for completing a road where previously it was 'craggy, steep and boggy' and goes on to describe the seventeen traverses of the descent towards Strathspey, where 'the sweeps and angles walled with stones and the parapets on the lower side 3 foot high'.
The route selected loosely followed a popular drovers road across the hills, which they weren't happy about as they claimed that the paving of the road damaged the hooves of the cattle. Nevertheless, the road was there to stay, and it is perhaps ironic that the first army to march across the Corrieyairack Pass in time of war was the Jacobite Army in 1745.
Laggan - Melgarve
Today we start on the A86 in Laggan Village, although Wade's original road was on the south side of the river. Laggan Bridge was first built when Thomas Telford built his new road from Ruthven. Heading west, the road soon passes through this small community and curves around the hill to drop down to the River Spey. Directly across on the opposite bank is Wade's road, now the driveway for Dalchully House before deteriorating into a grassy line through fields.
The river bank is followed as far as the Spey Dam Bridge, which necessarily replaced an earlier bridge across the Spey that was lost when the Dam was constructed. Incidentally, the dam holds back water in the Spey which is fed back to the west through a series of channels and pipes to help supply the Aluminium works in Fort William 40 miles away! Once across the bridge, we almost immediately pick up the alignment of Wade's original route, followed soon by the old road from the now gone bridge as it climbs up from the reservoir.
Either by luck, or design, the water level is just below Wade's road as we continue west along the shore, briefly climbing over a low hill at Sherrabeg. At the further end of the reservoir, the road is on a raised embankment, lifting it clear of the flood level of the Spey and also carrying it across the new channel that takes the water east towards Fort William. The channel is crossed on a 'new' bridge, similar in style to the Spey Dam Bridge, leaving one of Wade's bridges, across a now long gone stream, stranded in a field.
We now pass between Glenshero Lodge and Sherramore at the mouth of Glen Shira and start climbing again, past patches of forestry before dropping back towards the Spey at Garvamore. Not far beyond lies Garva Bridge, one of the very few Wade bridges still carrying a public highway. On the far side of the bridge, the road is gated, and this seems to prompt many people to make use of the large car park before the bridge. However, there are another 4 miles of tarmac yet!
The route climbs steadily, in a dead straight alignment, before dropping back towards the river in an equally straight line. This trick is then repeated, although there is little surviving evidence in the landscape as to why Wade chose to 'march his men up the hill and then back down again'!
As the lonely cottages of Melgarve come into sight, watch out for a small sign pointing to East Melgarve Bridge, amongst the trees. This bridge is purported to have been constructed c1750 for Wade's Road, and certainly looks right. However, quite why it is so far from the modern alignment seems unclear, unless the forestry plantation caused the road to move. One thing it does tell us though is that within twenty years of construction, bridges were being added to the route to replace the fords that Wade had originally specified.
Melgarve - Corrieyairack Summit
As we reach the cottages at Melgarve, big red signs insist that 'Road Closed'. And, indeed, it is a road. The route was built by the government as a public highway, albeit 280 years ago, and remained in use as such until around the time of the Second World War. Even today, there is copious evidence that vehicles pass from Melgarve up to the summit, and possibly continue down into Fort Augustus. However, there is a rather substantial barrier to restrict such travel!
From Melgarve, the road climbs in another dead straight line, paying no heed to the contours, for roughly a mile before it succumbs to the landscape and starts to turn around the hillside - the road seems to bend more that the maps would suggest! The pylon line which has been following us since Garva Bridge is now right at the side of the road, and is just about the only evidence that this is not 1731 still. The road is in pretty poor condition in places, washed out by the streams which have long since burst free from their fords, and even the bridges that have been added have become impassable and once more replaced by fords.
Ahead of us is a great wall of hills, and to start with it seems that there can be no escape, then at the crest of one climb the full bowl of the Corrie Yairack is opened out to us ahead, and suddenly those immortal words 'into the jaws of death' seem strangely appropriate. Even on a bright (albeit not sunny) summers day, the corrie looks menacing, foreboding, and inescapable as the road keeps leading us on.
At length, as the grey mist of another shower passes, the zigzag escape route comes into sight on the far side of the corrie, and the mood lifts slightly, although the steep ascent does not exactly appeal. Neither, when it comes to it, does the crossing of the corrie floor. Stray off the road, and you may disappear into the network of stagnant channels and bog that covers the landscape hereabouts. It certainly makes you respect Wade and his men for not just conceiving but completing such a project.
The final ascent to the bottom of the zigzags, or traverses as they were described back in 1731, has been completely destroyed by the Allt Yairack when it burst through the bank and found that the road was a better route than the stream bed. Even today, with rocks placed to reinforce the separation of the two, the road looks more like a dry river bed, and so modern traffic has to divert to the sides.
Soon, however, the road appears once more and this is perhaps the best surviving section as we sweep genteely back and forth across the hillside, slowly climbing those 17 traverses. Or do we? Did the author back in 1731 exaggerate somewhat? Even including the little kinks at the top, there are only 16, and in reality only 12 traverses between the hairpins.
The effort is worth it though, with stunning views (between the showers) back to the east and into the upper reaches of Strathspey, and once we have crossed the summit we are looking west, down Glen Tarff towards Fort Augustus in the Great Glen, and also across the glittering silvery shapes of Loch Garry.
Corrieyairack Summit - Fort Augustus
Have you climbed this way? Can you add a description here?!
The Corrieyairack pass is easily accessible from the eastern end by following the road up from Laggan village on the A86. Parking can be had next to the Garva Bridge, or just before the end of the tarmac at Melgarve. It is about 4 miles from Melgarve to the summit, a round trip of about 4 hours, and double that from Garva Bridge (on foot at least). Cycling is theoretically possible up the pass, but would be hard work!
The western access is not so easy. The road starts on the unclassified Ardachy road between the A82 and B862, but there is no real parking available in the vicinity. A steep climb from the road would be difficult by bike, and it is a good 6 or 7 miles to the summit. If anyone knows better, please update this!