Wade's Military Roads
Scotland, specifically the Highlands of Scotland, are criss-crossed by the remains of a network of Military Roads built by the Government in the 18th Century. Most are now lost in amongst the heather and peat bog of the hillsides and moorlands that they crossed, but some survive as part of the modern road network, albeit enormously improved! These roads are generically known as Wade's Roads, after General Wade (1673-1748) who was commissioned to build them after the first Jacobite Rebellion. However, the majority of them were built by his deputy Major Caulfeild, who took over complete responsibility for the roads before Wade's retirement in 1747.
After the initial Jacobite Rebellion in 1715, the newly united UK Government rapidly recognised the need to get their troops from A to B quickly. At the time, most local traffic in the Highlands of Scotland was by sea or inland waterway, but the Government had already started to build a network of forts to control the area and this process was suddenly prioritised.
General Wade was the man appointed to oversee the military 'campaign' and so it fell to him to build the road network that his troops would use. Working in small teams in the summer months, soldiers found themselves building roads, or standing guard over their fellows in the face of potential attacks from the local clans who saw the roads as oppressive.
After the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, the network of roads grew still further, latterly under the command of General Caulfeild, until all of the forts were linked together, and also back to Glasgow and Edinburgh. While the roads served their purpose well, they were not built to a particularly high standard. This meant that in 1805 when Thomas Telford started to survey the Highlands for another Government road-building project, he found few sections of road that were passable, let alone usable as the foundations of his own network.
Route Surveying and Design
It may well have been 1300 years since the Romans had left the British Isles, but it seems that in the first instance Wade followed the same basic principles. Using the rough maps that were available, straight lines were drawn between the ends of the intended route, and then the road constructed on the nearest practicable alignment. Obviously, being the Scottish Highlands, small things like Lochs and Mountains regularly got in the way, but when it came to the latter neither Wade - with the Corrieyairack Pass - nor his successor Caulfeild - with the Devil's Staircase - let them get in the way.
From observations of surviving sections of route, it seems that both men prioritised the choice of route as follows. Firstly, it had to be as short as possible, secondly as cheap as possible, and finally gradients and curvatures of bends were considered. It seems that the only restrictions on the latter two were the ability to transport, by a team of horses, a gun carriage along the route. However, stories have been passed down of the soldiers having to assist the horses to haul heavy loads up the Devil's Staircase.
The roads themselves were constructed from graded stone, generally quarried from the surrounding landscape. They were built to a width of 18feet, reducing to 15feet when necessary. In practice, the narrower width appears to have been used for bridges, and the occasional place where embankments or cuttings were required - in otherwords structures which were cheaper to build narrower than wider.
However, as time progressed, it seems that 15feet carriageways became the norm, and that structures could become as narrow as 10 or 12feet. Although a word of caution here, as it is often difficult to identify the edges of the original road surface today. The places that now seem to be as little as 10-12 feet wide could well have been damaged by erosion in the last 250 years, causing slippage of banks.
Despite the great mileage of roads built by the two generals, there are surprisingly few bridges on the routes. This can best be explained by looking at the A82 Rannoch Moor route, where Caulfeild constructed his road at up to 500m above sea level. Obviously at such an altitude streams are more frequent, but smaller than at the mere 350m summit level of the modern route. This allowed expensive bridges to be avoided in place of smaller and cheaper culverts and even fords.
The most impressive bridges built by Wade are Aberfeldy Bridge and the partially collapsed High Bridge to the west of Spean Bridge. Caulfeild never reached such impressive structural heights, but more of his bridges remain open to traffic, most notably Bridge of Orchy on Rannoch Moor.
By the time Caulfeild had finished, c1760, the military road network in Scotland stretched from Carlisle to Inverness, with most of the routes having now become trunk routes, albeit on new alignments. Certainly, three of Scotland's most important routes owe their existence to Wade and Cauldfield - the A74 (now M74 / A74(M), and almost certainly an upgrade of a pre-existing route), A82 and A9. Other routes, such as the B846 and B862 were also constructed by the generals, but have been superceded by modern roads following less direct routes, which are more suitable for modern traffic. There are, of course, also those old military roads which have been almost completely abandoned. The sections of Rannoch Moor are now very difficult to locate in places, and the Corrieyairack Pass is just a rough track, impassible to vehicles in places.
Various people have attempted to map the roads over the years, starting with Roys Maps which were drawn in the 1750s, and therefore don't include all of Caulfeilds work. Scans of these maps are available on the NLS maps website. However, with the growing functionality of Sabre Maps, it has become possible to trace the routes into the database, and they can be found here:
- Map of roads built under direction of General Wade
- Map of roads built under direction of Major Caulfeild, and successors (incomplete at present).
The Devil's Staircase is part of the Tyndrum-Fort William route which climbs from Altnafeadh at the top of Glencoe up to a high pass which connects with the Blackwater Valley above Kinlochleven. It was built in 1752 by General Caulfeld. Towards the top, the old road zigzags sharply - even more so than the modern footpath, and it is quite amazing to think that this route was seen as preferable to passing down the infamous Glencoe, where the MacDonald massacre had taken place in 1692. It also avoided ferrying across Loch Leven.
Another High Pass connecting the barracks at Ruthven (on the B970 near Kingussie) with the fort at Fort Augustus (on the A82). The Corrieyairack Pass was built by Wade in 1731, at an alleged cost of just £3000. The route is still passable on foot, and to very energetic cyclists!
Wade's High Bridge to the west of Spean Bridge has now partially collapsed, but even so the remains are impressive as the span the steep and fast flowing Spean Gorge. Recent construction of a footpath makes the bridge much easier to access today.
Reputedly the only Wade bridge open to traffic, the ornamental Aberfeldy Bridge is actually the only Wade bridge to still carry a classified road.
The Roads Today
While some of the Military Roads are still used by modern Traffic, like the A82 and B862 in the Great Glen, many more have vanished forever. There are a few in the middle too, with sections of the West Highland Way Long Distance Path following the Military Road across Rannoch Moor, and the Corrieyairack Pass also still open to walkers.
This page was a candidate for Article of the Month September 2009