IN this final part of a short series on Scotland’s greatest civil engineer, Thomas Telford, I will show how he laid the basis of the infrastructure of modern Scotland.

Last week, I told how Telford had been sent to his native land in 1802 by the government of Tory prime minister Henry Addington to carry out a great survey of the north of Scotland. His report included the best plan to date for the Caledonian Canal, but concentrated on roads, bridges and harbours, with one of his first projects being an entirely new port at Wick in Caithness, built at the order of Sir William Pulteney and named Pulteneytown after Pulteney died in 1805. It made Wick the largest herring port in the world for many years.

Over the next 20 years, Telford laboured to modernise Scotland’s Highlands and coastal facilities, as well as laying down much better roads than the existing Wade or Military roads. His bridges became the key to a series of practical improvements, which resulted, according to his biographer Samuel Smiles “in the construction of not less than 920 additional miles of roads and bridges throughout the Highlands, one-half of the cost of which was defrayed by the government and the other half by local assessment.

“But in addition to these main lines of communication, numberless county roads were formed by statute labour, under local road acts and by other means; the landowners of Sutherland alone constructing nearly 300 miles of district roads at their own cost.”

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They all followed Telford’s road map and plans and copied his methods, which by now included the basic tenets of civil engineering – proper planning, use of skilled managers and labourers and appropriate expenditure, with his groundbreaking tendering and contract system.

So you can see that, whether he was in charge of a particular project or not, Telford really did change the face of Scotland.

The curious fact of the matter is that although he had mostly surveyed the Highlands, his first major bridge in Scotland was as far south in this country as you can get, the Tongland Bridge over the River Dee in what was then Kirkcudbrightshire and is now Dumfries and Galloway.

Then known as Tongueland, Tongland Bridge is one of the unsung wonders of Scotland. Telford was asked to design it in 1803, but after flooding swept away the initial timberworks in 1804, Telford employed the architect Alexander Nasmyth and installed Adam Blane as resident engineer.

This time, no mere flood would be allowed to destroy Telford’s impregnable bridge which was finally completed in 1808, after he constructed a stunning stone archway across the Dee, which carries the A711 road to this day.

In his contemporary work, author and publisher Robert Chambers wrote in his Picture Of Scotland about Tongland Bridge: “Opposite Compston there is a magnificent new bridge over the Dee. It consists of a single web, the span of which is 112 feet; and it is built of vast blocks of freestone brought from the Isle of Arran.

“The cost of this work was somewhere about £7000 sterling and, it may be mentioned, to the honour of the Stewartry, that this sum was raised by the private contributions of the gentlemen of the district. From Tongueland Hill, in the immediate vicinity of the bridge, there is a view well worthy of a painter’s eye, and which is not inferior in beauty and magnificence to any in Scotland.”

The innovative engineering which Telford used at Tongland would be a hallmark of his other stone bridges, and there would be many of them across Scotland. At the same time as he was building Tongland, Telford was starting the Caledonian Canal which, as we saw last week, was to take 17 years to complete.

The National: Tongland Bridge, near to Tongland, Dumfries And Galloway. Pic: John M Wheatley/Geograph.Tongland Bridge, near to Tongland, Dumfries And Galloway. Pic: John M Wheatley/Geograph.

He was not always superintendent on site for his works – there were too many of them for that – and at one point in 1810, he went to Sweden where King Charles XIII had personally approved Telford’s plan for building the Gota Canal, by far the largest civil engineering project in Sweden to that date.

Telford wrote in a letter to a friend: “I have become a very wandering being, and am scarcely ever two days in one place, unless detained by business, which, however, occupies my time very completely … I am tossed about like a tennis ball: the other day, I was in London, since that I have been in Liverpool, and in a few days, I expect to be at Bristol. Such is my life; and to tell you the truth, I think it suits my disposition.”

Yet Scotland was always on his mind. Telford wrote in another letter: “Never when awake, and perhaps not always when asleep, have my Scotch surveys been absent from my mind.”

His first major achievement north of the central belt was Dunkeld Bridge, built between 1805-9. The seven stone arches over the River Tay were built with government and local finance, mostly provided by the 4th Duke of Atholl. It was a triumph at the time and is very much still in use today as a Category A listed building.

Now Telford really got going with his roads and bridges in the north. Smiles reports: “The communication by road north of Inverness was also perfected by the construction of a bridge of five arches over the Beauly, and another of the same number over the Conan, the central arch being 65 feet span and the formerly wretched bit of road between these points having been put in good repair, the town of Dingwall was thenceforward rendered easily approachable from the south.

“At the same time, a beginning was made with the construction of new roads through the districts most in need of them. The first contracted for was the Loch-na-Gaul road, from Fort William to Arisaig, on the western coast, nearly opposite the island of Eigg. Another was begun from Loch Oich, on the line of the Caledonian Canal, across the middle of the Highlands, through Glengarry, to Loch Hourn on the western sea. Other roads were opened north and south; through Morvern to Loch Moidart; through Glen Morrison and Glen Sheil, and through the entire Isle of Skye; from Dingwall, eastward, to Lochcarron and Loch Torridon, quite through the county of Ross; and from Dingwall, northward, through the county of Sutherland as far as Tongue on the Pentland Firth, while another line, striking off at the head of the Dornoch Firth, proceeded along the coast in a north-easterly direction to Wick and Thurso, in the immediate neighbourhood of John o’ Groats.

“There were numerous other subordinate lines of road which it is unnecessary to specify in detail; but some idea may be formed of their extent, as well as of the rugged character of the country through which they were carried, when we state that they involved the construction of no fewer than 1200 bridges.”

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Some of the best-known of Telford’s Scottish bridges in order of completion include those at Dunans on Cowal – the only remaining example of a rubble construction three-arch bridge in the world – and Helmsdale and Bonar in Sutherland, the latter surviving 80 years before it was swept away in the great floods of 1892. In 1891, Telford built the still-standing circular arch bridge over Scotland’s most famous stream – the Bannock Burn.

It was all a massive job creation scheme, as Telford intended. To him, the achievement of creating a skilled Scottish workforce of thousands with sustainable and transferable skills was more important than the sheer mileage of roads he constructed.

One of his finest bridgeworks was Craigellachie Bridge, a piece of Scotland that is forever Wales – it was built by Telford using cast iron from a Welsh foundry. Another Category A listed building dating from 1812-14, the bridge over the River Spey was famed in its day and ever since as Telford’s most beautiful bridge in Scotland. It is used now only by pedestrians and cyclists, but many tourists make diversions from their Speyside trips to view it.

The effect on the Highlands of all this work was transformative. Stagecoaches began to reach Inverness and beyond from Perth, and the agriculture of the Highlands vastly improved as trade with other parts of Britain grew apace.

It was to help improve trade, especially in fish, that Telford turned his attention to harbours, and a long list of either new or improved harbours began to emerge. The most important of his harbour works were at Aberdeen and Dundee where he took the existing facilities and improved them beyond recognition.

Peterhead, Fraserburgh, Banff, Cullen, Burgh Head, Nairn, Fortrose, Dingwall – Telford built a canal to link the town to its harbour – Kirkwall on Orkney and Tobermory on Mull all saw Telford piers and harbours built to their great advantage.

As part of his Caledonian Canal project, Telford also improved the Crinan Canal so that vessels could leave the Clyde and travel safely up the west coast all the way to Inverness.

Nor did he neglect the lowlands of Scotland, building nearly 200 miles of roads, such as the route between Carlisle and Glasgow, which pretty much paved the way for today’s M74 motorway. He also built the extraordinary Cartland Bridge in Lanarkshire, which still carries the A73 and is the highest bridge over an inland waterway in Scotland. Built in 1822, it was one of his final works in Scotland in the first quarter of the 19th century.

Telford was still in huge demand in England and Wales, and one of his monumental works was the road between London and Holyhead, now the A5, to improve trade between London and Dublin, a city where he had previously built the road to Howth.

His most famous work was commissioned in 1819 and completed in 1826 – the globally renowned Menai Suspension Bridge. It was the world’s first suspension bridge, linking the Welsh mainland to Anglesey, and engineers from across Europe came to see it and copy Telford’s design.

Yet still, Telford worked in Scotland, with arguably his greatest contribution to the built environment coming in the shape of 32 so-called Parliamentary Churches, all built to Telford’s simple design from 1823 when an Act of Parliament provided £50,000 for their construction in Highland and island communities with no kirk. Not all have survived, but one of the best examples is Iona Church on the holy island itself.

By now involved in the Institution of Civil Engineers as its founding president, Telford lived in London and enjoyed its society, continuing to turn out the occasional poem and taking a particular interest in the theatre. He still looked to Scotland, however, and built the Bridge of Keig in Aberdeenshire in 1826.

In his 70s, he returned to Scotland for three projects, one of which changed Glasgow for the better and another of which altered the face of Edinburgh. One of the last bridges of his long career was built in 1832-3 over the Clyde at the Broomielaw. It was known as the Broomielaw Bridge until its name was formally changed to Glasgow Bridge.

The spectacular Lothian Bridge at Pathhead in Midlothian was completed in 1831, the same year as Telford’s greatest contribution to the capital city. Dean Bridge was built to link the New Town to the lands to the north of the Water of Leith, and it opened up all the land westward from Dean Village. It remains a vital part of Edinburgh’s infrastructure, just as Telford’s achievements have given Scotland its look.

After a brief illness, he died at the age of 77 in his London home on September 2, 1834, and was buried in Westminster Abbey where there is a statue of him. In my humble opinion, he is one of the greatest of all Scots.