by Meryl Marshall (NOSAS)
This field visit on 25th June 2017 was by way of a “reccy”; the intention was to prospect the route with a view to including it in the proposed publication “Old Routes in the Highlands”, part of the NOSAS 20 year celebrations. What we know as the “Fish road” was constructed between 1792 and 1797 to provide a land link for the newly established settlement of Ullapool to the “outside” world; it was funded by the British Fisheries Society . The road is known as the “Fish road” but whether or not fish were transported along it is debatable , however in 1794 the Old Statistical Account of Loch Boom Parish reports; “there is an excellent road betwixt Ullapool and the town of Dingwall and it is now nearly finished, where lately nothing could be carried but in creels on horseback, carts and carriages can now travel with the greatest of ease.”
A route between Contin and Ullapool has almost certainly been in existence since prehistoric times. In the 17th and 18th century the route was one of the drove routes from the west to the markets in the east and south. ARB Haldane, in “The Drove Roads of Scotland” has:
Pennant in 1772 noted that in the Loch Broom district the sale of black cattle to drovers from as far south as Craven in Yorkshire was the chief support of the people. For these the only practicable route to the south was by Strath Garve to Muir of Ord.
……to Poolewe or to points on the nearby coast came the cattle of Lewis……many of these landed at Aultbea and Gruinard went up the valley of the Gruinard River ….and so by hill tracks to join either the road from Ullapool to Dingwall or that from Achnasheen to Garve…. From Braemore the beasts were driven east to Garve and Dingwall but two deviations from the main road were used by the drovers……one of these turned due south from the main road near Altguish and crossed the forest of Corriemoillie to Garve so shortening the distance and keeping the beasts on the soft ground where grazing was available. The other short cut left the Ullapool Garve road near Inchbae Lodge and crossing the saddle between Ben Wyvis and Little Wyvis re-joined the road to Dingwall at Achterneed.
The settlement of Ullapool was established by the British Fisheries Society between 1788 and 1790. The necessity of a road linking Ullapool with the east coast had been recognised for many years. Captain John Forbes in his Report (on Coigach) for the Commissioners of Forfeited Estates 1755 says;
The roads to and through this country (Coigach) may be reckoned amongst the worst in the Highlands of Scotland, being mountainous rocky and full of stones, and no bridges upon the rivers, so that nothing but necessity makes strangers resort here and for the great part of the year it is almost inaccessible …. the making of a road from Loch Broom to Dingwall ……. would contribute greatly towards the civilizing of this country by reason of intercourse and trade that could be carried on twixt the east and west coasts which is at present impracticable.
John Knox travelling in the Highlands in 1786 on behalf of the British Fisheries Society found no roads in Sutherland, Caithness and Ross-shire (failing apparently to notice the short lived road from Contin to Poolewe!). His criticisms were not without results, for a few years later the British Fisheries Society decided, with Parliaments support, to undertake the construction of a road from Contin to the fishing village of Ullapool. The road was surveyed by George Brown of Elgin about 1790 and the estimated cost was little short of £8,000 which the government considered excessive. Kenneth Mackenzie of Torridon offered to undertake the work, influenced as he later wrote by “the avidity for labour and the necessities of the poor” and in the Spring of 1792 a contract to make 40 miles of road, at fourpence to eightpence a yard according to the nature of the ground and a large number of bridges was entered into. This road was completed in 1797 at a total cost of £4,582……”But Mackenzie’s road fell quickly into disrepair…….. only 12 years later Telford and his colleagues were faced with a demand for renewal.” (New Ways through the Glens, ARB Haldane, 1962)
By 1835 the NSA for the Parish of Loch Broom has:
About 40 years ago a road was constructed at a great expense from Dingwall to Ullapool …. But the line chosen was so absurd and the execution so wretched that the road has been for many years back not only useless but dangerous to foot passengers and riders on horseback, and to wheel carriages almost impassable while several of the principal bridges are carried away or threatened with being so. A new road with the requisite bridges would be an immense improvement.
Telford’s new road, which took the line of the present road, was completed in 1840.
The Map Evidence
A map (NRS RHP11593) of the “Proposed road from Garve to Ullapool” by George Brown and dated 1790 has the line of the old “Fish Road” traversing the high ground from the approximate location of the Glascarnoch Dam to Corrimoillie and Little Garve Bridge – a dashed line which is probably the line of the drove road runs alongside.
The only road on the Arrowsmith map of 1807 (above) and the Thomson’s map of 1830 takes the same line as the one on the 1790 map, in addition it has a building on the south side of road in the approximate position of the Glascarnoch Dam.
The First Edition OS survey of 1875 has both the original road and the newer Telford road which takes a line similar to that of the present road along the glen to Garve. Aultguish Inn is in its present position on this map, but there is also a roofed building in the position of the building on the Thomson map. This location has now been flooded by the building of the Glascarnoch Dam but the ruins of a building can be seen at periods of low water. Was this the old Autguish Inn used by the drovers?
We set off from Aultguish Inn. There was a good turn out of 18 NOSAS members and visitors on a day which was fair but windy. Some of the route is well-known for being wet and boggy and the first bit lived up to expectations! – it is not a route to be traversed in the winter months! But on our day there were compensations. The wasted abutments of a bridge (MHG29869) over the burn south of Aultguish Inn were identified and the pleasant green oasis of Kirkan farmstead was visited (MHG8328).
There is documentary evidence of this place being occupied from at least 1790 – a list of 1798 has Alexander Grant, tenant, there and Kenneth MacLennan in his “Memories of Strathvaich” (1992) has James MacTavish, sheepfarmer in 1825. Maclennan also tells us that:
“There is the ruin of an old limekiln above Kirkan House where there is a small outcrop of limestone.” And “ The excise officers found one (an illicit still) on Kirkan and destroyed it. At the time there were men working on the Black Bridge, who spotted the excise officers travelling along the road in a horse and trap. As soon as the officers were out of sight a man ran across country to raise the alarm. As a result some of the whisky was saved.
No evidence of the small outcrop of limestone and the limekiln was found apart from the verdant green landscape, and we failed to locate the illicit still bothy which had been recorded in the burn to the east of the settlement at NGR NH 37149 69666. The still bothy had been visited before, but this was rough country and having found ourselves too high up the burn there were few who wished to go back down again! (my apologies to all concerned!)
We rejoined the road and continued. The next section was pleasant walking over the watershed along the well defined road. Here, on the higher ground the road was more discernable – it was generally about 3m in width and bounded on one or both sides by occasional boulders, there was however very little evidence of constructed drainage channels. On the lower wetter stretches the road disappeared altogether, but generally the line of it ahead could be easily identified. This was remote wild country with distant views.
Soon we entered a forestry plantation and started the gradual descent on a good track. Sadly the lower part of this was overgrown and we were obliged to take a detour by Silver Bridge to our cars which were parked at Little Garve bridge. This fine old bridge was built in the 1760s possibly by Caulfield and is well worth a visit. It was constructed on the Contin to Poolewe road which, like the Ullapool road, was to have only a short life falling victim to Highland weather and lack of maintenance.
Most people enjoyed the day and even though the road was wet and rough going at times they appreciated the fact that much of it had not been altered in any way from its original form. Although neglected and lacking in maintenance, it was in its original state and had not been re-used as an estate or forest road. Many commented on the wild location and the distant views – the nature and the general ambience of the place. Some thought that the lack of associated archaeology was a draw back but others thought it was made up for by the road itself and the bridges, particularly the one at Little Garve. Many thought the deviation to Kirkan worthwhile.
Perhaps the name “fish road” is a misnomer, so far no evidence of it being used to transport fish has been found and surely it would have been easier and quicker to send the fish out from Ullapool by boat. The name was possibly adopted simply because the road was paid for by the British Fisheries Society. In actual fact it was not long before the fish began to desert Loch Broom, the road fell into disrepair and a new road was built by Telford. The old road over the hill however resorted to its original purpose continuing to be used as a drove road for many years.
Report (on Coigach) for the Commissioners of Forfeited Estates – Captain John Forbes 1755
The Drove Roads of Scotland – ARB Haldane, 1997
New Ways through the Glens – ARB Haldane 1962
Memories of Strathvaich – Kenneth MacLennan, 1992