Bridgescapes, by Bruce Keith : 6 November 2021


Commenced as a millennium project, Bruce’s personal journey through Scotland’s bridge-building heritage was completed in time for the opening of the Queensferry Crossing in 2017. His labour of love became inspired by such observations as John Buchan’s : “the bridge is a symbol of man’s engagement with nature.  History – social, economic and military – clusters more thickly about bridges than about towns and cities.”  He noted also Franklin D Roosevelt’s claim in 1931 : “there can be little doubt that in many ways the story of bridge-building is the story of civilisation. By it, we can readily measure an important part of a people’s progress.”


Bruce’s partner in the project was photographer Lewis Matheson, and photography goes a long way back in chronicling Scottish bridge-building. An early photograph captures the collapse of Boatford Bridge over the Esk at Langholm from which 90 people fell, but only one person was injured and it was soon rebuilt. Bruce’s father had been a bridge engineer working in Nigeria before joining Inverness County Council, and was accustomed to African rivers suddenly shifting their course - but had not expected to encounter such a thing at Loch Morlich. Childhood memories of visits to Skye included ferry trips across Loch Alsh. Who would have thought then that by 1995 there would be a second “bridge across the Atlantic”?


Scotland’s earliest surviving single-arch bridge is the Brig o’ Balgownie across the Don, whose appearance mirrored in the river is today little changed from its inception in 1320. An early multiple-arched bridge is Stirling, dating from 1400 which replaced the one destroyed during Wallace’s victory over Edward. Peebles has its bridge over the Tweed built of stone from St Andrew’s Church destroyed during the Rough Wooing. At the Auld Brig of Alloway, Burns had the witch seize the rump of Tam o’ Shanter’s mount.


General George Wade was the first promoter of a strategic network, with 250 miles of road and 40 bridges built to suppress any Jacobite revival - a hero of his day, he was celebrated in a long-lapsed version of the National Anthem, is it any wonder that many Scots prefer Flower of Scotland?  Scotland’s oldest packhorse bridge at Carrbridge survived the muckle spate of 1829 that destroyed the bridge at Fochabers. St George’s now Garva Bridge on the upper Spey cost a mere £466, while at Aberfeldy he employed noted architect William Adam who decorated the structure with arches and obelisks, driving 1700 piles into the riverbed : today it seems well accustomed to the pounding of timber lorries, while an assessment of its condition to take barytes traffic found that it offered huge safety margins. Wade’s understudy Major Caulfeild actually outdid his boss, delivering 900 miles and 600 bridges which included those at Feshie, Dulsie and Invercauld – this served for only a hundred years until Prince Albert commissioned another to protect his privacy. An Englishman John Smeaton gave us Coldstream across the Tweed with oculi to lighten its weight and give an improved appearance, which was followed by similar bridges at Perth and Banff. When David Henderson bridged Pease Glen on the future A1 in 1786, he created what was then the highest bridge in the world. John Rennie from Phantassie in East Lothian deployed elliptical arches at Kelso and also Waterloo and London Bridge, now in Arizona. William Adam built the West Bridge at Cullen for the Earl of Seafield, and sent his four sons on the Grand Tour of Europe where Robert learned to paint. The Bridge of Alvah for the Earl of Fife incorporated a “tollkeeper’s cottage” where the Earl consorted with young ladies. Thomas Telford from Dumfriesshire became the first President of the Institution of Civil Engineers where his official portrait has Britain’s longest aqueduct at Pontcysyllte in the background, commemorating his time as county surveyor of Shropshire though he regarded Dunkeld as his finest, charging the Duke of Atholl for its ornamentation – but Craigellachie is perhaps finer still, his friend the poet Robert Southey finding it “beautifully light, in a situation where the utility of lightness is instantly perceived”, and local advice to raise its height probably ensured survival against the 1829 flood. One of Telford’s final creations Pathhead taking the A68 across the Tyne Water can best be enjoyed from below, and gave the inspiration for the Dean Bridge which expanded Edinburgh’s New Town.


Captain Samuel Brown’s Union Chain Bridge of 1820 across the Tweed preceded by one at Galashiels in 1817 remains the world’s oldest surviving suspension bridge to convey vehicles – he went on to build the Wellington Bridge at Aberdeen, though his at Montrose fell down. The Shakin’ Briggie promoted by Rev Morrison across the Dee at Cults has suffered a scarcely kinder fate, being the subject of restoration appeals over forty years, but the one far upstream at Cambus o’ May has fared better, its damage during 2016’s Storm Frank now repaired – creator Louis Harper went on to have a successful career that took his bridges to Estonia and Nepal. John Justice of Dundee gave us the Haughs of Drimmie prototype double-stayed bridge over the Ericht, but Bruce’s favourite is Aberchalder designed by James Dredge on the Oich, with a double cantilever, which was soon superseded but restored in the 1990s for pedestrian use. Glasgow’s Victoria Bridge designed by James Walker who succeeded Telford as ICE President – Sir John Rennie would come third – was one of the two widest in Britain when opened in 1854. “Tripontium” is the name grandly applied to Drygrange, where the three-arched bridge built by Alexander Stevens in 1780 was joined first by the Leaderfoot railway viaduct and then by the modern bridge that now carries the A68 - but since it dates from 1973 can no longer really be called new.


Pontcysyllte would be almost matched in length by Hugh Baird’s aqueduct carrying the Union Canal over the River Avon, which bore an iron trough enabling the weight of the water to be evenly carried by its slender pillars and inspired his family to take bridge-building to Ontario and Russia. All too often we remember the engineers and contractors but not the actual people who built the bridges – the Forth Bridge is an exception, with memorials at both ends to the briggers who died during its construction - but the presence of Burke and Hare on the Union Canal is a reminder that occasionally there were villains among their ranks. James M Gale built the 22 aqueducts that conveyed water from Loch Katrine to the City of Glasgow, revamped in the twenty-first century but still in use. Another aqueduct the Falkirk Wheel, world’s largest rotating ship lift, is a worthy addition from this century to the roll-call of great Scottish bridges.


Laigh Milton built in 1811 for the Duke of Portland’s Kilmarnock & Troon freight and passenger-carrying line was the first public railway viaduct in the world, and fell into disuse after 1841 owing to the route’s realignment to take locomotives, but was rescued by Professor Roland Paxton in 1995 and awaits inclusion in an active travel network.  The 2.4 km Almond Viaduct of 1842 carrying Scotland’s first inter-city railway the Edinburgh & Glasgow with two sections of 36 and 7 arches was the product of the great engineering partnership of Thomas Grainger and John Miller – two Jameses, Laurie and Kirkwood, who trained there went on to become the first and second Presidents of the American Society of Civil Engineers. John Miller also created Ballochmyle, still Britain’s tallest railway viaduct and for many years the largest masonry arch in the world. John and Joseph Mitchell who built the Highland Main Line were also responsible for Logierait on the now-closed Aberfeldy branch, with eight-foot cast-iron columns which cost a mere £13,222 to build but £400,000 in this century to restore for road use. Robert Murray built Neidpath Viaduct over the Tweed on an extenuated skew said to have been modelled in a turnip! The mighty concrete pioneer Glenfinnan is still with us and enjoying new fame thanks to Harry Potter, carrying the Jacobite steam train first promoted by Bruce’s friends Colin Shearer and Mike Lowson back in 1984 which also crosses Loch nan Uamh Viaduct, where x-ray photography deployed by Roland Paxton confirmed a story that a horse and cart had fallen into one of the piers.


Construction of the first Tay Bridge was witnessed by Queen Victoria in the company of former US President Ulysses S Grant, who was on a world tour to promote his memoirs. The victim of poor design, materials, construction, maintenance and a hell of a gale, its fall is recalled in doggerel by McGonagall but better remembered by John Prebble whose account The High Girders recalls how the wind blew the stilts from under both the Bridge and its designer Sir Thomas Bouch’s reputation. Replacement by Barlow produced an altogether sturdier affair, and the apogee of engineering confidence came in Baker’s Forth Bridge revered by the late Tam Dalyell MP whose father a diplomat had entertained in the 1930s at The Binns a group of German diplomats included von Ribbentrop, who went on to be Hitler’s foreign minister : within days of the outbreak of the Second World War, Germany falsely claimed to have bombed it in a raid headed for Rosyth, though their efforts might have been better aimed at the Kincardine swingbridge further upstream, which was one of the main achievements of the interwar years along with works such as the old A9’s Findhorn Road Bridge by Sir Owen Williams who went on to design the M1.


With 30,800 wires in its cables, the Forth Road Bridge’s construction was vulnerable to the icy winter of 1963, but all was made good for an on-time and on-budget opening in September 1964. Engineer William Logan gave us the Tay Road Bridge on which the universal verdict was that “it’s all downhill to Dundee” before being taken prematurely in a plane crash. When it opened in 1971 the Erskine Bridge was the longest cable-stayed in the world. Kessock in 1982 deployed seismic buffers for its position on a fault line, and Donald Fraser delivered Kylesku and then the Oresund before his career culminated with the Queensferry Crossing.


Taking us into the twenty-first century, we come to the first sustainable bridge built for the centenary of Aberfeldy Golf Club, and to the “squinty bridge” at Finnieston across the Clyde. The Forthside Pedestrian Bridge links Stirling city centre with new development across the railway tracks. Clackmannanshire Bridge opened in 2008 is the second-longest incrementally-launched bridge in the world. The Bracklinn Falls at Callander was a bridge too far, and will have to be replaced. But finally, we come to the Queensferry Crossing, longest three-tower cable-stayed bridge in the world and also by far the largest to feature cables which cross mid-span. This innovative design provides extra strength and stiffness, allowing the towers and the deck to be slenderer and more elegant. With its arrival, the Queensferry Passage now boasts three adjoining bridges of cantilever, suspension and cable-stayed design that epitomise nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first century engineering, and it is Bruce’s fervent wish that the UNESCO status secured in 2015 for the Forth Bridge should now be extended to embrace the other two.


Copies of “Bridgescapes” by L Bruce Keith are available direct from the author, discounted to £15 plus £3.50 p&p = £18.50. Payment by cheque, or online banking available. Contact Bruce on [email protected]