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Part 1 - Historical Roads

George Watson

Present-day Caithness is endowed with many miles of well surfaced roads which effortlessly cross every river and burn. It is easy to overlook the enormous amount of time, labour and money invested in the system. Roads are now the most widespread man-made feature on the landscape but are so integrated with our modern way of life that they are noticed only when they are blocked and not available.

The earliest road builders, according to oral tradition, were Cromwell's soldiers who are credited with building the little single arched bridge at the John o' Groats meal mill. Two miles south of Spittal, they are also said to have built a road ".... formed in a convex manner, about 18ft broad, but not mettled.. consisting merely of turf or other soft materials and requiring annual repairs...." This spot is called "The Myre Causay" in Timothy Pont's map (c. 1600), suggesting that even before Cromwell's men arrived some sort of causeway existed. Turf causeways wore known in Canisbay in 1726 when it was recorded that "there is scarce any travelling by horse except by bridges made of turf and heath, which must be changed once in two or three years. Such bridges we have in store, frequently 30, 40 or 50 of them in less than 1/2 mile, and some pretty large ones too. One particularly 1/4 mile long called the Long Bridge".

Statute labour commenced with an Act of Parliament (1669) which required all tenants and cotters to give six days work on the roads and to provide a horse and cart during the period. The Justices of the Peace already had a duty to supervise and repair roads to market towns and churches and to them fell the duty of organising the Statute Labour force. In conjunction with the Commissioners of Supply, the Justices could raise money by local assessment for special projects such as bridge building. Bridges were expensive for they required the services of skilled masons but they were a good investment, because the natural stability of the arch made them very durable. Roads on the other hand were mode by relatively unskilled labour and had a very short life. As the minister of Watten wrote in 1792, "Our roads, in general, have been lined out, and something done on them, reluctantly, by the statute labour of the people. By these means we have a more plain and direct tract, during the dry season of the year, to the ports of Wick and Thurso, for travellers, as well as riders and carts: But from this neglect and the insufficient manner in which they are executed, they become so soft after rain, and are so blown by the frost, that in many places during winter and spring, the best horses are not f it to drag a cart with safety ......"

Nevertheless many miles of road were lined out and improved over the years. The youthful Sir John Sinclair, about 1772, assembled some 1200 men and made a road from Latheron to meet the existing Causeymire road at Braehungie. A few years later he improved the road to the south of Spittal with a similar number of labourers. But there must have been many bands of workers throughout the County whose labours have gone unrecorded. George Brown a surveyor who travelled over much of Caithness between 1797 and 1798 often mentions that the "statute labour had started the road" or "lined it out!"

Bridges are the most tangible remains of early roads. Wick certainly had a wooden bridge in 1665 and there may well have been other timber bridges which have disappeared without trace. Many of the simple flagstone bridges could be quite old but are almost impossible to date. One small bridge over the Wolf Burn, Thurso, which was recently demolished showed that it had been constructed by someone more used to working with timber than stone. Square baulks of stone had been placed across the burn and planked with slabs of stone. Another slab bridge at Latheron was found to be supported on a rusty car chassis; this bridge was on the line of an old road and was just the latest replacement.

The oldest dateable bridge in the county carried the main road passed Freswick House. It was already existing in 1726 when it received a passing mention, "on the north side of the house a burn runs into the sea over which is a bridge of one arch over against the gate." In its original form this bridge was quite narrow but an addition on the upstream side has widened the roadway to 15ft. The older part of the bridge carries the Sinclair coat of arms suggesting that it was built by the local laird. A local landowner also financed a three arched bridge at Halkirk in 1731. It is instructive to compare the dates of these Caithness bridges with the work of General Wade. He is usually considered to be the initiator of all road improvements in the Highlands, yet it seems likely that the Freswick bridge was already in use when Wade first arrived at Inverness in August 1725 and the bridge at Halkirk was five years old when Wade built his famous High Bridge at Spean Bridge in 1736. In this respect as in many others Caithness would seem to be untypical of the Highlands.

Local bridge building continued steadily if unspectacularly for many years. At East and West Gills the bridges carry the inscription, S I S M S 1755. By 1770 there were bridges at Langwell and Berriedale. The placename Bridgend appears in a map of 1776 where the river Wick issues from loch Watten. At the same time at the mouth of the river the 'old bridge' of Wick was being rebuilt with "Wooden planks on eleven pillars". In a description of the river Forss in 1791, the Rev. John Cameron said "A few years ago there was a very good bridge built on it at a place in the parish of Reay . The old bridge over the Reisgill burn at Lybster is similar on construction to the one on the Forss and should be of a similar date. The bridge at Latheronwheel harbour has a larger span on a shallower arc than any of the other old bridges. It also has drain holes in the abutments. A date a few years on either side of 1800 is indicated. In fact the bridge may not have been very old when it was by-passed by Telford's road in 1811.

It was difficult to achieve worthwhile results from the part-time, reluctant statute labour force and in 1793 Sir John Sinclair arranged an Act of Parliament commuting the service to an annual monetary payment. 550 per annum was raised in this way, at a time when a mile of road could be made for 50 to 60 and a single arch bridge cost between 50 and 100. The Justices of the Peace and the Commissioners of Supply spent their new income on the main roads where the traffic was heaviest.

Post Offices had been established at Kirkwall, Thurso and Wick about 1750 and the roads were regularly used by runners and riders on three days a week. Even at this early date there were complaints of postal delays. William Kerr, the secretary at the Edinburgh Post Office looked into the matter and reported, ". . . . the riding work is in general performed in the time stipulated except during snowstorms, and when the runners are detained I believe it is by some of the gentlemen of Caithness themselves".

An interesting picture of these pre-Parliamentary roads is given by Bishop Forbes as he toured the county in 1762. On crossing the Ord he remarked " Its steepness, and being all along on the very brink of a precipice, are the only difficulties; for otherwise it is one of the finest roads in the world, being so broad, that in most places two coaches might pass one another and then of fine hard Channel naturally, which no storm can make impression upon so as to break it." He rested at the inn at Ausdale, and at Latheron he took on John Sutherland to guide him through the Causeymire, and still had difficulty. He took a dram at Auchateebst (Achkeepster) inn, then on to Thurso, where he rode "the Water of Thurso by one of the best of fords, close to the town". Fords were also crossed at Berriedale and Dunbeath. He left the town accompanied by Mr. & Mrs. Campbell of Lochend. "We arrived at Lochend ..... about 7 miles from Thurso, travelling upon natural carpet all the way, Lochend and his Lady driving along in their two wheeled chaise." He continued to Barrock "still in good road"; but from Barrock to the Castle of Mey the journey was "from moss to moss" and required a guide, although "Near to Mey Castle is a very pleasant and firm road." Between John o'Groats and Freswick the going was again "from moss to moss". During the ride south from Freswick he discussed the formation of rock stacks, which cannot be seen from the modern road, showing that he was using the road along the cliff top which can still be found in many places. He finally set off south from Wick "once more to travel through mosses".

Young Donald Sage also travelled south, in 1809, journeying on foot from Bower to Aberdeen. He lodged at inns at Achavannaich and Berriedale before crossing the Ord in a storm; "where the road in those days crept along the very edge of the precipice. Both my fellow-traveller and I lost our footing, slipped upon the ice, rendered still more slippery by a coating of snow. .. . and fell flat on the very brink of the precipice."

It is clear that the roads at this time wore well used in all weathers, mainly by pedestrian traffic and occasionally by light wheeled vehicles. There were also many inns which catered for the passing trade.

Fortunately many miles of these pre-Parliamentary roads can still be followed, as discontinuous stretches of overgrown track. The missing sections can be pieced together from the many 'road' maps of the county. In most cases it can be shown that the tracks are not just local form roads but through ways which traverse the length and breadth of the County. James Dorret's map of Scotland (1761) clearly shows the east coast road from the Ord to the Pentland Firth. It also shows a road from Wick to Thurso which followed the north bank of the River Wick, passing on the north side of Loch Watten via Lynagar, and Tister coming down into Thurso by the Springpark road. From Thurso the road continues westward to Loch Eribol. Much of the Caithness section of these roads con be verified from Taylor and Skinner's strip map of 1776. Drawn to a scale of 7/8" to the mile it gives the roads from Tain to Huna, Wick to Thurso and Huna to Thurso with remarkable accuracy.

Although most of the early road maps are drawn to a small scale, discrepancies between them must not be taken to be inaccuracies. For example Taylor and Skinner's map shows the Wick/Thurso road close to the north side of the well known standing stone in Bower parish, called the Stone Lud. On the other hand John Lothian's map (1828) shows the road passing well to the south of the same stone. In fact both roads can be found clearly indicated on the ground to this day. There were, therefore, several phases in the development of the pre- Parliamentary roads, for the instance of re-routing the Stone Lud is not an isolated example but can be repeated over and over again. The history of these early roads or tracks is longer and more complicated than the picture given in many local history books, which dismiss these roads are pre-Telford and of no consequence.

However it is clear that, in the final stage of their development, the old roads were being built to a specification. George Brown begins each of his survey reports "The estimate is formed with a supposition that the road be 16ft broad exclusive of ditches on each side thereof and the whole properly coomed (cambered) and mettled with back drains and sivers (culverts) where necessary. All the rivers, burns and gullys that may at any time impede the passage of the road, properly bridged and the bridges the same breadth of the road. "

George Brown's surveys were carried out between 1797 and 1798. The old road (1776) already mentioned which passes close to the Stone Lud measures 14ft to 15ft between ditches while the later (1828 map) 'lined out' roads in the same area are about 20ft wide. For comparison the approach road to the Teiford bridge at Old Hall is 26ft wide and the bridge 18ft 6 inches between the parapets.

Telford's vast experience can be seen in the way that he and that very able administrator John Rickman, organised the road building programme in the north. Not only were the roads constructed to the most up to date standards, but the finances were closely controlled and staff were trained to maintain the roads long after construction had ceased. Surveyors travelled many thousands of miles each year inspecting surfaces, bridge and drains. Repairs were carried out promptly to the same high standard as the original. This was the main difference between Telford's road building and what had gone before. The old roads had been improved only in the worst places, where the going was naturally good no road work was carried out. Telford's road was a continuous ribbon of high quality surface from one end to the other.

He started over the Ord in 1811 and by 1812-13 had reached Wick. The continuation to Thurso took rather longer for bad harvests in 1816 and 1817 curtailed local contributions, but by 1818 the work was finished. It cost 32,874:19:6 for 54 miles of the finest road. The great Parliamentary road as it is often called took an entirely different line from the existing road. This was partly due to Telford's skilled masons who found no difficulty in bridging the most awkward streams and partly because recent agricultural draining had made former marshes into firm ground. The old road remained in use throughout the construction of the new one, but when the new road was finished no further repairs were done to the old road and it rapidly fell into disuse.

The money to maintain the new roads come from local assessments and tolls collected from the passing traffic. These tolls seem to have been levied under a County Road Act, for although they are often described as turnpike roads, Turnpike Trusts which required their own Act of Parliament, do not appear to have operated in Caithness. The day to day working of the tolls was let to the highest bidder each year and tolls continued to be levied until 1874.

The mail coach commenced to run on the 15th July 1819 and the Inverness Courier carried the news that "an elegant new mail coach built on the Patent Principle had started running between Inverness and Thurso, leaving Inverness at 6 am and due at Thurso at 7.30 am the following morning." A later report says that it reached Thurso at mid-day but a few hours was nothing in such a journey. Criticism of the coach and staff was not lacking, and one reporter in 1821 said, "it is not to be understood that this Northern Mail Coach (or Diligence as it is usually called) is exactly the some thing in form or speed as those of the Southern parts of the Kingdom, but it appears to be well calculated for its purpose. it carries three inside passengers (one of them looking backwards) three outside passengers, the driver, the guard, the Mail and other luggage. The coach itself is lighter by two or three cts. than a Southern Mail Coach and the speed required is no more than six miles per hour; but it is drawn by two horses in place of four, the horses generally, their provender always, of an inferior kind. . . It would be unreasonable to expect that occasional snow-storms and sudden thaws, added to the general influence of a humid climate, and (more than any of these causes) the inexperience and want of accurate habits in the persons engaged in such an undertaking, should not sometimes delay the arrival of the coach beyond its stated time, but probably tacit allowance is made for such accidents, as we do not find that the Mail Coach has ever returned to Inverness so late as to retard the conveyance, of its Letter-bags southwards." Such was the latest traffic on the new road.

In parallel with building the Parliamentary roads,the Commissioners of Supply, who were still collecting the commuted Statute labour money, embarked on a programme of County road improvements. The New Statistical Account (c. 1840) shows just how successful they were. The roast road on each side of Thurso is described as 'turnpike'; the road to Halkirk on the west side of the river is mentioned, as is, the back road to Reay via Shebster. The 'county line' from Thurso to Wick via Castletown is complete. Halkirk has three roads through the parish, to Thurso, "these are not finished to the different extremities of the parish.They have been made within the last three years on Macadam's principles, and are in very good repair." There are twelve miles of good, passable turnpike road in Canisbay, but "An old road that runs for a considerable distance parallel to the new line, and which passes through the inhabited parts of the parish, is principally used by the parishioners, though in a total state of disrepair. By the Act of Parliament that authorized the new line, the old line also is appointed to be kept in repair, but, . . . . want of funds has hitherto prevented this most desirable object from being carried into effect." A cross road through Brabstermire, where Bishop Forbes had to be guided, is "still very much needed". The lack of cross roadsin Canisbay and Caithness in general is mentioned; but in Olrick "there is no deficiency of cross-roads". A new line from Bower joins the east coast road at the Loch of' Wester, while the Watten-Wick road through Sibster-Wick is "not yet complete through the townland of Winless. " From the Castletown-Wick road "a branch is sent through Louisburgh along the coast by Papigoe and Broad Haven to Staxigoe." "A new county road leaves the North Parliamentary road at Thrumster" and a road runs from the south Parliamentary road to Sarclet.

All this road building took place over 30 to 40 years and by far the biggest mileage was carried out by the County, although Telford stole the limelight. The New Statistical Account for Wick summarises the position nicely, "The whole extent of read in the parish is very nearly fifty miles of which the Parliamentary line measures fourteen." In every other parish, with the possible exceptions of Watten end Latheron the mileage ratio was even more in favour of the County. The map in Calder's History of Caithness (1887) shows the extent of the road system throughout the area. Even by that date the old Thurso-Wick road via North Watten had ceased to be continuous and was beginning to merge into the landscape. One other 'vanished' road has to be mentioned, it ran southwest from Thurso passing to the north of Loch Calder and Loch Shurrery, on over the moor to Rumsdale, the Knockfin Heights and joined the Strath Halladale road between Achintoul and Kinbrace. This road is shown on maps from 1812 onwards and can still be traced on the ground over long stretches. It is not 'lined out' with parallel ditches as the statute labour roads were, nevertheless it is a continuous through-route with feeder tracks from Reay and Scotscalder. The historical evidence for these tracks and others in the county is more speculative, than that for the historical roads discussed here, and will be considered in the second part of this article.




History of Caithness

W. Rae, Wick



New Ways Through the Glens




Diocese of Caithness

Peace & Son



Memorabilia Domestica

W. Rae, Wick



New Statistical Account of Caithness




Statistical Account of Caithness & Sutherland

EP Publishing Ltd.



Ye Towne of Wick in Ye Oldene Tymes

W. Rae, Wick



Three Centuries of Scottish Posts




MacFarlane's Geographical Collections

Scot Hist Socy



Agriculture of the County of Caithness




The Wade Roads

Melven Press





Cathenesia (drawn C. 1600)



The Road from Tain to Wick



The Road from Wick to Thurso



The Road from Wick to Dungsby Head



The Road from Thurso to Dungsby Head



County of Caithness



Map of the Soil of Caithness






Caithness shire



Caithness shire



Map of Caithness



Map of Caithness



Guide to Scotland section 21



Map Of the County of Caithness



Plan of Intended Road from Kirk of Farr to Thurso



Plan of Intended Road from Thurso to Dunbeath



Plan of Intended Road from Houna Inn to Thurso



Map of Thurso Parish by W. C.



Sketch of The Reay Cornmonty



It was said in Part 1 that "Post Offices had been established at Kirkwall, Thurso and Wick about 1750 ......." The recently published Mey letters show that post was being delivered to Thurso as early as 16th August 1706.

Part Two