In 1828 Thomas Telford wrote about a journey he undertook in Sutherland in 1808:
‘It was with difficulty that I could scramble along rugged, broken, sandy short or narrow tracks on the edge of precipices frequently interrupted by rude and inconvenient ferries and having for lodgings only miserable huts…’(quoted in Haldane 1962, 189)
Although he was biased and exaggerating, wanting to highlight the changes his building activity in the early 19th century had affected, the description is echoed by other accounts (Haldane 1962, 12ff) and reflects the difficulties of transport in the Highlands.
Telford’s work in the early 19th century arguably transformed the Highlands. The work of the Commissioners of Highland Roads and Bridges was done in partnership with the county authorities in the Highlands. Telford’s work established standards for the county roads committees who employed their own county ‘surveyors’, or road engineers, to expand the basic road network in the following decades, although minor roads were still being built into the early 20th century. Destitution roads constructed as relief work during the famines of the late 1840s and early 1850s form a special category.
There is little evidence for 16th and 17th century routeways (but see Cheape 2021), although estate documents from the 17th century describe dues and arrangements for repairs on the estates (Nelson 1990, xxiii). Trackways must have existed, but they are difficult to locate and date. With few roads, the emphasis was on wheelless transport (Fenton 1984). More work using maps, memories, aerial photography and exploring on the ground can provide data, which then needs to be dated.
So called ‘coffin roads’ would have fanned out from the parish churches, enabling people to attend services and allowing burials to be taken to the parish church. These routes are identified mainly from oral tradition, and the the occasional recording and survivals of coffin rests (eg MHG29800) or resting cairns, erected where coffin bearers would rest (Cheape 2021).
The raising of surplus cattle was a mainstay of Highland economy, with an organised droving system existing from as far back as at least the 16th century (Donnachie 1986, 56–7; Baldwin 1986; Haldane 1997; Adamson 2014; Taylor 2016b, 92ff). The identification of the routes used by drovers depends on documentary evidence and, in some cases oral tradition, with a number proposed for the Highlands. In any event the routes taken would have changed as modern roads were built, as alternative forms of transport became available and as sheep came to outnumber cattle. Few drove roads have been investigated in detail on the ground, an exception being the routes in east Sutherland (Adamson 2014, 106ff). Many were not roads in the sense used today, but broad areas where the cattle could spread out as they travelled, nor were they necessarily fixed (Cheape 2021). A number of stances, places for resting cattle overnight, have been identified from oral tradition, and others can be identified from newspapers. Other structures related to the trade include a cattle creep (a ramp for cattle) at Kyle of Lochalsh station where cattle either swam or were transported on boats across the Minch from Skye to continue their journey by rail (MHG43261). A number of small cattle fairs or trysts, are recorded (Haldane 1952; Baldwin 1986). Beauly and then Muir of Ord were major tryst locations for horses, cattle and sheep in the Highlands (Mowat 1981, 45), with some older buildings reputed to be related to the trade, although future work is needed to bring together this information.
There were other types of routeways from an early period; these were used for a variety of purposes, even if most were not passable by carriages. Gaelic language and literature provide evidence for many of these routes (Cheape 2021). The first major road building activity in the Highlands relates to General Wade in the first half of the 18th century, covering areas in the southeastern Highlands and Great Glen. Many roads popularly credited to Wade were in fact built in the second half of the 18th century by his successor Edward Caulfield who extended their reach to Wester Ross. These roads, however, were for troops, not carriages, and were poorly maintained. Telford in fact had to repair many of these military roads as part of his road building activity (Haldane 1962, 4ff; Taylor 1996; Bonehill et al 2021).
A few landowners were also active road builders, but in general the Parliamentary plan which required landowners to pay half of the costs of Telford’s roads was seized upon by a large number who saw economic and social benefits. The legacy of Telford’s road building can still be traced in the Highlands, including in routeways and bridges, toll houses, milestones (most replacements), and a proliferation of coaching inns (see Case Study Thomas Telford in the Highlands).
Inns are noted on maps and documents before Telford, but his work led to renovations and new buildings for the increased in travellers. Inns or changehouses were essential to the development of coaching services and the Royal Mail but they also enabled the steady increase in tourists heading for the Highlands. An inn at Wilkhouse, Sutherland was operating at the beginning of Telford’s work, but it was bypassed by the new road; the site was excavated, providing an insight into inns of the time (Adamson and Bailie 2019; Case Study Wilkhouse Drovers Inn). Telford’s friend, the poet Robert Southey, travelled along some of the new Telford’s roads in 1819. His interest in inns and the food they serve is readily apparent from his accounts (Southey 1929).
A range of Highland bridges survive from these road building activities in a range of techniques and materials, though there is the occasional older example (Hume 1977; Nelson 1990). One of the earliest is a bridge for a ‘coffin’ route at Carrbridge (MHG4627) built in 1717. However, many rivers were forded until a late date. Wade, for example, did not construct bridges over the Spey, Findhorn or Dunain Rivers in the Highlands. In some cases rope bridges (known locally as pulley-hauleys) were used for people and goods (MHG55423; MHG32184), though they leave few or no traces.
More attention to inland waterway transport is needed. Ferries were extensively used, many routes dating back to the medieval period, and many continuing into the 20th century and indeed today. Far more were active than remain today, and some were quite short in length. Architectural remains can include piers and slipways, but in many cases no traces survive. More irregular water transport was needed to some islands where cemeteries or shooting lodges were located.
In addition to roads, Telford was responsible for the Caledonian Canal. While it provided good east-west links, it did not lead to the desired economic prosperity proposed to justify the high costs (Cameron 1983). Workshops, swing bridges, lockkeeper’s houses and lighthouses survive from this mammoth endeavour (Hume 1977, 75f). Some of the ‘pepper pot’ lighthouses still survive such as at Corpach: (MHG21872) and Fort Augustus (MHG36025). Smaller canals were also dug in this period, some by Telford, others by estate owners such as at Rosehall (MHG32673 and Culmally, Sutherland (MHG32943). Some still survive, such as Dingwall canal, intended, unsuccessfully, to improve the prosperity of the burgh (MHG9093).
The railway network provided additional connectivity, from the second half of the 19th century, especially in the southeast. A number of companies and local landowners were involved. The main company, the Highland Railway, in part due to mergers, is discussed in Ross (2005). There are further documentary sources signposted from the Friends of the Far North Line and Highland Railway Society websites, both of which have archive photographs and resources.
At its height, Badenoch and Strathspey, Easter Ross and the rest of the east coast were well served by railway connections, much better than today due to 20th century closures. There had also been plans to extend further west, with connections to Poolewe, Ullapool and even on Skye (Ross 2005; Drummond 2020). The first bits of track laid for the northern Black Isle railway were pulled up and redeployed when World War I resulted in the materials being needed for the war effort (Alston 2006, 296).
Railway remains in the landscape include a range of bridges, including a rare survival of a wooden example at Aultnaslanach, Inverness-shire (MHG2871), and the impressive viaducts at Culloden (MHG3007), Tomatin (MHG2801) and Slochd (MHG4462). Other relics of the railways include the little-studied P-Way railway bothies; original fencing (for example on the Strathpeffer branch line); obsolete signal boxes; water tanks for steam engine refilling; a variety of historic stations and footbridges; sidings and turntables; engine sheds; and at Inverness, the original railway works (Hume 1977, 76ff). In some locations so-called sleeper houses survive, built to take advantage of obsolete sleepers (see the reports attached to MHG32788 for sleeper houses around Boat of Garten, Strathspey).
In addition to the commercial railways, small railways were built for a number of industrial businesses from the late 19th century, including forestry and quarrying (Chapter 10.5). Some businesses were sited in order to be close to the railway, for example a rock crusher, still surviving next to the Kyle line in Easter Ross, used to transport crushed stone for local council road building (MHG56040).
The railway also resulted in the ability to send and receive large goods in the Highlands. For example, the expansion of the use of corrugated iron buildings in the Highlands was due to the ability to mail order and transport flat pack materials from Glasgow on either the railway or steamer. Many of these buildings are in a poor state of preservation with few having listing protection (Thomson and Banfill 2005).
Transport by sea has a much longer history in the Highlands. Until relatively recently sea travel was the most important way people travelled and goods were imported or exported; the shift to land routes has had an impact on many coastal communities which has been little explored. Gaelic sources have much to offer in exploring people’s relationship to the sea (Grant 2018). In the post-medieval period the construction of harbours and piers, some by Telford, resulted in larger ships being able to access the Highlands; these harbours were essential to the fishing trade and the import and export of raw materials and goods (Hume 1977 56ff; Graham and Gordon 1987; Gifford 1992, 61–62). Many of these harbours required cranes. A few have survived into modern times such as at Isleornsay, Skye; (MHG5415), with others marked on maps. A number of harbours preserve the warehouses initially used for grain or fish (Beaton 1986; Adamson 2014). With the exception of harbours, little attention has been paid to the evidence of this coastal transport.
Sea navigation was perilous in many areas, requiring a detailed understanding of the seaways; its importance is highlighted in some surviving Gaelic oral tradition and placenames (Grant 2018). Sea transport also required lighthouses, especially given the treacherous waters of the coastal Highlands. The earliest lighthouses in Scotland date from the 17th century, but examples in the Highlands are later. Some, as elsewhere in Scotland, were built by the Stevenson family (Hume 1977; Paxton 2011).
Taken together, a great deal survives that would allow the study of Highland transport links. Many sites, particularly those related to Telford’s work are unrecorded. For example, a community project surveyed in 2014 a probable Telford bridge just south of Lairg (MHG58209) which was previously not recorded (Case Study Thomas Telford in the Highlands). Information on many of the remains discussed above has not been gathered together for the Highlands and represent a significant resource which could be combined with documentary sources.