Telford and Dunkeld Bridge
July 1802 Thomas Telford was requested by the Lords of the Treasury
to make a survey of the interior of the Scottish Highlands the
result of which he communicated in his report presented to Parliament
in the following year. That report formed the starting point
of a system of legislation with reference to the Highlands which
extended over many years and had the effect of completely opening
up that romantic but rugged district of country and extending
to its inhabitants the advantages of improved intercourse with
the other parts of the kingdom. Telford pointed out that the
military roads were altogether inadequate to the requirements
of the population and that the use of them was in many places
very much circumscribed by the want of bridges over some of
the principal rivers. For instance the route from Edinburgh
to Inverness through the Central Highlands was seriously interrupted
at Dunkeld where the Tay is broad and deep and not always easy
to be crossed by means of a boat. The route to the same place
by the east coast was in like manner broken at Fochabers where
the rapid Spey could only be crossed by a dangerous ferry.
difficulties encountered by gentlemen of the Bar in travelling
the north circuit about this time are well described by Lord
Cockburn in his 'Memorials.' "Those who are born to modem
travelling can scarcely be made to understand how the previous
age got on. The state of the roads may be judged of from two
or three facts. There was no bridge over the Tay at Dunkeld
or over the Spey at Fochabers or over the Findhorn at Forres.
Nothing but wretched pierless ferries let to poor cottars who
rowed or hauled or pushed a crazy boat across or more commonly
got their wives to do it. There was no mail-coach north of Aberdeen
till I think after the battle of Waterloo. What it must have
been a few years before my time may be judged of from Bozzy's
'Letter to Lord Braxfield' published in 1780.
thinks that besides a carriage and his own carriage horses every
judge ought to have his sumpter horse and ought not to travel
faster than the waggon which carried the baggage of the circuit.
I understood from Hope that after 1784 when he came to the Bar
he and Braxfield rode a whole north circuit and that from the
Findhorn being in a flood they were obliged to go up its banks
for about twenty-eight miles to the bridge of Dulsie before
they could cross. I myself rode circuits when I was Advocate
Depute between 1807 and 1810. The fashion of every Depute carrying
his own shell on his back in the form of his own carriage is
a piece of very modern antiquity." North of Inverness matters
were if possible still worse. There was no bridge over the Beauly
or the Conan. The drovers coming south swam the rivers with
their cattle. There being no roads there was little use for
carts. In the whole county of Caithness there was scarcely a
farmer who owned a wheel cart. Burdens were conveyed usually
on the backs of ponies but quite as often on the backs of women.
interior of the county of Sutherland being almost inaccessible
the only track lay along the shore among rocks and sand and
was covered by the sea at every tide. "The people lay scattered
in inaccessible straths and spots among the mountains where
they lived in family with their pigs and kyloes (cattle) in
turf cabins of the most miserable description, they spoke only
Gaelic and spent the whole of their time in indolence and sloth.
Thus they had gone on from father to son with little change
except what the introduction of illicit distillation had wrought
and making little or no export from the country beyond the few
lean kyloes which paid the rent and produced wherewithal to
pay for the oatmeal imported." Telford's first recommendation
was that a bridge should be thrown across the Tay at Dunkeld
to connect the improved lines of road proposed to be made on
each side of the river.
regarded this measure as of the first importance to the Central
Highlands and as the Duke of Athol was willing to pay one half
of the cost of the erection if the Government would defray the
other, the bridge to be free of toll after a certain period
it appeared to the engineer that this was a reasonable and just
mode of providing for the contingency. In the next place he
recommended a bridge over the Spey which drained a great extent
of mountainous country and being liable to sudden inundations
was very dangerous to cross. Yet this ferry formed the only
link of communication between the whole of the northern counties.
The site pointed out for the proposed bridge was adjacent to
the town of Fochabers and here also the Duke of Gordon and other
county gentlemen were willing to provide one half of the means
for its erection.
further described in detail the roads necessary to be constructed
in the north and west Highlands with the object of opening up
the western parts of the counties of Inverness and Ross and
affording a ready communication from the Clyde to the fishing
lochs in the neighbourhood of the Isle of Skye. As to the means
of executing these improvements he suggested that Government
would be justified in dealing with the Highland roads and bridges
as exceptional and extraordinary works and extending the public
aid towards carrying them into effect as but for such assistance
the country must remain perhaps for ages to come imperfectly
opened up. His report further embraced certain improvements
in the harbours of Aberdeen and Wick and a description of the
country through which the proposed line of the Caledonian Canal
would necessarily pass a canal which had long been the subject
of inquiry but had not as yet emerged from a state of mere speculation.
new roads bridges and other improvements suggested by the engineer
excited much interest in the north. The Highland Society voted
him their thanks by acclamation the counties of Inverness and
Ross followed and he had letters of thanks and congratulation
from many of the Highland chiefs "If they will persevere
with anything like their present zeal they will have the satisfaction
of greatly improving a country that has been too long neglected.
Things are greatly changed now in the Highlands. The lairds
have transferred their affections from their people to flocks
of sheep and the people have lost their veneration for the lairds.
It seems to be the natural progress of society but it is not
an altogether satisfactory change. There were some fine features
in the former patriarchal state of society but now clanship
is gone and chiefs and people are hastening into the opposite
extreme. This seems to me to be quite wrong."
the same year Telford was elected a member of the Royal Society
of Edinburgh on which occasion he was proposed and supported
by three professors so that the former Edinburgh mason was rising
in the world and receiving due honour in his own country. The
effect of his report was such that in the session of 1803 a
Parliamentary Commission was appointed under whose direction
a series of practical improvements was commenced which issued
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 land owners of Sutherland
alone constructing nearly 300 miles of district roads at their
bridge is a handsome one of five river and two land arches.
The span of the centre arch is 90 feet, of the two adjoining
it 84 feet, and of the two side arches 74 feet affording a clear
waterway of 446 feet. The total breadth of the roadway and foot
paths is 28 feet 6 inches. The cost of the structure was about
£14,000, half of which was defrayed by the Duke of Athol.
Dunkeld bridge now forms a fine feature in a landscape not often
surpassed and which presents within a comparatively small compass
a great variety of character and beauty.
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 Arasaig on the western coast nearly opposite the island of
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.
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 twelve hundred bridges. Several important bridges
were also erected at other points to connect existing roads
such as those at Ballater and Potarch over the Dee at Alford
over the Don and at Craig Ellachie over the Spey.
last named bridge is a remarkably elegant structure thrown over
the Spey at a point where the river rushing obliquely against
the lofty rock of Craig Ellachie has formed for itself a deep
channel not exceeding fifty yards in breadth. Only a few years
before there had not been any provision for crossing this river
at its lower parts except the very dangerous ferry at Fochabers.
The Duke of Gordon had however erected a suspension bridge at
that town and the inconvenience was in a great measure removed.
Its utility was so generally felt that the demand arose for
a second bridge across the river for there was not another by
which it could be crossed for a distance of nearly fifty miles
up Strath Spey.
was a difficult stream to span by a bridge at any place in consequence
of the violence with which the floods descended at particular
seasons. Sometimes even in summer, when not a drop of rain had
fallen the flood would come down the Strath in great fury sweeping
everything before it this remarkable phenomenon being accounted
for by the prevalence of a strong south-westerly wind which
blew the loch waters from their beds into the Strath and thus
suddenly filled the valley of the Spey. The same phenomenon
similarly caused is also frequently observed in the neighbouring
river the Findhorn cooped up in its deep rocky bed where the
water sometimes comes down in a wave six feet high like a liquid
wall sweeping everything before it.
meet such a contingency it was deemed necessary to provide abundant
waterway and to build a bridge offering as little resistance
as possible to the passage of the Highland floods. Telford accordingly
designed for the passage of the river at Craig Ellachie a light
cast-iron arch of 150 feet span with a rise of 20 feet the arch
being composed of four ribs each consisting of two concentric
arcs forming panels which are filled in with diagonal bars.
roadway is 15 feet wide and is formed of another arc of greater
radius attached to which is the iron railing the spandrels being
filled by diagonal ties forming trelliswork. Robert Stephenson
took objection to the two dissimilar arches as liable to subject
the structure from variations of temperature to very unequal
strains. Nevertheless this bridge as well as many others constructed
by Telford after a similar plan has stood perfectly well and
to this day remains a very serviceable structure.
to Scottish History