The route north of Edinburgh did not pass Dunkeld, while the route from Glasgow ended at Crieff, with the Highlands not having a direct connection to the south. Enter General George Wade, the Irishman who became the region’s premier road builder and who 295 years ago started a route from Inverness to Fort Augustus.
The remarkable Wade opened up the Highlands, creating 250 miles of roads in seven years and also building 40 bridges, leaving a legacy that includes much of the line of the present A9.
The man from Westmeath was a major general when King George I sent him north for advice on how to deal with the Highlands, which were still smoldering after the 1715 rebellion. His report recommended new forts at Fort William and Inverness (Fort George), new barracks at Ruthven and Cill Chuimein (now Fort Augustus) and Glenelg and, most importantly, roads to connect them.
On Christmas Eve 1724, he was appointed Commander of the Forces of Northern Great Britain. The following August he began planning his road campaign, considering funds and 100 to 500 troops at a time, plus civilians, to build them in a virtually uncharted country.
Wade and what he called his “riders” were pioneers.
The men were unskilled, the work could only be undertaken seven months a year, and each soldier had a goal of one and a half meters a day. Yet Wade and his assistant, fellow Irishman Major William Caulfield, created a masterpiece of Scottish civil engineering on a scale unmatched since Roman times.
Wade, who requested a standard width of 16 feet where possible, had a good relationship with his men, allowing them to drink whiskey after a hard day’s work. This produced hangovers and delays, so it provided a means to brew beer and succeeded in blocking the excise attempt to tax it. The drinking stops were called King’s Houses and later became local inns.
In 1726, the âmen of the roadâ began to build from Inverness Castle, passing through Torbreck and Essich and along Loch Ashie and Loch Duntelchaig.
It was a colossal undertaking, but the fearless Wade built a bridge at Whitebridge and reached Fort Augustus the following year. He marked it by driving a coach and six horses from Inverness along the new road.
However, the road was frequently blocked by snow. In 1732 he therefore replaced it significantly – again starting with the castle but this time going to Dores and along Loch Ness.
Near Inverfarigaig, Wade used what he called “miners” to pierce dark rock. These “miners” were suspended by ropes from the cliffs to dig holes for gunpowder, a dangerous task.
It progressed to Hearths, turned inland and thence to Fort Augustus, a historic feat, and past Loch Oich, crossed the Spean and reached Fort William.
His strategy to link the forces of Inverness, Fort Augustus and Fort William was carried out and he introduced a gunboat on Loch Ness. But the new road was also used by locals who had previously walked the heights, although some barefoot Highlanders complained that the gravel hurt their feet!
Wade began his 102 mile route from the grounds of what is now the Dunkeld House Hotel in Inverness in 1727 and completed it the following year.
There is a grass track in Killiecrankie, where the road to Wade was.
In the final part, I’ll explore how the road north was completed, where it entered Inverness, and how its remarkable legacy continued.
â¢ Sponsored by Ness Castle Lodges.