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Mediaeval Roads: Evidence from Monastic Charters

Based on map by Eric Gaba- see main mapOverview Map
A map showing roads identified so far (based on map by Eric Gaba-see larger map).




Introduction Dunbartonshire Midlothian Kirkcudbrightshire Ayrshire Forfar & Kincardine
Peeblesshire Lanarkshire East Lothian Renfrewshire Moray Stirling & Clackmannan
Selkirkshire Berwickshire Fifeshire Roxburghshire Aberdeenshire Perthshire
West Lothian


Image from Retrokat.
With thanks.

There was for a time, a "golden age" in Scotland that lasted from the mid-1100ís up to the Wars of Independence in the late 1200ís. It saw relatively settled conditions of peace and prosperity in which feudalism, effective administration, new towns and the Church played an important part.

David I was a prime mover in this, founding new towns, giving lands to his followers, appointing sheriffs to administer law and order in newly formed shires and promoting the foundation of abbeys with generous grants of land and money, an example followed by his major vassals.

Side by side with the building of the abbeys, and smaller religious houses, went the development of the land gifted to them for their upkeep. Typically this was farming and the raising of livestock but mining and salt panning was also carried out. The monks had considerable skills in these areas and within a short time were running profitable ventures.

To keep a record of the lands and other privileges granted to them, the abbeys maintained chartularies. These listed in detail the boundaries of their lands, their rights in respect to fishing, gathering wood, grazing their animals, mining, grinding corn and so on. A number of these chartularies have survived and provide a valuable insight into a long-forgotten age. Without them we would have only the most general picture of how the landscape of the 12th and 13th centuries was organised. As it is we know the names of places and landmarks, where the boundaries of their land ran, what they used the lands for, where they took their produce, and where the roads were.

Text not available

Liber sancte Marie de Melros, munimenta vetustiora monasterii de Melros [ed. by C. Innes].

Many of the chartularies were published in the 19th century by historical societies like the Bannatyne Club. Although in their original Latin, in an abbreviated script called Record Script that makes them difficult to read, many of the charters have been translated or summarised over the years which makes them much more accessible. Two books in particular are very useful. One is the Monastic Annals of Teviotdale by Rev. James Morton which was published in 1832 which includes a listing of their lands and properties by parish, the other is Origines Parochiales Scotiae (OPS) published 1851-55 which gives a history of Scottish parishes with many references to the monastic charters.

From our point of view, the charters contain many valuable references to roads. Some of these are well known, such as the road from Newbattle Abbey to the Monklands, and the wagon road between Kelso and Lesmahagow. Others are referred to in various studies such as the "via regia" running up past Dunscore to Glencairn and R P Hardie made extensive use of the charters in The Roads of Mediaeval Lauderdale. Others are hardly known at all.

Monks and pilgrims would have been a common sight on mediaeval roads

Several terms are used in the charters to refer to roads such as via, via regia, semita, calceia as well as vadum and pons for ford and bridge respectively. There were also rights of way that the monasteries negotiated with landowners. The different terms undoubtedly served to differentiate between these. Calceia or causeway was a definite construction while semita or way was probably a beaten track though still a definte route taken between two places. Via was probably a definite track that in some parts was in a natural state, i.e. a beaten track but constructed in other places perhaps by a cutting to allow an easier gradient for waggons or a causeway to cross water-logged ground. Via Regia or King's Highway implies a right of passage without having to seek permission from landowners and although some were along the Roman roads others must have been more of the nature of a via, partly beaten track, partly constructed.

The fairly primitive nature of the roads is understandable in view of the resources required to build a road. As a rough guide to this, when the Military Road was being constructed through Galloway in the 1700's, the rate of work was one and a half yards per man per day or 150 yards in 100 days. It is unlikely the monasteries could have released their men for any longer than three months in one year with all the other duties to be completed. It would require 12 men to complete one mile of road in any one year. By the same reasoning 120 men would be needed for 10 miles in a year and 50 years for the same number to complete 500 miles of road.

Even allowing for the higher standard of the Military Road and thus a higher yardage being possible on a monastic road, it would still have been a major commitment of resources over a long period of time. It would also have been unnecessary. They did not have a need for well-constructed roads - so long as they permitted the movement of animals and the carrying of produce on pack-horses, sledges and waggons and carts they would be perfectly suitable. They would also have had roads remaining from earlier periods. The Roman roads were still there and the indigenous populations of each area would have had their own network of routes available for use.

While it is unlikely then that they developed a large network of major roads it is quite likely that they "improved" the routes they were using. As said above, this could have been making cuttings to ease gradients, or causeways, or even making short lengths of "made" roads. Bridges also would have been quite possible with their resources and skills. The evidence seems to support this view.

With these qualifications in mind, this section will note the roads mentioned in the charters and try to identify where they ran. For convenience it will be organised by county and parish. Where possible, the links are to translations but as some of the original chartularies are available online, links have also been given to these. A list of contractions used in Record Script can be found here. A standard work listing most Latin words encountered in charters in their contracted form is The Record Interpreter by Charles Trice Martin and can be found on the Internet Archives.