Book review: The Finest Road in the World: The Story of Travel and Transport in the Scottish Highlands, by James Miller

A section of the North Coast 500 in Torridon
A section of the North Coast 500 in Torridon
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The success of the North Coast 500 in rebranding a circuit of the Highlands owes much to parts of it being regarded as among the “finest road in the world”. Indeed, James Miller refers to several such claims in the title of his book, including the tongue-in-check observation of an 18th century clergyman negotiating the perilous Ord of Caithness. Two centuries later, the same accolade was bestowed by an MP on “the new Glasgow-Inverness highway”, aka the A82, whose opening did wonders for tourism, coinciding with sightings of Nessie.

However, as Miller relates, at the same dinner to celebrate the road’s opening in 1934, the corollary of road construction was also raised – its maintenance – which is another theme running through the book. Miller chronicles how the state of the region’s roads has been a perennial irritant for those using them and headache for the authorities charged with their upkeep. In the 1700s, locals were even required to turn out several days a year with picks and shovels to lend a hand before the cost of repairs paved the way for modern council taxation.

The coming of the roads had a profound impact on people as well as the economy. Miller relates how an old woman ran away in fear at soldiers in the 18th century clearing rocks at the Slochd pass, thinking them warlocks practising magic.

The previous lack of roads in places even seems to have been a matter of local pride, with some Highland chiefs fearing they would ease invasion and “make their followers effeminate once they no longer had to wade through rivers”.

Along with relating what was built, Miller also provides fascinating references to what might have been, such as a proposal in 1837 for a more direct route ten miles shorter than the current A9 through the Drumochter Pass, between Glen Bruar and Glen Feshie – which was rejected because it was 660ft higher.

Among road builder extraordinaire General Wade’s unrealised schemes was a route between Strathspey and Deeside via Glen Feshie to Braemar – which was also later considered no less than eight times between the 1920s and 50s. We are instead stuck with the Lecht.

Transport played an important part in the formation of place names, from the sites of ferries across the River Spey like Boat of Garten to 15th century Caithness-Orkney ferryman, Jan de Groot whose name became John o’Groats.

The story behind another landmark is also told – how soldiers building the road to Inveraray engraved a stone after completing a zig-zag to the top of the hill with the words “Rest, and be thankful”.

The invasion of the motor car is chronicled, from the nine vehicles registered in Inverness-shire in 1903 and the first car dealerships appearing by 1910. Some names survive today, like Macrae & Dick, founded as a horse and carriage hire business in Inverness in 1878.

In the section on railways, the foresight of Charles Maclaren, one of The Scotsman’s founding editors, is rightly marked with a reference to his influential articles 200 years ago predicting the growth of the network across Scotland. Miller supplements this by providing tantalising details of how it could have looked, such as unrealised plans for a line from Tyndrum to Dalwhinnie, extending the Milngavie route through the Trossachs, and an ambitious Glasgow-Inverness route via Glencoe.

Miller has a lot of ground to cover, both literally and metaphorically, in little over 300 pages, and the reader can feel at times as if the scenery is rushing past with hardly a chance to catch a glimpse before it disappears from view. The book is heavy with engineering and logistical detail and chronologies of the developing transport networks, squeezing in everything from early air links to the bicycle, but it is leavened with vivid anecdotal detail that leaves the journey a memorable one.

*The Finest Road in the World: The Story of Travel and Transport in the Scottish Highlands, by James Miller, Birlinn, 310pp, £12.99