The following article was published in the June 2019 Spotlight Magazine – Lewis and Harris; Elgin, Lossie and District; Forres and District; Buckie, Keith and District; Turriff, Huntly and District; and Strathspey and District editions.
Between 1783-1881, c.150,000 Highlanders were forced from their homes and the period saw increasing populations in coastal villages. Some, like Mallaig in 1840, were created to support the populace. Their industry was fishing, but without efficient transport the industry would fail. The 1st Baron Lovat did not instruct clearances on his Morar estate. Instead he moved his tenants to the coast. This freed up available grazing and also created the opportunity to profit from his people and the fishing industry.
There had always been a reliance on fishing in the Highlands, but in land-locked areas fish was reserved for special occasions. Changes were afoot however, partially due to new roadways which came as a result of the upheavals of the 18th century, including military roads. Fresh, if not salted fish, was transported more quickly to market and became a staple for people from all backgrounds. As a result, the fishing industry developed rapidly.
The growth of a fishing-reliant population in Mallaig and the general increase in fish consumption meant transportation of the catch needed to be addressed. Transport issues were preventing fishing developments in other areas, particularly the Islands. In 1783, five boats left Barra to carry the catch to the Clydeside markets however four of the boats were lost at sea.
Despite efforts by Thomas Telford in 1803 to improve the road to Mallaig, it wasn’t until 1882 that a boom year in fishing put Mallaig on the map politically. This, however, was followed by disastrous years for the port. Records from 1885-1887 show poor return due to lack of shoals and the population suffered.
The decision to support the fishing industry at Mallaig with a railway connection to Fort William in 1897 and the propaganda-style delivery of the plans was a calculated effort by Parliament to take away the guilt of the clearance period and economic decline in the Highlands. Arguably it was misplaced because it was in an area that hadn’t borne the brunt of the clearance episodes. Whilst other areas continued to suffer, Mallaig improved and politicians celebrated their benevolence.
The railway’s impressive Glenfinnan Viaduct was ground-breaking; and slightly Roman! The dome of the Roman Pantheon (113-125 AD) is the world’s oldest and largest unreinforced ‘mass concrete’ dome. This is due to the strength and flexibility of the mass concrete and its strength in compression. But concrete was not introduced here by the Romans. Apart from two Bungalows in the Isle of Wight and an 1879 New Forest folly called Sway Tower, Glenfinnan Viaduct is the next oldest example of the ‘rediscovered’ mass concrete in built structures. It is also one of the largest examples of its use. This led to the structural engineer in charge, Robert McAlpine, being known as ‘Concrete Bob’.
During construction in 1897-9, legend had it that a horse and cart fell into a pillar of the Glenfinnan viaduct and remained there while construction continued. In 1987, Professor Roland Paxton attempted to find the horse with a fish eye camera, looking into two pillars. His search found nothing. Based on local stories, in 1997, Paxton visited Loch nan Uamh viaduct but was again unable to find the horse. What he did find was that the pillars there were filled with rubble. Paxton wasn’t perturbed and returned in 2001 to carry out a scan. This time the remains of a horse and cart were found in the central pillar. To this day the horse and its cart are still there.
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Andrew Grant McKenzie MA (Hons) FSA Scot
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