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Elie & Earlsferry History Society

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Tolls Roads


Here is an old map of this area.

The word “Catch a penny “appears about the end of the Balbuthie Road just after Ardross.  It seems a strange name for a place. Someone said that this was so called because it was a trap to catch people who had evaded the toll bars and gates in Elie by taking the Balbuthie road from Kilconquhar.    As it turns out investigations suggest that this may not actually be the case but more of that later.

Toll Roads in Elie and Fife

If we look back at some of the earlier maps we do not see any roads as such – this may be because there were none or it may be that the map maker was not interested in them. But some maps would  shows rivers and places but no method of communications to some extent this is not surprising since the maps were more likely to be used for sea travel.

Indeed  Roy’s map of 1747 admittedly from a military stand point does give some idea of the roads but they are very limited.  You can see the roads from Kilconquhar to Elie and then Newark.

In the beginning there were just pathways.      Unless you  were lucky enough to be conquered by the Romans in which case you had well paved straight roads to enjoy -straight  as a dye  the Romans knew a thing or two not least that the shortest distance between two points was a straight line and of course it meant that  the Britons could not hide round corners.  But by 15th Century most of these had gone or been grown over. People really did not need to travel far – they grew their own food stuffs and if they wanted milk for their coffee there was bound to be a  convenient cow somewhere nearby.  There was little or no commerce and trade around.  A peasant did not have time to pop to the pub for a pint or two or if he did he would go to his own local – hence the name local – rather than travel far unless it was a Sunday of course in which case he would need to have been a bona fide traveller and sign the pub   register !

As we will see however later on if he wanted a drink he might well go to a toll bar.  I know that sounds like a pun but its fact ! His only sojourn was likely to be to church on Sundays and again the church would have been within very short walking  or cart and pony distance. The minister often travelled between villages as the Rev Dr. Ferrie would have from Kilconquhar to Earlsferry every second Sunday – it was said that he rode from Kinneuchar to Earlsferry Town Hall on a white charger putting the fear of god in to everyone which I suppose was the object of the exercise.     The peasant would need to grow just a little bit more than he would require to survive in order to pay the landlord rent but beyond that commerce and trade was relatively non existent at least in the country.  Horseback was of course the preferred mode of travel and in the main it was only the gentry that could afford horses and ride them.

So  there were no roads as we know them around this time – there were paths and sometimes of course these paths – muddy no doubt – were made slightly wider by the traffic of pilgrims, perhaps, but more likely the driving of cattle and sheep.  There was little or no maintenance required of these paths – when they got muddy and impassable either you ploughed on – literally – or you took another route.  However there was one thing which did require maintenance and that was where a pathway came to a ravine or river which required crossing.  Of course it could be forded and this was the usual practice but latterly the landowners found that it was more expedient to build crude bridges. Indeed the building of the bridge at Guardbridge in 12th century or so was a reaction to the drowning of a number of pilgrims who had tried to ford the river Eden when in spate probably or maybe as the tide was coming in not very bright really but they probably were trusting in their fate . So far as maintenance was concerned as usual the land owners tried to find an alternative to them funding it so they would impose on their agricultural tenants a levy to be used to maintain and repair the bridges – no doubt on the impeccable  logic that they were using the things so  they should jolly well pay for them.

An act of the Scottish parliament in 1669 authorised justices of the peace to call and convene the tenants, cottars and other labouring men “within their respective bounds to work three days before the last day in june not being seed time and likewise to work three days after the harvest.”   Their work was to maintain paths and roads such as they were and bridges.

By the mid 1700s things were beginning to change.  At least three developments resulted in the need for better road communications than the muddy paths and ill repaired bridges.  These developments were firstly the discovery of minerals especially coal and lime  in certain areas in Fife   and obviously the need to shift them to markets, and the second was the development of agriculture so that no longer was it the case that you grew or farmed sufficient to provide for yourself and a bit over to pay the land lord but farmers were finding that they had surplus goods or animals from their land and it was necessary to transport these goods or animals to markets where they could generate income for the farmers.  And thirdly and perhaps  most  importantly there developed a  healthy export and import trade from the east neuk ports to northern Europe and obviously it would be necessary to get access to these ports.

From a book of 1799 by Rev Thomson of Markinch about the agricultural position in Fife he said “The foreign trade of this county is carried on chiefly with Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Russia, Poland, Prussia, Germany, and Holland. The chief articles of export are coal, and a few of our manufactures. The imports are wood of different kinds, such as oak, fir, beech, &c. — oak-bark — hydes and tallow — grain, particularly wheat, barley, and oats — flax, and yarn made of flax — hemp — iron — tar — flax-seed — clover-seed — pearl-ashes *— Geneva, &c. The coasting trade is more important and valuable than the foreign.

*Pearl ash is potassium carbonate used in making soap

Furthermore there were developments in the making of roads  in the early 18th Century  after John Macadam – this was just hardcore as we know it now – actually tar came much later   Now this created a problem for the land owners over whose land these roads travelled.  Of course there was no way the landlord was going to finance these developments themselves.   The first problem was that to improve the roads probably required money and to build new ones certainly needed money up front rather than relying on the labour of the population.   Secondly how would an income be obtained from the road to pay for its upkeep and repair.  The scheme that was initially invoked and which we can find in the Loudoun Manuscript of 1748– this was a meeting of various landowners in Cupar when they decided to do something about the roadways system or lack of it in Fife. Some land owners got together in Cupar in firstly 1748 then later to work out and adopt a  system.    Landowners and tenants were assessed at a given rate per ploughgate.  A ploughgate was a measure of land and in theory it was the area that could be ploughed by two oxen in the space of one day. It approximated to 40 – 50 acres.

They decided that each ploughgate owner or tenants should contribute so much in labour or materials or alternatively commuted to money.   So everyone who was a tenant of land over 40 acres had to subscribe so much per ploughgate. This was effectively the start of a system which came later to be known as statute labour scheme.  At that time and  I suppose even now the roads of Fife were rather important because with there being a ferry from Granton to Burntisland and a ferry to Dundee from Newport/Tayport the road network through Fife was essential. But if anything the more important development was the sea trade with these Baltic states. This put an increased strain on the roads which led direct to the ports of the east neuk.

Here is a small map of the main roads in this part of the world in 1776 and the main roads seem to be from mills  to the coast suggesting that the export and import of cereals in raw or milled form natural was part of a larger commercial enterprise.

Furthermore it became increasingly difficult for the subscriptions to be collected in cash and the statutory labour to be harnessed and organised to make and repair the roads.  It could be a complicated task to work out the hours, the amount of money commuted in lieu etc. They even resorted to using the local school teachers to collect and collate the labour  and the school teachers got  a fee of 2.5%- of the takings….. again quite sensible really because  in these days like now it was only the school teachers that really understood spreadsheets.

There was the other logical problem that until they had built up enough  required labour and/or cash they would not be able to embark on serious road repairs or the making of new roads.   It did not take people long to work out that the best thing to do was to borrow money on the promise that the commuted payments for the statutory labour would pay off the capital and interest in due course. They hit upon the idea of forming road trusts which would be able, with the legislation from parliament, to borrow money to finance the roads and thereafter reap a return for their continuing upkeep.  So the local land owners “heritors”  as they were called would get together to form these Road trusts, get permission from parliament to borrow the money and set about improving the roads. Where however were they to get money from the users ?

There were four districts in Fife designated for this – Kirkcaldy, Cupar, Dunfermline and St Andrews into which trust Elie fell. The tenants of the landowners began to object to being the source of that funding because whilst of course they would be using the roads there were many others now using these paths and roads who paid nothing for the use of them.

The first idea was a repetition of what had happened earlier and that was known as the Statute Road scheme.  That is various labourers and tenants contributing in effort machinery and labour to the roads but there was an alternative of commuting it to money.

The next development logically was to expect those who were using the roads to pay for them. So there were a  number of acts of parliament between 1790s to 1830s dealing with toll roads.  Some of the acts were local acts referring to particular areas and some were general acts applying to all toll roads  Generally however this was the scheme:

The local landowners would meet and there would be a roads trust set up.  There would be permission via act of parliament to put toll bars or gates on various parts of the road that the trustees administered and they would be allowed to charge for passing these gates. A further development was that the trustees themselves did not actually stand and collect the tolls but rather like ancient tax collectors they would auction off the right to collect toll from toll bars and gates and those who rented the toll gates (known as Tacksman) then hoped to make a profit of the difference between what they had paid for the right to collect the tolls and the tolls collectable from the toll gate.  The job also came with a house which was an added bonus.

The main act which concerned Fife and especially this area was the Fife Roads Act of 1807.  It designated a number of routes which were to be toll turnpikes

By 1810 or so the Balchrystie -Elie -Pittenweem toll road was in operation. Now if you look at this route you will see that if someone was milling flour at Balcarres mill and Muircambus Mill and wanted to export the flour via Elie harbour they would have to bring the flour to Kineuchar and thence to Elie passing through the toll bar  and the down to the harbour. It sounds quite easy and sensible.  We shall see however that there were many  flaws !

So if we look at the ordinance survey map of  1853  Firstly we see the toll bar at Elie so anyone coming along the High Street intending to travel say to Pittenweem would have stop  at the toll gate but as we shall see later  they would be exempt from paying once they got to Pittenweem.  You can see the bar which is partially hidden by the capital R of Street but alongside you will see a weighing machine.

Again logically a heavy load was likely to do more damage to the road surface than a light load and it made sense to make the heavier loads pay more.  Hence the weigh bridge. This was  known as  steel yard and the reason was that the weighing was by balance and there was a yard of steel from which the load was suspended and then vary weights added at the other end to get the balance.

Now where actually was the toll house ?  – ordnance survey notes of 1847  – if you look at that map you will see the shaded rectangle which corresponds to buildings so  the Elie toll house was roughly where the bicycle is in the postcard.   The surveyors notes when he was compiling the ord survey dated 1847.  States – Elie Toll Bar – a toll bar or turnpike gate established on the public road in the village of Elie and leading from Colinsburgh to Pittenweem  It is the property of the trustees of the county and has a weighing machine fixed adjoining it  the trustees also rent a house adjoining the toll gate from Mr. Baird the proprietor of Elie Village which he lets with the toll bar as a dwelling house for the collector.


But in addition there was a toll gate at Broomlees and this meant that anyone coming from Colinsburgh via Kinneuchar or from Largo or so via Balchrystie would have to pass through the toll bar at Broomlees.  But again as we shall see if they paid then they would be exempt at Elie toll bar or at least that was the theory.



We know  that the bar at Elie and Broomlees collected  an annual amount of £224

The acts of parliament  dealt with  many exceptions in some detail and for the next 50 years or so there were innumerable court cases and  the collecting of tolls which became almost as unpopular as the Forth Bridge tolls.

Here are some of the requirements –

The toll keeper must give a ticket and then the traveller can use it for any other toll gates or bars within a six mile radius and if you return the same day  or at least before 9 am the following day  you are exempt unless you have a new load on your wagon in which case you have to pay again.  This had a particular pertinence to Broomlees/Elie and Pittenweem toll gates because they are all in a six mile radius so someone  coming though the Broomlees one just had to keep his ticket that would give him free passage through the Elie and Pittenweem ones.  Were it so simple.

Here is a delightful description by an opponent of the system

says “  The toll tickets are a source of great annoyance to the traveller – his money must always be ready before he need speak with the toll collector – the ticket however may not  be ready – the collector fingers the cash, leaves the traveller to cool himself and horse, and curb his impatience as best he can till he go in and procure and fill up the ticket.  The ticket collector who is curious in other peoples’  matters seeks an opportunity to discover the travellers destination – whether he is going by road and he is cleared for the next toll bar   thrice happy he can pocket the travellers money and pry into his affairs and escape the trouble of giving a ticket.  Assuming the traveller gets the ticket but loses it by the time he gets to the next toll bar or forgets to present it, or does not present in the manner the toll keeper wants in all these cases he just has to pay again.   In the event of argument the toll keeper presents his copy of the act section and clause authorising him to collect a second toll unless the ticket is produced.  In tempestuous weather thinking of other matters the diminutive scrap of paper forgotten and the second extraction is enforced.    On going westwards we paid 18 pence for our chaise and pair at the one mile toll gate – and another 18 pence at the seven mile toll gate where the driver got a ticket to clear the nine mile gate  On reaching the latter the toll  man was informed that we had come right along the road and paid at the previous toll and had obtained a ticket which in the gale that was blowing was not easy to ferret from the drivers pocket.  Words were no use the ticket was the thing  the driver poor chap trying to keep his horses in rein because of the storm was in his inexperience taken aback by the sharp practice of the toll man but after groping in his pockets he found the ticket and was in the act of handing it over to the tollman when the wind blew it out of his benumbed fingers and it fell at the tollman’s feet.  The tollman would not stoop to lift it and declared that the ticket had to be put in his hand or another 18 pence was payable.”

The toll keeper had to provide a printed or painted schedule with the name of the toll bar, his full name  list of tolls, names of every other toll bar which was exempt by virtue of passing that one. The ticket had to have a date and month on it but you had to produce it to get the exception at the later toll gates.  Again this caused controversy.

There were many exceptions

  1. The royal family did not have to pay a toll. So you come to the toll say I’m the king  though I suppose it was queen Victoria at the time and presumably the toll keeper must have known what he or she looked like !
  2. No tolls if the wagon etc is engaged in providing services to repair the roads ( seems sensible)
  3. any cart carrying straw, manure farm implements fodder for cattle horses going to be shod etc were exempt …..must have been difficult the tacksman would have to recognise the horse carriage or whatever and I assume he would just have to take the travellers’ say so.
  4. Any person going to or returning from the usual place of worship case
  5. Clergymen visiting the sick or on parochial duty in his parish or attending the funeral of anyone who died and buried in parish. Again wonder how you satisfied the toll keeper of that
  6. Mail horses/coaches or at least to begin with later they were charged too.
  7. Horses and carts of soldiers and officers on duty and any sick or wounded soldiers
  8. If horse or carriage goes through and pays then he is exempt on return unless he is rehired with a different load but you have to come back the same day or before 9 am the following day.
  9. If you arrive at toll booth with a horse on its own and comeback with a carriage attached to it then you pay difference between horse and carriage

And the toll keepers could be liable for a  whole host of offences

1 taking more than the toll regulated by the act; 2 from taking a toll from an exempt  person; 3 for refusing to permit anyone to read his board; 4 for refusing to tell them his Christian name; 5 for giving a false name; 6 for refusing to give a ticket denoting the fare; 7 For unnecessarily detaining or obstructing a traveller; 8 for omitting to take double toll for any coach, chaise, required to have the owners name on it and not having it.

Now this is an interesting one –  it seems that if you were  a coach hirer, carter or carrier you had to have your name painted on the side of your conveyance  and further you had to number your carts/carriages if you had more than one and if it did not then you had to pay a double toll. I assume that was to stop carriers coming through the gates with a ticket which applied to a different cart or carriage. I wonder if that was the precursor of white van man having his name and trade emblazoned on the side of his van and the present day numbering of buses. Because if you look at any of the old horse drawn open carts you will see that they do have the name of the proprietor on the side’

All these offences were subject to a fine of £5 although if the toll keeper blasphemed he was only subject to a fine of 40/-

Another bizarre suggestion made was that the roads could be self repairable – the idea was that carts and wagons could be so constructed as to repair rather than wear out roads.   How on earth you may think ? ….well there was a serious suggestion that instead of wheels, carriages and carts should have big rollers thereby rolling out the road rather than rutting it with cart tracks.

One of the commentators on the acts said that five town of St Andrews East Anstruther, Pittenweem Elie and Ferry port on Craig as being so closely  barred that the inhabitants cannot travel the smallest portion of the roads untaxed.

People will take circuitous roads to avoid the toll even if it actually was to be more expensive,

So the toll gates at Broomlees, Elie and Pittenweem constructed first in about 1810 survived until the late 1870 – not without the sadder moments





The toll bars became so unpopular but also they became less and less lucrative because as costs increased the tolls did not and the system of letting out the tolls to tacksmen was putting the collection in jeopardy – not all were honest.  They tried another tack and that was to seek liquor licenses for the toll houses beside the toll gates – this would bring in more revenue of course but the idea may  have been to detain travellers for long enough whilst they went through the tedious business of making out the ticket such at that the traveller had to go in for refreshment even if also to use the toilet in which case he would feel obliged to spend more than just a penny.

One of such consequences was the drunk toll keeper = the trustees could not understand why the takings at the toll were much reduced but the takings at the public house much increased….it did not take Sherlock Holmes to notice that the toll  man spent an  awful long time in the pub.

So there was fairly universal opposition to toll bars and gates but of course it took rather longer to do anything about it.  One of the most intriguing and informative documents is the Road Reform Report by William Pagan who  was probably  the first Pagan of Pagan Osborne. In a lengthy document examining the toll system in Fife he concluded that it was grossly unfair to many and that there should be an alternative scheme effectively of taxation on the number of horses and that used to fund the road building and repair.

Now the move to abolish tolls gathered a pace  and various affected towns and cities petitioned parliament in London to abolish them.

And there was a Commission report in 1859 effectively suggesting that the roads be taken over by the counties for maintenance and eventually in 1878 and 1889 this is what happened.  One other factor and it was a very important factor which led to the demise of the toll roads was the arrival of the railway.  So far as Elie was concerned it was a source of considerable disquiet that if you arrived at Elie Station by train you had to pass through toll gate to get to Elie and this affected a lot of the goods which were brought and sent by rail.

So that was the end of the toll roads, the toll keepers, the toll gates but of course toll bars in the form of drinking establishments remained . A search found 37 in GB with the name toll bar/ house etc.

And “Catch a penny ”   There is information that there was a field at Newwark called catch a penny and that it was thought that this related to a toll booth at the corner of Balbuthie road.– it is said that a farmer found an old penny in the field just at the corner of the Balbuthie road.  It was an old cartwheel penny apparently. Glasgow University have a sparkling database of the place names of Fife and their research suggests the following:

There is still a field known as The Catchpenny on the farm of Newark, sometimes known also as Catch-a-penny. Local tradition has it that there was a toll-booth here – a building is marked on the 1855 map at the side of the road (now A917). OS Name Book, however, gives a different explanation of the name: ‘On the farm of Newark, and now occupied by a Hind’s residence, it was formerly a Public House, hence the name’ It is not obvious why a former public house should be called Catchpenny.

Note also that SSE catchpenny ‘designed and made to sell without concern for quality; cheap, low in price, charging cheap prices’.

Now we are very certain there was no toll bar or booth here and it may well have been a public house and no doubt the toll evaders who used the Balbuthie road would be happy to miss the toll gate and stop at the pub for a drink however  it seems in retrospect little purpose in them doing so because they would have to pass the tollbooth in Pittenweem if going further east and the only avoidance might be the route to Elie harbour which would just miss the toll gate at Elie by inches. If they were bound for Pittenweem they would have to pay again there without the benefit of an exemption having paid at Elie. Now it may be that both explanations of the name are accurate because obviously it would have acquired the name from the public house which is shown on the map but it may also have been a nick name in respect of the hostelry for those who had taken the Balbuthie road to avoid the tolls at Elie and Broomlees …..well who knows….it’s a good story anyway .