The Contour Road Book of Scotland

I’m up in Oban in the Western Highlands for the next week or so, competing in the Scottish 6 Days international orienteering races. I’ll be cycling between the venues each day – with a single gear, as both my shifters have failed in the last couple of weeks. I was a bit worried about the hills on the roads around there – it is the Highlands after all, but my parents have found a book that should solve that problem. It is “The Contour Road Book of Scotland” and it is an original copy, published in 1896. You can see a slightly newer version (1898) here on the Internet Archive (see links on left) although this version misses out a few of the earlier pages.

The book details all the major roads in Scotland (115 years ago – so no motorways or city bypasses!) with a subjective description of the road, a list of key gradients and sights, and an altitude profile. The Scottish Mountaineering Club reviewed it in their fourth edition (September 1896) and were encouraged that it could be used to relate cycling and mountaineering.

I was pleased to see route 157 (Oban to Crianlarich) is “Class II [an ordinary main road]. The first 8 miles of the road are good.” Thankfully I’m not going further along it though, as it continues: “Thence to Tyndrum is a fearful road – grass and loose stones”. The book suggests a 1/13 gradient 3/4 mile from Oban will be my main concern, and that I’ll encounter Dunstaffnage Castle as a “Principle Object of Interest” after 3 miles. The section concludes with the encouraging comment that “The scenery on this road is very fine”.

Here is a copy of the accompanying altitude profile, from the 1898 online version on the Internet Archive:

Picking out one more route – 298 (Inverness to Fort Augustus), the guide writes that “the road gets worse and worse, and after Whitebridge is a loose mass of stones, with very steep hills… at times the surface… is little better than a watercourse… These hills of are course highly dangerous… the scenery about Foyers is very fine”. I cycled this route on Day 2 of my John O’Groats to London challenge and can indeed vouch for the scenery at Foyers.

There are some evocative advertisements from the time – one for the Cockburn Hotel which is “adjoining Waverley Station” in Edinburgh, and offers “Passenger Lift” and “Electric Light” but “No Intoxicating Drinks”. The Pneumatic Brake Co Ltd of Manchester has “Tips to Tourists” where it quotes the book it is in – “Hills are not generally regarded as dangerous to descent until they are 1 in 15, and with anything steeper the danger increases” – by adding “If you desire to desire to descend hills of the above description with ease, safety and comfort, send your Cycle to the nearest Cycle Agent to be fitted with a Pneumatic Brake which can be done in a few minutes”. Good to know.

There is also a section with maps of Scotland, the most eye-catching difference is there were many more railway lines in Scotland 115 years ago than there are now…

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.