"AND yet – and yet, this New Road will some day be the Old Road, too, with ghosts on it and memories.”

So said Ninian to Aeneas, the two protagonists of Neil Munro’s 1914 historical fiction novel The New Road. These words are etched in stone alongside other great Scottish literary musings in Makars’ Court in Edinburgh.

Set in 1733, when General Wade’s soldiers were finishing a network of forts and military roads meant to subdue the Highlands, Ninian’s prophetic musing came from a backdrop of anxiety over what these new connections would mean for the Highland way of life.

Wade’s new roads brought seismic changes to communities from Wester Ross to the Clyde. In one place in particular, the new and the old contrast and intertwine like a dance, raising questions of change, permanence, and legacy.

The National: Lt General George Wade (1673 - 1748), Commander in Chief of 'All His Majesty's Forces in Scotland'Lt General George Wade (1673 - 1748), Commander in Chief of 'All His Majesty's Forces in Scotland' (Image: NQ)

That place is the Sma’ Glen and Glen Almond, Perthshire, where the march of history took three roads, each more tangible (but no more important) than the last.

For generations before Wade’s roadmen first broke earth, the Sma’ Glen was a funnel for fortunes. Cattle were the heart of the Highland economy and every year up to 30,000 cattle were driven south from as far west as Skye to the autumn tryst at Crieff. A busy network of drove roads, most of which are now either vanished or reduced to faint impressions in the heather, led to this grand affair. One of these, known simply as the High Road, is barely visible above the line of Wade’s road.

By 1770, however, Falkirk took over from Crieff as the country’s premier cattle market. Another century later, the advent of the steam engine and proliferation of railroads put an end to the ancient practice of droving, and the drove roads faded into communal memory.

The end of one road is the beginning of another. But what is lost when a new road is made? Various reports in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland mention archaeological sites that were damaged or obliterated to make way for Wade’s new roads.

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South of the Border, the first 20 miles of Hadrian’s Wall were ground down into rubble to lay the military road from Newcastle to Carlisle.

Highland Perthshire’s sites were no more fortunate. A large stone decorated with Neolithic rock art at the farmhouse of Pitilie, above Aberfeldy, was broken up and woven into the road’s fabric.

The most dramatic casualty in the Sma’ Glen itself was Clach Ossian, or Ossian’s Stone. A large boulder deposited by retreating glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age, it was directly on the line of Wade’s road. Using levers, the roadmen pried it from its place and relocated it to the banks of the River Almond. Some even used the stone for target practice to pass the time.

Upon moving it, a small cavity was found at its base containing an urn with ashes, scraps of bone, and partially burnt stalks of heather. Wade’s men assumed it to be the remains of a Roman officer from the nearby fort of Fendoch.

Edmund Burt’s Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland to His Friend in London (1822) describes what happened next. A lone sentry was left to guard the find while the rest retired to their camp.

In the middle of the night, trails of fire began pouring down the steep slopes of the Sma’ Glen. The Gaels of Breadalbane had come to reclaim their own, believing the bones to be those of the bard, Ossian. They took the remains to the summit of Ben Mor, overlooking Ossian’s Stone, and re-interred it to the sound of pipes and volleys from their guns.

There is a Gaelic proverb, Tha rathat làimh ris an rathad mhòr, translated as, “There’s another road near the highway.” Taken literally, few places in Scotland illustrate this like the stretch of Wade’s road running north from the Sma’ Glen towards the old inn at Corrymuckloch and the village of Amulree.

Here, the people of Glen Almond and Strathbraan would have watched as the footpaths they and their ancestors had walked for centuries were one-upped by Wade’s sleek, standardised military road. The latter’s gravel foundation, drainage trenches and flat paved surface was unlike anything that ever traversed the landscape before it.

The National:

New roads were regarded with suspicion. Many chose to eschew it altogether and stick to the old roads, which for their daily purposes were more, not less, efficient.

The old drove roads were adaptive, changing in time to fit within the evolving landscape and best suit the needs of transhumance. The new military roads, by contrast, forced the landscape to bend around them.

THE purpose of the military roads was not just to move troops and goods faster, but to integrate the Highlands into the socio-economic system which had already prevailed throughout England, Wales, and much of the Lowlands.

Welsh writer and travelling antiquarian Thomas Pennant summed up the prevailing attitude in the halls of power when he remarked on the tendency of Wade’s roadmen to inscribe their regiment details on stones beside their roads: “Nor were they less worthy of being immortalised than the Vexillationes of the Roman legions; for civilisation was the consequence of the labours of both.”

Things did not always go according to plan, however. In a perfect example of the international relations concept of “blowback”, the Jacobites – a cause regarded by the road-builders as an enemy of modernity – under Bonnie Prince Charlie were greatly aided by the new roads as they swept south and took Edinburgh. When people build things, we tend to hope and expect that those things will endure beyond ourselves. Yet, inevitably, society’s needs change, often in ways we could never envision. Wade’s roads were intended as the final nail in the coffin of a certain kind of society.

Yet, just 30 years after they were built, they were already referred to as the “old roads” and many were falling into disrepair.

The National: A depiction of Bonnie Prince CharlieA depiction of Bonnie Prince Charlie (Image: NQ)

Today, the stretch of Wade’s road through the Sma’ Glen and onward to Aberfeldy has receded into near-invisibility. Returning to the section leading north to Amulree, Wade’s road often runs parallel to the modern one. Broken fragments of boulders line a faint, unnaturally straight depression, itself filled with long grass, shallow pools, and mud. Ironically, it is often easier to walk upon the heather next to it than along its course.

As sports cars speed along the Tarmac a stone’s throw from Wade’s road, the question arises: how long before the road we use is the old road, too?

More fundamentally, how long before societal needs change to the point where our roads, which we assume to be permanent fixtures in the landscape, become something studied by historians rather than by day-trippers?

As we know all too well by now, the “end of history” is never really the end. Someday, our New Road will be the Old Road, too, and we the ghosts upon it.