The roads that imposed order on the Highlands

He was the only person to be identified by name in an early version of God Save The Queen and went on to help impose government authority on Scotland by building roads deep into the Highlands.

Field Marshal George Wade (left) oversaw the building of hundreds of miles of roads through the Highlands in a bid to bring the north under control after the Jacobite risings. They included the road between Coupar Angus, Braemar, Corgarff and Fort George near Inverness. PIC: Creative Commons/Historic Environment Scotland.

Against the backdrop of 18th Century unrest and political complexity, Major General George Wade made his name.

In 1724, the army officer was sent to Scotland to inspect the lay of the land following three failed Jacobite risings which attempted to restore James VII and II to the throne.

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General Wade became the figurehead of the roads programme in the Highlands, which became known as Wade’s Roads, although his successor Major William Caulfeild was responsible for the majority of the military roads laid.

Between 1725 and 1737, Wade oversaw the construction of 250 miles of road and 40 bridges. These were built by labouring gangs, military engineers and estates staff.

Wade’s roads included Dunkeld to Inverness, the route of today’s A9, Fort William to Inverness ,the route of today’s A82, and the Kingussie to Fort Augustus road which includes the Corrieyairack Pass, once the highest road in Britain.

A key focal point for Wade’s network was Ruthven Barracks, completed near Kingussie in 1721.

After finishing this first phase, work was continued by his able engineer Major William Caulfeild. As Inspector of Roads from 1732, Caulfeild not only constructed a further 800 miles of road, but amended and enhanced parts of the original 250 miles. He built many more bridges, too.

Ironically, during the 1745 rising some of the roads may have served Jacobite forces more effectively than government troops.

After Prince Charles Edward Stuart raised his standard at Glenfinnan, he used the road from Fort Augustus, over the Corrieyairack Pass to Dalwhinnie, to move fairly rapidly to Perth and the Lowlands.

However, the defeat of the Jacobite forces at the Battle of Culloden marked the bloody end of more than fifty years of Jacobite struggle and the beginning of a profound shift in the trajectory of British history. It set in place the destruction of the clan system and many other aspects of Highland culture and ways of life. In turn this created the social conditions in which much of the Highland Clearances took place.

General Wade’s roads and bridges played an important role in imposing the Hanoverian government’s authority in Scotland. But they also opened up routes for trade, travel and tourism.

Along the roads a number of inns – called Kingshouses – were established. Some of these survive to this day, such as the Garvamore ‘Barracks’ on the eastern side of the Corrieyariack pass. In 1773, James Boswell and Samuel Johnson were able to make an untroubled tour of the area. By the turn of the nineteenth century, Sarah Murray and Dorothy Wordsworth were among the first female tourists to document their travels around Scotland.

By the late 18th century some of the steeper and more remote sections of the military road network had been abandoned. Other sections were incorporated into the civilian road network as it was improved and expanded through the nineteenth century.

General Wade's work to promote the stability of Hanoverian rule made him the only only person identified by name in a version of God Saved The Queen which became popular during the 1745 rising.

In this verse, which later disappeared, Wade was celebrated as such: May he sedition hush/And like a torrent rush/Rebellious Scots to crush/God save the king.

Recently, we were asked by a local historian to assess the cultural significance of the remaining roads and bridges. To do this, we visited sections of former road that still survive as archaeological remains. We looked at sites from Crieff to Aberfeldy and onwards to the A9; from Dunkeld to Dalncardoch, and up over the moorland above Pitlochry towards Glenshee.

We saw some fantastic examples of the road and of simple, robust bridges surviving in the area. These features give us a link with people who saw them nearly 300 years ago. The history surrounding their construction was turbulent, but we can’t simply ignore markers from the past because we don’t like what they represent.

A version of this article first appeared on the Historic Environment Scotland blog .