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.