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.  The majority of 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 which betray that 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 alternatively, 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.  

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In Scotland we have to rely on the archives to identify the location of the oldest bridges for nothing much remains of anything built before 1400.  However, in 1992 Roman remains were uncovered at the  Polmont Burn near Falkirk. These bridge remains were part of the Antonine Wall Military Way. They are the only surviving ruins from that time despite claims of Roman origin made about  several existing bridges.  

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 (1219), 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 in masonry until a later date. Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland, Privy Council registers, Exchequer Rolls, Treasury documents  and  Stuart royal itineries tell us about thirty major bridges which 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 30 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 sherrifdoms or shires; 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, and statute labour forces were raised comprising both men and horses. Old Statistical Accounts  (1790s) regularly 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. The real surge in new bridge building, however, was from 1725 to 1780 when the Hanovarian 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 included General Wade's bridges but only a a proportion of Major Caulfield’s.   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 ; this was a further separately funded initiative of bridges and roads,  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 a different characteristics .   Many of Commissioner of Supply bridges in the South were built in the same period as the military bridges and these 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,  at Kenmore, Perth and Banff; from John Rennie , Senior, at 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.  None of these later bridges are in this catalogue because they came after William Roy’s map of 1750. 

Ancient maps offer primary, contemporaneous, documentary evidence which is also topographical. In addition to the three maps which are consulted for this site,  there are of course several  regional maps of similar age 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 .

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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, and Edmund Burt's letters provide us with graphic descriptions of routine pedestrian crossings by ford. Macfarlane's 'Geographical Collections' may be helpful. 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 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.  

A good description of 18th century road travel can be found here.

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.  There was a summit meeting at Birgham in 1188 between representatives of both Crowns, and in 1290 the Treaty of Birgham agreed the betrothal of the young Queen Margaret to the Prince of Wales.   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, Athebethy Bridge, near Madderty in Perthshire, built by the monks of Inchaffrey.    Boat o’ Brig,  south of Fochabers,  is identified  in the 13th century Registrum Episcopatus Moraviensis, as the Pons de Spe, built by Muriel,  heiress of Rothes and Glen Orchil, who sponsored the adjacent Hospital of St. Nicholas.   A wooden bridge existed there until the reformation and it seems probable that this was was  the only crossing on the river.  Around the Reformation it was swept away by floods and replaced by ferryboats. 

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 the Forth and Clyde.     It is interesting to speculate on the location of that bridge.

Dec. 2012                                      Site last updated  August 2017