Little more than a dirt track for millenia, the route of the Lanark Road has seen plenty of action since prehistory, at times on the edge of momentus events.
In 1666, the Scottish Royal Army marched from Slateford to Currie past some landmarks familiar today, en route to the Battle of Rullion Green in the Pentland Hills. From this massacre of Covenanter rebels, flashing forwards nearly three hundred years to the most recent war, the same route became a tar-covered road and was a navigational aid for bombers, with bomb craters to prove it.
Between these bookends of violence the Lanark Road has been a prosaic constant to local life. Change was slow. Until relatively recently the biggest worry tended to be the cost of keeping the road passable to foot traffic and pack animals.
From the 1700s major roads in Scotland were constructed as ‘toll roads’, paid for by the local landowners. Contractors were appointed for construction, and ‘roadmen’ employed for maintenance including shifting horse manure into piles in little stone laybys (since it was ‘laid by’ i.e. put aside to deal with later). Constant upkeep was needed, and just as now, budgets were always a concern. From the mid-1700s the road had improved to the point where wheeled carts could operate instead of just pack horses, thanks to a series of Turnpike Acts.
A toll had to be paid to use the Lanark Road, the sum depending on the goods and the wagon loads involved. There were stiff penalties for any who tried to evade paying dues by slipping through fields or along side roads. To stop such evasions, additional toll bars known as check-bars were often erected on these side roads. With improved surfaces came wagons carrying valuable freight, and so attacks by robbers increased.
One particularly colourful local character was Captain Will Baillie, known as the “Gentleman Gypsy”, a Romany skilled at disguise who often adopted the persona of an educated, rich man. Baillie was famous for gestures of generosity and care towards the poor, while helping himself with style to the money of the better-off.
Another kind of criminality was foiled by two stone breakers working on the Lang Whang, recorded as becoming suspicious of a load of straw driven by two other men. Following the drivers into Jenny’s Inn they overheard conversation which confirmed their suspicions – there were corpses in the wagon, stolen from Lanark Graveyard! The criminals had hoped to sell the corpses to the medical school in Edinburgh, but were captured by the excise man at Balerno.
By 1790 the whole Lanark Road had been completed and for the next fifty years it was a busy through route connecting the capital with the cotton mills of New Lanark. In 1791 the minister of Currie parish wrote in glowing terms of the now-complete Lanark Road. He remarked that it was now possible for a single cart to carry 150 stones of hay in the charge of two horses and one man, where forty years earlier fifteen horses and seven men had been needed to transport the same load, as carts became bogged down in the mud if too heavily laden.
The minster reported with approval that stage coaches now ran twice a week between Edinburgh and Lanark, but he was not universally impressed with better transport links: “Till within these few years the people of this parish were sober, industrious and economical. The vices of the capital, however, are beginning to spread fast among them, and those baneful articles to the poor, tea and whisky, will soon produce that corruption of morals and debility of constitution which are already so severely felt in many parishes, and which must soon materially injure the real strength and population of Scotland.”
"Those baneful articles to the poor, tea and whisky, will soon produce that corruption of morals and debility of constitution which are already so severely felt in many parishes, and which must soon materially injure the real strength and population of Scotland"
The toll points continued until quite late in the 19th century, and the first edition Ordnance Survey maps (of the 1850s) show their position - often chains over the road, and a wee bothie or house for the Toll Keeper or his employee to watch out and operate the barrier.
We don’t know what accommodation the toll keeper in Currie had for the first 90 years, but in 1840 the toll house (pictured) was built, and it stood until the 1960s at the junction of Riccarton Mains Road and Lanark Road West. Today the position of the well serving the house is marked on the footpath.
A precursor of things to come appeared on the road north of Currie in the 1820s and 1830s – steam coaches! These puffing monsters polarised opinion, but the naysayers got the upper hand with their claims that lives were endangered by the panic induced in passing horses. The perception of danger was so widespread that steam coaches were withdrawn throughout the Edinburgh region, to the great relief of stagecoach, canal and train operators.
As the railway network expanded through the 1840s there was a three-way fight between road, rail and canal transport. Many stage coach operators protested about the size of the toll dues they were forced to pay and were given reductions to allow them to stay in business. By 1847 one coach operator, James Waterston - who ran his service between his inn at Little Vantage and Edinburgh - was struggling. He reported that his coach had been off the road for six months due to the high cost of feeding his horses, but that if the road trustees would further cut his rates of toll per horse he might restart it. Despite this, all coach services ceased shortly after the opening of the Caledonian Railway in February 1848. The railway effectively sidelined the road west of Balerno, the 20 mile section we call the “Lang Whang” which runs across high bleak moorland to Carnwath.
So as you’re driving along the Lanark Road in peak hour traffic spare a thought for our forbears. They contended with mud and potholes, footpads and occasionally soldiers, had the effort of a 1000 foot climb, and had to cajole their beasts all the way to distant Lanark!
Published in Konect 2013. Updated March 2022
Author: Helen-Jane Gisbourne