The Bridges over the Burn of Benholm

How, where, or whether even to bother trying to cross an expanse of water must have been vexatious for early man as indeed it seems to be for his 21st century counterpart, if the ongoing controversies over the Forth and the Dee are anything to go by.

A river, of course, can be both a hindrance and a help to communication and our earliest ancestors more than likely opted to travel down a river or stream rather than attempt to cross it, first on a floating log and then on a roughly hewed out canoe. On a narrow stretch of water, though, a fallen tree would have enabled a short crossing to be made in search of food before some bright spark came up with the idea of fixing the tree on either bank before someone even cleverer worked out how to construct a more permanent “bridge” out of man made planks or even stones.

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Birnie Bridge, looking south towards Burn of Benholm cottages

Nevertheless, for long enough, as prehistoric gatherers and hunters increasingly roamed Scotland in search of food it was along the coast and up rivers that they travelled but, as farming communities developed in the Neolithic and then into the Iron Age, the country may well have been criss-crossed with an extensive network of rough and ill-defined tracks and trails.

So when the Romans first invaded Scotland under Agricola in 78 AD they literally marched across country searching out rivers which were fordable or throwing temporary bridges over the many steams which they encountered, eventually constructing their military roads. However, although there is clear evidence of Roman roads in the south of Scotland, remnants north of the Tay are limited and, although the Romans were the great builders of bridges, hundreds of them throughout Europe, examples of any that survive in Scotland are scant.

On the departure of the Romans, Scotland entered the Dark Ages when, during turbulent times, many of the benefits the Romans had brought to the country, particularly the techniques of road and bridge building were lost and it was not until the Middle Ages and the reign of King David I in the 12th century that Scotland entered a more prosperous period with the building of new towns, the creation of burghs and the encouragement of local and foreign trade.

However, trade cannot flourish without good transport links and while King David was on the throne the great abbeys played a large role in this by making the land more productive and building roads and bridges and by the beginning of the 17th century Scotland had, generally speaking, a fairly well developed network of routes, although their quality varied enormously and the condition of the back roads in particular was very poor.

By this time the lands of Benholm, the property of the Crown as early as 1200, and later in the possession of the Keith family, were in the hands of the extensive Scott family who also owned Brotherton estate. How many farms there were then is uncertain but by the 19th century there were approaching 40.

The parish registers date from 1684, first miller is recorded in 1696, by which time there was also a school so that by 1700 and perhaps long before that the Kirktown of Benholm and the surrounding area constituted a well-established community. So too was the village of Johnshaven, first recorded in 1611 and, although regarded primarily as a fishing community and described in 1722 as among the “finest in Scotland”, it could, by the middle of the 18th century, also lay claim to a substantial textile industry.

Nevertheless, much as it had going for it, the parish had a communications predicament which takes us to the bridges over the burns of Benholm.

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“Seabank”,an attractive cottage and Post Office to the north side of the Burn of Benholm - demolished to make way for the new Benholm Bridge opened 27 July 1932.

The parish of Benholm was certainly not unique in this respect but it could be very difficult to get out of and so needed to be largely self-sufficient. To move inland towards the Howe of the Mearns and the hills beyond was certainly possible in summer but when the snows came much less so.

To the east there is the Benholm Burn, in the middle the Brotherton Burn and to the south, just beyond the strict confines of the parish, the Finella Burn, followed very soon by the Lauriston Burn, the former with very deep banks and a dramatic, but inconvenient, 65 foot waterfall.

Before the construction of proper roads and bridges, the sea, therefore, was a very important means of communication as much to the earliest visitors as to succeeding residents. Even before a proper pier was built in 1793 small coasters are known to have traded at Johnshaven, at different times taking dressed flax, coal and grain in and lime out, the imports then being distributed locally. Now, as it happened, the parish of Benholm did not have an abundance of roads but a very important one did pass through it and that was the “high road from Montrose to Aberdeen” more commonly know as the “post road” or even more locally as the “auld road”. It followed a route crossing the North Esk at Warburton, up the brae at the present “Pathhead” cottage, through the Kirkton of St Cyrus, across the Lauriston and Finella burns before entering the parish of Benholm where two bridges had to be crossed, one over the Burn of Benholm and the other over the Castle Burn.

The first of those, sometimes referred to as the Birnie Bridge, is the elder of the two. Situated close to the four houses which presently comprise the “Burn of Benholm” it is a small single arch rubble hump bridge, 10 feet wide with an inset stone dated 1729. This may not have been the first bridge here but since the banks are fairly gentle at this point it may have been possible to cross it by some other means.

Having negotiated that one the traveller very soon came to the Bridge over the Castle Burn. Here the sides of the burn are very much steeper and, although its construction is similar in type to the Birnie Bridge it is considerably taller, some 40 feet high and 16 feet wide, its single semi-circle rubble arch much more imposing. Although the date on its inset stone is 1774 it is more than likely that it was either an enlargement of, or a replacement for, an earlier one and was part of a period of extensive bridge building which included those over the River North Esk (1775), the Lauriston Burn (1776) and possibly also the Finella Burn.

Bridges were the responsibility of the Commissioners of Supply, effectively committees of the large landowners of a county and if its farmers and merchants were to benefit from the agricultural revolution which was beginning to gather pace in Scotland then better communications were necessary.

However, 18th century “roads” of which the “auld road” is a good example, were still little more than unmade tracks, rutted and dusty in summer and muddy and frequently impossible, especially for wheeled traffic, in winter. It was the responsibility of individual parishes to maintain them either through “voluntary” labour or by means of the commutation system whereby locals made a payment which allowed road makers, however unskilled, to be employed.

With no profit in this for anyone, it was no surprise that the there was little improvement throughout the 18th century - but then came the turnpike, new bridges and the end of the auld road as a main artery. Turnpike Trusts, established by act of parliament, first appeared in England in the late 17th century although it was the middle of the 18th century before they became widespread in Scotland. A turnpike trust usually comprised landowners, farmers and merchants who were empowered to appoint surveyors, repair or construct new roads and erect gates (the turnpike) and charge tolls. Consequently, and because with enterprise came profit, existing roads were now regularly maintained and widened or new routes opened to exploit the improvements in stage coach design and later the introduction of Royal Mail Coaches in 1784.

A coastal turnpike northwards from Montrose had long been suggested but it was not until around 1800 that it became a reality. The route followed the existing one from the North Esk more or less until it reached the Finella burn but then deviated from the old post road, to continue on a lower level along what is now, of course, the A92 until it reached the Brotherton Burn where a completely new bridge was built. Constructed in the style of the day it has a single, segmental rubble arch with flanking storm water arches and was widened with paths being added in 1832.

As part of the same progression another bridge was built over a deep gorge of the Benholm Burn which merges with the Castle Burn just below the kirk. Now known as the “old” Benholm Bridge it, too, is of rubble with a large segmental arch, 26 feet wide and curved at both approaches.

Although its arrival must have dealt a blow to the proprietors of the Kirkton Inn which was now bypassed as coaches sped more quickly on to the King’s Arms in Inverbervie, this bridge served its purpose admirably well into the 20th century until the vast increase in traffic brought about by the proliferation of motorised vehicles forced its replacement, by which time roads and bridges had become the responsibility of county councils.

“Seabank”, (see picture above) an attractive cottage and Post Office to the north side of the Burn of Benholm, had to be demolished to make way for the “new” Benholm Bridge which was opened to one-way traffic, without ceremony, on Thursday 27 July 1932.

While the use of concrete in bridge construction was becoming more common, the design of the Benholm structure was innovative in several ways, including the castellated coping of the artificial stone parapets. The overall intention of the scheme, it seems, was to emphasise the bridge proper as the central feature of the whole work and, in order to achieve this, the style of parapet changes immediately it leaves the buttresses of the bridge and merges into the natural stone wall of the approaches.

Although, initially, there was a critical view of the bridge in that the “bottle nosed” bend at its north end did nothing for the safety of motorists from Benholm proceeding southwards, a Mearns Leader review of “Kincardineshire’s New and Old Bridges” in January 1935 described the bridge as an example of how well a new bridge could be made to harmonise with its surroundings and as it weathered it would become more and more part of its surroundings “and is often admired as one of the most handsome bridges of its kind by motorists who travel along it.” Though so different in concept from all the others and the last to be built in the parish of Benholm it has naturally enough become just a part of the daily run.

Now some readers may be saying to themselves: “Aye, but he has missed a bridge out.” “Oh no he hasn’t !” because there is indeed one other bridge in the list and quite an important one it is too. Of course it’s the small twin arched hump back across the Benholm Burn at the Haughs, on the ancient coast road, roughly half way between Johnshaven and Gourdon, the vital social and commercial link between the two fishing communities for countless decades and, well within living memory was still a lifeline for the residents of the Haughs of Benholm.

Far older than any of the other bridges, Bard’s Bridge is situated where the burn reaches the sea and is more often a trickle than a torrent. However a large part of one parapet was, nevertheless, swept away in an unusually heavy spate in January 1986. There was some doubt as to whether it would be repaired or replaced by a wooden footbridge but eventually agreement was reached with the District Council over finance and it was rebuilt by a group of volunteers from the Scottish Conservation Projects in the summer of 1987.

Today the function of the track is purely recreational and, in combination with the auld road, provides a popular and challenging yet rewarding route for walkers..

Well, there we have it. Three parallel lines of communication through the Parish of Benholm covering hundreds of years but, regardless of how important any of them became, none would have stretched very far were it not for the bridges over the burns of Benholm.