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Thomas Telford

On Tour with Thomas Telford

New Ways Through the Glens

Dunkeld, Thomas Telford's Finest Highland Bridge, a new book by Christopher R. Ford.

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Dunkeld Bridge 1808


Thomas Telford and Dunkeld Bridge

In 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.

The 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.

He 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.

The 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.

He 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.

Telford 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.

The 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."

In 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 own cost.

Dunkeld Bridge

The 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 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 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.

The 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.

It 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.

To 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.

The 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.

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