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Strathnairn Heritage Association

Road, Railways and Bridges

The lines of communication in any area represent the answers found by man to the questions posed by nature – crossing mountains, bridging rivers, providing social and economic links between people. This article by Hilda Hesling, Braeval, Daviot, describes some of the transport links in the Strathnairn area, and explores both how these form a response to historical development, and also themselves create further changes.

Moving with the Times

By Hilda Hesling, Daviot

The three Historical Accounts, written by the ministers of the time, provide us with some information on Strathnairn itself, and on a handful of landed families, but are largely silent on details of the lives of the great majority of those who lived here. Archaeological remains, in particular the footings of many 'hut circles' clustered in small settlements, show that the Strath has supported a considerable population since the Bronze Age, if not earlier. Stone ruins and the remains of old field systems from the eighteenth century provide evidence of more recent habitation. The lack of physical remains of dwellings in the intervening millenia is probably due to the fact that the houses of the common people were made of turf and wood, material that has decayed entirely. Documentary evidence from as far back as the thirteenth century does exist showing that portions of the Strath were gifted or conveyed, proving that the land, and the people living on it, with a status at that time almost of serfs, had indeed some value. Details of the lives of the people are almost non-existent until patchy marriage and baptismal records dating from the early eighteenth century are examined, or glimpses gleaned from legal documents or from town or presbytery records from Inverness. Much more information comes to light once Census records are available, and vital records (births, marriages, deaths) become compulsory; but this does not happen until well into the nineteenth century. They do show a society where almost all of the families were of Clan Chattan origin, with most of them taking their living from the land. We can safely assume that people lived here much as they did all over the Highlands: largely self-sufficient in food, fuel, and shelter, many crofters had a second, or even third skill: that of shoemaker, or tailor, or slater for example, and much seasonal work was done as a community, ensuring that crops could be harvested, or cultivation done, to the rhythm of the seasons and the weather.

Few Strathnairn folk would have travelled far from home, although the Rev Gordon, in 1796, does record the departure of many of the young for seasonal work in southern Scotland, lamenting the return of these 'partial emigrants' in autumn 'to live with their parents or relations during the winter upon the common stock of the family.' These young people would have travelled on foot by some of the rough tracks over the mountains, and ran considerable risks doing so. As economic migrants, however 'partial' they no doubt did contribute to the family's income. Cash incomes were also generated from the sale in Inverness of loads of peats or other produce in season. Access was by simple tracks over the Drumossie Muir, or the Leys Brae; to visit kinsfolk and friends in the other straths lying to the south and west, Strathdearn and Stratherrick, they took rough paths through the hills. One road which has remained much the same still exists: the single track road from Farr to Garbole, winding over the hills, following the lie of the land, only the line of huge electricity pylons reminding one of the present day; otherwise this road is substantially the same one as the drove road which linked the fertile areas of the Black Isle, Easter Ross and the Aird, passing across the river Ness at the eastern end of Loch Ness at Bona, crossing Strathnairn at Farr, passing through the hills to the cattle markets of the south. This route is marked on one of the earliest detailed maps of the area: that done for the York Timber Company in 1729. Strathnairn is described on this map as 'barren land,thirteen miles long and three broad.' The York Timber Company was at pains to record all valuable woods, and we can assume from this that none existed at that time in Strathnairn.

Other, wilder, episodes of cattle rustling are well documented; at one time Strathnairn folk were afraid to leave their homes for fear of raiders, who would swoop down on the peaceful strath and make off over the hill tracks with animals and other booty, leading to blood shed on more than one occasion. In 1676, a visit from the Inverness Presbytery had to be delayed as the Daviot and Dunlichity elders were obliged to ‘abyd in the Glens to shelter and keep ther bestiall and goods from the Lochaber and Glencoa Robers.’ Just as their houses were built of material to hand, so were roads and bridges: on a visit in 1770, Bishop Forbes records a bridge at Tordarroch made of the trunks of ‘immense trees, dug out of the moss’ - all that was left of the immense forests that had once covered the whole area. On the road to Killin, leading into the hills from Stratherrick is a beautifully made, and quite intact, clapper bridge over a mountain burn: several conduits made of stone, over-topped with large slabs. This bridge has only quite recently been replaced by a modern structure, and the old bridge remains, the small patch of road providing a convenient parking spot. The name ‘clapper’ is thought to refer to the sound of the water rushing through the stone conduits; when the hill burns are in full spate, the Killin bridge illustrates this perfectly.

A mid-Victorian watercolour shows the detailed structure of the old wooden bridge over the Craggie Burn; perched high up on the rocks, it consisted of long split trunks, underpinned with wooden buttresses; the stone walls on either bank which formed the foundation can still be seen from the later stone bridge just upstream. These simple wooden bridges could not withstand some of the violent deluges, but if damaged, were easily and quickly repaired. This bridge was the replacement of the one mentioned in D. Nairne's accounts of 'Memorable Highland Floods'. The effects of the disastrous floods of 1829 are recorded thus: 'The rain in the upper part [of Strathnairn] began on Sunday evening, the 2nd August, and continued with little or no intermission till Tuesday, the 4th. The Nairn, and the other streams, rushed from the mountains, filled with gravel and stones, and committed great havoc on many farms especially on that of Mains of Aberarder, where seven hands were able to reap in one day all that remained of a crop for which £150 of rent was payable. The fulling mill at Faillie was the sport of both floods: the first carried a huge, heavy mass of machinery down to Cantray, nine miles below, whence it was, with much labour, brought back to its Highland home, but it was hardly well established there, when the flood of the 27th bore it away on a second expedition, and landed it at Kilravock, after a voyage of eleven miles. Two bridges were carried away on the Parliamentary line of road; one at Dunmaglass, and the other - of two arches - over the burn of Aultrough, which joins the Nairn from the right. At Craggy, the Inn of that name, standing very picturesquely, and apparently beyond all danger, on the top of a green alluvial bank, amongst irregularly dropped birches, and surrounded by birch-covered knolls, formed, with its bridge below, a very beautiful scene. But the flood of the 27th carried away the bridge, cut the bank into a high perpendicular precifice, and was only prevented from undermining and bringing down the inn by the accidental fall of a tree, which turned the force of the torrent. The mill of Clava, on the right bank, was destroyed by the first flood and was re-built and repaired exactly in time to be again demolished by the second.'

After the failed rising of 1715, the thoughts of the Hanoverian government had turned to taming the Highlands; after all, the Catholic son of the last Stuart king still provided an ever present reminder of the threat of revolution and civil war, and the Highlands, still largely ‘uncivilized’ were considered the ideal launch-pad for such a venture. Accordingly, it was decided prudent to establish armed garrisons, and to build a road system to facilitate the movement of soldiers and supplies. A soldier, General Wade, was put in charge of the construction and Edmund Burt was his surveyor. Burt wrote in 1728 to the Mackintosh: ‘I doubt not you have long since heard of General Wade’s intention to make a good road from Inverness to Blair by the way of Drumochter…I think the way over the Ford of Faillie will be the best, in regard the rocky steep hill and the bog of Daviot will be very expensive and the hill in particular hardly capable to be made good for wheel carriage...I beg of you that you will please to give of your countenance to the workmen and order your people to furnish them in the best manner they can, with provisions and necessarys. They are to begin as soon as the weather will permit.’ A road was accordingly built which left Inverness and crossed the River Nairn at Faillie, eventually reaching the barracks at Ruthven, near Kingussie. Another Wade road linked Inverness with the garrison at Fort Augustus passing through Stratherrick. These old roads can still be walked in many places, and fragments of the old bridges can be seen near the quarry at Midlairgs in Daviot. The present single-track stone arch at Faillie is a later replacement, but the original bridge at Whitebridge in Stratherrick still stands. Wade’s roads soon fell into disrepair; travellers in the eighteenth century were resigned to frequent delays; Lord Lovat, travelling to Edinburgh, took a wheelwright with him to repair the coach: the journey still lasted more than a week.

After the second Stuart rising which failed so dismally at Culloden in 1746, measures taken by the government meant the unravelling of the clan system as it had existed for centuries. Some clan chiefs, to curry favour and to speed up the return of their forfeited estates raised regiments to fight in the colonial wars being waged by a country establishing an Empire overseas. Simon Fraser, son of the Lord Lovat who had been executed for his part in the Jacobite rising of 1745, was one of these, and many men from Stratherrick and upper Strathnairn fought with Fraser’s Highlanders in the Seven Years War in America and stayed on to exploit the riches of continental America. Simon Fraser, in due course, had his estates returned and after the United States achieved independence, many Scottish former soldiers made their way to Canada, and entered the Canadian fur trade: Simon MacTavish from Stratherrick and his nephew William MacGillivray from Dunmaglass, were major players in the North West Company which ran the trade for many years; Fort William, on the Great Lakes, being named after the latter. Other Strathnairn men, Shaws and Mackintoshes, also became fur traders. Many Strathnairn folk left and made solid livings overseas, their names recorded only on the burial stones of graveyards in places as far apart as Nova Scotia and New Zealand, part of the vast Highland diaspora at a time when starvation was only one poor season away.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century the situation in the northern Highlands and Islands, where poverty was rife, and the numbers of those who emigrated were rising steeply, was sufficiently serious to warrant a Royal Commission, which led to major improvements in what we would now call the infrastructure; a new system of roads, funded partly by the government and consequently known as Parliamentary roads, was established and the huge engineering undertaking of the Caledonian Canal planned, partly to improve communication, but also to provide employment. From now on, the construction by Governments of good roads and bridges assumed an economic and social dimension, and was no longer simply a military necessity. The Parliamentary road which crossed Strathnairn at Daviot deviated substantially from the earlier Wade road, and follows the line we see today as far south as the Nairn, now renamed the ‘old road’ as it climbs the Craggie Brae, winds past Loch a Chorain and crosses the plain of Moy. Tolls were paid at various points on the road, and older residents of Daviot remember 'Toll Cottage' at the foot of the Craggie Brae.

These roads, being better built than the old ‘Wade’ roads, provided much needed employment to many locals, who could, at slack times on the farms, break stones and repair the roads as paid employment, not, as previously, as unpaid work forming part of a tenancy. A new road also meant that people living in the Daviot area had much easier access to Inverness, enabling them to take full advantage of the opportunities presented later in the nineteenth century, when the establishment of new schools after the Education Act of 1872 meant a standard public network of primary schools replacing the old parish schools. Bright pupils could now much more easily finish secondary education in Inverness. By the 1880s post offices were established at Daviot, Farr and Aberarder; the mail being taken to Daviot and then on to the other offices by pony and trap. With the main road south passing over Strathnairn, and railway fever raging in Victorian Britain, it was only a matter of time before the railway came also, and in 1898 the Highland Railway was opened, providing a straight route from Carrbridge to Inverness, a journey previously only possible by train taking the long loop through Grantown, Elgin and Forres. The line crossed the Nairn at Clava by means of a magnificent viaduct, one of the longest in the country. The construction of the line, like the Canal before it, provided much work for local people, and many bright youngsters were guided into the offices of the Highland Railway to work as accountants and administrators. Crofters living along the line soon became accustomed to the new phenomenon, and often benefited from a few loads of coal offloaded at strategic points by a friendly fireman. Local people often took the train from Daviot to Inverness for their shopping, and one lady who lived close to the line two miles from Daviot station, would fling bags of messages out of the slow-moving train near her home on the return journey, thus walking home from the station unencumbered.

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the lands which in earlier times had been in the ownership of a small number of families belonging to various septs of Clan Chattan, were formed in much of the upper part of the Strath into large estates, and as time went on, financial necessity meant that these went to owners who ran them primarily as sporting estates, with home farms, and many local people providing the services of gamekeepers, ghillies, stalkers, beaters etc, the women working in domestic service. Photographs from one such, at Dunmaglass, record life in the 1890s.

The first half of the twentieth century brought little change to the rhythm of life in Strathnairn. Mail would be delivered by postmen on bicycles, children walked to school on roads still largely free of traffic. At Daviot, in the summer months, the children attending the school crossed the river on stepping stones, avoiding the long detour by road; though they were strictly warned to keep away from the river during the winter! Most farm work was done by horses until the Second World War; the blacksmith would cycle out from Inverness to shoe these gentle giants. Village halls were built and used by local WRI, drama groups, literary societies; the Strathnairn Farmers Association organized annual ploughing, sheepshearing and hoeing matches and an annual show and sale of produce. We can look back now with nostalgia, but life was always hard in an upland strath. Depopulation continued, and after the Second World War many of the farms, hewn a century before from heather moors, were now sold for afforestration.

The 1970s brought yet another phase to the continuing cycle of route-making across the Strath. Increasing volumes of road traffic, and a decline in the use of the railway, meant that the need for improvements to the main road south was becoming urgent. The new route which was decided on combined the line of the Wade road from Moy to the Nairn, and then the line of the Parliamentary road from the river through Daviot and on to Inverness. Many surveyors worked (and much money was spent) on the initial surveys - a far cry from Edmund Burt’s one-man team in 1728! Work continued for some time, and now forms our own new ‘gateway to the Highlands.’ The close of the twentieth century has brought about yet another phase in the loops and spirals of Highland history. Once the dual carriageway through Daviot was completed, pressure for housing became intense, and many new houses have been built here, and also in the upper parts of Strathnairn. People began once again to appreciate the benefits of country living, this time combined with ever-improving access to jobs and leisure facilities in the growing town - eventually to become the city - of Inverness. Once again roads and bridges have been improved throughout the Strath to cope with increased traffic, and whilst the schools at Clava and Brin have both closed, those at Farr and Daviot remain, the latter mounting stiff opposition to a proposed closure in 1997. This was an instance where improved access to Inverness was cited as a reason for transporting pupils to an urban primary school, but a strong case was made for the retention of the school as a focal point within a rural community, and this view prevailed. Good schools, a strong community council, the building of two village halls, one a replacement at Daviot, and the other a new hall at Farr, new traditions established - an annual Gala at Farr - and a thriving Feis, where youngsters are taught traditional Highland music-making, all show that this is a community in good heart, with involvement of old and young alike.