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Issue 61 - The Poet and the Engineer

Scotland Magazine Issue 61
February 2012


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The Poet and the Engineer

John Hannavy tells the story of the poet Robert Southey's friendship with Thomas Telford

The Keswick-based Poet Laureate Robert Southey once described his friend Thomas Telford, the Eskdale shepherd’s son who became one of Britain’s finest engineers, as the ‘Colossus of Roads’ – so important was Telford’s contribution to developing the nation’s transport system. A plaque on the bridge over the River Moriston at Invermoriston, on the north shore of Loch Ness, reads that this bridge was “one of nearly a thousand built by Telford between 1803 and 1819” to improve the transport system of the Scottish Highlands, and if that is anywhere close to the truth, it means he built more than 60 bridges a year in Scotland alone!

“Telford’s is a happy life,” wrote Southey in his account of the journey the two men made together through Scotland in 1819, “everywhere making roads, building bridges and erecting harbours – works of sure, solid, permanent utility”.

Their journey took them from Edinburgh to Stirling, through Perthshire, to Dundee, Aberdeen, Nairn and Inverness, and then up through Caithness and Sutherland. Along the way they visited some of Scotland’s finest scenery and many of Telford’s projects, returning south along his greatest achievement: the Caledonian Canal.

At the time, Telford was working for the Roads Commissioners. It sought to improve the infrastructure across the country, catering for the growing numbers of vehicles using the pitted and pot-holed roads which existed at the beginning of the century. Apparently, neither Telford nor his new roads were welcome in one county along the way. Southey relates a story of some travellers coming south, who were shocked when their horses stumbled and the coach jolted violently.

“What’s the matter?” one of them asked the driver, who replied “Perthshire, we’re in Perthshire, Sir” as if that statement needed no further explanation!

Telford and Southey started their journey in Edinburgh, travelling through Linlithgow and on to Bannockburn, where the poet was interested both in the battlefield and a new bridge over the burn. He noted that it was “one of Mr Telford’s works, and has a huge circle over the single arch— the first bridge which I have seen in this form: the appearance is singular and striking.” As well as supervising the construction of countless miles of roads criss-crossing the country, Telford was also in charge of the construction of Dundee’s new docks, the new pier at Bervie, extending Smeaton’s pier and breakwater at Aberdeen, and constructing a new harbour at Banff; all of which sites he inspected along the way.

He was a very busy man indeed, and not one whose roadworks were universally applauded. According to Southey: “the blacksmith at Fort Augustus complains that in consequence of the improvement, his business in repairing carriages is lessened to the amount of seven pound a year, and the blacksmith at Inverary [sic] computes his yearly loss at fifteen.” Despite his busy life, Telford’s journey was a leisurely one; visiting Callander and the Trossachs where Southey thought the view as they approached Trossachs Pier was “unsurpassed in its kind, perhaps unequalled, by anything that I have ever seen.” In a working life which spanned 60 years, Telford’s vision changed the face of Britain. As well as roads, docks and harbours, he designed and oversaw the construction of some of the most imposing bridges of his day, hundreds of miles of canals, and a host of little churches.

At Aberfeldy, Southey wrote that the bridge over the Tay was: “built by General Wade: but creditable neither to the skill nor taste of the architect.” Later in his diary, Telford’s bridges, quite rightly, are praised for their architectural beauty as well as their function.

From his early days as an apprentice, through his two years working as a stonemason in Edinburgh’s developing ‘New Town’, Telford was apparently fascinated by the ability of architects, then a relatively new profession, to produce the detailed drawings others used to construct buildings, bridges, or in the case of Edinburgh, complete new towns! The skill of the architectural draughtsman would be the foundation of his success. Indeed, his involvement with the majority of those thousand Scottish bridges may have been only as architect or designer; not that that belittles his achievement in any way!

His contributions to Scotland’s heritage range from the tiny to the enormous: from the tiny ‘Parliamentary’ churches which were built across the Highlands in the 1820s, to the remarkable Caledonian Canal which splits Scotland from west to north east along the Great Glen (see SM57).

Telford proposed the plan to government, and was rewarded with approval and the post of Director for the project. His mentor from his earlier work at Ellesmere Port in Cheshire, William Jessop, joined him as consultant engineer.

It was an innovative project, using huge steam engines and railways for the first time in the region, to remove the excavated soil and rocks and using cast iron for the huge lock gates rather than the traditional oak; but then Telford was always an innovator. Southey’s account of their journey goes into detail about how the great lock gates, at more than four tons each, were manufactured in Derbyshire, shipped from Gainsborough to Inverness, and then hauled down to the site of the locks.

In the end, and just like large engineering challenges today, the project went well over budget, and took much longer to complete – almost 20 years – but the quality of the design and workmanship ensured that it is still in operation today, Among his many bridges, the solidly built Tongland Bridge, in Dumfries and Galloway, and the elegant Craigellachie Bridge, over the River Spey in the north east of Scotland, are both worthy of a closer look.

Most remarkable of them all, perhaps, is the tiny bridge which links Seil Island to the Scottish Mainland near Oban. Until the completion of the Skye Bridge in 1995, this tiny span, basking in the acquired name of the “Atlantic Bridge” could claim to be the only bridge in Scotland to span the Atlantic Ocean!

Southey had never met Telford before they started their journey, meeting up in McGregor’s Hotel in Princes Street. “There is so much intelligence in his countenance,” he later wrote, “so much frankness, kindness and hilarity about him, flowing from the never-failing well-spring of a happy nature, that I was upon cordial terms with him in five minutes.” They had met on August 17th, and parted company on October 1st 1819. Southey wrote in his diary at Moffat: “Here we left Mr. Telford, who takes the mail for Edinburgh.

“This parting company after the thorough intimacy which a long journey produced between fellow travellers who like each other, is a melancholy thing. A man more heartily to be liked, more worthy to be esteemed and admired, I have never fallen in with; and therefore it is painful to think how little likely it is that I shall ever see much of him again – how certain that I shall never see so much. Yet I trust he will not forget his promise of one day making Keswick on his way to or from Scotland.” The two men remained firm friends until Telford’s death 15 years later, although there seems to be no record of Telford making the journey to Greta Hall near Keswick to visit Southey.

Five years later, in 1839, he published a 54-page biography of Telford in The Quarterly Review, a fitting way to celebrate a great friendship.

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