Case Study: Thomas Telford in the Highlands

Susan Kruse

Thomas Telford (1857–1834) made a crucial contribution to the communications and economy of the Highlands in a period of great social and economic change at the end of the 18th century and first decades of the 19th century. In the late 1700s the British Fisheries Society employed him to survey and build harbours and piers, and as part of his work he designed and built the planned towns of Ullapool (MHG7807) and Stein (Lochbay; MHG6129) on the west coast and Skye, and Pulteneytown (Wick; MHG2113) on the east, to capitalise on the herring boom (Dunlop 1978; 1982; Maudlin 2007).

Portrait of a man sitting in a chair with his arm resting on a table and a scene containing a viaduct and a bridge behind him.
Figure 1: Portrait of Thomas Telford. ©HES

In 1801 Telford was asked to turn his attention to providing a road network in the Highlands. For the next 20 years the Parliamentary Commissioners for Roads and Bridges oversaw an ambitious road building programme. Before this time, the Highlands primarily had rough tracks unsuitable for coaches, with fords and ferries the norm. The military roads built by Wade and his successor Caulfield in the 18th century were increasingly in poor repair. Telford was responsible for over 700 miles of new roads, necessitating over 1000 bridges. His roads were designed for both travellers and cattle. The project was designed in part to help alleviate the poverty in the Highlands, with landowners contributing to the costs, seeing the benefits of better communication (Haldane 1962; Ford 2007).

Figure 2: Map showing Telford’s work (roads, bridges, harbours, canals). ©HES
Group of individuals taking notes on a bridge.
Figure 3: Surveying a probable Telford bridge outside of Lairg, Sutherland, 2014. ©Susan Kruse

In addition to roads, Telford was also responsible for canals, with the Caledonian Canal his most famous undertaking (Cameron 1983), although he was also involved in smaller canals such as at Dingwall (MHG9093; Clew 1988), as well as even a lade in Caithness (MHG13749). After his road building success, in the 1820s Parliament asked him to build churches and manses in the Highlands and Islands, an undertaking in response to the Napoleonic Wars, in areas with large parishes. His solution, to build to set designs, resulted in cost-effective construction, and recognisable structures today (Maclean 1989).

Blueprints for highland churches and manses.
Figure 4: Plans and elevations of church and manse designs by Telford. ©HES
Stone church with a slate roof, featuring two side by side windows and two doors on either side of the windows.
Figure 5: Telford designed church, Poolewe, Wester Ross. ©Susan Kruse
A man and a woman standing in front of a house .
Figure 6: Toll House on Telford Road, Tain. ©Tain Museum

The Highlands after his work was a very different place, with at long last the basis for transport between many previously remote areas, and greater access to churches. The communication network fuelled further development in many areas of the Highlands, which is often detailed in the New Statistical Accounts. His solutions to engineering problems were often innovative, including the Caledonian Canal, the Mound near Golspie (MHG11757), and the use of iron bridges including at Bonar Bridge (MHG7376).

Figure 7: Aerial view of Fort Augustus showing the flight of 5 locks on the Caledonian Canal. ©HES

A variety of projects over the years have investigated aspects of Telford’s legacy in the Highlands. ARCH has organised community projects investigating his work in the Kyle of Sutherland, Badenoch and Strathspey and southern Skye ( His work in Pulteneytown was researched by the Thomas Telford Heritage Project. Bonar Bridge History Society researched the cast iron bridge at Bonar Bridge. The Institution of Civil Engineers has focussed on his works, with a special edition of its journal Civil Engineering (v. 160) published to mark the 250th anniversary of his birth, many of the papers focussing on the Highlands. Individual monuments, too numerous to be outlined here, have been identified, surveyed and promoted. There is still scope for further investigation in other parts of the Highlands, and a project to pull together Telford’s profound impact in the Highlands.

Map 10.1 Telford’s Churches and Manses in the Highlands

Use your mouse or touchpad to zoom in and out of the map. Click on the data point for more information about the site and a link to the HER record.

This map is based on the information in Datasheet 10.1 please note that some sites may be missing from the map, for example where there are no co-ordinates for antiquarian finds, so please view the datasheet for the further information).

Further information

Sources for researching Telford’s work in the Highlands:

Various biographies, though few focus on the Highlands. Of most interest is Telford’s autobiography, edited after his death by John Rickman (Telford 1838).

Roads and bridges

Haldane, A R B 1962 New Ways Through the Glens, Thomas Nelson and Sounds Ltd: London.

Curtis, G R  1979 ‘Roads and bridges in the Scottish Highlands: the route between Dunkeld and Inverness’, Proc Soc  Ant Scot 180, 475–96.

Ford, Christopher R 2007 ‘Telford’s Highland roads – a new way of life for Scotland’, Civil Engineering 160, 36–42.

Paxton, Roland 2007 ‘Thomas Telford’s cast-iron bridges’, Civil Engineering 160, 12–19.

See also the Reports of the Commissioners of Roads and Bridges which are invaluable for tracing the progress of the project and its aftermath. They were published initially every two years, then yearly into the 1860s. The Arrowsmith maps of 1807 on are useful for showing the road network before Telford.

Caledonian Canal

Cameron, A D 1983 The Caledonian Canal, Melven Press: Perth.


Hackett, S and Livingston, N 1984 ‘Scottish Parliamentary churches and their manses’, in Breeze, D J, Studies in Scottish antiquity presented to Stewart Cruden, John Donald: Edinburgh

Maclean, Allan 1989 Telford’s Highland Churches, The Society of West Highland & Island Historical Research: Inverness.

Harbours, piers, towns

Dunlop, Jean 1982 ‘Pulteneytown and the planned village of Caithness’ in Baldwin 1982, 130–59.

Maudlin, Daniel 2007 ‘Robert Mylne, Thomas Telford and the architecture of improvement: the planned villages of the British Fisheries Society, 1786-1817’, Urban History 34, 453–80.


Compare Old and New statistical accounts. The poet Robert Southey was Telford’s friend and wrote an account of a visit to the Highlands with Telford in 1819 (Southey 1929).

Archive material is held in a number of locations including the National Archives, London (including inspection journals); Parliamentary Archives, London; National Records of Scotland (including some plans); Highland Archives (including an account book for Highland tolls and archives relating to the Caledonian Canal).

Community projects by ARCH investigating the work of Telford in the Highlands