Northwords Now Issue 34

The FREE literary magazine of the North

The Finest Road in the World by James Miller

Birlinn

A Review by Roy Pedersen

Historian James Miller has written on a number topics concerning his native Highlands and Islands. Among them are: Scapa, The Dam Builders and the Foresters; each a seminal work in its own right. His latest book – The Finest Road in the World, The Story of Travel and Transport in the Scottish Highlands – is no less ground-breaking.

While the number of books written about Highland railways and shipping services would fill a considerable library, the story of the area’s roads has largely been neglected. This is strange, bearing in mind that our roads nowadays carry by far the bulk of the freight and personal traffic to, from and within the Highlands. It is timely, therefore, that James Miller’s new book goes a long way to bringing to our notice, the dramatic saga of how roads have come to penetrate our mountainous land, from the days of the first pioneers in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to the builders of the asphalt highways of today.

The story is indeed full of drama. Of the early road builders, General George Wade and Thomas Telford are well known. James Miller, however, brings to our notice Wade’s subordinate, William Caulfield, who in fact: “oversaw the construction of more road miles than Wade, some 700 to his predecessor’s 250, and made more impact at least in Inverness, where he is remembered in the name of Caulfield Road”.

The challenges of construction and maintenance of these early roads and the bridging of fast flowing rivers are well described by Miller, but perhaps the real drama in those early days was the experience of individuals who actually used the Highland road network. Here the author really comes into his own with his descriptions of journeys by coach. Typical is the experience of the Grant family of Rothiemurchus, who in the first years of the nineteenth century, took three days to bring their carriage from Perth to their house. Their coach had “leather curtains that failed to keep out the heavy rain, and four horses, one of which had a habit of lying down in the shafts and refusing to get up until it was cured of the trick by having lit straw placed under its belly”. Clearly, there was no SSPCA in those days.

Within a decade coach travel had improved greatly, with regular stage coach services on the main Highland roads and the Caledonian Coaching Company covering the distance between Edinburgh and Inverness five times a week in a mere two days.

To provide context, James Miller describes the evolution of coastal shipping and the role of the railways and air services in the opening up of the Highlands to the wider world. It is the road system, however, that is the book’s central theme which the author brings up to date with the revolutionary advent of the motor vehicle and the eventual creation of the rebuilt (and now rebuilding) A9 and the bridging of the Inverness, Cromarty and Dornoch Firths.

Another valuable addition to Miller’s growing corpus on Highland history.