Public works and private enterprise: moving towards the modern transport system

This chapter looks at the way that modern transport systems have developed over the last three centuries and the remnants that can still be seen of constructions that were part of the transport infrastructure, but which have now fallen out of use.

Development of the road system was initially patchy and spasmodic because there were problems with all the various schemes for financing them. It was not until the late 19th Century that they were placed on a proper financial footing by being financed entirely from the public purse. Most of the early roads from this period are now buried under modern tarmac, but in some cases they have fallen out of use as public roads but can still be followed as farm tracks or footpaths (e.g. the Aberdeen Turnpike and St Martin’s Turnpike, see below).

For a time, canals were seen as the answer for transport of goods, until superseded by the development of the railways. In recent years British Waterways Scotland has reversed years of neglect and revitalised Scotland’s canals for recreational use, see particularly the Millennium project which restored the Union and Forth & Clyde canals.

At their peak, railways were so successful that they drove toll roads out of business. Some of the great 19th Century railway lines are still used on a daily basis. Many disused lines are now available for recreational use and much of their infrastructure is still extant. The Innocent Railway in Edinburgh (see page XXX) is a good example of a ‘life cycle’ of a railway: it started as a horse drawn tramway, then became a busy branch line in the railway network, and today has been converted into a popular cycle path.

Early development of the roads system
From early in the 17th Century, the Scottish Parliament passed a number of acts authorising Justices of the Peace to build roads with local labour. These culminated in an Act in 1669 which required local landowners to provide a labour force (‘statute labour’) for maintenance of roads on ‘parish road days’. Responsibility for roads was later transferred to local sheriffs and subsequently to counties or parishes which could apply to Parliament for powers to construct roads under the supervision of trustees. Statute labour was commuted into money payments to pay for road construction. However, all these developments tended to be ineffective because the control was in the hands of the landowners who were ultimately responsible for the costs and, therefore, wished to keep the costs to a minimum. Also, the work tended to be done piecemeal, parish by parish, with no overall co-ordination.

Turnpike Roads
Charging tolls for the use of roads was introduced in England in the 17th Century, but the system was not used in Scotland until the mid-18th Century. They were called turnpike roads because of the frame, armed with pikes, that was turned to allow people to pass once they had paid the toll.

The 18th Century saw rapid development in the economy of Scotland with new farming methods, increasing industrialisation and the opening up of the markets in England following the Act of Union. Improved roads were therefore essential to carry the increased traffic of people and goods. An act of the Westminster Parliament in 1751 allowed turnpike roads to be set up in Scotland. Each turnpike scheme required a separate act of Parliament, allowing a trust to be formed to arrange for roads to be built. Hundreds of trusts were set up and resulted in a boom in road building.

In order to ensure a steady income, the trusts held an annual auction of the right to collect tolls. The tollkeeper paid the trust a fixed amount and could then keep any profit he made from collecting tolls. Tollkeepers sometimes resorted to ways of making additional income, such as selling liquor. On the border with England they also made money from marrying runaway couples.

Tolls were unpopular and people found ways of avoiding them wherever possible. In Duns, in the Scottish Borders, two tolls were destroyed by fire as soon as they were erected and others in the nearby countryside were also attacked. In some cases, toll schemes had to be abandoned for fear of local unrest. Cattle drovers continued to use the old droving hill tracks and some farmers allowed them to use their fields to bypass tolls.

Toll gathering became less economic with the development of the railways and toll income declined dramatically in the second quarter of the 19th Century. Small turnpike trusts were amalgamated to try to make them more economic, but by the second half of the 19th Century it was clear that another system was needed to finance road building and maintenance. This led to raising money by a tax on the value of property – a precursor of the rating system.

Parliamentary roads
Alongside the development of turnpike roads were some major public works commissioned by the Westminster Parliament, particularly in the Highlands. It was considered that better roads were needed to make the Highlands more economically productive and to check the flow of emigrants from the area. In 1801 and 1802 Thomas Telford was commissioned by the Treasury to carry out two surveys in Scotland, as a result of which he reported that a major programme of road and bridge building was required and he also proposed construction of the Caledonian Canal. He reported that ‘Previous to the year 1742 the roads were merely the tracks of black cattle and horses, intersected by numerous rapid streams’. He dismissed the military roads as being of little use for civilians: ‘Having been laid out with other views than promoting commerce and industry, [they] are generally in such directions and so inconveniently steep as to be nearly unfit for the purposes of civil life’.

The Government acted quickly on these reports and two Parliamentary Commissions were set up by Act of Parliament in 1803. One Commission oversaw construction of roads and bridges, principally in the Highlands, with a separate Commission overseeing construction of the Caledonian Canal. Although major funding was provided by the government, the scheme relied on local proprietors applying for roads to be constructed on their lands, on the basis that they would provide half of the funding – often met by provision of labour by the landowners’ tenants. By this time landowners had become aware of the economic advantages of proper roads across their land and the added incentive of government funding led to enthusiastic participation in the scheme.

During the period 1803 to 1821 the Commission spent more than £1,500,000 and over 900 miles of roads and more than 1000 bridges were built. The Parliamentary Commission continued until 1861 with Thomas Telford as the main engineer.

New road construction techniques that were pioneered in Scotland contributed towards the success of road-buidling. In particular the Scottish engineer and road builder John Loudon McAdam (1756 – 1836) introduced new methods of road building including construction using crushed stone bound with gravel (‘macadamisation) and the use of tar – leading to the term ‘tarmac’ from ‘tar-McAdam’. His methods were further developed by Thomas Telford.

The official end of the turnpike system came with the passing of the Roads and Bridges Act 1878 which placed the management and maintenance of roads on county road trusts and burgh councils. Moving into the 20th Century roads once again became the primary focus of transport, after the relatively short-lived popularity of railways and canals.

Tolls on bridges continued to be charged until the modern day, but their unpopularity led the Scottish National Party to abolish all remaining tolls in 2008.

The canal system
Although Scotland was not gripped by ‘canalitis’ to the same extent as south of the border, five canals were constructed between 1768 and 1822, totalling 137 miles in length. They are some of the most famous and historic in Great Britain: the Caledonian Canal, the Crinan Canal, the Forth & Clyde Canal, the Union Canal, and the Monkland Canal. Canals played a vital part in the early industrial revolution, but were rapidly superseded once railways were established

The Forth & Clyde canal was the first canal to be built in Scotland. It is 35 miles long, and wide enough to accommodate sea-going vessels. It runs from the Forth estuary at the River Carron to the Bowling Basin on the River Clyde. Work began on the Forth & Clyde Canal in 1768 but it was delayed by funding problems and did not open until 1790. Rights of navigation were extinguished by Parliament in 1963, but the canal was reopened in 2001 as part of the £78m Millennium Link – the largest canal restoration ever in Britain. The project incorporated the construction of the famous Falkirk Wheel which opened in June 2002, reconnecting the Forth & Clyde and Union Canals for the first time in over 70 years.

The Union canal runs from Edinburgh Quay, over aqueducts and through tunnels, to link with the Forth & Clyde Canal at the Falkirk Wheel. For several decades before the railway was established, the Union Canal provided an important commercial link across central Scotland. The carriage of coal was the main impetus for building the Union canal. Construction started in 1818 and the canal opened in 1822. An eleven-lock flight connected the canal with the Forth and Clyde canal at Falkirk, providing a direct inland connection between the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh which originally included a regular passenger service. The Canal’s profitability was greatly diminished by the opening of the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway in 1842. The lock flight was demolished in the 1930s and following a period of steady decline, the Union Canal was abandoned in the 1960s. However, it was restored and reopened as part of the Millennium Link project in 2001.

Thomas Telford recommended construction of the Caledonian Canal, from Fort William to Inverness, so that naval and merchant ships could avoid the treacherous journey round the Pentland Firth and Cape Wrath. Its construction was the subject of one of the Parliamentary Commissions set up in 1803 (see above). The canal links Loch Lochy, Loch Oich, Loch Ness and Loch Dochfour. Although only relatively short, artificial canals were required to link the lochs together. Many locks were required, including the massive eight-lock staircase of lochs at Banavie, known as Neptune’s Staircase.

Construction of the canal considerably overshot Telford’s original estimates of both time and cost. The canal was partly finished in 1822, but it was a further 25 years before final completion. By this time, the advent of larger steamships had diminished the canal’s role, and it was never a commercial success.

The Crinan Canal (sometimes called ‘the most beautiful shortcut in the world’) is 9 miles long and links Loch Fyne at Ardrishaig with the Sound of Jura, creating a vital waterway through the Kintyre peninsula. It was built to improve access to the Western Isles, offering a safe transit route from Ardrishaig on Loch Fyne to Crinan, avoiding the long and difficult journey around the Mull of Kintyre. The Crinan Canal Act was passed in 1793 but funding problems meant that it was not finished until 1809. Even at the height of its use in the mid 18th Century, the canal was not a commercial success, but it provided an important local amenity and supply line for the Highlands and islands.

James Watt began cutting the Monkland Canal in 1770 but work stopped after 3 years when money ran out. However, more money was eventually raised and the canal was extended to join the Forth & Clyde Canal at Port Dundas. The development of the iron industry in Coatbridge in the 1830s generated considerable business for the canal. The canal is no longer available for navigation but is still a vital part of Scotland’s canal system as it provides the main water supply to the Forth & Clyde Canal. It is also an important local amenity.

The Railways
The railways revolutionised travel in Scotland during the 19th Century, allowing people to travel more easily than ever before, even in remoter parts. By the end of the century railway lines linked all the major cities in Scotland and many of the villages. Journeys that had taken days by coach could be accomplished in hours.

The earliest railway lines were constructed to carry coal from mines to the harbours from which it was exported, for example the wooden-railed Tranent and Cockenzie Waggonway which was constructed in 1772. But with the coming of the steam train, railways developed rapidly for both passenger and freight traffic. A major boost to the popularity of railways in Scotland was the opening of the Edinburgh to Glasgow line in 1842.

Construction of the railways was financed by railway entrepreneurs, who competed to build the most profitable lines. In particular, a rivalry developed between two major companies, the Caledonian Railway Company and the North British Railway Company.

The construction of the West Highland line is the best example in Scotland of how engineering and geographical difficulties were overcome to build a railway that is still in use today. The contractor was Sir Robert McAlpine, known as ‘Concrete Bob’, who used concrete in the construction of the line, which was a novel material at the time. The line was built in two phases; the section from Fort William to Craidendoran was begun in 1889 and completed in 1894 and the extension to Mallaig began in 1897 and opened in 1901. It involved construction of about 350 viaducts and a number of tunnels. The most significant engineering works are the Glenfinnan Viaduct (380m), the Rannoch Viaduct (208m) and the Loch Treig Tunnel (127m). The section of track across Rannoch Moor floats on a carpet of brushwood because the engineers found it impracticable to sink foundations through the thick peat. The railway brought new industries to the West Highlands and facilitated easier transportation of fish and agricultural produce to the markets of Glasgow, so improving the diet of people living there.

The Tay Bridge disaster in 1879 was a setback for the railways. The bridge collapsed during a December storm as a train was crossing it, with the loss of 75 lives. However, engineers learned from the design faults of the old bridge and a new Tay bridge opened in 1887. The world-renowned Forth Bridge, which opened in 1890, was designed to be failsafe. Its foundations consisted of huge cylinders filled with concrete, with supporting towers made of 55,000 tons of steel and held together with eight million rivets.

The railways had an enormous impact on life in Scotland. More remote areas were opened up to tourism, easier transport of goods stimulated the economy and Scotland became a world leader in construction of railway locomotives.

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