Highways to the Highlands by Eric Simpson
My fascination with the Highlands goes back a long way. Cycle tours in my schoolboy days and then being a keen hillwalker and Munro-bagger intensified my interest in the story of the Highlands and its people. My interest in the history of tourism brought me to consider why tourism became such an important factor in the history of the Highlands, both for good and for ill. That led me to write Hail Caledonia - the Lure of the Highlands & Islands. Tourists’ methods of transport were part-and-parcel of my story, especially when travel became easier and cheaper with the arrival of steamboat & trains.
I was inspired to write Highways to the Highlands as a follow-up to my previous book because I wanted to expand on some of the issues I wrote about in that work. Transport by road was of course included in it, but I realised that much more could be written on that subject: thus, I came to write Highways to the Highlands: From Old Ways to New Ways. In many ways these two books are complementary. In my new book I was able to expand on two aspects of transport that had long fascinated me. The first was the era of turnpike roads and stage-coaches. This goes back to my childhood, when out in the family car, my father would point out ‘There’s an old toll-house.’ In my day books by Charles Dickens were in the school syllabus and, of course, stage-coach travel featured in his novels. The second came much later when, as a collector of old postcards, I would come across sepia 1930s-era postcards depicting ‘The new Glencoe Road’ (p83). It dawned on me that when driving to the hills I was still using these ‘new roads’. The ‘new’ Glencoe road is the cover image of my book, complete with one of the few remaining milestones. Milestones take me back to the stage-coach era when they were compulsory features of the ‘new’ turnpike roads. As a walker too I was only too aware that many of the tracks I had trodden had a prior history as drove roads and military roads.
If I have a hero for the work achieved in the timespan of my book, it would be the man who was responsible for an extraordinary range of work carried out in the Highlands in the early 1800s, namely:
- The large number of roads and bridges constructed in the Highlands in very difficult terrain;
- The bridges built in the East Highlands bridging major rivers like the Beauly (Lovat Bridge) & the Helmsdale (p45) which eliminated slow dangerous ferries, thus speeding traffic, and bringing a stage-coach service as far north as Thurso. This was achieved in 1819.
- Not to mention the small matter of the Caledonian Canal also ongoing at this time.
These projects have in common that they were constructed without the aid of machinery using instead spade and pick-axe, levers to shift boulders and gun-powder to blast a way through rock. All the above were the work of one extraordinary man. Thomas Telford who was supervising a variety of other building projects in the Highlands – kirks & harbours – and was also heavily engaged in England and Wales, building for example the Menai Straits Bridge, 1826. Of course, Telford had assistants, but he had the invaluable knack of selecting good ones.
When researching a book, you always like to include the odd quirky story like the anti-toll riots at Dunkeld when objectors to the Duke of Atholl’s charges for the Tay Bridge (built by Telford in 1807) chucked the toll-gates into the river. There are no gates now but the toll-house is still there. I was furthermore delighted to find in a circa 1946 Wick Guidebook that concerts by German prisoners-of-war were a tourist attraction there in the post-war years. It was also a pleasure to find that the main highway to the Highlands starts at a round-about on the outskirts of Grangemouth bearing a quirky name – the Cadger’s Brae Round-about.
Eric Simpson's new book Highways to the Highlands is available for purchase now.