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The old packhorse bridge in Carrbridge, Scotland

Bridging the Living and the Dead: Scotland's 300-Year-Old Coffin Bridge

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"At the beginning of the eighteenth century, to the inconvenience of both travellers and local people, there was no point at which the River Dulnain could be crossed when it was in spate, and burials at the Church of Duthil were often delayed.
Brigadier-General Alexander Grant of Grant, Clan Chief, commissioned John Niccelsone, a mason from Ballindalloch to build a bridge at Lynne of Dalrachney. Built between May and November 1717, the bridge was paid for out of stipends of the Parish of Duthil.

Its parapets and side walls were badly damaged in the 18th century and again in the famous flood of 1829, giving the appearance it still has today."
-Plaque at the bridge

The old packhorse bridge in Carrbridge, Scotland

The old packhorse bridge in Carrbridge, Scotland. ( CC BY 3.0 )

The Significance of Carrbridge’s Packhorse Bridge

The oldest surviving packhorse bridge in the Scottish Highlands, the "coffin bridge" at Carrbridge in Inverness remains one of the most significant. Built in 1717, this packhorse bridge is located near the city of Inverness, capital of the Highlands, and was erected in an arch from "tooled rubble…springing from natural rock abutment".

Though the packhorse bridge of Carrbridge is the oldest in the Highlands, it is not the only one that survives. Further, it is not the oldest in the British Isles. However, Carrbridge's importance lies not in its age but in its original purpose. Before the 18th century, it was nearly impossible to carry the deceased from the town to the cemetery at Duthil Churchyard when the River Dulnain was high. Due to this, many burials were prevented from occurring until well after the date of death. 

People carrying a coffin over the packhorse bridge of Carrbridge.

People carrying a coffin over the packhorse bridge of Carrbridge. ( Youtube Screenshot )

The bridge was constructed by Brigadier-General Sir Alexander Grant of Grant, one of the earliest Scottish members of Parliament (elected 1702). Grant was one of the regional clans of county Inverness, however during the 17th and 18th centuries, the Jacobites caused several issues religiously and politically. Therefore, Alexander's life as heir of Castle Grant was nonetheless plagued by economic difficulties before he was promoted to brigadier. Thus, the creation of the packhorse bridge undoubtedly served dual purposes. It was not only an intelligent move logistically (assisting in various trade endeavors, etc.), but also likely aided in ensuring popular approval among the people of his family's lands.

Castle Grant.

Castle Grant. (Mike Searle/ CC BY SA 2.0 )

Defining a Packhorse Bridge

A packhorse bridge, by definition, is precisely what it sounds like: a bridge over which horses carrying parcels, packages, or side bags can cross. These bridges are built along already defined trade routes and serve to aid travelers by providing a safer passage across rivers and streams prone to difficult periods when the waters are "in spate", or overflowing.

But what separates a packhorse bridge from any other bridge? After all, modern bridges are certainly capable of holding horses laden down with packages. There is, in fact, an actual definition of these older bridges. A packhorse bridge is defined by Ernest Hinchliffe as a bridge built before 1800, less than six feet (1.83 meters) wide (not particularly wide when one considers a person can be six feet tall), and—of course—the bridge would have to be located on a specified packhorse route (i.e. regular trade routes before the 19th century). However, even these specifications are debated. These packhorse bridges remain national monuments in the British Isles, but Carrbridge is one of only five in Scotland.

Old Pack Horse bridge in Carrbridge, Scotland.

Old Pack Horse bridge in Carrbridge, Scotland. (Gordon McKinlay/ CC BY SA 2.0 )

A Dangerous Crossing

Like so many historical sites, the packhorse bridge at Carrbridge is no longer safe to cross. The damage, however, was caused by natural means rather than man-made ones. It was damaged in 1829 during the great "Muckle Spate", damaging much of northeast Scotland. Muckle Spate refers to an immense flood in August 1829, which damaged sites such as the old Carrbridge bridge and washed away some other bridges and homes.

Thus, heritage preservationists recommend finding other routes by which to cross River Dulnain, such as the nearby motorway. Despite its dangerousness however, this famous bridge still remains standing, its fragile state in direct contrast to its importance in the village of Carrbridge's history.

Old Packhorse bridge, Carrbridge, Scotland.

Old Packhorse bridge, Carrbridge, Scotland. (Robert Struthers/ CC BY SA 2.0 )

Top Image: The old packhorse bridge in Carrbridge, Scotland. Source: djmacpherson/ CC BY SA 2.0

Bibliography

"Carrbridge, Old Bridge over River Dulnain: A Category B Listed Building in Duthil And Rothiemurchus, Highland." British Listed Buildings . http://www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/200330435-carrbridge-old-bridge-over-river-dulnain-duthil-and-rothiemurchus#.WUw_isYVjIU

Cruickshanks, Eveline, Stuart Handley and D.W. Hayton (eds.) 2002. The History of Parliament: the House of Commons, 1690-1715 (5 vols) . Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Fraser, Sir William. 1893. "The Chiefs of Grant." Clan Grant Society UK. Accessed June 22, 2017. http://www.clangrant.org/index.aspx?pid=45.

Hayton, D.W. "Grant, Alexander (aft. 1673-1719) of Castle Grant, Elgin." In The History of Parliament .

Hinchliffe, Ernest. 1994. A Guide to the Packhorse Bridges of England . Milnrow, Cumbria: Cicerone Press.

Historic Environment Scotland. "Carribridge, Old Bridge." Canmore. Accessed June 22, 2017. https://canmore.org.uk/site/15453/carrbridge-old-bridge.

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