If you had seen this road before it was made,
You would lift up your hands and bless General Wade.
I went this week to a talk about the Wade roads of Perthshire – also a good excuse for a little adventure up to Perthshire, while I still could.
I’m not really sure that the speaker knew much more about Wade’s roads than I do, except in the sense of having recently looked up all the statistics, but he did have some nice pictures of the roads, both recent and from the early days of motoring – mostly of the road from Crieff through Aberfeldy and Amulree to Dalnacardoch, which has not been built over to the same extent as the road north from Dunkeld, now under the A9.
Wade was born in 1673 in Westmeath in Ireland and joined the army in 1690, serving in Flanders under Marlborough during the War of the Spanish Succession, then in Portugal, Spain and Menorca. He became a Major-General in 1714, and at the time of the Jacobite rising in 1715 he returned to England to serve in Bath and London, settling in Bath, and becoming its MP in 1722.
In 1724 he was sent to inspect Scotland for the army, reporting back on the great disadvantage to the troops caused by the want of roads and bridges, as well as the ‘excessive rains which almost constantly fall in those parts’. He estimated that of 22,000 fighting men in the country 12,000 had risen for the Jacobites and would be willing to rise again, and although a disarming act had led some clans to hand over weapons others had not, while those handed in were often old and useless – there was even a suspicion that cheap weapons had been bought in from Holland purely to be handed over for the reward.
The next year he was appointed ‘Commander in Chief of His Majesty’s forces, castles, forts and barracks in North Britain’, in charge of building bridges, roads and barracks in the highlands.
The first road started was to link the forts at Inverness, Fort August and Fort William, through the Great Glen, but the three other roads he built were at least partly in Perthshire – from Dunkeld to Inverness over Drumochter, from Crieff through Aberfeldy to link with the previous road at Dalnacardoch, and from Dalwhinnie (again on the Drumochter road) over the Corrieyairack pass to Fort Augustus.
250 miles of roads were built in the end, to a standard pattern – excavated first with the earth used to build banks by the side, then filled with rocks – blasted with gunpowder if necessary – then smaller stones, and then topped with gravel. Like the Romans, the army tended to build very straight roads where possible, which meant that they went up and down instead of following the contours, and because of the banks they were hollows which filled with snow in the winter, and the first part of the next year’s work had to be replacing the surface which the snow had removed.
About 500 men worked on the roads at any given time, in a season running from April to October – bands of 100 men with their officers. They were given additional pay for the roadbuilding work, but only for the days when work was actually carried out – 6d a day for the men, and higher sums for the officers. Money was provided by the then-new Royal Bank of Scotland, and brought from Edinburgh to Fort William on horseback.
The Dunkeld to Inverness road was built between 1728 and 1730, but must have been largely finished by the end of the 1729 seasons, as there is a story that Wade left a guinea on top of the tall Wade Stone at Drumochter, which marks the point where the parties working from each end met, and found it again the next spring. The summer of 1730 was used to build the road from Crieff, and in 1731 the Corrieyairack Pass road was built – the climb to the pass itself is at the other extreme from the long straight stretches, using a series of zigzags.
In several places, particularly on the Crieff road, the line of the old road can still be seen running straighter and higher than the new, and we were shown several pictures of this, but some of the most noticeable reminders of the old road are the various bridges which remain – sometimes still carrying the road, and sometimes bypassed by it. Experts were brought in to build the bridges, but there were still problems at first as little account had been taken of the height of winter flood waters, and many had to be rebuilt.
The most famous – and spectacular – bridge is of course the one at Aberfeldy, built late in the project, in 1734, and eventually costing a total of £4095 5s 10d – the speaker was very impressed by the exactness of this figure. At the time this was the only bridge over the Tay, the earlier bridge at Perth having been destroyed and replaced by a ferry. Apparently Wade tried to invite the Duke of Atholl to discuss the building of a bridge at Dunkeld, but the Duke replied that he did not go to meet people, people came to him, and no more was done.
Not everyone was pleased by the bridges, either – there was a complaint that they would ‘render the ordinary people effeminate and less fit to pass waters in other places where there are no bridges’. On the other hand, the traveller Edmund Burt described the roads as being ‘as smooth as Constitution Hill’ in London – either an exaggeration, or an indictment of the state of the London roads.
Wade became Commander in Chief of the army in 1745, but was succeeded the next year by the Duke of Cumberland. He died in 1748, leaving a fortune of £100,000, and although he had never been married, this was mostly left to his two sons and two daughters. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, where there is a memorial to him – possibly because he also left the abbey £5000 in his will!