by Meryl Marshall (NOSAS)
A six mile stretch of rough moorland, west of Achnasheen, is traversed by what was once a well made road generally 3 metres in width. Although it has fallen into disuse and is travelled only by the occasional walker, possibly doing a coast to coast trip, the road today is very distinct and forms a pleasant days’ ramble, especially when combined with an outward journey to Achnasheen on the Kyle of Lochalsh train (with homeward transport parked at Scardroy). But what are the origins of the road? and why did it fall out of use?
A route through Strathconon to Loch Carron had been in existence for centuries; it linked the east and west coast lands of the Clan Mackenzie. The Roy map of 1750 has the road passing NW from Scardroy to Luib on Loch Gowan, 3kms west of Achnasheen, and the first mention of an Inn at Luib, or Luibgargan as it is sometimes known, is on the Dorret map of 1750. A 1798 list of householders has John Macdonald, described as “vintner”, residing there and in 1814 Donald Sage passed this way: “Leaving Attadale in the morning I breakfasted at Luibgargan, proceeded on foot down Strathconan and rested during the night at Garve” (Memorabilia Domestica, Donald Sage, 1899 p191). Both the road and the Inn appear on other early maps too, the Ainslie map of 1789, Arrowsmith of 1807 and Thomson of 1830. It also appears on a Strathconon estate map of 1825 where it is annotated “the road from Loch Carron”. So quite clearly this was a route of some importance; how did it come to be abandoned?
The Roy map of c1750 has just two tracks or roads in Ross-shire linking the east coast with the west coast; one track, that described above, passes through Strathconon and a further one a few kilometres to the north, passes through Strathbraan from Garve to Achnasheen. The construction of a road from Contin to Poolewe on the line of the latter first appears in the record in about 1760. Probably built by Caulfield this road seems to have been kept in some sort of repair for a short while afterwards but by the end of the 18th century it was in poor condition and Lady Seaforth on her way to Lewis could only get as far as Loch Achanalt where her coach became a complete wreck (Inverness Scientific Society Transactions, Vol 5, p382, 1899). At this time the importance of good communications were being recognized as paramount to the economy of the Highlands and in 1801 Thomas Telford was appointed to report on the state of the roads and to plan safe and convenient routes for new roads. The “Loch Carron road”, through Strathbraan, which bifurcated at Achnasheen, would serve the purpose of linking the east with Poolewe in the west, where the cattle from Lewis were landed and also Loch Carron and Strome Ferry in the south west. It must have been chosen by Telford for upgrading in preference to the Strathconon route. The new road was completed by 1817 and for travellers heading from Loch Carron to the east the new road, although longer than the Strathconon route, would have been more easily traversed. The fate of the Strathconon road and the inn at Luib was sealed! – or was it?.
In the course of time the Inn at Luibgargan became a sheep farm, replaced by an inn at Achnasheen. But it was not the end for the Strathconon road! NAS documents (Balfour Papers) GD 433/3/3/8 reveal that construction of a road from Luibgargan to Scardroy was proposed in 1807, surveyed in 1835 and resurveyed in 1844. From the evidence on the ground this construction was clearly carried out but no evidence of such could be found in the documents. By 1840 the Strathconon Estate had been sold to James Balfour of Whittingham who had made his fortune supplying the British Navy with provisions whilst in Indian waters; did he fund the construction of the road to give the population of his estate employment during a difficult time? There are numerous examples of such projects being undertaken in the Highlands at this time.
The road was not surfaced but this may have been by design, road builders were mindful that a hard surface was detrimental to the hooves of animals. In 1869 the Dingwall to Strome/Kyle of Lochalsh railway had been built. The road was possibly used by drovers taking cattle or sheep from the upper reaches of Strathconon to the station at Achnasheen for transport on the train to the Muir of Ord market.
Whatever the purpose of the road, a walk along it makes a good day out.