Home >Miscellaneous>Military Roads












The Military Roads of Scotland
Wade's bridge at Aberfeldy
Wade's bridge at Aberfeldy

The Military Roads were built in the 1700's to allow Government forces to deploy rapidly to key locations in the Highlands if there was a Jacobite uprising. More than 250 miles of these roads were built under the command of General Wade linking forts in the Great Glen between Fort William and Inverness and with the road network in the south of Scotland at Dunkeld and Crieff.

His successor, Major Caulfeild, though less well-known, added a further 800 miles to the network. Another road was built between Carlisle and Portpatrick to facilitate troop movements to Ireland.

Apart from some fairly limited road building in the middle ages, these were the first roads to have been built since the Romans. Indeed one suspects that some people at that time saw these roads as the continuation and completion of the work of the Romans.

Despite having been built less than 300 years ago they were ignored and neglected until fairly recently and although obvious on some stretches had to be searched for on others; there are still locations where the course of a road is not clear. Fortunately attitudes to the roads have changed: sections of the Corrieyairack road and some bridges are now scheduled monuments and local authorities and heritage organisations are well aware of their historic value.

The Wade Roads   The Caulfeild Roads

Maps are based on the 1922 quarter-inch OS maps and the 1911/1913 half-inch maps for Perth and Pitlochry. With thanks to Ordnance Survey. The overview map is based on a map of Scotland produced by Eric Gaba and made available on Wikimedia under a Creative Commons licence and Commons: GNU_Free_Documentation_License. With thanks. See original on Wikimedia. The photo above is part of the Detroit Publishing Company's collection of Scottish views - see thumbnails on Library of Congress site.

The Wade Roads

The Jacobite Rebellions
In 1688, James VII of Scotland, II of England, lost his throne to William and Mary. His supporters, the Jacobites, were mostly Highlanders and Catholic, and were deeply hostile to the Hanoverian regime and to its mostly Protestant supporters in the Lowlands. They carried out a number of uprisings, most notably in 1715 and 1745, in an attempt to restore the House of Stuart.

The government responded by building forts and passing the Disarming Act after the 1715 rebellion although this left loyal Highlanders who had surrendered their arms defenceless against those who had not. The Highlands were also much troubled by cattle thieving with raids reaching as far as the Lowlands. This was eventually controlled by the use of Independent Companies of loyal Highlanders (the origin of the Black Watch) whose local knowledge and understanding of Gaelic gave them an advantage over English soldiers. However, the trouble flared up again when they themselves became involved in the theft of cattle; this led to them being disbanded in 1717.

With troubles continuing, Lord Lovat sent a report to London in 1724 and effectively recommended that he be put in charge of the region. As he was well known for his self-serving actions the government sent its own man, General Wade, to carry out a survey of the effectiveness of measures taken so far, and to propose any new measures as necessary.

Wade’s report
George Wade was born in 1673 and had a successful military career becoming a Major General by 1711 and eventually a Field Marshal. He was also the MP for Bath. He had been successful in countering the Jacobite threat in the south-west of England at the time of the 1715 rising and this may be the reason the government decided that he was the best person to report on the situation.
Ruthven Barracks
Ruthven Barracks

He assessed the number of fighting men that could be mustered by the clans as about 12,000, potentially a significant threat. He recommended the building of barracks, improving local arrangements for the administration of the law, the passing of further disarming legislation, and forming additional independent companies. In particular he noted that the lack of roads and bridges made it very difficult to control the country - the garrisons were very much cut off from each other and it was difficult to bring troops and artillery up from the south in case of trouble.

Note: Wade's report (and Lovat's) can be found in Burt's Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland, volume 2.

Appointment and initial actions
His report was well received for soon afterwards he was appointed Commander in Chief of His Majesty's forces, castles, forts and barracks in North Britain and tasked to implement his proposed measures. Although these were measures intended to control the population, his bluff, affable personality went a long way towards reducing the hostility towards the Hanoverian regime that would otherwise have been felt. When he left this was eroded through high-handed and oppressive actions by the government.

His first acts were aimed at disarming the Highlanders and training new independent companies then at building new barracks and restoring the forts along the Great Glen. He then concentrated on his road building programme.

The road network

Wade roads, based on a map by Eric GabaThe road network was determined in large part by the location of the forts and barracks. These had to be connected to each other and to the south of the country by roads that could be used throughout the year. Prior to the 1715 rising there had been fortifications at Fort William and at Inverness Castle (later to be known as Fort George and re-sited to its present location post-1745). These were based on earlier Cromwellian fortifications. After 1715 garrisons were placed at Ruthven, Inversnaid, Bernera (opposite Skye) and Killichuimen (later Fort Augustus).

To link these he planned for a road along the Great Glen
linking Fort William and Inverness. From Dunkeld a road would run up to Dalwhinnie where it would branch to Inverness and Fort Augustus. It would be joined by another road from Crieff at Dalnacardoch some miles short of Dalwhinnie. Work did not start on a Bernera road until 1755.


Working Methods
The roads themselves were sixteen feet wide although in practice they were often narrower. They were constructed of layers of progressively smaller stones with a topping of compacted gravel. If the ground was marshy, a cutting was made to see if firmer ground could be reached; if not, brushwood and timber were used
Road between Crieff and Aberfeldy
Military road between Crieff and Aberfeldy Ossian's Grave - a large glacial erratic moved when making the road through the Sma' Glen. Burt gives an account of this.
as a foundation for the road. The earth removed in forming the road was piled on either side, forming banks, and ditches were dug on the outside of these for drainage. Cross-drains were used if there was a slope. The roads were constructed as straight as possible and included some steep stretches. When the gradient became too severe, zig-zags were employed.

The working parties usually consisted of 100 men and they would work from the start of April to the end of October. Wade treated the men well and arranged for them to be paid more than ordinary soldiers. They stayed at camps sited ten miles apart and inns or "King’s Houses" often developed at these locations.

By the end of his tenure Wade had completed some 250 miles of road and 40 bridges. When he left in 1740 Major Caulfield was appointed to carry on with the programme of road building. Wade went on to become a Field Marshal and commander of British forces in Flanders, at that time fighting the French. His final involvement with the army was in 1745 when he failed to stop the Jacobite forces marching to London and to intercept them when they retreated. He died three years later.

Note: See Burt's Letters for interesting information about the roads (Volume 2, Letter XXVI). See also the National Library of Scotland website for military maps of the period. General references for the military roads can be found here. See also the Heritage Paths site for details of individual roads. Known sections of road are shown on present day 1:50000 and 1:25000 OS maps.

References - link to website section

The Roads

Fort William to Inverness

Fort William to Fort Augustus Fort Augustus to Inverness
Fort William to Fort Augustus Fort Augustus to Inverness

Initially this road was built between 1725-1727. It ran on the south side of the Great Glen and linked Fort William with Fort Augustus and Inverness. It soon became apparent that the section between Fort Augustus and Inverness was difficult to traverse in winter and bad weather, so a major realignment was carried out in 1732 when a new road was built closer to Loch Ness. Major features on the Great Glen route were the cuttings at Black Rock, over a mile in length, on which blasting was used, and the High Bridge (over the Spean) which was 280 feet in length - see image on 1745 Association website. Canmore records.

High Bridge
High Bridge in 2013. A good footpath leads to the bridge from the Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge (leaflet). There are plans to remove the metal walkway.


Dunkeld to Inverness
(Dunkeld - Dalnacardoch)

Dunkeld to Dalnacardoch
Dunkeld to Inverness (Dunkeld-Dalnacardoch)

This was built between 1727 and 1730. Wade decided on Dunkeld as the starting point as the existing road between Perth and Dunkeld was sufficiently good. At the time there were two ferries over the Tay at Dunkeld which had replaced the mediaeval bridge which had been destroyed by floods, probably in the 1590's (see Christopher R Ford, Dunkeld: Telford's Finest Highland Bridge, Perth & Kinross Libraries, 2004).

Wade seems to have considered building a bridge here but difficulties with the Duke of Athol led to him to select Aberfeldy on the Crieff to Dalnacardoch road as the location for a bridge - see Visit Dunkeld website.

For much of its length the road is identical to the old A9. There are several stretches where original sections of the road can be accessed (other than the old A9) and details of these can be found in Taylor and other writers. The map used on this site shows the old A9. It is advisable to consult an up to date map as there have been major changes to the A9 in recent years.

Dunkeld to Inverness

(Dalnacardoch - Inverness)

Sluggan Bridge The Inverness road south of Sluggan  Bridge
Sluggan Bridge west of Carr Bridge One mile south of Sluggan Bridge, looking south

Dalnacardoch to Inverness
Dalnacardoch to Inverness

Again the road is identical or very close to the old A9 in many parts. There are however three notable deviations from this line. One is from Crubenmore, north of Dalwhinnie, to Ruthven barracks which would also have served as a link between Ruthven and Fort Augustus. Another is the stretch of several miles passing to the west of Carrbridge as far as the Slochd. Finally there is a long stretch from Loch Moy to Inverness; interestingly, part of this route is followed by the new A9 road.

It is worth noting that there were two early routes from near Blair Atholl over to the Spey valley. These were Comyn's road and the Minigaig. The Minigaig route, which appears on Greene's map of 1689, was used by soldiers to reach the barracks at Ruthven (built in 1719). Wade decided on the Drumochter Pass as it was lower and less likely to be snowed in in winter.

The Fort Augustus road via the Corrieyairrack Pass left the Inverness road at Dalwhinnie. Features of interest on this stretch are the Wade Stone that can be seen just past Dalnacardoch and Oxbridge where Wade treated the men to a feast.

Canmore records

Crieff to Dalnacardoch

Crieff to Aberfeldy Aberfeldy to Dalnacardoch
Crieff to Aberfeldy Aberfeldy to Dalnacardoch

In Wade's time there was an existing road between Crieff and Stirling which he must have thought was adequate as the new road was to start at Crieff. Work began in 1730. The route incorporated the notable bridge over the River Tay at Aberfeldy which was built in 1733.

In the early 1740's the road between Stirling and Crieff was improved under Caulfeild.
Canmore records





Dalwhinnie to Fort Augustus (Corrieyairack Pass)

Dalwhinnie to Fort Augustus via Corrieyairack
Dalwhinnie to Fort Augustus

This road was built in 1731 by working parties totalling just over 500 men. It was 28 miles in length and climbed to a height of 2543 ft over the Corrieyairack Pass. North of Dalwhinnie there was a linking stretch of road that served as a short cut to Ruthven barracks. It is a popular recreational route today.
Canmore records

Pdf leaflet - Highland Council
Heritage Paths site


Ruthven to Etteridge

For details and photos of this section of the Inverness road, see the feature by Neil Ramsay of the Heritage Paths programme in the newsletter below.

Click for larger image