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General George Wade

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Routes, Roads, Regiments and Rebellions:...
A Brief History of the Life and Work of General George Wade

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lord Lovat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aberfeldy Bridge

 


Major General George Wade

From the viewpoint of the British government in London, imagine the Highlands of Scotland in 1724. At the top of the country lie some 25,000 square miles of roadless mountain, moor and bog, peopled by savage, squabbling tribes who speak an outlandish language and have their own incomprehensible customs and dress. One would be pleased to ignore them but for the fact that virtually every man is skilled in the use of arms. Not only do they regularly descend to the Lowlands to rustle cattle but, twice within living memory, armies of them have emerged from their wilderness to slaughter the King’s troops and threaten the integrity of the state. Many of their leaders had fled into exile at the court of King James where they continue to plot to oust King George and reinstate the old Stuart monarchy. The problem was not going to go away.

Successive governments had built a chain of fortresses, put in garrisons and even tried to massacre an entire clan to frighten the Highianders into submission, but nothing worked for long. The most promising attempt at policing the region had been the recruitment of Independent Companies from the loyal clans. Speaking Gaelic and knowing the countryside they were able to prevent most cattle theft and put a stop to the protection rackets. If you paid your blackmeal - hence blackmail - the robbers left you alone. If your beasts were stolen, you could put up a substantial reward and they would be returned. Offering money for information on the identity of the thieves was futile. Informers were killed.

The Independent Companies which became known as the Black Watch largely put a stop to this - until they crossed the divide and took part in banditry themselves.
In 1724 Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, sent a letter to the government outlining the Highland problem. He recommended his own appointment as Lord Lieutenant of Inverness-shire and asked for the power to raise new Independent Companies in addition to the one he already commanded. His analysis was not without merit save for the fact that he put forward himself as dictator of the north. Except for his own clansmen, everyone knew that Lovat’s life-long lack of any discernible moral scruples was one of the wonders of the age. So the government sent up its own man, Major-General George Wade, to make a reconnaissance.

The third son of a dragoon officer who had been granted land in Ireland, Wade had joined the army aged 17 in 1690 and he made solid progress up the promotional ladder in the war against France in Flanders, Spain and Portugal. After the time of Marlborough, the British army lacked good commanders and was particularly hide-bound and corrupt and Wade, who ended up a Field Marshal, the highest rank in the army, is described as ‘a useful lieutenant and an excellent leader in action, but he entirely lacked initiative, and he was discouraged and perplexed by responsibility.”

The man himself was big, burly, rich, affable, open-minded and practical. He was Member of Parliament for Bath and very popular in the city which was in its heyday as the most fashionable holiday resort in the country. An anecdote survives which gives something of Wade’s style. He was in a disreputable gaming house when he found that his valuable snuff box was missing. He exploded with rage and demanded that every man present should submit to being searched. He was approached by a gentleman who asked for a word in private. The man produced half a chicken from his pocket. He had fallen on hard times. He had been given the fowl by a sympathetic waiter and would eat it the following day. He did not wish the shame of his predicament to be exposed in public but the general was welcome to frisk him. Wade gave him a hundred pounds - nearly 10 years wages for a private soldier - and then found the snuff box in another pocket of his own coat.

Wade did a tour of the north towards the end of 1724 and sent his report to the government. It found favour and on 29th April the following year, he was appointed Commander-in-Chief of His Majesty’s Forces, Castles, Forts and Barracks in North Britain with the brief to subdue the Highlands. His first job was to disarm the Highlanders. This had been attempted after the 1715 Rising. The loyal clans handed in their weapons, the others had imported a boatload of worn-out muskets and swords from Holland, surrendered these and kept their own.

A government ship arrived at Inverness and the clans duly took notice of the intimidating quantity of rations and ammunition that it disgorged, and of the four battalions of Foot and the Independent Companies who soon followed. Then Wade made his entry with the authority to pardon those attainted for rebellion provided they handed in their weapons and swore loyalty to King George. The general marched with two hundred men to Mackenzie country where he received their oaths and their arms. He posted men from the rehabilitated Independent Companies to guard their country when the adjacent Camerons did not submit. He also restored the forts strung along the Great Glen, built new barracks and began to construct the roads for which he became famous.

Wade realised that the impossibility of communications in the Highlands was the main factor in preserving this last tribal society in Europe. No wheeled vehicle could move in the mountain country. A highway was a track along which a man or a horse in single file could travel in summer. In winter the bridgeless spate rivers prevented even this. A network of all­weather roads was needed that would penetrate the remote and lawless parts of the region. Given a hint of trouble soldiers and, above all, artillery could be swiftly dispatched north from the Lowlands to preserve or restore the King’s peace.

Over the next ten years Wade was using as many as 500 troops at a time on road making. Private soldiers received double pay of a shilling a day for this labour and the gulf that existed between officers and men was broken down by the close working relationships forged as they built the 250 miles of road and 40 bridges through the hills. Although diluted, this new spirit permeated to the rest of the British army to its inestimable benefit

The goodwill spread across the Highlands. A lesser man than Wade would have been seen as the hated representative of a repressive regime and there was no doubt that the chiefs did not welcome the new roads, rightly seeing them as threats to the independence of their little fiefdoms, but the general made friends wherever he went. He was held in high esteem by everyone - except Lord Lovat who thought he should have the general’s job; in 1740 the Fraser chief described the Englishman as ‘that false, deceitful Barbarian.’

Wade wintered in London and Bath but every summer, in a coach drawn by six horses, he came north. The Highlanders, who had never seen a wheeled vehicle, were amazed to see this monster trundling along the new roads as the general made his inspections and planned the work ahead. In 1729 he erected a standing stone by the side of the road at Dalnacardoch which is still to be seen alongside the modem highway. The following spring he returned with his engineers and, to the dismay of every Highlander in Atholl and Badenoch, walked over to the standing stone and picked a golden guinea off the top. He explained that he had left it there the year before for safekeeping.

Any chief suspected of Jacobite plotting would see the great carriage rumble into his country and Wade would emerge to give a little avuncular advice and warning before consuming vast quantities of the offender’s claret. Even the fiercest Jacobite of them all, Alexander Robertson of Struan, who was unique in being out in 1689, 1715 and 1745, succumbed to Wade’s charm and adopted him as close drinking companion. This position was no sinecure. The Duke of Perth had to be excused when Prince Charles first landed as he was hors de combat for several weeks after enjoying Struan’s hospitality.

When Wade came north in 1724 there was no bridge across the Tay from its source to its mouth. Dunkeld was the obvious place for his road to Dalnacardoch to cross the river and he sent word to the local magnate and landowner, the Duke of Atholl, asking for a meeting with the his representative at the proposed crossing point. His Grace has come down as a proud and haughty man. Since this was what was expected of a duke in the eighteenth century, his pride and haughtiness must have indeed been spectacular to have been remarked upon. His response to Wade was that generals must come to dukes, not the other way round.

The Commander-in-Chief, North Britain, was not to be intimidated by a local grandee however big his wig. So he built the bridge on his Crieff­Dalnacardoch road at Aberfeldy instead. Designed by William Adam, this is Wade’s masterpiece and its single carriageway is still in use today without any weight restriction, easily carrying 40-ton trucks loaded with mineral ore mined in the hills ten miles to the north. At the grand opening of the bridge on 8th August 1735, the people and lairds of Highland Perthshire gathered to honour its builder. The Independent Companies paraded and old Struan Robertson, the Poet Chief, wrote a few verses for the occasion. They are not amongst his best
- the King is ‘perplexed till he is told/ That Wade was skilful, and that Wade was bold.’- but is the sentiment from such a quarter that is remarkable.

Wade’s highways were designed to get troops quickly up from central Scotland to the fortresses in Great Glen and his first road ran along its length from Inverness to Fort William. South from Fort Augustus his connecting road with the Lowlands snaked over Corryarack Pass to Dalnacardoch where one branch led to Crieff across Taybridge and the other to the Highland Line at Dunkeld. Another road ran south from Inverness to Aviemore, then west to Ruthven where the barracks were rebuilt. There it split to join the main road from Fort Augustus, one branch linking in towards Corryarack, the other south to Dalwhinnie.

Having made a host of friends that he would keep for the rest of his life, the general finally left Scotland in 1738 but his work soon turned to ashes. He left the Independent Companies in such good heart that, on the understanding that they would only serve in Scotland, they were incorporated into the British Army in 1740 as the 43rd Regiment of Foot. The government ordered them to London in 1743. There, after Wade had inspected them on Finchley Common, a hundred mutinied and began to march home. Dragoons caught up, three ringleaders were executed and the regiment was shipped to Flanders to win the admiration of the Duke of Cumberland at the battle of Fontenoy in May 1745. But their departure removed the eyes, ears and swords of the government in the Highlands and it was the soldiers of Prince Charles who used every mile of the new roads and bridges. Wade himself was summoned from retirement to command the northern army in Newcastle during the Rising but he dithered and allowed the rebels to march unhindered down the western side of England, and to march unhindered back.

The solution to the Highland problem was not provided by Wade but by the brutality of the redcoats, by repressive Acts of Parliament and by the Clearances. The general lived to see the persecution and died in 1748 aged 75. He left £100,000, setting aside £500 for the erection of a monument to his own memory in Westminster Abbey.
Wade’s roads have been described as ‘ways for light and learning -forfolk moving out of the Highlands to learn about the world,forfolk moving in from the world to learn about the Highlands.’2 The famous tag ‘Had you seen these roads before they were made,/You would lift up your hands, and bless General Wade’ is attributed to William Caulfeild, Wade’s assistant during the great engineering works, and was inscribed on an obelisk by his road near Fort William.

Today many of the roads are buried beneath tarmac but sometimes one can see the original line leave the modern highway to snake up a hillside or leap a burn across a delicate bridge. Many of their miles still cross the most barren moors and passes and there, in the mist of a summer night, one could quite expect to hear a distant rumble and see the general’s great coach and its straining horses come over the rise.

1. Dictionary of National Biography
2. Wade in Scotland by J.B. Salmond

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