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Wades 18c Military Highland Roads


What is known as Wades Military Road would once have seen the tramp of many red coated British soldiers in the Highlands. Scotland about 1700 in some important ways resembled some countries as they are found in the world today – with parts of the society rapidly “modernising”; creating new educational systems, adopting the new technologies and thoroughly becoming part of the wider world, and other parts still living a much older, tribal way of life. What happened has some parallels with what we now see happening elsewhere.

Since the union of the crowns in 1603 and even more with the union of parliaments in 1707, the clan societies of the border country with England had abandoned their old raiding and lawless ways. In the lowlands, a new society was developing that would take a leading role in the enlightenment, the romantic movement, the industrial revolution and, later, the development of the British Empire. In contrast, in the Highlands, the clan system remained in intact with its Gaelic culture, language, and martial organisation with men trained to arms from youth and loyal to their clan chiefs. This divide was deepened through the struggle between protestant, largely lowland Christians, who favoured


General George Wade


General George Wade

the ruling House of Hanover, and the Catholic or Episcopalian Highlanders who supported the displaced House of Stuart. Supporters of the Stuart cause were known as “Jacobites.”

In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, there burst out of the Highlands a series of Jacobite rebellions in support of the Stuarts. These threatened the Hanoverian monarchs and their supporters. They were effectively suppressed but it became clear to the Hanoverian governments of the United Kingdom that these rebellions, coming from remoter and inaccessible areas of Scotland where it was difficult to move troops, were a continuing menace. Action to control the situation was therefore needed. After what proved to be the final rebellion, in 1745/6, these actions included Acts of Parliament to enforce the disarmament of the clansmen, and the suppression of culture such as forbidding the playing of bagpipes or the wearing of tartan. They also included the building of garrisoned fortresses from which control could be exerted over the people.

Corgarff Castle  

Corgarff Castle


General Wade arrived in Scotland in 1724 to survey the effectiveness of measures taken so far, propose new ones, and report to the government. He observed that there remained at least 12,000 well armed Highlanders, most of whom were ready and willing to rise in rebellion against the Hanoverian monarchs. Among his most important observations was that the lack of roads and bridges in the Highlands made it particularly difficult to control the situation. The effectiveness of garrisoned strongholds was greatly decreased if there were no routes of communication between them and the building of such routes was a major recommendation of the report.

Wade was promptly appointed Commander in Chief Northern Britain and set about putting his plans into action including the

building of several hundred miles of roads in the Highlands. Wade’s public status was such that he had been commended in the original of the song, later to be the new ‘British’ National Anthem.

Lord, grant that Marshal Wade,
May by thy mighty aid,
Victory bring.
May he sedition hush and like a torrent rush,
Rebellious Scots to crush,
God save the King.

Not since the days of the Roman empire in Britain had such a road building programme been undertaken and it was undertaken for the same reasons. These were military roads built for the suppression of a local population. The chief builders were to be soldiers.

Wade arranged for them to be paid double wages while on road building work, an extra 6p a day – a significant achievement in itself! His military working parties each consisted of 1 captain, 2 subalterns, 2 sergeants, 2 corporals, 1 drummer, and 100 men and he used about 500 men on any one road during a working season lasting from April until 31 October. He used skilled craftsmen such as masons, smiths and carpenters to build bridges and other structures. The roads were sixteen feet wide (4.88 meters), a revolutionary width in 18th century Britain, built on a foundation of large stones with layers of smaller ones above, finishing with gravel surfaces. Like Roman military roads, they were built in a straight line, going straight up slopes unless they were too steep, when they were made into traverses or


General Wades Road to Corgarff


General Wades Road to Corgarff

zigzags. They were well drained with cross and side drains. There were soldiers camps every ten miles and inns, called Kingshouses, often developed alongside them. Some of these survive until this day.

In 1740, after building about 300 miles (483 kilometres) of military roads, Wade left Scotland, later becoming a Field Marshall, and was succeeded in his work by Major Caulfeild, who built many more miles of military road than Wade – over 800 (1,287.5 kilometres) miles in fact. Construction methods improved, such as the use of trained engineers to map out and plan the entire route of a road in great detail. He used larger working parties than Wade and expected road construction to progress at the rate of 1.5 yards (1.37 meters) of road laid per man per day.

The Building of the Military Bridges

Sluggan Bridge Bridge 1729 near Inverness  

Sluggan Bridge Bridge 1729 near Inverness


It was decided that a military road was needed to connect the important towns of Dundee and Perth, and the garrison at Blairgowrie, in the south with the large military fort of Fort George at Inverness, a distance of over one hundred miles! Work on the southern sections began by 1748, but it was not until 1753 and 1754 that the section containing our three bridges was undertaken. In 1754 about 700 men were working on the section leading from Braemar to Corgarff castle a short distance beyond the most northerly bridge. The largest and most dramatic of the river crossings in this section of road is the Old Invercauld Bridge, built in 1753 by Major Caulfeild to link Blairgowrie with Corgarff, superseded in 1859 by a new bridge provided by Prince Albert. Caulfeild’s masterpiece is often considered to be the Old Spey Bridge at Grantown on Spey.

What Were the Effects of the Military Roads and How Were they Received by the Highlanders?

Major Caulfeild finally died in 1767 and with his death the road building programme ceased.

Highlanders showed a mix of apathy and outright hostility to the roads. They were after all the creation of an alien government imposing its rule upon them. They allowed government forces to move around the Highlands more freely than ever before, as they were intended to do. Highlanders, who had moved with ease among the Highlands on foot before the roads saw little benefit from them and saw only benefits for the “invaders.”

As the 18th century moved to its end and the 19th began the threat of Jacobite rebellions became remote, but the military roads still had to be maintained at very considerable cost. Also, the steepness of parts of the military roads made them unsuitable for the stage coaches that became an important form of public transport. Central government grew ever more reluctant to meet this annual bill of several hundred pounds and the Commissioners of Highland Roads and Bridges sought to reduce the cost. Some little used roads were simply abandoned, others that had become widely adopted for civilian use were transferred to local government to maintain.

Finally, in 1862, the Commissioners submitted their final report in which they noted with satisfaction how the military roads had been important in bringing prosperity, trade, and peace to the Highlands. But others have different views. Commenting on the self congratulatory manner of that final report, Taylor states “Their criterion was the annual amount paid in tax to the national exchequer. They appear to have been totally unaware that the outward prosperity of these years was punctuated by the Clearances, and by the slow death of a language, a culture and a way of life ---.” He believes that the military roads made little economic impact on the Highlands until the 19th century when they became part of a wider system of communications in Scotland that included roads and canals by the great civil engineer Telford and were a major cause of the destruction of traditional highland life and culture.

Need such impacts between the modern globalising world and surviving traditional cultures of remote areas, such as continues to occur in the world today, always be so destructive?


By John A Duncan of Sketraw FSA Scot. adapted from an article on "An 18th century military road in the Scottish Highlands."

The Military Roads of Scotland by William Taylor, Pub David and Charles, London 1976
The Drove Roads of Scotland A R B Haldane, Pub David and Charles, 1952
The Whisky Roads of Scotland D Cooper and F Goodwin, Pub Jill Norman and Hobhouse Ltd, 1982
Corgarff Castle booklet written by Iain MacIvor and Chris Tabraham, edited by Chris Tabraham, drawings by David Simon - 1993


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