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Thomas Telford in the Highlands

09 November 2016

Archaeology for Communities in the Highlands (ARCH) has been promoting heritage in the Highlands through a range of activities and courses since January 2009. They aim to provide opportunities for the local community to increase their knowledge and celebrate their local heritage.

After receiving £10,000 from the E.ON Rosehall Community Fund and further funding from The Robertson Trust in 2014, ARCH was able to commission a project which allowed participants to study Thomas Telford and his impact on the Highlands. ARCH provided a number of courses, field trips and other activities exploring and researching the archaeological remains of the Scottish engineer, road and church builder.

Thomas Telford single-handedly changed the face of the Highlands and transformed the area in the early 1800s. He was most famous for the construction of an iron bridge in Bonar Bridge which was unfortunately destroyed by floods in 1892. Despite this, many other remains survived.

The project was a great success, surpassing the organisations expectations with at least 150 people attending the different events. Local people from Bonar Bridge, Ardgay and the wider community benefitted from the project with everyone learning something new about Thomas Telford - whether they had followed his story or not – such was his impact on the Highlands.

One of the unexpected outcomes of the project was better communication between the three heritage groups: Bonar Bridge History Society, Kyle of Sutherland Heritage Society and Lairg History Society. This project brought them together with the three groups even sharing a stall at the Highland games.

Devoted to furthering the skills of the community, ARCH didn’t hire professionals to excavate the remains, instead they trained local people. This approach was rewarded when the group discovered a previously unrecorded bridge built by Thomas Telford south of the village of Lairg, which generated excitement among participants, project organisers and locals.

A map was also uncovered in the Highland Archive Centre in Inverness which helped the participants in tracking down more remains. Existing milestones, which were erected alongside the new roads built by Telford, were found by the group of explorers and the locations of these were subsequently recorded on maps.

Geocaching also proved to be popular as a trail was created for participants to follow where they were able to find new leaflets hidden in containers which gave them information on the history of the area. The group also produced a trail leaflet that tourists in the area can pick up from the Kyle of Sutherland Development Trust to explore Telford remains.

The project didn’t just generate interest from those eager to learn about the heritage, but also civil engineering enthusiasts as they explored the different bridges, culverts and churches erected by Telford. One participant said: “I loved everything that I attended in highly enjoyable sessions with like-minded people”. Another added: “Lots of people were amazed at the impact of Telford’s work, even the people that knew of him gained something from the project”.

Archaeology for Communities in the Highlands are now looking to explore Telford’s work in other areas of the Highlands, using this project as an example of what can be achieved.

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