Roy’s Roadss

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

Eighteenth-century Roads 

It is very clear that the road network in 1750 was significantly different. Not only are there far fewer roads but many of the old roads are not in the current classification; although they can be identified, often they are too minor to merit a category. Sometimes, however,  a B-road is followed and less frequently an A-road, usually with frequent off-road diversions reflecting an earlier course. Much of the old network follows mountain tracks or farm roads which are thereby confirmed to be very ancient routes. These may be a legacy from medieval times. 

In 1725, Edmund Burt (R) described travel on highland roads as a slow and hazardous business. Most rivers were crossed by fords, and each crossing was a dangerous procedure in freezing conditions. (Scottish gentry always sent their servants first). Frequently a delay was required to allow water levels to fall, but this was inconvenient at best, with a risk of being isolated and exposed for many days. An ability to predict bad weather could be life-saving. Lowlanders viewed a voyage in the Highlands as a major mission; some made a will before setting out, rather as they might for a long sea voyage. English visitors were virtually unknown. Burt asserts that English gentry knew more about the West Indies and Africa than they knew about the Highlands of Scotland.

Movement of goods in the North was managed as much by unwheeled as by wheeled vehicles. The clear distinction between a horse-road and a carte-road was recognised: wheels needed a much higher quality of road surface. The minutes of turnpike commissioning committees in the 1770s confirm that wheeled travel was an exhausting business except in very dry weather. The roads were in serious disrepair; Barrow(R)suggests a worse condition even than in medieval times. Yet horse-roads did not preclude transport of goods. Human-back transport was common: wickerwork baskets or creels(cliabh) were harnessed by carrying bands (fettles) across the chest; split saddles and crook saddles permitted horses to carry large currachs on either side; Travois or slide-cars were still more common than carts: loads were carried on a pair of poles whose lower ends trailed on the ground behind the draught-animal. These were called kellachs and were sometimes enhanced by semicircular hoops at the trailing-end, or even small wheels (kellach-cairts). Fenton(R) tells us that in 1790, in a single parish in Inverness, the minister counted 361 sledges compared with 40 small wagons (coups) and 376 carts.   

General  Wade  launched his Highland road-building programme from the 1730s onwards: long distance routes, partly new-build but largely upgrading from horse-road to carte-road. Surveyor’s notes on one preliminary plan refer to ’..a low flatt road and dry, may easily be made carte road’ and ‘.. one little step in the wood to be filled up with stone and lime and made smooth, It is easily made cart road.   On Roy’s survey, there were very few roads north of the Great Glen. This was not through a lack of attention from the surveyors; the area is represented very well on the map and in great detail; there are many settlements but few few roads.  Fife by contrast is extremely well served by roads no doubt reflecting its agricultural importance. Perthshire and Stirling are less well serviced but surprisingly, southern-Argyll has a honeycomb of roads reaching almost every settlement.  

There are many more roads in the South and  when viewed on this site’s large scale it can be seen clearly  that the centres of population and trade were in the two major cities. There is also, however,  an intense network of minor roads along the Forth coast and on the Upper Clyde.  There are many more country estates - each with a very local , rather well kept road system (not included in this layout).  The Commissioners of Supply had been in operation since 1667 in the Lowlands suggesting a better state of maintenance and repair. This seems to be confirmed by Burt’s observations about Lowlanders’ reluctance to travel in the Highlands.  Despite this, some of the later eighteenth  century turnpike committees expressed despair about the state of the roads, particularly in Ayrshire.    The main roadway trunks are shown on a separate map, largely running from North to South.  Some of these, running Northeast from Berwick, Kelso, Melrose and Selkirk, were very ancient indeed. 


Roy gave us no legends for his maps. Six Highland Wade and Caulfield military roads were completed prior to 1750 and three more were under construction while Roy’s survey was taking place; Roy drew these new ‘King's roads' with a much heavier emphasis and a double line; they appear to have been very carefully surveyed. There is second group of major roads with a lighter emphasis yet retaining the double line, and a third lesser category, portrayed as a thin faint single line. We can only guess at the specifications implied.  There are many settlements which have no road connection at all, so we can reasonably presume that the network he describes was not all-inclusive. The faint single line roads seem to be the least accurately surveyed: they have a more topological style, going in straighter lines or simpler curves to a given goal than might seem likely. Our own limited field-survey of some of the minor roads in the South suggests that the map sometimes reflects an implausible course on the ground. There may be uncertainty about the very physical basis of some roads of this period. Hindle(R) observes that medieval roads had grown from habitual lines of travel; they were not necessarily thin strips of track with definite boundaries but rather directional rights of way with legal and customary status leading from one village to another, or from one bridge to another. Some of of the roads of Roy's maps may have been of this nature.  Certainly, in the 16th century the lines of trade and traffic had been determined by the major bridges. Travellers made their way from one bridge to the next and often needed guides to get them there.  This had much improved by 1750 but it still seems probable that most roads in Scotland would be unsurfaced and many of them would provide little guarantee of correct direction.  The military roads in the North along with major post roads in the South would have been welcome exceptions. 

Last updated Nov.2020