Monday 15 July, 2024

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Wade’s Bridge at Aberfeldy

General George Wade's military roads and bridges

Wade’s Bridge at Aberfeldy was constructed in 1733 to carry Lieutenant-General George Wade’s Crieff to Dalnacardoch military road across the River Tay. It was architecturally the finest bridge on the military road network and is still in use for main road traffic.

Wade in Scotland

THE Highlands of Scotland, being a country very mountainous, and almost inaccessible to any but the inhabitants thereof, whose language and dress are entirely different from those of the Low – country, do remain to this day, much less civilized than the other parts of Scotland, from whence many inconveniencies arise to his Majesty’s subjects, and even to the government itself. – Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat Writing to George I in 1724

In late 1724 Irish-born Major-General George Wade was appointed ‘Chief of His Majesty’s forces, castles, forts and barracks in North Britain‘ following his investigation and report on the situation in the Highlands in the wake of the 1689, 1715, and 1719 Jacobite risings.

Wade, Member of Parliament for Bath, had been sent to Scotland in July 1724 to ‘inspect the present situation of the Highlanders…to make strict enquiry into the last law for disarming the Highlanders… and how the Memorial by Simon Lord Lovat, and his remarks theron are founded on facts…to suggest to his Majesty such other remedies as may conduce to the good settlement of that part of the Kingdom’.

After a thorough investigation, Wade submitted his findings on 10 December 1724. He estimated that there were around 22,000 men in the Highlands able to bear arms, of which 10,000 were supporters of the government and 12,000 which were ready to ‘rise in arms in favour of the Pretender’. Needless to say, this caused some alarm to the government in London who were concerned about future Jacobite threats.

Wade also stated that the 1716 Disarming Act designed to disarm the Jacobite clans following the 1715 rising had been largely ineffective. He recommended the re-establishment of the Independent Highland Companies to help police the Highlands, a new Disarming Act with harsher penalties and new forts to be constructed.

In concluding his report Wade said: ‘The Highlands are still more impracticable from the want of roads and bridges’. On 24 December 1724 Wade was appointed Commander-in-Chief, Scotland, taking over from Lieutenant-General George Carpenter.

Wade set about improving the military infrastructure in Scotland with the repairing of Edinburgh Castle and Fort William, the construction of new forts at Kilchuimen and Inverness and the building of a road network to link them and the existing barracks at Ruthven and Kilchuimen to the lowlands, making the Highlands more accessible to government troops.

The 61-mile Fort William to Inverness road was constructed 1725-27 and was followed by the 102-mile road from Dunkeld to Inverness, constructed 1728-30. The 43 miles from Crieff to Dalnacardoch was started and finished in 1730 and the 28-mile road from Dalwhinnie to Fort Augustus was constructed the following year.

The military working parties involved in the road building typically consisted of 1 captain, 2 lieutenants, 2 sergeants, 2 corporals, and 100 men who Wade affectionately referred to as his ‘highwaymen’. The working season was from 1 April until the last day of October.

Wade also ensured that the men involved in road work got double pay, with the additional money paid by the local counties. In April 1727 Wade was promoted to lieutenant-general.

Crieff to Dalnacardoch military road

In early 1730, with Wade’s Dunkeld to Inverness road nearly complete, the government allocated money for ‘a new road for wheel carriages from Crieff… to the river Garry of about 40 measured miles… to join the road from Dunkeld to Inverness’. Both roads would converge at Dalnacardoch between Blair Atholl and Dalwhinnie.

Since the road from Stirling to Crieff was in good enough condition it was decided to start at Crieff, with work beginning in the spring of 1730. The road was completed later that year. The route from Crieff went through the Sma’ Glen and Glen Cochill then on to Aberfeldy where it was carried across the River Tay by the Tay Bridge.

After Aberfeldy, the road continued to Coshieville at the entrance to Glen Lyon and then on to the western end of Loch Tummel where the road would cross the River Tummel at Tummel Bridge. From here the road continued to Trinafour where it crossed the Errochty Water and from there it carried on to Garry Bridge and then on to Dalnacardoch.

The road was improved and extended from Crieff down to Stirling in the early 1740s by Irishman Major William Caulfeild, General Wade’s Inspector of Roads and the man appointed to continue the road-building programme following Wade’s departure from Scotland in 1740.

Wade’s Bridge at Aberfeldy

With the completion of the Crieff to Dalnacardoch military road, there remained a significant gap to be filled: bridging the River Tay at Aberfeldy.

In late 1732 material was stockpiled ready for the construction of the bridge to begin in the spring of 1733. Built of grey-green chlorite schist from nearby Farrockhill quarry the bridge was designed by William Adam, one of Scotland’s top architects.

It was described in the House of Commons Journal, 7th February 1734, as a ‘Free Stone Bridge of 5 Arches over the River Tay near 400 feet in length the middle arch 60 foot wide, the starlings of Oak and the Piers and Land Breasts founded on 1,200 piles shod with iron’.

The first stone was laid by General Wade himself on 23 April 1733 and he oversaw its construction from his headquarters at the nearby Weem Hotel. By October most of the work had been completed with just the parapet wall and coping to finish.

Four elegant obelisks were added the following year. In early October 1733, Wade wrote to Duncan Forbes of Culloden, the Lord Advocate, stating that the work had slowed down due to bad weather.

The construction of such a bridge in a single working season was an impressive achievement. The bridge was formally opened in August 1735. At a cost of £4,095 5s 10d, Tay Bridge was by far the most expensive bridge on the road network. Reporting on its construction Wade stated:

“The Bridge of Tay was a work of greater difficulty and also much more expensive than was Calculated…partly occasioned by the failure of a Free Stone Quarry and also…the Justices of Peace…who promised to furnish Carriages for Materials at the Country’s expense, but did not perform it…The best Architect in Scotland was employed and Master Mason and Carpenters sent for from the northern Countys of England…These with some of the best masons of the Country and about 200 Artificers and Labourers from the Army were employed for near a whole year…The first stone was laid on the 23rd April and the Work carried out of foot above the Pavement before the end of October, so that Wheel Carriages now pass over it. There remains only three foot of parapet wall and the Coping to complete the work.”

One day while supervising the construction of Tay Bridge, Wade met an old highlander who had fought at the battle of Killiecrankie. They talked about the battle and the abilities of the government commander, Major-General Hugh Mackay. “I think,” said the highlander, “that General Mackay was a great fool.” “How so?” asked Wade, “he was considered the best man in the army in his time.” “That may be,” answered the highlander, “but he was a fool for all that. Did he not put his men before his baggage at the battle of Killiecrankie?” “Certainly,” said Wade, “and I would have done the same thing.” “Then you would have been a fool also,” replied the old man. “The baggage should have been put foremost; it would have fought the battle itself far better than the men. We ken weel that the Hielandmen will run through fire and water to get at the baggage. If the General had put it first, our men would have fallen upon it, and then he might have come wi’ his men and cut us all down. Och! the baggage should have been put first; indeed it should.”

On 22 August 1745, Lieutenant-General Sir John Cope camped his government army near Tay Bridge for a night while en route to deal with the rebellion in the western highlands at the beginning of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.

In early February 1746, Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland deployed a detachment of infantry under Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Leighton to nearby Castle Menzies where they could secure and guard the bridge.

In 1747, Tay Bridge was repaired by Major Caulfeild but by 1774 the bridge was described as being ‘in great danger’. In August 1819, while on tour in the Scottish Highlands with Scottish civil engineer Thomas Telford, the English poet Robert Southey – likely reflecting Telford’s own view – noted in his diary:

Near Aberfeldy is a bridge over the Tay, built by General Wade; but creditable neither to the skill nor taste of the architect. It resembles that at Blenheim, the middle arch being made the principal feature. At a distance it looks well but makes a wretched appearance upon closer inspection. There are four unmeaning obelisks upon the central arch, and the parapet is so high that you cannot see over it. The foundations are also very insecure, for we went into the bed of the river and examined them.” 

Today the bridge carries the B846 road which follows the route of Wade’s military road to Weem and then on to Tummel Bridge.

Tay Bridge Aberfeldy
The Black Watch Monument overlooking Wade’s bridge | Image: © Neil Ritchie, editor

Black Watch Memorial

Overlooking Wade’s Bridge is the Black Watch Memorial unveiled in May 1887 by Gavin Campbell, Marquis of Breadalbane to commemorate the first muster of the Black Watch regiment in May 1740.

General Wade had reintroduced the formation of the Independent Highland Companies in 1725 to keep watch in the highlands. In 1739 George II authorised some of the independent companies to be formed into a line regiment. Six companies were assembled at Aberfeldy in October 1739 and officially formed into the 43rd Highland Regiment of Foot. They became known as Am Freiceadan Dubh, the Black Watch, since one of their roles as independent companies had been to tackle blackmail in the highlands and not, as is sometimes claimed, because of the dark government tartan which wasn’t issued at the time.

At their first muster in May 1740, the regiment had increased to ten companies and held its first parade on the banks of the Tay on what is now a golf course. The original muster site was on the north bank of the River Tay but since the ground there was prone to flooding the monument was placed on the south bank.

On top of the monument is Private Farquhar Shaw, one of three soldiers who were shot for their part in the Black Watch mutiny of 1743.

Neil Ritchie
Neil Ritchie
Neil Ritchie is the founder and editor of Neil has a keen interest in the military history of Scotland and in particular the military history of the Jacobite risings. He is also the editor of other online publications covering military history, defence and security.

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