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Major William Caulfeild: The unsung hero of the military roads

Military engineer and General Wade's right-hand man during the military road-building programme

William Caulfeild
Major William Caulfeild

Major William Caulfeild was an officer in the British Army who is primarily known for his work supervising road and bridge construction in the Scottish Highlands in the 18th century. He was born in Ireland in 1698, the son of the Hon. Toby Caulfeild, and grandson of William Caulfeild, 1st Viscount Charlemont. He joined the army at a young age and later served under General George Wade, who was appointed as Commander-in-Chief of Scotland in 1724.

General Wade set about building a network of roads and bridges to improve communication and transportation between military garrisons and forts in Scotland, as well as to facilitate trade and commerce. He also aimed to pacify the rebellious Highland clans by integrating them into the British state. Wade began his road-building project in 1725 and completed about 250 miles of road and 40 bridges by 1737.

Caulfeild was employed by Wade in 1732 as Inspector of Roads for Scotland and soon proved himself to be a capable and diligent engineer. He oversaw the construction of new roads and bridges, as well as maintaining and repairing existing ones. He also supervised a large workforce of soldiers, contractors, and local labourers.

After Wade left Scotland in 1740, Caulfeild became responsible for directing the road-building project until his death in 1767. During this time, he built over 800 miles of road and around 600 bridges, more than three times what Wade had achieved. He also improved on Wade’s design by using stone causeways instead of gravel for drainage, making wider roads with ditches on both sides, using iron bars instead of wooden beams for bridge supports, and adding milestones and direction posts along the routes.

Caulfeild’s roads were not only vital for military purposes but also for economic development. They enabled faster movement of goods and people across Scotland, reduced travel costs and risks, stimulated trade and tourism, encouraged agriculture and industry, and fostered social integration and cultural exchange. Some of his roads are still in use today or form part of modern highways.

Caulfeild was not only a skilled engineer but also a respected leader. He had a good rapport with his workers, whom he treated fairly and paid promptly. He also had a good relationship with local landowners, clan chiefs and churchmen whom he consulted before building on their lands. He was praised by his superiors for his honesty, diligence and loyalty.

Caulfeild died at Inverness on December 21st, 1767 at age 69. He was buried at St Andrew’s Churchyard with full military honours. His epitaph reads:

“Here lies Major William Caulfield who served King George faithfully above forty years; twenty five whereof he acted as chief engineer under General Wade & afterwards continued inspector general till his death; during which time he made above one thousand miles & built six hundred bridges; many whereof were esteemed unsurmountable till executed by him.”

Caulfeild’s legacy is evident in the lasting impact he had on Scotland’s infrastructure, landscape and society and certainly deserves more recognition for his remarkable achievements and contributions to Scottish history.

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