Giving the Glenshee devil the elbow: The fascinating history of the notorious road

The devil has many elbows around the world, but his Perthshire crazy bone is one of the most notorious.

The road to the Cairnwell pass from the Spittal of Glenshee has obsessed drivers since the early days of motoring.

The challenge of conquering a 1:6 double hairpin bend a mile below the summit has prompted many column inches in newspapers all over the country over the years.

Devil's Elbow in snow, November 1953
The Devil’s Elbow in snow, November 1953.

Speculation about a by-pass started decades before one was actually built.

‘So-called roadway’

In August 1922, a writer in The Evening Telegraph speculated as to what The King and Queen Mary thought of the ‘so-called roadway at the back of the Devil’s Elbow… the pass is little better than it was in the days of gigocracy’.

People feeding sheep from a car on the Devil's Elbow.
People feeding sheep from a car on the Devil’s Elbow.

He added a vain plea to Scottish motoring organisations to sort out the road by the next season: “Motorists who have passed through the English Lake country report that the mountain roadways and passes have been improved by engineers and roadmakers, and made fit for modern motor traffic.

“It would not be difficult to construct good and safe roadway up to and over the pass at the Elbow, and Scottish motorists, with their organisations, should be equal to the task of ensuring that before another season comes round the roadway at the Devil’s Elbow shall be equal to any of the mountain passes in the English Lake country.”

Devil’s Elbow death warrant

The Devil’s Elbow’s death warrant wasn’t signed until much later when Gordon Campbell, Scottish secretary during the whole of Edward Heath’s government, approved grants of more than £1.5m to local authorities, including the Elbow by-pass.

The by-pass was hastened by the deterioration of the road, and by the need to cope with ever-increasing numbers of people heading towards the winter playground of Glenshee.

Perth and Kinross Joint County Council agreed to spend £65,000 on the project, from the Perthshire-Aberdeenshire boundary to a point 650 yards south of the Elbow.

Daimler used the Devil's Elbow in their car adverts
Daimler used the Devil’s Elbow in their car adverts. BNA/The Queen 1908.

The original recommendation was to leave the original road as a giant car park, although these days it’s seen as a tourist attraction.

Old road out of view

Finally, on October 7 1971, drivers were able to cruise unperturbed on the A93 towards Cairnwell, with the old road left to intrepid cyclists and walkers.

The old road is mainly now out of view, but there are those who still endeavour to take their cars up it– not recommended.

A vehicle without a gearbox going up the Devil's Elbow in 1909.
A vehicle without a gearbox going up the Devil’s Elbow. BNA/Illustrated London News 1909.

At 2,200ft, the Cairnwell Pass is the highest main road in the UK.

The original road followed the ‘New Military Road’ built by William Caulfield in the 1750s and was used by drovers to take cattle and sheep to market – one can only admire the fortitude of the drovers.

Back in 1936, local people presented a petition to Perthshire County Council, pointing out their concerns about the state of the bridge, a scheduled ancient monument, at Spittal of Glenshee, and describing the steep and narrow road as a ‘danger trap to motorists and pedestrians’.

But their pleas fell on deaf ears for a further 35 years.

Frequent closures due to snow

Snow is now the only thing which bedevils the road, with frequent closures of the snow gates at the Spittal, Braemar and just below the Glenshee ski centre.

But has a frisson of excitement disappeared for the modern driver?

A car at the Devil’s Elbow route on the A93.

Signs advise ‘Great Caution’ on the road, and water was even left at a strategic point for protesting vehicles.

That may have been handy in summer, but winter threw up the opposite problem with radiators freezing.

Traffic on Devils Elbow heading for Braemar in the 1920s
Traffic on Devil’s Elbow heading for Braemar in the 1920s. DCT Media.

Passengers were disgorged from coaches and had to trudge up the hill themselves as their buses strained and laboured their way up.

Others had to get out and push their charabanc up the worst of it, particularly on Braemar Games day when around 1,000 vehicles would attempt to negotiate it in the 1920s.

The Queen and Prince Philip tackling the Devil's Elbow, near Glenshee in 1967.
The Queen and Prince Philip tackling the Devil’s Elbow, near Glenshee in 1967. DCT Archive.

The Queen and Prince Philip dared the approach when they came up in their Daimler in 1967.

In those days vast numbers of concrete tank traps from the Second World War lined the Elbow to help foil a feared German invasion from the north of Scotland.

The Devil's Elbow in November 1962 after being cleared by snowploughs
The Devil’s Elbow in November 1962 after being cleared by snowploughs. DCT Media.

In 2016 plans were approved to turn the old road into a visitor attraction, and by 2018, tourism chiefs were pushing a route on the A93 past the Devil’s Elbow to Ballater and then the A939 back to Speyside past Tomintoul and Corgaff Castle as something to rival the NC500.

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Perth & Kinross – The Courier