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Is this roadbuilding genius the most secretly famous Scotsman ever?



I will be tackling waterways, rail and air but today I start with the roads of Scotland, which have been crucial to our history.

There being around 34,000 miles (55,000km) of roads in Scotland, obviously I can’t chart the history of all the network, so, as before, I will be choosing my favourites with great stories to tell, especially where their very existence has contributed to major events in our past.

You’ll find many of these roads feature bridges which truly are a considerable part of our built heritage and some of these will be given prominence.

Again if you don’t agree with my choices let me know via email

Scotland’s first “roads” date to prehistoric times and were tracks repeatedly used by the natives to get around the country. These would be trails for walking or droving animals, connecting settlements usually quite close together, and pre-dating horse and cart travel.

Having visited the oldest road in Britain, the Ridgeway National Trail which starts at Avebury in Wiltshire and runs 87 miles to Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire, I can say that long path, sections of which are older than Stonehenge, is my idea of how tracks or trackways developed in parts of Scotland.

The first roads as we understand the term were created by the Romans during their invasions of Scotland.

The Roman Empire at its peak had 250,000 miles of roads, and about a fifth were paved with stone, usually the long-distance roads which connected towns and cities and which allowed rapid movement of troops and baggage trains.

They were constructed by special road-building contractors and followed a template of being wide enough for two carts to pass with the paving lying atop rubble raised above the ground to allow proper drainage.

It is a source of some pride to many Scots that the land the Romans called Caledonia was never fully conquered by that empire but they did lay down two principal roads that enabled them to say they were controlling the lowland tribes.

One ran from Corbridge (Coria) in what is now Northumberland up to Bo’ness on the Forth via Cramond, and dates from around 140-150AD when the empire reached its furthest extent north with the building of the Antonine Wall.

This road was an extension to Dere Street, the principal Roman road on the east side of the province of Britannia, and the A68 partly follows the route.

The other major road extended up the west coast from what is now Carlisle – it housed an important Roman fort – as far as the Antonine Wall, which only lasted 20 years before the Romans retreated.

This road, an extension of Watling Street, had smaller roads branching off it, with traces being found in the Greenock area. You can imagine this road following the same route as the M74 does today.

The Antonine Wall was begun in AD 142 and took 12 years to complete, the Caledonians grimly forcing its abandonment just eight years later. The military road that ran alongside the south edge of the wall is probably the best-defined Roman road in Scotland.

Archaeologists have also found traces of Roman road construction as far north as Aberdeenshire, where two forts were briefly established, and it is likely that more such local roads were built before the empire retreated behind Hadrian’s Wall.

The fact is that we simply do not as yet know the full extent of Roman roads in Scotland but the empire certainly made its mark on the southern half of this country and those roads are thus an important part of our built heritage.

It says everything about the skill of Roman road builders that their roads in Scotland were used for centuries after they departed.

In the period we call the Dark Ages, Roman roads and native-built trackways were vital for the transport of military forces by the peoples who occupied the land.

The Scots of Dalriada, the Picts of the north and east, the Britons of Strathclyde, the Angles of the Lothians, and eventually the Vikings, all had their own communication routes, though little of these have survived.

The most important figure in road building in Scotland in medieval times was King David I, the man who took the throne in 1124 and transformed Scotland with his foundation of abbeys and monasteries and his creation of the burgh system with landowners, many of them invited by the king from the continent, responsible for developing roads.

Links between religious houses, trade routes between burghs, and the need for military forces to move quickly – especially in times of possible invasion by the English – all combined to inspire the creation of a network of roads, particularly in central and southern Scotland.

David’s successor, King Malcolm IV, known as the Maiden, who reigned from 1153-65 and died childless and unmarried at the age of just 24, had a road built for himself between Edinburgh and Roxburgh via Newbattle and traces of this grassed track can still be seen near Lauderdale.

I mentioned bridges, and the most important of these in the Middle Ages was at Stirling.

Known to scholars as the Ancient Bridge of Stirling, this wooden structure across the Forth was probably the most important river crossing in Scotland for many decades as it carried the main route north and northeast to the Highlands and the counties of Angus and Aberdeenshire.

On September 11, 1297, William Wallace and Andrew Murray went to the Ancient Bridge and formed a plan to defeat the English army that was coming north to suppress the Scottish uprising against the tyrannical rule of Edward I of England.

The bridge was narrow and only two armed horsemen could cross it at a time, with troops on foot also hemmed in. Watching the English proceed across the bridge, Wallace and his mainly peasant army waited until a third of the enemy forces were across before descending from the hills to confront them.

In their desperate rush to retreat, too many English soldiers tried to cross back at the same time and the bridge collapsed, drowning hundreds and allowing the Scots to slaughter those who had crossed.

The remains of the Ancient Bridge were found in 1905 just 40-50 yards away from the stone-built Old Bridge which replaced the older structure and dates from around 1500.

A detailed map of Scotland produced by the Rev Timothy Pont in the late 1500s and early years of the 17th century shows that a network of roads and bridges existed at that time in many parts of Scotland. The map is one of the most important treasures of the National Library of Scotland.

Early paved roads were built mainly by landowners but Church of Scotland parishes began to have an important role in building and maintaining roads, helped by a law which decreed that parishioners must give six days per year of their labour.

Many preferred to pay a charge rather than do the presumably back-breaking work and out of that system grew a veritable army of professional road builders.

It is one of the great myths of Scottish history that the Highlands were conquered and occupied as a result of the military roads created by the Hanoverian government’s Scottish commanding officer General George Wade.

It is true that most roads in the north of Scotland were merely trackways, many used for cattle droves, before Wade was sent north to inspect the infrastructure of the Highlands in 1724.

He reported to King George I that a whole system of roads, bridges and barracks needed to be established across the land, and on May 10, 1725, Wade was made commander in chief of the forces in “North Britain” as the royal decree put it.

Over the next 12 years, Wade oversaw the construction of 250 miles of strongly built roads – using the process designed by the Romans – plus 30 bridges and several barracks that housed considerable garrisons.

Ironically the Jacobites in the 1745 Rising were able to use these roads to march south but the Hanoverian troops also used them to march north to Culloden.

Wade gets most of the credit for the roads but it was his fellow Anglo-Irishman Major William Caulfield who really did most of the work before he died in Inverness at the age of 69.

His gravestone in St Andrews Churchyard in the city tells the real story of Caulfield: “Here lies Major William Caulfield who served King George faithfully above 40 years; 25 whereof he acted as chief engineer under General Wade and afterwards continued inspector general till his death; during which time he made above one thousand miles and built six hundred bridges; many whereof were esteemed unsurmountable till executed by him.”

It was Caulfield, then, who had the most impact on our built heritage with military roads and bridges that transformed the economy of Scotland but which the Redcoats used for marching to suppress the Highland way of life.

In the late 18th and early 19th century, Scotland was radically changed by agricultural improvements and the development of industries exploiting coal and iron ore – the Industrial Revolution.

More and better roads were needed and many were built through the turnpike system that allowed trusts – all approved by Parliament – to levy tolls on road users.

Coach travel began on the many new roads created, while a Highland Commission took on the task of developing or improving roads and bridges in remote areas.

Two men in particular changed the face of Scotland, and indeed the world at large, with their approach to road building. As I have written previously, Thomas Telford (1757-1834) worked for the Highland Commission from 1801 and in the space of 20 years he oversaw the construction of nearly 1000 miles of new roads and hundreds of bridges.

Telford personally revolutionised the building of roads as he pioneered the use of a new method of construction which provided a flatter and stronger surface, while he insisted on proper drainage for all his roadways, a principle that was adopted everywhere. No wonder he was known as the Colossus of Roads.

It was a fellow pioneer of road construction who became world famous, however. John Loudon McAdam was born in Ayr in 1756 and grew up in a well-to-do family, his father being a banker in the town.

From an early age, McAdam became obsessed with roads and road-building and built a “model” road at Maybole before he had even left school.

He moved across the Atlantic and made a fortune in mercantile banking, only to lose it all when he was on the wrong side of the American Wars of Independence.

Only support from the UK Government enabled him to return home and develop his hobby into a profession.

His moment of genius was to realise that no heavy stones were necessary for roads. He deduced “that it is the native soil which really supports the weight of traffic; that while it is preserved in a dry state, it will carry any weight without sinking”.

He developed the system of compressing small stones together and introduced cambers on roads which drained them properly. It was many years after his death in 1836 that a system of binding the stones with tar was introduced and the word tarmacadam was coined.

Is any other Scot so well remembered by name?

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