Glasgow to Gretna
The M74 is one the most important routes in Scotland, providing a direct link between Glasgow and the rest of the UK. It carries tens of thousands of vehicles every day. Construction of the first section of M74 began in 1964, with the commencement of works on the Larkhall-Hamilton-Uddingston Bypass. By 1999 the motorway stretched all the way to Gretna. To the north, extensions of the motorway beyond its initial Maryville terminus were incorporated into the Glasgow Highway Plan and the Greater Glasgow Transportation Study. These plans envisaged the M74 as part of a second motorway across the city. Further changes led to the route corridor we have today.
The A74 trunk road had acted as the primary route from central Scotland to England for over a century. From the early 1950s significant works were undertaken to improve the rural sections between Lesmahagow and the Scottish Border, and by 1960 much of the work to provide dual carriageway were complete. The urban sections, which cut through the towns of Larkhall, Hamilton, Bothwell and Uddingston, remained as a single carriageway, and was completely inadequate for the volume and type of traffic using it.
A bypass of these towns had been considered since at least the early 1950s, with the MoT publishing orders several times detailing a new special road through the Clyde Valley. As is often the case in British roads planning there was a delay. County Surveyor Col TU Wilson completed a full review of the county's roads in 1951, expanding on those outlined in the Clyde Valley Plan.
Planning took a considerable step forward in 1960 when Lanarkshire County Council, with support from the Scottish Development Department (SDD), commissioned a full-scale traffic survey centred on the Hamilton area. Its purpose: to identify possible solutions to the worsening congestion problem. It was found that around 20,000 vehicles per day were travelling through Hamilton and this was expected to increase to around 65,000 by 1980. The construction of a "Special Road" was therefore recommended on a line through the Clyde Valley to the north of all four towns. This route would be made up of two and three lane carriageways built to rural motorway standards and tie in with the dual carriageway sections of A74 at Calderpark in the north and Draffan in the south. Shortly after the traffic survey was completed, engineering consultant Babtie Shaw and Morton was appointed as project designer.
M74 Construction Summary
Hamilton Bypass Stage 1
6 - 9
2nd December 1966
Hamilton Bypass Stage 2A
5 - 6
14th May 1968
Hamilton Bypass Stage 2B
4 - 5
2nd August 1968
Draffan to Poniel
9 - 11
27th October 1986
Poneil to Millbank
11 - 12
Millbank to Nether Abington
12 - 13
29th November 1991
Elvanfoot to Paddy's Rickle
14 - 15
21st August 1992
Kirkpatrick Fleming to Gretna
21 - 22
19th December 1992
Nether Abington to Elvanfoot
13 - 14
3rd December 1993
Maryville to Fullarton Road
2a - 3a
Late April 1994
Dinwoodie Green to Ecclefechan
16 - 19
22nd September 1994
Cleuchbrae to Dinwoodie Green
15 - 16
11th December 1994
Ecclefechan to Kirkpatrick Fleming
19 - 21
24th November 1995
Paddy's Rickle to Cleuchbrae
14 - 16
30th April 1999
1 - 2a
28th June 2011
Construction began 1963, with Stage 1 (Hamilton to Draffan) opening on December 2nd, 1966. Stage 2A (Hamilton to Raith) opened in May 1968, followed by 2B (Raith to Maryville) in August 1968. The Scottish Office provided a 75% grant towards the project.
A continuation of the route northwards was included within a Highway Plan for Glasgow. It was intended that this section, named the Hamilton Motorway, would connect with the East Flank of the Glasgow Inner Ring Road. Protests, and years of political wrangling, resulted in the plans being revised and a route corridor parallel to the West Coast Railway Line being adopted as an alternative. The first northern extension was completed in early 1995, with the second, more complex M74 Completion scheme following in 2011.
The success of the Hamilton Bypass almost immediately resulted in calls for further upgrades of the A74 to motorway. By the early 1970s, plans were developed to extend the motorway southwards from Draffan to Millbank, bypassing Lesmahagow (its second bypass in only 40 years). Two construction contracts were eventually let, Draffan to Douglas, completed in October 1986 and Douglas to Millbank, opening in November 1987. These were constructed as dual two-lane motorway.
In 1987, the Scottish Office confirmed that all remaining sections of A74 would be upgraded to motorway. Three design contracts were let, to Babtie, Shaw & Morton, Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick and W.A. Fairhurst. The scheme was “fast tracked” with route selection, contract preparation and detailed design being undertaken simultaneously. The first contract taken forward in this way, from Millbank to Nether Abington, opened only four years later in November 1991. The fast pace continued, and by 1999 the entire route from Millbank to the Scottish Border had been upgraded to dual three-lane motorway. Many schemes won civil engineering awards for their innovation and design.
Junctions on the M74 are numbered from north to south, increasing sequentially from Junction 1 (Kingston) to Junction 22 (Gretna). Between Junctions 1 and 2A (Fullarton Road), the route is constructed to urban motorway standards with closely spaced junctions and a high-quality finish. It has three lanes and a hard shoulder in each direction. This section of the motorway was the most recently completed, opening in June 2011 as the M74 Completion scheme. The project was controversial and subject to several studies before an approved line was selected in 1995 and revised in 2001. Several large structures can be seen along this stretch of road, including Port Eglinton Viaduct, one of the largest bridges on the Scottish motorway network.
From Junction 2A to 6 (Hamilton) the motorway has a mix of urban and rural characteristics. The stretch between Fullarton Road and Junction 4 (Maryville Interchange) was completed in 1994 and was the first northern extension of the route. This was originally proposed within the Glasgow Highway Plan proposals of 1965 as the Hamilton Motorway. South of Junction 4, the motorway was constructed as the Hamilton Bypass scheme. It interchanges with the A725 at Junction 5 (Raith) and the A723 at Junction 6. Completed between May and August 1968, the route is comprised of either three or four lane carriageways with hard shoulders throughout. It was widened in 2017 to accommodate additional traffic generated as result of the completion of the route around the south of Glasgow.
Two service areas were constructed in the 1970s at Bothwell (serving southbound traffic only) and Hamilton (serving northbound traffic only. These are currently operated by Road Chef under a 99-year lease. North of Junction 5 the motorway is connected to Traffic Scotland’s network of overhead sign gantries, variable message signs and CCTV cameras.
Between Junction 6 and Draffan, the motorway becomes rural in nature, narrowing to two lanes with hard shoulders in each direction. This too was part of the Hamilton Bypass project, and was completed in December 1966, the first section of M74 to open. Junction 6 remains one of Scotland’s largest motorway junctions, allowing for free-flow movements in all directions. It was designed to accommodate anticipated growth in traffic from the large burghs of Hamilton and Motherwell. Given its proximity to the rivers Clyde and Avon, the junction has been designed to remain free of flooding. Junction 7 (Larkhall) has north facing slip roads only, whilst Junction 8 (Canderside) allows for full motorway access. Traffic has increased steadily on this section in recent years, with peak time congestion experienced on a regular basis.
South of Junction 8 the motorway splits briefly, passing a woodland area at Candermoss. From Draffan the road continues as dual two lane motorway with hard shoulders. The section from here, past Junction 9 (Blackwood) to J12 (Millbank) was completed between October 1986 and November 1987, the first southern extensions of the route to be constructed. An offline corridor was chosen for this section, leaving the A74 as a parallel distributor for local traffic. Limited access is provided at Junction 9 (southbound offslip only), Junction 10 (Lesmahagow) and Junction 11 (Douglas). The project was completed shortly before the Scottish Office announced that further southern extensions would be constructed with three lanes and a hard shoulder in each direction.
Junction 12 marks the return to dual three lane motorway, albeit with a short section on the southbound carriageway which has no hard shoulder. From Millbank to Junction 22 (Gretna) the route is entirely rural in nature, with large distances between some junctions and no lighting. This section, which is almost 60 miles in length, was constructed during an intense programme of works lasting only 8 years. The contract to upgrade the route between Junction 12 and Junction 13 (Nether Abington), was the first of the southern contracts to be completed, opening in 1991.
A service area, operated by Welcome Break, is located off the motorway at Junction 13. This allows traffic from the A702 and A73 routes to also make use of the facility which opened in 1992. Interestingly, a service area in this location was first mooted in Sir Patrick Abercrombie’s “Clyde Valley Plan” of the late 1940s.
South of Junction 13 the motorway is legally numbered as A74(M). This numbering anomaly exists due to way in which the A74 was upgraded to motorway standard. Initially, sections of new motorway were discontinuous with standard all-purpose dual carriageway in between. The A74(M) number was utilised with the intention that it would be a temporary measure. The Scottish Office intended that the entire motorway would be numbered M6 on its completion, although delays in the completion of the M6 between Junction 22 and Carlisle, as well as political changes, resulted in this proposal being abandoned. Visible signs of this anomaly remain on the ground, particularly in sections constructed in later contracts, where the A74(M) number was provided on signage as a temporary patch. Over the years, many of these patches have been removed or have fallen off, revealing the M6 number below.
Two further contracts extended the motorway southwards, with works completed during 1992 and 1993. These contracts included Junction 14 (Elvanfoot), with a temporary terminus at Paddy’s Rickle in place for almost six years. A large section of the route from Paddy’s Rickle to Junction 16 (Johnstonebridge), which was the most technically challenging, was completed in April 1999. This final piece in the puzzle connected sections of motorway already completed to the north and south of Moffat, with the town provided with a connection to the new road at Junction 15 (Beattock). The contract was the first roads project to be constructed in Scotland under the Private Finance Initiative (PFI). The contractor, Autolink (officially the M6 Concessionaire), is a joint venture of several construction companies and banks and became responsible for the management and maintenance of the entire route between Junctions 12 and 22 on its completion. This 30-year contract is scheduled to end in 2027.
Almost fifteen miles lies between Junctions 14 and 15, the longest gap between junctions of any motorway in Scotland. The motorway crosses Beattock Summit and runs parallel to the main west coast railway line. Poor winter weather conditions often impact upon the resilience of this stretch.
An interesting feature of the southbound carriageway between Junctions 14 and 15 is the DVSA (formerly VOSA) checkpoint. It is not unusual to see HGVs being flagged into the facility for routine checks. The site is well known for its uncovered M6 sign at the exit.
South of Junction 15, the motorway is almost entirely surrounded by agricultural land and fairly non-descript countryside. It bypasses the town of Lockerbie and villages including Ecclefechan and Kirkpatrick Fleming. The alignment of the road is fairly simple with few bends and only gentle gradients. The (almost 25 mile long) stretch of motorway between Johnstonebridge and Gretna was completed between 1992 and 1995 as part of eight separate “fast track” construction contracts (see below). The B7076, constructed to serve non-motorway and local traffic, runs parallel to motorway between Junctions 14 and 22, doubling as a diversion route when the road is closed for maintenance or due to incidents. Many sections of this road are former lengths of the A74.
Annandale Water Services is located adjacent to Junction 16. The facility is currently operated by Road Chef and officially opened in April 1995. It is the newest “traditional” motorway service area in Scotland and is constructed around an artificial loch. Lockerbie is served by Junctions 17 and 18, the latter providing access to and from the south only. The stretch of A74 badly damaged by the Lockerbie Air Disaster in 1988 was replaced, with the A74(M) being located further west of the original route. Continuing southwards, Junctions 19 (Ecclefechan), 20 (Eaglesfield) and 21 (Kirkpatrick Fleming) follow in quick succession. Gretna Services are located between Junctions 21 and 22. Operated by Welcome Break, the facility opened in 1992, an upgrade of former A74 services on the same site. Junction 22 marks the end of the route, continuing southwards from the Scottish Border as M6. Free flow slip roads to and from the south connect the A75 to the motorway. Until the completion of the Cumberland Gap section of M6 in 2008, a few hundred meters of the A74(M) continued into England.
From the Archive
This article was first published in December 2020. Last updated November 2022.
> Fifty Years in the Making: The M74 Reaches Glasgow