John MacCulloch in Uist

I was back in North Uist and Harris this month, and stumbled over another Georgian scientist connected with the area, the main focus of the geology exhibition in Taigh Chearsabhagh in Lochmaddy. Although the exhibition covered work in the islands up to the present day, it was put on to mark 200 years since the publication of MacCulloch’s Description of the Western Islands of Scotland in 1819.

Unlike William MacGillivray, whose book I was reading when I was there last year, John MacCulloch had no native connection to the area – he came from a Scottish family, but was born at the home of his mother’s family in Guernsey. He studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, but returned to work for the army in London, first as an assistant surgeon, and then as a chemist. It was the Army Board of Ordnance which first sent him into the highlands of Scotland in 1809, in search of stone which could be used to grind gunpowder without sparking – the usual sources having been cut off by the Napoleonic wars.

He later worked as geologist for the Trigonometrical Survey, the basis of the first Ordnance Survey maps, and his work in Scotland for the army seems to have interested him, as well as showing him how much was still to be done there – leading to the first geological study of the Western Isles, and the first serious description of Lewisian Gneiss, the oldest rock in Britain. HeĀ kept on working in Scotland, preparing the first geological map of the country between 1826 and 1834, but was unfortunately killed in an accident before it was published.


The Parliamentary road, Glen Coe


I’ve been reading quite a bit recently about both the military roads in the highlands, and the roads built by Telford’s Commission for Highland Roads and Bridges after 1802. A lot of the length of these roads now lies under the modern road network, but one very good stretch that doesn’t is the ‘parliamentary road’ across Rannoch moor, now the route of the West Highland Way.

The line of the road is a good bit higher than the modern road on the other side of Loch Tulla, and there’s quite a bit of up and down to it, but it would have made a lot of sense at the time to keep to higher and drier ground – a hundred years later they still had a lot of trouble stopping the railway line from simply vanishing into the bog. Before Telford’s road the military road ran even higher across the hill, being more concerned with the shortest distance than with taking an easy route.

Taking the high road

Although this was the main route until 1933, it doesn’t seem to have ever been properly tarmacked, so although any given part of it may not be original after 200 years of mending, it can’t be all that different from how it was first made – small stones on top of a foundation of larger stones.

Stone road

This bit looked particularly good, stone edging rather than worn edges and stones down the middle.

Stone edging

Telford’s road would originally have been gravelled on top of the stones – more for the feet of cattle than for wheels – leaving the odd situation that the bits which are gravelled now are the most authentic, despite looking just like modern tracks.

Gravelled road

Bridges on the Telford roads were built by the contractors to a standard design – they allowed for so many small bridges per set length of road – and there are some good examples of slightly different sizes on this stretch.

Small bridge
Bigger bridge

No one seems to be sure whether Ba Bridge itself was built by the army or by Telford’s commission – the lines of the two roads coincide here, and at some point along the way the bridge has lost its parapets, which might have given a clue. It’s a bit buried in among trees, but quite a substantial structure.

Ba Bridge

The Kingshouse itself dates back to the time of the military road, of course – king’s houses because they were on the highway built by the king’s men. These inns were once strung out along the whole of the military road network – the one in Strathyre was still called Kingshouse until very recently (and still is on the bus timetable!), while others I’ve seen mentioned were at Dalwhinnie (still part of the hotel), Dalnacardoch, Amulree, Tummel Bridge and Garva at the Corrieyairack pass, and there would have been many more.

The original building is rather overwhelmed now by the new part, which is a nice enough building but a bit odd in the setting.

Kingshouse in the rain