Scotland’s Oldest Bridges.
A map-based catalogue of the oldest masonry bridges in Scotland.
Page last updated Oct.2020
Some notes on bridge history and documentary evidence.
An ancient bridge may appear to be a permanent feature on the landscape but this is not as true as one might expect. Every hundred years or so, because of freezing conditions in Scotland’s winters, these old masonry bridges deteriorated to the level of collapse. This is still happening today. Only in some cases are the necessary preventive repairs done. Floodwaters then complete the destruction. Most ancient masonry bridges have been completely replaced, at some stage, by stronger structures of improved design. Even the oldest surviving bridges will often have structural features that reveal they are not as old as their documented history suggests. Attributing a date to an old bridge is therefore difficult. Are we looking for verification of a bridged river crossing at that location, or are we looking at the present structure, attempting to qualify the architectural style that remains today? We may have to estimate how much of the original build and design remains.
There are no standing Roman bridges in Scotland and archaeological remains are few. This denies a great deal of tradition and folklore. There have been about twelve archaeological 'findings' but most of these amount to no more than a suspicious embankment or possible abutment on the location of a known road river crossing. In 1961, Dymond(R) proposed eight Scottish locations at which he claimed it was reasonable to assume the remains were Roman. The problem is that we know that most of these Roman roads were in use for a very long stretch of history, long after a fairly short Roman occupation. Any bridge structure may not have been built until much later, perhaps during the Dark Ages. An adjacent fort or fortlet, or a link to the Antonine Wall is useful. Even then, at Balmuildy, which was one of Dymond’s locations on the Antonine Wall, dendrochronology subsequently indicated a medieval date.
Harrison(R) presents persuasive archaeological evidence of widespread wooden bridges throughout England, dating from the Dark Ages through to the early Medieval period. Rigold(R) outlines the different styles of timber construction. All-wooden bridges and wooden superstructures on masonry piers continued to be built until the 18thcentury in England, Scotland and France. Walter Macfarlane (R) describes some of them in detail. Small wooden bridges might have masonry abutments. It is interesting that Henri Gautier(R), in his 1716 Traité de Ponts, devoted as many pages to the construction of wooden bridges as he did to masonry.
The first all-masonry vaulted bridges began to appear in the 12th century. Stone bridges may have been mentioned earlier, but those may have been no more than stone piers with wooden superstructure. The earliest vaults were more akin to causeways with culverts/ portals to let the water pass through. They had rounded arches in the Norman (Romanesque) style. None of these remain in Scotland. There are only a few in England. In part, this is because of age and decay, but more importantly, because there was only a brief period after masonry vaulted bridges were introduced before the Gothic era arrived from France and styles changed to pointed arches. Most 13th, 14th and 15thcentury bridge arches are of pointed style, though some are segmental or semicircular. Rounded arches became the norm again in the 16th century.
In Scotland, we have to rely on the archives to identify the location of the oldest bridges for little remains of anything built before 1400. In this regard, generally, it is important to distinguish firm primary evidence from second-hand report or repute, for a great deal of information about individual bridges is not contemporaneous, and is frequently unconfirmed or unsupported. The oldest formal references in state documents or charters, are to bridges in Ayr(1236), Dunkeld(1260), Berwick(1195), Brechin (1220), Haddington(1202), Dumfries (1270), Glasgow(1285), Stirling (1296), Perth (1202), Aberdeen(1310), Bridge of Earn(1317) and Roxburgh(1330). These references merely attest that at that time there was a bridge, probably at the location we expect. Some would have been built of wood, possibly with stone piers, and not rebuilt with masonry vaults until a later date. Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland, Privy Council registers, Exchequer Rolls, Treasury documents and Stuart royal itineraries tell us about thirty major bridges that required expense or maintenance earlier than 1560; many of these still exist, substantially as they were at that time. Two hundred and thirty-eight bridges, both major and minor, can be counted on Timothy Pont's maps and Blaeu's Atlas. This confirms a 16th century existence, but only rarely is it the bridge we see today. There are 32 bridges, still in existence, which date from the 16th century or earlier. These are listed separately, here.
Our existing pre-reformation bridges are from the 15th and early 16th century. Many were commissioned by bishops, and some by wealthy landowners. Bridge building and repair was an act of charity, even piety, and there is a shared timescale and well as some shared technology with the building of medieval cathedrals. There was a reduction in bridge building in the late 16th century, due to investment uncertainty as the Reformation progressed. However, a renewed enthusiasm came in the early 17th century, in the Collection period; post-reformation fervour persuaded congregations to contribute in order to facilitate church attendance. These were narrow 9ft wide structures. There was always attention to maintenance. A 1667 Act established the Commissioners of Supply for each of the sheriffdoms or shires in which prominent landowners had duties including the raising of a Land Tax and the maintenance and building of bridges. Justices of the Peace presided, particularly in the South. Statute labour forces were raised comprising both men and horses.‘Bridge Money’ assessments were made which could be accessed for repairs or new builds. Old Statistical Accounts (1790s) sometimes indicate that all men between 15 and 60yrs had to contribute 6 days per year or pay the commutation fee of one shilling and sixpence. In general terms the Statute Labour arrangements were a failure and were complemented (or superseded) by the Turnpike Acts of Parliament, producing better roads and bridges from 1750 through to the 19th century. The Commissions survived the Act of Union in 1707 and continued activity until 1890 when their powers, as well as those of the turnpike trusts, were passed to the county councils. However, the real surge in new bridge building was from 1725 to 1780, when the Hanoverian military started to build roads and bridges, whilst expediently ignoring the existing, inadequate, statute labour arrangements. Only some of these military bridges are included in this collection. Roy's map include General Wade's bridges but only a proportion of Major Caulfield’s. (An expandable map of all the military roads can be found here.) Drove roads complemented the military road network. A labyrinth of routes carried the black cattle to key market locations, in Crieff Tryst , and later to Falkirk. Generally speaking, drovers did not like bridges because the cattle were prone to panic- and bridge builders did not like cattle because of the damage done. Tolls were essential, to pay for maintenance; this was an unpopular overhead for the drovers, to be avoided when possible.
Next came the period of Parliamentary bridges, though we are now later than the limited scope of this catalogue. It was a separately funded initiative of bridge and road building, launched by an 1803 Act, in which Thomas Telford was employed to set out clear and well-regulated specifications. His bridges were similar to military bridges but with different characteristics . Many of Commissioner of Supply bridges in the South were built at about the same time as these military bridges and Parliamentary bridges in the Highlands. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, this mix was complemented by many more major bespoke bridges, from John Smeaton (Kenmore, Perth and Banff); John Rennie (Kelso, Musselburgh, New Galloway and Newton Stewart) and of course from Thomas Telford, himself, who in addition to remotely overseeing some 1000 Parliamentary bridges, found time to build 30 more, to his own personal design, including Dean bridge in Edinburgh, Potarch Bridge and Bonar Bridge.
Ancient maps offer primary, contemporaneous, documentary evidence which is also topographical. In addition to the four maps which are consulted for this site, there are of course several regional maps of importance such as those of Stobie (Perthshire) and Armstrong (SW Scotland); however a catalogue requires a firm platform with rules of inclusion or it becomes unmanageable. There are also some older maps. Mathew Paris's(1250) map has one feature that is particularly interesting for Scotland. It appears to show only one bridge in the whole of Britain: at Stirling on the River Forth.
There are some limitations to the ‘old-map' approach to creating a bridge inventory. Mapping was a less exact science in the 18th century and Roy left us no description of his method and no legends. Certainly, there are a few significant omissions: bridges which we know were there in 1747, but were not recorded. In particular, packhorse bridges were largely ignored by Roy and his fellow surveyors, yet many of these date from the 17th century, and we might have expected to see more of them on his map. Roy shows an extensive road (route) network with many river crossings but only a proportion of these have the red double-bar notation, clearly depicting a bridge (example, left). One has to wonder about the others (example, below left). Were they less substantial structures, or were they ferries or fords? We know that fords were preferred by cattle drovers, unless the rivers were deep as well as wide. Edmund Burt’s(R) letters provide us with graphic descriptions of routine pedestrian crossings by ford. Macfarlane's Geographical Collections(R) are helpful in this regard. These are works by many authors and were published around 1740. The descriptions of bridges mostly match the locations on Roy, with the significant exceptions of most of those which are recorded as wooden. So, it seems possible that Roy's depiction of a bridge may only apply to masonry structures (possibly only the substantial ones) , and that there were many more wooden bridges, some temporary, some more permanent, in addition to fords and ferries. In this context, it is interesting that Gautier(R) describes all aspects of bridge design and construction in 1716, and devotes as many pages to building wooden bridges as he does to masonry ones.
Some evidence can be interesting, particularly with respect to bridges which no longer exist. There are many 'Brigends' on the old maps but frequently without the accompanying bridge. Presumably, there was once a bridge at these locations and a careful look through the oldest maps is sometimes useful. 'Drochaig' or 'Drochit' translates from Gallic and the same applies. Drumnadrochit on the north bank of Loch Ness has no bridge on any of the three maps. Kindrochit( Bridgend) at Braemar suggests a very ancient bridge on the Cluny. On the north bank of the River Tweed, near Coldstream, is the small village of Birgham. This may have been Briggeham in the past, meaning 'bridge-settlement.' In 1018 there was a significant battle at Carham, half a mile away on the south bank, which established the Tweed as the Scottish border. However, there is no documentary evidence of any bridge and none appears on any of the old maps. Ancient charters identify a bridge at Stanbrig on the Luther Water near Laurencekirk and another at Athebethy in Perthshire. Boat o’Brig, south of Fochabers, is identified in the 13th century. Other ancient charters identify ‘lost’ bridges on the Urie , the Leven, the Mottray, the Quiech and the Ettrick.
There is another intriguing item of relevant evidence from much earlier times: a Roman coin, dated 208 AD, which features a bridge from the campaign of the Roman Emperor Severus, in Scotland. The coin was struck to celebrate this huge military adventure which took the army well north of theForth and Clyde. It is interesting to speculate on the location of that bridge.