In the first of a three-part series, we pay tribute to some of our greatest masterpieces of construction

IT is not often that you see a terrific piece of engineering on a theatre stage, but those people lucky enough to have tickets for the current production by Dundee Rep theatre company are very fortunate. Not only will they witness Tracy Letts’s tremendous play August: Osage County performed by a wonderful ensemble cast and brilliantly directed by the company’s new artistic director Andrew Panton, they will see a set the like and the scale of which has rarely been seen on a normal Scottish stage before. (I loved all three but cannot class Bill Bryden’s The Ship and The Big Picnic plus the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch as being “normally” staged plays, whereas this play doesn’t depart from its stage roots.)

One of the many distinguishing features of August: Osage County at Dundee Rep is the extraordinary set by Alex Lowde, which is basically a see-through two-storey house mounted on a revolving platform. It is not just a piece of hugely innovative and ambitious theatre design, it is a wonder of modern engineering and provides the backdrop for what has to be one of the greatest stage productions in Scotland in this century.

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All credit to Lowde, production chief Ian Dow and stage manager Lesley Neilson for their contribution to a wonderful show – if you haven’t been yet, then buy a ticket now.

Scotland’s engineering and construction skills are very much in the news these days, and whereas you might think it’s a giant leap of imagination from the stage of Dundee Rep to the harsh waters of the Firth of Forth, the engineering innovation that underpins Lowde’s theatrical set and the new Queensferry Crossing comes from the same wellspring – Scotland’s long tradition of excellence in building and engineering.

As a sort of tribute to the Queensferry Crossing, which truly is both a beautiful structure and a construction and engineering achievement of the highest order, over the next three weeks, I will profile what I consider to be three of the greatest engineering and construction feats in Scottish history. The first of these, appropriately enough, is the original Forth Bridge, the daddy of them all and undoubtedly Scotland’s greatest built wonder – as was voted for by the public last year.

Next week we will look at the Forth Road Bridge, to my mind an unsung achievement which was just as spectacular in its own way, and we shall finish with the last great liner to be launched on the River Clyde, Queen Elizabeth II, which was launched 50 years ago this month. If you have any memories of the building of the Road Bridge or the building and launching of QE2, do feel free to let me know at nationalhamish@gmail.com and, as always, I am ever on the lookout for suggestions for subjects to cover.

So to the Forth Bridge, or Forth Rail Bridge as we must now call it, one of the most iconic structures associated with Scotland. It is a World Heritage site, deemed so by Unesco because of the genius of its construction as the first permanent major structure in Britain to be built of steel. Yet it was nearly not built at all, and there was much criticism of the death toll during its construction – we’ll deal with that later.

To understand why it was so wondrous, we need to look further back in time and see how Scotland’s place at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution was one of the main reasons why engineering became such a popular profession in this country.

In the early 17th century there were already builders and innovators experimenting in what we would now call civil engineering. Sir George Bruce (1550-1625), or example, sank the Moat Pit into the Forth’s coal seams and his other mines and salt works were far in advance of anything else found anywhere in the world.

Andrew Meikle (1710-1811) invented the threshing machine – every combine harvester in the world derives from it – and other farming innovations, and Dumfriesshire shepherd’s son Thomas Telford (1757-1834) designed and built the Caledonian Canal, among other civil engineering masterpieces.

The Industrial Revolution transformed Scotland, with James Watt’s genius as a scientist, engineer and inventor to the fore. If all he had done was to make the steam engine practical, then Watt would still be lauded. As it was, he accomplished so much in so many fields that he is rightly remembered as one of our greatest, if not the greatest, innovators.

Yet it was his protege John Rennie (1761-1821) who did much to shape modern Britain, because he not only built canals, bridges and harbours, he designed the dockyards that made the Royal Navy invincible around these shores.

Robert Stirling (1790-1878) was the Kirk minister who invented his eponymous engine; the Stevenson family worked on lighthouses; James “Paraffin” Young (1811-1883) founded the petrochemical industry; and Robert Napier (1791-1876) and John Elder (1824-1869) between them made the Clyde the world centre of shipbuilding.

William Thompson (1824-1907), or Lord Kelvin as he is better known, invented so much that is vital to modern life; James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) gave us the foundations of electrical and electronic engineering; and the remarkable but often unremarked William John Macquorn Rankine (1820-1872) was not only a brilliant scientist himself but campaigned vigorously for engineering to be taught on a formal basis. That is why Scotland had some of the first dedicated engineering faculties – Glasgow University’s School of Engineering is the UK’s oldest.

All these great 19th-century figures took Scottish engineering on to a different plane, but it was Sir William Arrol, builder of the Forth Bridge, who gloriously crowned that century of achievement. Yet it nearly did not happen at all, as a direct result of the Tay Bridge disaster in 1879.

There had been ferries across the Forth for centuries before the first tunnels and bridges were proposed at the beginning of the 19th century. These ideas came to nothing until Sir Thomas Bouch (1822-1880) came on the scene as chief engineer of the Edinburgh and Northern Railway – and it was the railways above all which were driving the need for a Forth crossing.

He had invented the first roll-on, roll-off ferries for rail companies before he argued that the Firths of Tay and Forth could and should be bridged. Bouch was working for the North British Railway when the Tay Bridge was authorised and it was made mostly of iron, completed to his design in 1878.

Queen Victoria crossed it in June 1879, and Bouch was knighted for his work. It was just as well he got the award early, for in December the bridge collapsed as a train crossed it, killing 75 people.

After the disaster, an inquiry found that it was design and building faults which principally led to the collapse of the structure. Bouch got the blame, and an urban legend sprang up that the word “botch” derived from his name – it didn’t, but he had overall responsibility for a botched job.

The disaster forced a rethink of the design for the Forth Bridge, and after Bouch died in 1880, two engineers, John Fowler and Benjamin Baker, came up with new plans which were approved by Parliament in 1882. There was only one man in the frame to actually lead the construction – William Arrol, the Renfrewshire-born entrepreneur who had risen from blacksmith’s apprentice to being head of the civil engineering company that bore his name.

He had already built numerous bridges and had won the contract to rebuild the Tay Bridge – like the Forth, it still stands and is in use to this day.

Work on the Forth Bridge and second Tay Bridge began in 1883, and Arrol, Fowler and Baker all insisted on massive safety features being incorporated – there would be no second bridge collapse on their shift.

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The Forth Bridge was to be made of steel manufactured in Scotland and Wales and held together by millions of rivets – a new departure in bridge building. It would be huge, more than 8000 feet in length, with the distinctive central spans rising to 350ft and the track itself 150ft above sea level.

From the outset it was realised that the Forth Bridge, with its unusual cantilever design was going to be something very special. Sightseers flocked from all over to see the construction work going on both north and south of the Forth, and boats were hired so they could see what was going on in the middle of the river, too.

In those days there were no broadcasters, of course, but newspapers kept up a steady commentary of progress as the main spans began to be completed.

The press also cottoned on to the fact that construction work was highly dangerous. They gave Arrol a hard time, and a rescue boat service had to be set up – it would eventually save at least eight lives.

Arrol was phlegmatic about the death toll. He said: “There are no more accidents here than in an ordinary ship-building yard but as there is only one Forth Bridge, and as everything that takes place on it seems to get reported in every newspaper in the country, people get quite erroneous ideas about the fatalities that do occur.”

Modern research has shown that the given figure of 57 fatalities was an understatement – the figure is likely to have been nearer 80. The youngest was a 13-year-old rivet catcher, David Clark, who fell 150ft to his death in September, 1888.

The work was hard and dangerous, and all involved knew that. Many injuries happened to men working in the caissons in mid-stream, but the main cause of death was falls.

Arrol really did care about the “briggers” as the bridge builders became known, devising ways of making their jobs safer. They were also well paid by the standards of the time, especially the riveters, who would put more than 6.5 million rivets into the 55,000-ton bridge. And did I mention the 650,000 cubic feet of granite supporting the structure on either side of the bridge?

It is often said that the painting of the bridge began as soon as it was finished and never stopped. And yes, for many years the paint job would be continuous – a team of painters regularly topped up the distinctly reddish paint where it faded.

That all stopped in 2011 when a new type of paint was applied in a refurbishment project that had lasted several years.

The Forth Bridge was officially opened by the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, on March 4, 1890. From the start, it was massively successful with the travelling public, for it knocked hours off the journey to and from Aberdeen and opened up a new era of travel between Edinburgh and Fife.

To this day, it remains the second-longest cantilever bridge in the world behind only the Quebec Bridge in Canada. It has exceeded all expectations, for it is very doubtful that Arrol himself anticipated his bridge lasting so long and still being able to handle more than 200 trains running across it every day.

It says everything about the Forth Rail Bridge’s importance to the public that most people thought it was the target of the first Nazi German air raid of the Second World War. The German bombers were actually aiming for the Royal Naval Dockyard at Rosyth, but it soon became known as the Forth Bridge raid, and propaganda films of the time emphasised that the bridge had survived undamaged.

Now owned and maintained by Network Rail, the original Forth Bridge has been joined by two others, and the latest, the Queensferry Crossing, shows that Scotland is a place where engineering genius is still appreciated.