Roy’s Roadss

The road-network from William Roy’s Military Survey of Scotland. 1747

Military Roads of the 18th-century

The 18th-century military roads  are outlined here (button below) on an expandable Ordnance Survey map.    

It is most important to distinguish between the Military Roads and the Survey Roads.  Roy’s survey resulted in a map showing all of the roads in Scotland as they were, round about 1750 ( see previous section).  Mostly, these were unmade pathways providing a network across the whole of the mainland.   The military road-building programme was a quite separate initiative, building new, made roads. There was little interaction between the two programmes; indeed, they competed for personnel.    Only five of the military roads were built in time to be recorded on Roy’s survey; most were completed  later, well after the ’45 rebellion was over.   

During the 1715 and 1745 Jacobite rebellions, the Government had been shaken by the absence of any proper roads in the Highlands. There were only one or two roads in the entire country that were fully suitable for wheeled traffic.  In the aftermath of the ’15 it commissioned the army to build a network of ‘made’ roads  to improve access for troops and connect the various fortresses and barracks. This was an important arm of its pacification process. The Romans had done the same, and for the same reason, in the first century CE.  Perhaps there was also  an appreciation that trade, transport and communication might improve, and thereby contribute further to pacification.   

Major-General George Wade was appointed Commander-in-Chief, North Britain, in 1724. His road-building programme was underway by 1726. In 1740, he relinquished his command and his  successor. Major William Caulfield , assumed control. Caulfield's governance lasted until 1767. The Jacobite threat had receded by this time  and when the latter retired a re-appraisal took place, followed by a period of limited maintenance and repair. The army project continued in this lighter fashion until around 1790, after which the new Turnpike commissioners largely took-over the army’s role. 

The roads were sometimes new builds, but more usually comprehensive upgrades from pre-existing, unstructured ‘horse-roads’ to metalled ‘carte-roads’. On the eastern Aberdeenshire section the army’s contribution was sometimes little more than intermittent repair, which was commissioned and paid for by the County authorities. Most of the roads and bridges were built by Major Caulfield, albeit that they are still referred to as ‘Wade roads'.  Wade had spent £25,000 on his roads programme; Caulfield spent £130,000.  

In Wade’s time there were up to 500 soldiers working on a single section of around 50 miles. They were paid sixpence a day .  It has been calculated that each mile cost £70 (about £10,000 compared to the relative RPI;  about £125,000 compared to relative labour costs). Gradients were limited to 1:6, sometimes by using zig-zags.   Wade avoided building bridges as much as possible; his roads were aimed at fording-points and tended to run in straight lines.   Bridges were more often an afterthought, and frequently contracted out to local builders.   There was a standard width of 16ft, reducing to 10ft in difficult terrain.    The topsoil was cleared on the bankings on each side and then a layer of heavy boulders were laid, covered by a layer of gravel.  Wade built 250 miles of road and arranged for 40 bridges, 

Caulfield changed the specification. His discarded the ’straight-lines’ approach and included bridges in the design plan, all to be constructed by the military.  There was more use of cuttings and embankments with culverts for  better drainage. In all, he built more than 1200 miles of road and around 1000 bridges.  His carriageways were 14ft wide and appear to have much better surfacing. He imported well-graded gravel mixed with sand, for the top layer.  

Descriptions and specifications of the military bridges can be found here.


Last updated Nov.2020

Military Roads