Bridging Rivers, Spanning Centuries
From simple wooden crossings to solid stone structures, bridges effortlessly cross streams and rivers, linking our communities. But that wasn’t always the case. In this, VisitScotland’s Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology, we dip into the social history, legend and architectural legacy of just some of the many bridges and water crossings in the National Park.
A very distinctive and recognizable bridge spans the River Dulnain at Carrbridge. The Old Packhorse Bridge, which has the accolade of being the oldest stone bridge in the Highlands, celebrates its 300th anniversary this year. Until its construction in 1717, it was not possible to cross the River Dulnain when it was in spate and this meant that burials at nearby Duthil Church were often delayed! Not a pleasant prospect back in those days!
Floods were common in the area; Dulnain Bridge for example literally means ‘Bridge of the Floody River’. Unfortunately, one great flood or ‘Muckle Spate’ in 1829 affected bridges across the region and it left the Carrbridge ‘Coffin Bridge’ severely damaged. With its unique silhouette and backdrop, the old bridge is today a popular subject for photographers and artists.
Bridge building in the mid-18th century was part of an ambitious military road programme that crisscrossed the Highlands. One major engineering project, a route from Braemar to Fort George and constructed by General Caulfeild, is evidenced by the many stone arched bridges still to be seen around us. These range from the impressive Invercauld Bridge or Bridge of Dee between Balmoral and Braemar – and possibly built by the same architect who worked on Balmoral Castle – to the very basic single arch of Gairnsheil Bridge over the River Gairn, still in use, but only wide enough for one-way traffic.
One striking twin arch example dating back to 1754, is the Bridge of Avon, or the Bridge of A’an just outside Tomintoul. Legend has it that the River Avon, which means Water of the Very Bright One, is named after Athfhinn, the wife of the legendary Celtic warrior Fionn; she allegedly drowned while trying to cross the river.
A few miles to the west of Tomintoul, amid gripping scenery, the Bridge of Brown crosses the Burn of Lochy. The bridge is actually called the ‘Brig o’ Broon’ in Scots but the name has been anglicised to Bridge of Brown. Its meaning ‘Bridge of Boiling Water’ fits the dramatic location, with the road veering steeply down around sharp bends, to reach the bottom of a narrow valley.
The Corrieyairack Pass, to the south west of the Monadhliath Mountains, is a favourite route of many walkers. If caught out by poor visibility and bad weather, then assistance may just arrive in the form of the ‘Highlander with Hounds’! In misty weather the helpful ghost figure is said to guide people to the bridge.
The position and design of bridges can tell us much about the life of the people at the time. For example, the original Broomhill Bridge over the River Spey, just north of Nethy Bridge, was built to transport logs from the once burgeoning timber industry, floating wood over the Spey to the Highland Railway line nearby. The distances between the bridge supports suggest that it was constructed to accommodate timber rafts that were up to 30ft wide.
As late as the 19th century it was not always easy to cross wide stretches of water. At Boat of Garten, until the river was bridged in 1898, the only way to cross the fast-flowing Spey was by a ferry boat, as the name of the village suggests. And did something happen on those ferry crossings, as far back as 1662, that led to the story of a curse? According to folklore, when the waters are low, an inscribed stone can be seen in the river. It is believed to be cursed and anyone who interferes with it is fated. Adding to the danger of the waters, a white horse is said to patrol the river, looking for people to drown!
Until a triple arch bridge was built in 1754, there was no way to cross the river at Grantown-on-Spey either, unless you attempted to wade or had a boat. The fine granite Old Spey Bridge, still stands but no longer carries the road.
Many bridge structures, whether in use or not, stand as timeless testament to the skills of architects and stone masons of long ago. And of course, their creations make a picturesque and characterful addition to our landscape.