From Crieff To Aberfeldy on Wade’s Military Road
Linda Cracknell is an-award winning Highlands-based writer known for her creative approach to exploring wild places and man’s interaction with them. Her Walkhighlands’ essays cover the cultural aspects of the Scottish landscape on a quarterly basis.
‘I’m just reading a book about that,’ the bus driver from Aberfeldy said, having learnt I was going to be walking a road made by General Wade. ‘It says he took all the credit, but his successors did most of it.’
‘Major Caulfeild?’ I asked.
‘That’s the one!’
‘You’ve a braw day for a hike anyway,’ he said when he dropped me off half an hour later at Crieff golf course to walk north, back towards home. It was mid-December 2014, cold and clear, the ground un-giving under my boots, the sun just getting high enough to soften frost and sing up the colours in the surrounding hills. My spirits soared as I stepped out towards them. For two days I was free; getting away from it all.
Anyone who walks in the Highlands will have stumbled on the legacy of General Wade and his name against ghost-roads criss-crossing the map. As the bus driver noted, this ‘Hannibal of the Highlands’ is sometimes credited for military roads built after he’d left Scotland in 1737, and even before then, Caulfeild may have done much of the work. Part of a strategy to mobilise troops and supplies between forts and barracks in response to the first Jacobite uprising in 1715, Wade’s roads crossed a high country which at that time only had soft muddy ways created by drovers or other commercial traffic. The roads were built in record time. Between 1725 and 1733, Wade supervised soldiers working in groups of a hundred to build about 250 miles of roads and 40 bridges. The irony was that in due course the roads allowed the Jacobites to move quickly north towards Culloden in 1746.
Crieff to Aberfeldy is one of the few significant stretches (excluding the marvellous Corrieyairack Pass) that requires only short stretches of road walking, providing you are willing to wade heather and bog-hop here and there. Although it travels through relatively unspectacular landscape, it was thrilling for me because of a sense of discovery. I’d crossed Crieff golf course, wriggled a route behind The Knock, and there it was climbing across a field from the Gilmerton-Monzie lane towards the A822: my first short stretch of ‘authentic’ Wade’s Road. It’s made distinct by a low bed 16 feet wide running between parallel bouldered banks. This stretch is also marked by a line of mature oaks.
On the other side of the A road it resumed in a stone-lined embankment across a plateau of lumpy grassland and sun-slicked rushes. The profile was now unquestionable, broken only where rough moorland has been improved for grazing and enclosed, intermittent boulder piles suggesting where the ordered banks may have ended up. I hadn’t expected it to be so easy to follow and as I picked my way along it, not exactly at the smart pace of a military two-step, my feet felt like archaeological pioneers.
My knowledge of the A826/822 has been made intimate by driving to and from home in Aberfeldy on this route for nearly two decades. It’s an ‘up and over’ between Crieff at 38 metres and Aberfeldy at 100. At its highest point, just above Aberfeldy, the road rises to 380 metres. I know its every kink and rise; which gear to select for each corner; where to expect deer or hares to be on the road on a winter’s night. It’s remote-feeling territory, mostly open moorland with occasional greener dips including the sunken cavity of the Sma’ Glen. It occupies that forgotten zone between the high thrill of the mountains and the civilisation and companionship of the valleys – the territory of ghosts, fugitives, pylons, wind farms and lonely travellers. I once broke down late at night on the bleakest stretch with a blizzard starting. When I spoke to the man on the AA switchboard in Basingstoke, he couldn’t help but laugh when he located my position: the bad luck of breaking down so far from ‘anywhere’.
Wade’s road had teased me over the years as I drove; glimpsed deviating from the tarmac, especially when highlighted in low winter sunlight, and lined with snow-marker stones. I’d studied its course on the map too, crossing and re-crossing the main road. Always drawn by old ways and a fascination with remnants of clever engineering, I wanted to find out if it was accessible, visible, walk-able. Having driven the 25 miles so many times, I also wanted to measure the distance with my legs at least once, in doing so invoking tales of people walking from Glen Lyon to Glen Almond to fetch a cow, or to St Andrews to go to university in the 19th century: walking because they needed to get somewhere. I imagine, though, that such travellers relished the incidental motion and connection with the landscape as they went; the opening up of a reflective space.
It felt the right season for a two day walk crossing from Lowland to Highland, and reaching towards the returning light beyond the solstice. I like the fact that the passing of a year has such natural waymarks as well as my invented ones – work deadlines, holidays, book events.
Just before reaching the Foulford Inn (where I used to see, as I flashed past in my car, two mannequins enjoying a bath together, one seated at either end) I felt gloriously high on the open moor with red kites circling above me. Views stretched west beyond the birch brush-haze of Monzie Wood, towards the high white reach of Ben Vorlich. My small upright self was wrapped in sharp, glittering light. The key sensations of a moorland walk are perhaps simply this: the effect from light and weather and what’s underfoot.
I crossed the A road once again towards Connachan Lodge over one of Wade’s famed single arch bridges. Rather than skirting the hill as the tarmac does to reach the Sma’ Glen, the old way climbs, passing a Roman signal station overlooking the Fendoch Fort. From here I saw how the steep ‘nose’ of the fort is defined, a feature never seen clearly from the lower road. Other small surprises followed such as a new appreciation of the Almond river gurgling through the Sma’ Glen, usually concealed behind a strip of plantation forest. We’ve probably all had the experience of arriving somewhere having driven a repeated route to find we have no recollection of manoeuvring that junction, or seeing the usual loch. If familiarity is an anaesthetic, that slight shift of perspective and dramatic change of pace was all I needed to feel more keenly alert to this ‘known’ place. This sort of refreshment out of lazy consciousness, seems to me a vital aspect of walking, particularly when we do it alone.
On the high spot near the Roman signal station I reached the threshold where snow remained from the fall of the previous week. Pockets of it sang against sun-glistered patches of toasted bracken breaking the dark monotony of heather, the slick grey crags higher up. Until I grew used to them, the silhouettes of grouse-feeding stations tricked me into thinking I’d discovered some sort of ancient ruins, perched as they were on strategic-looking mounds.
I met another pedestrian here — a shepherd with his three collies seeking out stragglers after a recent gathering. We stood squinting into sunlight, kicking at ice, and discussed the route of Wade’s Road. He knew surprisingly little of it, probably because his mental map of the area would be shaped by corries, bogs and ditches, intimate places where sheep could be hidden, rather than the old human-trodden ways that whistle through. I was even more surprised when he said: ‘Wade… the Jacobites… when was that? About ten something?’
Considering it was built as a temporary expedient, the route remains surprisingly intact. For most of the way, not including this corner cut and a later one at Amulree, the metal road is so close to Wade’s line that one wonders why later road-builders didn’t follow the same course. His road-building was criticised even in his own day, however, and later by the likes of Thomas Telford. One of the complaints was that the parallel banks held the snow, which they still do, helping me sometimes to identify the route.
His roads were sometimes appropriated by drovers (whose ways he’d largely followed in the first place) but it must have been infuriating for them to have to start shoeing their cattle for the stony surface. Apparently locals initially regarded the road with suspicion, following its edges but not treading on the road itself until they realised the convenience, and found no curses had struck them despite its being built by Government soldiers. Nowadays the way seems to have been largely respected despite lacking any formal protection. It’s kept open to some extent by the footprint of tractors, quad bikes, animals, and, despite Wade’s primitive attempts at drainage, the gravity-pull of water courses.
The Wordsworths came though the Sma’ Glen in 1803 and Dorothy wrote: ‘It is truly a solitude, the road even making it appear more so’. This narrow portal into the Highlands teems with folkloric stories including a supposed association with Fingal’s son, Ossian. My favourite story concerns human remains discovered under a massive boulder levered aside by Wade’s men. Supposedly a group of Highlanders processed away with the relics, burying them elsewhere with a military-style salute for fear of the storms and tempests that would affect their houses and crops should human remains lie above ground for any length of time.
I was funnelled through the gloomy steep-sided glen where Wade is in close company with the tarmac road and the river. Abandoned relics of another kind were scattered in parallel swathes along the verges: lager cans, Irn Bru bottles, remnants of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ posters. In a layby I passed some ‘highway maintenance’ men dozing in their truck. They leapfrogged me to the next layby. I thought of the original ‘Highwaymen’ who were the road builders – soldiers and ex-soldiers – drawn from the local community. I suspected they were not given a chance to doze.
A car had missed the sharp right-hand turn over the Newton Bridge and plunged into the River Almond a few weeks before. The bridge was crowded with traffic lights and parked vans where repairs to the parapet had begun. A little above it, I crossed my favourite Wade bridge over the Newton Burn, another arched stone treasure, grass-topped, that you see from the road turning obliquely west. Wade’s way was now heading for Amulree, climbing at first with vague, puddled definition over a series of low hills and then in places furrowed into the moor, notching each new horizon. A white land began to spread around me. I was conscious of traffic on the road, running parallel with me: oil delivery tankers, Christmas courier vans, the Murphy vehicles working on the Beauly to Denny pylon line marching from west of Aberfeldy towards Fendoch.
Just after Corriemuckloch, once a drovers’ ‘stance’ or overnight stopping place, a glen opens to the west flanked by high, rounded hills. This is Glen Quaich where I’ve sometimes gone to ski, and through it I could see glimpses of the high hills on the north side of Loch Tay; the solid white snow-cover on the Ben Lawers range. Here I began to feel the cold air of the Highlands, and the press of time in the darkening afternoon. But that wasn’t all I felt. Glen Quaich is one of those places special for its silence, a silence which is more of a presence than an absence, like an ache or a hum: something physical you sense in your body.
Amulree is halfway, the only village in 25 miles, and once an important meeting point of drove roads all converging towards Crieff. A small church was built on a mound here in 1743-4 using timbers from the Blackwood of Rannoch which had formerly been scaffolding for Wade’s bridge in Aberfeldy. After a delay caused by the uprising, church services began in 1746. Inside it now, historical documents have been collected which explain this ache of silence.
There were two evictions of families by the second Marquis of Breadalbane — the first in 1832 seems to have precipitated the community’s move towards the Huron Tract in Canada. Testimonies collected by the Canada Company in the 1840s show the likes of Robert Frazer who had only three acres in Glen Quaich but gained 90 in Canada. Or John Stewart who left in 1832 and commented on the success enjoyed there by himself and all his neighbours, noting that he expected nearly all his old friends in the Glen would be in Canada by the next year. In 1861 there was a second round of evictions. Now there’s a straggle of dwellings, a few folk living amidst that ache and a new march of pylons.
The hotel in Amulree has begun its collapse into gothic decay after several years without occupation. It hosted Prince Charles in 1746 on his way north, and had a reputation once for weekend fishing trippers and reading parties guided by a minor Victorian novelist (and local schoolmistress). Even in my time it sometimes thrived as a weekend destination, a beacon of hospitality on this long, lonely road. A traveller on foot casting an eye to the map at this point, especially at dusk, might now shiver and recollect ‘The Slaughtered Lamb’ pub in the film American Werewolf in London where the locals warned: ‘Beware the moors, lad. Stick to the road.’ Naturally, to make a decent story, he didn’t. Perhaps it was just as well I was to leave the rest of the journey for another day.
Returning two days later when the temperature had risen a few degrees, the snow was almost visibly melting from the hills, green was reasserting itself; bogs bubbling up to gulp at
me ahead. Pollard, in his book Walking the Scottish Highlands: General Wade’s Military Roads tells us of the next section: ‘You would need to be a dedicated Wade-follower to walk the twelve miles or so between Amulree and Aberfeldy. Glen Cochill is dull country, afflicted with the kind of afforestation that has given the Forestry Commission a bad name – though it is to be doubted whether anything much more interesting could have been done with this undistinguished stretch of bleak moorland’.
By taking a high route from Amulree and crossing Glen Fender, Wade made a pleasing connection with Glenn Cochill avoiding the dip into Strath Braan and keeping me dry-footed. Initially resembling a normal farm track, Wade’s two lines of boulders soon presented themselves where heather began to encroach on grassland. It forged ahead in great straight lines, making sweeping zig-zags across the rising ground ahead, and impressing the horizon with that distinctive notch.
I was indeed a dedicated Wade-follower, but also feel oddly excited by bleak, disorientating moorland -the Dartmoor of my childhood; the fictional lives shaped by exposure to such places glimpsed in my teenage reading years in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Hardy’s The Return of the Native. Around the time of taking this walk I’d been reading William Atkins’ book The Moor — a journey across Britain’s Moors which explores their history, topography, mythology, and literature. The writer’s experience of treading these fugitive places is animated so thrillingly with all its mysteries, gloomy mines and mists that the chime of his experiences now enhanced mine as I moved through this sullen place. I love this deepening of a physical journey through one’s current choice of reading. I thought about the tidal nature of the moor’s edges, how marginal land can be pulled back and forth between moor and grazing by drainage and other human interventions, depending on economic circumstance.
I sat in the heather on the north flank of Glen Fender with a flask of coffee amidst cackling grouse, appreciating human ingenuity as I followed with my eyes the route across the burn below indicated by ruined bridge abutments. Then it climbs the Glen’s side to turn a sharp corner towards Glen Cochill, up onto the bleak moor that Pollard writes about and where I went next.
Human ingenuity in this area now seems focussed on the nurturing of grouse, spruce and the capturing of wind power. Although perhaps not obvious from the sensory experience, this apparent no-mans-land is closely controlled and managed. Cycles of muirburn pattern the hills, and a little further along the way I saw traps set on log- bridges over every burn and ditch – presumably for mink, but also likely to catch stoat and weasel. Some would argue I was in a monoculture managed only for grouse; a human-made desert. According to the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and the Moorland Association, however, our prized heather moorland is found in Britain because of grouse moor management and grouse shooting in England, Wales and Scotland supports conservation work and is worth an estimated £100 million a year.
Walking moorland invites us into the complex politics of estate management and conservation. Polarised conflicts have recently been highlighted by the prosecution of a gamekeeper for raptor persecution on an Aberdeenshire estate, and Andy Wightman’s subsequent quest to discover the mired identity of the estate owner who may be implicated. Although governed by different legislation, Patrick Barkham has eloquently explored the different perspectives arising from the coexistence of red grouse and raptors following the disappearance of two tagged hen harriers from a Lancashire moor in September 2014. Recently the culling of mountain hares on Scottish grouse moors has flared up in social media and petitions, although not a new concern. The hare can carry a virus-infected tick fatal to grouse chicks. These conflicts of interest lie under our feet and shape the land we walk through. And so, stepping out steps us in. Can a walk ever really be ‘getting away from it all’?
The A road was now running half a kilometre parallel on my right, taking its familiar Z-bend over the Cochill burn at Scotston. In early Spring at dawn you can see male black grouse ‘leking’ there, an extravagant dance to show off to the hidden females. It’s significant enough that in season traffic through the entrance to Griffin wind farm opposite makes concessions to the ritual. When the 156MW wind farm was proposed a group of local women took their clothes off in protest. They looked surprisingly joyful in a photo enlarged on a number of roadside banners that became landmarks on my drive north and south. They were only gradually felled by snow drifts, storms and ultimately by a failed campaign.
The only difficulties I met as a walker were on this stretch up Glenn Cochill. Wade’s way has been adopted as a vehicle track here. I came along it in 2012, and found a pair of snares positioned over each ‘tyre’ of the track at the exact height to catch an ankle (or a dog should you be walking with one). They’re intended for foxes. Although I stayed loyal to Wade’s way, once it’s engulfed by the plantation, it’s hard-going. Lower- lying than the later road-builders’ choice of route, the causeway which Wade’s men made through the bog by feeding it with faggots and timber has long been swallowed. The bog pulled hungrily at my boots and sucked me up to my knees with Tolkein-esque menace. Added to that, in the snow-melt conditions, the crossing of the deep, fast-flowing Cochill burn required some trapeze-artist agility on a fence-bridge.
It made me wonder about the status of Wade’s Road as a footpath. Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust undertook a project a few years back, ‘Bridging Perthshire’s Past’, which helped restore bridges, placed interpretation boards at points where it leaves the road, and raised awareness of the military roads including a publication about Wade’s legacy and a guide map. But there’s no other signage or assistance to the walker other than some helpful stiles over deer fences. I rather like this abandonment. Nevertheless, ‘beware the moors’.
Finally out of the grip of the plantation I gained the last of my height passing Loch na Creige on quietening tarmac. From the bus on my first day, I’d noticed the loch frozen into wind-frisked waves. Now just a few patches of ice clouded the otherwise still reflection. When I drive this route, and especially if I cycle it, the Loch is always a marker, a milestone; the peak of the climb. The viewpoint is where, when driving north, the Tay Valley opens up beneath you. Carn Gorm, Schiehallion, Ben Vrackie, and Beinn a’Ghlo rise up on a clear day, serrating the skyline beyond. But on this day they were shrouded in cloud.
From here I had the joy of knowing that every step of the next two or three miles home would be downhill, that the fields and paths would grow in familiarity. In some senses repeating any journey allows us to bear witness to change. In my years travelling the road I’ve seen two wind farms grow up, the mountain hare population abound and decline, a tearoom at Amulree open and close, open and close, a line of pylons grow in height. A repeated walk bears witness to subtler, hidden changes. As I descended through plantation to Gatehouse Nursery via a tiny Wade bridge, and beyond it regained grazed, enclosed land, where Wade’s parallel twin banks were flanked by mature trees, I came across new developments unseen from the road. Two new houses, a large building yard, a new road built and services ready for four new houses: things I had been unaware of until I walked with open eyes. And I wondered how Wade’s way, under the grass somewhere here, would be respected without any legal protection; the boulders collected into heaps a sad reminder.
Below me now I could see street lights beginning to glow in the town and the wide showy span of Wade’s bridge over the Tay. Before it was built there was no Aberfeldy, simply a drovers’ crossing point a few miles west. With its five arches, four obelisks and its tablets praising the heroism of Wade and his soldiers in both English and Latin, this bridge is a shrine to the rest of his road between Stirling and Dalnacardoch, and to his network as a whole. He stayed nearby at Weem in 1733 to oversee its building.
I wrote in Doubling Back, about the pleasure of walking away from home, of closing my front door with a tent on my back and setting off towards the Isle of Skye in the footsteps of drovers and their dogs. But perhaps the pleasure of walking towards home, particularly in this dark season, is as great. Poet Simon Armitage did a reverse (north to south) walk of the Pennine Way, brought to the reader in his book Walking Home. I enjoyed his honesty in not completely finishing the Way, the pull of his home that was just off route, just before its end, too great. How many soldiers, students, herring girls must have had to get home on foot, and felt something powerful on their approach, whether or not they were expected. A warm huff of euphoria swept up in me now as I dropped into the valley.
And so I took the muddy path that’s often incorporated into my local strolls, passing the pack of caged beagles who howled at me as usual (as usual I howled back, though more quietly), and through a gate that drops across the final field. I know the mechanism of every gate here, how to avoid the wet areas and make the best of contours. It’s like knowing the exact position of the creaky floorboards at home.
I noticed, too, a new kind of familiarity. It’s not just that I know this place, but after 25 miles on Wade’s Road, the subtle dipped line across the field, its raised edges and steady trajectory is newly recognisable; part of something bigger that I’ve become attuned to. It had a certain, pleasing predictability.
This recognition brought to a not-much-used path a new busy-ness, new company for me in my final steps, resounding as it did with the tread of Jacobites, Hanoverians, drovers, shoemakers, road-builders. After the final gate I passed the house of friends whose dog, Bracken, I sometimes look after, to reach the cottage hospital at the top of the town. Down I went through the town square, passing the first people I’d seen on foot all day.
The day was darkening as I stepped over my threshold, but inside, midwinter lights were beginning to sparkle amidst ivy and the kettle was soon hissing on the hob.