Thomas Telford ~ Engineer

Born in 1757, the son of a simple Dumfriesshire shepherd, Thomas Telford became one of the foremost civil engineers of the 18th and early 19th century. He was responsible for the Menai Suspension Bridge (at its time the longest spanning bridge in the world) and the Caledonian Canal. He built all across the highlands and certainly helped the industrial advance of Scotland as a result. The stone arch bridge at Dunkeld is a Telford construction (1805-9); the bridge itself was needed as 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. Telford recommended the building of the bridge and the improvement of the associated roads. A deal was struck between the government and the Duke of Atholl to meet the costs of the bridge – a toll would be in place for a finite period.

Prior to the construction of that bridge, an earlier Medieval bridge begun in 1510 lasted until the 17th century when it collapsed. Crossings were subsequently made by treacherous ferries; Inver Ferry upstream of the cathedral and East Ferry downstream of Little Dunkeld Church. These ferries were not only inconvenient but perilous; in 1766 six people drowned when the East Ferry capsized.

“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 bridge is built in a gothick baronial style with mock turreted towers with blind arrow slits between each arch. In this fashion it is similar to St. Paul’s Church in Perth. The bridge is 685 feet long with 7 spans. Sandstone used for the arches was quarried at Gellyburn on the Murthly Estate. The foundations are laid on rafts of larch cut from Polney Wood.

It was once suggested, though never realised, that the North Abutment of the bridge be used as a gaol – the inside being large enough for the purpose.

Over 250 workers were involved in its construction: masons; carpenters; smiths; quarrymen; and, labourers. It became open to the public in 1808. Its cost was £34,000, much of which had been put up by the Duke of Atholl who attempted to recoup his investment by tolls. These tolls continued for far longer than initially proposed and became a source of protest and legal action. Tolls were paid for crossing the bridge until as late as 1879 and money poured into the Atholl estate coffers for all this time. One of the key campaigners against the tolls was a local man, Alexander Robertson of Dundonnachie.

Telford was born at Westerkirk, Langholm on August 9 1757. At the age of fourteen he was apprenticed to a stonemason.1780 saw him move to Edinburgh, two years later, London and in 1784 he began work at portsmouth dockyard. By 1787, Telford was surveyor of public works for Shropshire. Amongst his projects at this stage of his career include the Montford and Buildwas bridges across the Severn and the Ellesmere Canal (1793-1805). In 1801 he gained a commission to look at future public works in Scotland.From this commission arose the Caledonian Canal (1803-23), in excess of 1000 miles of road, 1200 bridges (including the Dean Bridge in Edinburgh), as well as harbours, churches, manses etc. Outside Scotland, Telford worked on many other projects: the London to Holyhead Road, the Menai Suspension Bridge (1825) and St. Katherine’s Docks in London (1826-28). Telford was involved in the draining of huge sections of the Fen country. Within Perthshire he was involved with the building of the churches/manses at Kinloch Rannoch and Innerwick, Glen Lyon.

He was elected FRS in 1827; Telford was the first president of the Institute of Civil Engineers. Thomas Telford died in 1834 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. 2007 marks the 250th anniversary of his birth which is being celebrated locally.

Further Reference:

Autobiography (1838)

Biography by Alexander Gibb (1935)

Biography by L. T. C. Rolt (1958)

“In 1819 Robert Southey, poet laureate, together with Thomas Telford the engineer, undertook a tour of Scotland. The Journal of the Tour is coloured to some extent by his extreme Toryism but for all that is a lively, direct and on the whole sympathetic account of his travels.” As the pair visited Aberfeldy they were less than awestruck by the town and its bridge: “Aberfeldy is a place that might properly be called Aberfilthy, for marvelously foul it is. You enter through a beggarly street and arrive at a dirty inn. A sort of square or market place has been lately built, so that mean as the village or townlet is, it seems to be thriving. The burn of Moness passes through the place and falls into the Tay near it; there are some falls upon this burn, which when the streams are full should be among the vivenda of this part of the country. Near Aberfeldy is a bridge over the Tay, built by General Wade; but creditable neither to the skill nor taste of the architect. It resembles that at Blenheim, the middle arch being made the principal feature. At a distance it looks well but makes a wretched appearance upon closer inspection. There are four unmeaning obelisks upon the central arch, and the parapet is so high that you cannot see over it. The foundations are also very insecure, for we went into the bed of the river and examined them.” They were proved wrong in their statement as regards the bridge (designed by the father of Robert Adam), for it still stands proudly today. “Though the Journal is written by Southey, the many comments on the construction of roads and bridges bears the imprint of Telford’s knowledge and opinions.”