The Whisky Road (Priest's Road)
Start location: Tarfside (NO 491 789)
End location: Drumcairn (NO 539 683)
Geographical area: Angus and Tayside
Path Type: Rural Path, Smugglers' Path
Path distance: 14.5km
Accessibility info: Suitable for pedestrians
This old route has only been part-surveyed; here we look at it in two sections:
i) Northwest of Stonyford, an old cast-iron ScotWays sign (NO502727) points the way to the Clash of Wirren. The track heads north to Tarfside by the east of East Knock and the west of Cowie Hill. The direct path to Tarfside is via the Buskhead Bridge, but unfortunately this bridge is in a poor and deteriorating condition. The Heritage Paths project is informed that a local group is actively trying to get this bridge back into use. As use of the adjacent ford at Buskhead is not advised, for the time being it may be better to follow other rights of way to Dalbrack in order to cross the river there instead, then head to Tarfside along the road.
ii) East of Stonyford on the north side of the West Water, the path is less distinct and harder to find. We have no recent survey of this southernmost section of the Priest's Road, so would be grateful for an update.
The Whisky Road is said to have been used by distillers trying to avoid attention; it is a remote and rough track. The route links directly with the ancient Firmounth and Fungle roads, so formed an important part of the old network of routes through the hills from Deeside to Strathmore. The placename of Stonyford (NO504724) indicates that there has probably long been a crossing of the West Water here - the bridge was erected by public subscription following the drowning in October 1753 of two brothers sharing a horse at the ford. However, the High Road, the route to the east of the West Water, is probably the older line through Glen Lethnot used in preference particularly if the West Water was high so the ford unavailable. Once the bridge at Stonyford was built, use of the High Road likely declined, so perhaps it became mainly the illicit distillers, caterans and others avoiding attention who took Glen Lethnot's High Road.
This old route between Glens Esk and Lethnot is also known as the Priest's Road. For many years prior to 1723, the parishes of Lochlee (Glen Esk) and Lethnot were united and served by one minister. In the Old Statistical Account of Scotland (Parish of Lethnot, 1791) it is written that before the separation of the parishes the minister would preach two sabbaths at Lethnot and the third at Lochlee, but they were distant ten miles and the road was found always inconvenient and often dangerous, especially in winter. The OSA for Lochlee similarly points out this balance of preaching between the two location, but goes further in stating that "in tempestuous seasons of the year, the inhabitants of Lochlee remained without public worship altogether". AJ Warden's Angus or Forfarshire (1885) describes the route taken by the clergyman thus "by the east side of the Westwater, past Finnoch and Achourie, and Clash of Wirran. It is still known as the priest's road. It is hilly and now lonely, but very direct. In former times it was the great road from Banffshire and the western part of Aberdeenshire to Brechin and the low country, and was kept in fair order. It was much frequented by smugglers, Highland shearers, and others up to the end of the first decade of this century. By this road Brechin and Ballater are within thirty miles of each other".
The parish of Lochlee was disjoined from that of Lethnot in 1723, reportedly because of the difficulties in using the Priest's Road. Lethnot was instead joined to Navar, but interestingly, priestly involvement in the local transport network did not cease. AJ Warden states that "the minister of Navar made it an indispensable condition of his becoming minister of the united parishes that a bridge should be erected to connect Navar with Lethnot, and to satisfy him and enable him to visit his parishioners in both districts of the united parish, the building of Pikehardy or Westwater Bridge was commenced and completed. It is of great service to the inhabitants of the entire district". The minister's name was John Row and it is reported that when he died in 1745, he bequeathed money towards the bridge's support - it could be argued that it should have been named the Priest's Bridge. This elegant structure which physically united the parishes, and which presumably gave Bridgend its name, has since fallen but its replacement sits alongside.
On both the first and second edition OS 6" mapping, east of East Knock and northeast of Clash of Wirren can be seen the words Chapmans Holms (NO494795). A chapman was an itinerant trader who would visit householders selling wares or services and were thus hugely important in remote areas. The name on the maps is another clue as to who may have used this route in the past.