General George Wade
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 Kings 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 Lovats 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 Wades 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
Majestys 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 Kings 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
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 generals job; in 1740 the Fraser
chief described the Englishman as that false, deceitful
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
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 offenders 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 Wades 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
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 Wades 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.
Wades 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
Wades 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, Wades
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 generals great coach and its
straining horses come over the rise.
Dictionary of National Biography
2. Wade in Scotland by J.B. Salmond
to Scottish History