Thomas Telford Thomas Telford, Civil Engineer
Return to :- [Moffat Homepage] [Moffat Server Index]
[Telford Index] [Life of Telford] [Made by Telford]
[A Local Telford Tour Guide]
[Richard Edkins : A Roads History of Moffat]
[Norman Millar : The New Road From Glasgow To Carlisle]

A Roads History of Moffat

© Richard Edkins, B.Sc. (Open)


The town of Moffat is in many ways an example of a settlement whose growth and trade were dictated by the development of the surrounding road network. There are many towns who owe their existence to a bridge or ford across a river, sometimes because crossings were hazardous and travellers were delayed in local inns. However, Moffat is highly unusual in that it is more of a 'pass town', like some in the Alps and Pyrenees; in this kind, a nearby pass was only negotiable in favourable weather conditions. Moffat lies at the confluence of the rivers Annan, and Evan Water, but both can be avoided by travelling to the east of them down towards Carlisle. The particular problem for travellers was that the Evan Water Dale was for centuries unsuitable as a through route from Carlisle up towards Glasgow and Edinburgh. The Southern Uplands are at this point fairly high and steep, their slopes and tops are covered in clays and peat mosses, so only a few practicable routes could be chosen. Due to Roman choice of routes up Cotes Hill and Ericstane Muir, for 1700 years the old Carlisle road passed through Moffat and onto the ridge between Annan Water and Evan Water.

The development of the Telford-surveyed route of the modern A74 between 1786 and 1830 is mostly covered by Mr. Norman Millar in his excellent following section. To bring all up to date, the Roads History monograph finishes with a brief examination of the post-Telford development of railways and motorways, with their impacts on Beattock and Moffat.

Roman Era : AD 75-405 :

During the late First Century A.D. Gnaeus Julius Agricola began his conquest on lands between the Solway and the Firths of Forth and Clyde, in an effort to completely subdue the Pictii and the Brigantes. In this he was only partially successful, though the Romans twice were to try to subdue the province of 'Valentia'. The Twentieth Legion (XX Valeria Victrix) was for a time based at Inchtuthil north of the Forth, the one legionary fortress sited in Scotland. However, they were withdrawn after only a short time and re-based in Deva (Chester), as the Fourteenth Legion (XIV Gemina) had been withdrawn to Germany to hold that frontier. At about the same time, the Ninth Legion (IX Hispana) vanishes from the Army Lists; based at York, possibly suffering heavy losses at Newstead (Trimontium) in the Borders, the Legion may have been disbanded and units (vexillatio) sent to bolster Legions which had suffered losses on the Rhine and Danube. Except for outlying forts and signal stations to warn of attacks, Roman units in Scotland were withdrawn to the Solway-Tyne line for what later became the frontier around Hadrian's Wall.

By the late Second Century A.D., the Severan Emperors had decided to try to re-establish control over Scotland, this time building the Antonine Wall from the Forth to the Clyde. There was a definite effort to establish Valentia, but both military expediency and economic factors were to again call a halt. Hadrian's Wall was to remain the main frontier from then to the end of the Fourth Century, although with Romanising influences that spread across at least the south and west of Scotland.

Roman roadbuilding in the Annandale area thus had at least two main phases, - the Agricolan and the Severan. The road past Moffat came from Stanwix north of Carlisle, but avoided the treacherous Solway Mosses and sandbanks by heading north-east to near modern Longtown, before heading north and west towards modern Lockerbie. Temporary camps or forts have been found at Kirkpatrick-Fleming (2), Birrens (Blatobulgium) (6), Middlebie (2), Burnswark (3) and Torwood near Lockerbie (1), At Ladyward, an important fort marks a change due north alongside the Annan River. Towards Wamphray. Ploughing has removed most signs of fortifications further north, although there was a camp at Hangingshaw near Johnstonebridge, until the road line crosses the Annan and approaches Milton (Tassieholm) where there are the remains of at least three camps, a fort and a fortlet, then crosses the Annan near Beattock.

The Bankend and Barnhill area near Beattock contains the remains of a fortlet and maybe as many as six marching-camps, some large enough to accommodate a legion encamped for days or weeks. The Beattock gravels offer a well-drained soil perfect for excavating ditches and low ramparts, as well as turf to consolidate the ramparts and carry palisades. It is fairly certain that the Legion advancing up Annandale would have built or repaired its road as it went, so that men and supplies could be rapidly moved up from the south. Unfortunately, the road survives only in a few places, although the most interesting is actually within easy driving and walking distance of Moffat itself.

After leaving Milton and crossing the Annan by an as-yet unidentified bridge or ford, the Romans headed from the river-clays up the reasonably dry sloping ridge of Coteshill, between Moffatdale and Evandale. The line can just be identified as a faint mound from just east of Lochhouse Tower north across the road up onto the Golf Course. The Romans seem to have ditched their road upon either side to carry off surface water and keep the roadbed dry. In the same way as the later Thomas Telford, the Romans laid a base of large cobbles or small blocks, about 160 mm across and deep, with smaller stone on top, finished with a layer of gravel. There may have been actual paving stone in areas of heavy wear such as entrances to fortresses and in towns, but not elsewhere; cost and availability of stone would have been important then as well as now.

Roman gravel and stone workings in the Annan riverbed and terraces probably provided the material for much of the local roadmaking, but erosion and ploughing have probably removed all signs. However, at Gilbert Rig uphill by a mile from Chapel Plantation, the road changes orientation for its three-mile line up to White Type, and beside the change in direction there are a number of small open-cast quarries or 'borrow pits', still visible in the surface. The Legionaries would have probably carted stone as far as was practicable, although in Scottish hills there were generally outcrops to quarry. The borrow pits probably date from the whole period of Roman maintenance; when not fighting, or training at centres such as Burnswark, the Legionaries would have been kept occupied on such tasks as the maintenance of the vital roads and fortifications.

It is unclear whether the Roman Army would have maintained roads north of Hadrian's Wall after the second and third centuries AD, although a good road would have helped suppress any native revolts. It is more likely that there would have been gradual deterioration marked by occasional improvements during campaigns north of the wall. For the rest of that period, local people and occasional traders would have followed the almost-abandoned road as being the quickest route across the Southern Uplands.

Dark Ages to Early Mediaeval :

The withdrawal of the Legions in AD 407 did not mark the end of Romanised life in Britain; in the same way as the British Army is copied in India and Pakistan, there was an attempt to maintain the civil and military advantages of Roman culture. But there was a return from town life to a more decentralised farming existence, partly because in towns there were the inhibitions of government, such as taxation, the rule of law and centralised government. The other inhibiting factor on town settlements was sanitation and disease; without properly maintained water supplies and sewerage, water-borne diseases become rife. It was only with the introduction of mains water supplies in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, that, for example, London became a net producer rather than a consumer of population. References in the fragmentary histories of the post-Roman period to plagues and widespread diseases may show evidence of a breakdown in urban sanitation and medical knowledge.

For the Moffat area, the net effect will have been to reduce such trade as existed to the bare minimum of travellers on foot and on horseback. Local farming settlements continued (with some Roman Army disruptions) largely unaltered up to the early mediaeval period. Moffat itself probably came into existence some time between 900 and 1100 AD, but the farms at Ericstane and Corehead probably predate it. The de Brus establishment of Auldton Motte indicates that the town lay at the south and eastern end of its current centre, the old graveyard and its fragmentary church marking this. But it is well away from the old Roman Road, reflecting both new priorities and a change in travel needs.

Countryfolk would in general have no use for the Roman road, so its repair would have largely been ignored. Its main use would have been by armies of one faction or another; in a time when armies pillaged the surrounding countryside for food and drink as they marched, living near a road would have been insanity. The exception was in places where some warlord had his main residence, a sitting market for travelling craftsmen and chapmen. Although it seems a far cry from the tinker, packman and the pedlar, to the factory owner, freight haulage operator and the retail shopping group, that is where their ancestry lies. Another market, - but one which grew in times of peace, - was near the sanctuary afforded by a church with an important saint. Pilgrims needed roads to cross country to such places as Hoddom and Whithorn, which quickly grew into important centres in their own right. Their 'service stations' were the houses of those locals who took payment for a night's food and lodging, or the manors of religious orders.

The north-south route from Carlisle to the Glasgow and Edinburgh areas was to really emerge during the mediaeval period. Moffat's Chapel Lane up to Chapel Farm is a deeply-incised 'hollow way', probably of mediaeval date. It probably began as a short cut from the growing village up from a fording or bridge point on the Annan at Moffat up onto the Roman Road. The Chapel at Chapel Farm survives only as a window and a wall that is the end-gable of a farm building, but it was once the chapel to a Hospital of the Knights Templar, tending wayfarers who needed medical care. Such Hospitals or 'Spitals' sometimes also served as inns, in common with other monastic institutions. Further down towards the River Evan on the western side of the Cotes Hill ridge is a motte, probably a Johnstone or Brus stronghold guarding the Evan Water valley from attacks.

Ericstane Brae : (c. 1200 - 1823)

Just why the excellent Roman Road was abandoned is uncertain; it offered a high and dry route up out of Annandale and along the top of the Evan Water pass through the hills. Possibly the answer was sheer convenience for horse-riders, or the boggy nature of the ground beyond Gilbert Rig. The farm of Ericstane stands at the point at which the slope down from the top of the Cotes Hill ridge is just passable for horses and carts, which may offer its own solution. Equally, the goodwife at Ericstane Farm may have been known for the excellence of her ale, encouraging visitors to beat a path down to her door. A more prosaic answer may be that people travelling from eastern Scotland along Moffatdale may have paused at Moffat before heading up beside the Annan. There is a track from Meikleholmaids Farm on the west bank of the Annan along and up the side of the hill to a point where it meets with Ericstane Brae. It would be logical to choose this route which offers a less-inclined road, to the very steep ascent through Ericstane Brae from Ericstane Farm itself. From Rocky Heights on Ericstane Brae, travellers either headed down along the hillside on the line of the old Roman Road towards the Clyde, or headed northeastwards into Tweedsdale on the way towards Edinburgh.

Whatever the answer, for the next six hundred or so years, the Ericstane Brae became the main West Coast route north, and in so doing it made Moffat the obvious place to stop when rain or snow closed the Brae. Probably being unsurfaced from the start, the Brae was vulnerable to erosion and later travellers regarded it as an unpleasant and dangerous route. That it survived for so long was simply because wheeled traffic was not in common use, - travellers either rode, walked or (if ladies of the nobility) might travel in a horse-litter. Even for mounted travellers, Ericstane Brae was not an easy route; mud and loose stone rapidly made it impassable in bad weather. In February 2000 the writer found the old road to be rutted and muddy, its line clearly to be made out as a rather bad farm and forestry track.

It is suspected that the poor nature of the surface at Ericstane Brae may have encouraged travellers to try a variety of routes, including tracks (now just footpaths) from the Corehead Farm north of Ericstane into Tweedsdale. These tracks may have been used by outlaws and reivers such as William Wallace, although he is known to have used Ericstane Brae on at least one occasion.

Ericstane Brae became the setting of the meeting between James Douglas and Robert Bruce, when the latter was on his way north from Annandale towards Glasgow. The two men seem to have taken to one another on sight, 'The Good Sir James' later proving himself faithful even after the death of his friend and King.

Thereafter, Ericstane and Moffat become mentioned only intermittently, until the time after the Restoration of Charles II when Tweedsdale Covenanters were being hunted down by Graham of Claverhouse. It was also a time when wagons were being used in the first major attempt to expand the economy. Charles II had passed laws requiring the householders and landowners beside major roads to keep them in repair. As such repairs generally came to little more than tipping unsorted water-rounded stone and earth into potholes and ruts, it is hardly surprising that such repairs by unskilled and reluctant workers were virtually useless. The surface became rutted and with water-filled pools in wet weather, drying out to a surface as unpleasant to drive over as corrugated iron. Travellers would take weeks over a journey of a couple of hundred miles; even the thirty-eight miles from Edinburgh to Glasgow took two days by a 'fast' waggon. There was a serious risk of being overturned and thrown out of a waggo even at low speeds, the gentry in their new closed carriages (chaises) being in hardly better situation.

Ericstane Brae was to have its last serious military significance when Charles Edward Stuart, 'Bonnie Prince Charlie', marched south past Moffat in 1745 on his abortive attempt to retake the throne of England. His army would have brought their waggons and artillery south down Ericstane Brae, a fearsome task even with the large numbers of men needed to manhandle everything down the slope. But the Young Pretender was to have a significant influence on roadbuilding and communications, even as his father's uprising in 1715 had lead to General Wade opening up the Highlands with excellent roads. A Highlander being marched back with other prisoners threw himself over the edge of the Beeftub rather than go on; amazingly, he survived his rolling fall, was rescued by local people and managed to return home.

Change arrived partly because of two matters; the need to take official mails rapidly from place to place to warn of civil disturbances and the need for merchants to send letters of credit and business orders as fast as was possible. That lead to the opening of mail-coach services between towns and cities in southern England, later to Edinburgh, and finally to Glasgow by way of Carlisle. There was also an increasing movement of freight in broad-wheeled wagons, which were themselves troubled by the steep incline and bad road up Ericstane Brae. Matters were only slightly improved by the appointment of Trustees to organise repairs to the road in the 1780s, as attempts were made to improve it but were rapidly destroyed by traffic and bad weather.

Mr. Norman Millar's excellent work on The New Road describes the problems that were faced by the Trustees in improving the route. With surveys and designs from Thomas Telford, they attempted the heroic task of building a road down the Evan Water to Beattock, but had to delay completion of a new section until 1828. The old Chapel Lane and 1813 Greenhillstairs roads took traffic across Coteshill and Chapel Hill to Moffat, to rejoin the old Carlisle Road. Moffat suffered from the loss of the mail coach and stage coach trade, recovering only because of development as a spa-town and tourist resort.

Edinburgh Road :

Completing the Evan Valley Road still left a lesser traffic-problem of travelling from Annandale into Tweedsdale on the Old Edinburgh Road. Ericstane Brae remained a hazard right up to 1831, when a long inclined road was laid up the slope from Townhead to the Greenhillstairs road and then to the top of Ericstane Brae. A further achievement was the blasting out of the shelf for the present A701 round Ericstane overlooking the Beeftub. This finally abolished use of Ericstane Brae and made it possible for coaches to climb to the top without double relays of horses.

In 1831, the newly-built road was to claim its most famous pair of lives, in the form of two mail coach men who died in the snow trying to force their way through to Tweedsmuir. A rather fine cairn stands beyond the Beeftub at the point where the dying mailcoach guard hung the bags on a snowpost marking the road. The men were found separately on the old Rocky Heights track to Ericstane Brae, having attempted to get back by that route in preference to the new shelf along the edge of the Beeftub. Although unwise to have left Moffat in a blizzard, both men were respected for their devotion both to their duty and to one another. Both men were buried in adjacent graves in the old Churchyard in Moffat. Thankfully, Ericstane Brae has claimed no more lives since that day.

After the Roads : Beattock and the Railways :

The growth of Beattock came with the new road of Telford, for it was soon realised that a coaching-inn there would remove the need to divert to Moffat for fresh horse-teams. That destroyed the trade for the two main coaching inns in Moffat. - the King's Arms and the Spur Inn. Recommended to his friends by such as Sir Walter Scott, the Beattock Inn was a large modern establishment that was the motel and service station of its day. But that inn was soon to fail in its turn, for the construction of a railway-line through the Evan Valley in 1848 was to finally destroy the mail-coach and post-chaise system that had been driving up to Glasgow. The Spur ousted the King's Arms by the 1850s, but the mail-coach to Edinburgh was itself to go by the 1880s.

Beattock survived with a local railway station, but that went in 1982. Railway work was to provide jobs in both Beattock and Moffat; train staff, station and yard staff, all lived and worked beside the line. A small branch line to Moffat was to provide the town with its own goods and passenger service, though this was entirely gone by the end of the 1960s.

Roads Revive : Cars, Coaches, Lorries and Motorways :

Though railway carriage of freight and passengers is still important, the convenience and speed of cars, coaches and lorries, abolished the power of railways as the main means of mass transportation. The coach firm of Gibson's of Moffat were established in 1919, and for over eighty years have stayed in being.

Beattock and Moffat initially benefited from the new form of road transport, as coaches brought in tourists from the 1920s onwards. Beattock had the further advantage of being on the A74, with the Beattock Garage of the Porteous family supplying petrol and spares. A tea-room was added to the business in the 1920s but closed in 1939.

Moffat itself has both gained and suffered from the M74 motorway. The gain is the access to an even-larger motorised public, but the loss has been of the signs guiding traffic onto the A701 'Tourist Route to Edinburgh', a small but vital matter for the town. It is hoped that the town of Moffat will be able once again to find visitors as the Internet becomes the new advertising and market place of the world.

All text and images © 1999 Richard Edkins of Dalbeattie Internet.
Thomas Telford Website started 8th March 2000.
Last updated 14th March 2000.