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Issue 81 - 10 Best Manmade Wonders

Scotland Magazine Issue 81
June 2015


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10 Best Manmade Wonders

Keith Fergus recommends the best engineering marvels

1 Titan Crane Glasgow 

During its shipbuilding heyday, Glasgow’s skyline was one dominated by its cranes but, today, only a few remain including the magnificent Titan Crane. Rising above the banks of the River Clyde at Clydebank the crane has, since 2007, established itself as a popular visitor attraction and has become the focal point in the regeneration of Clydebank’s waterfront. However, its history extends back another 100 years when the 150 ton cantilever crane was constructed in 1907 to lift heavy equipment at the world famous John Brown shipyard – the crane is all that remains of that industrial heartbeat of the River Clyde. The Titan Crane was designed by Sir William Arrol and Co. and cost £24,600 to build. It played a key role in the construction of ships such as the QE2 and the Lusitania and came under attack from German bombers during the Clydebank blitz of World War II – the crane remained unscathed. In 2013, the Titan Crane was officially recognised as an engineering landmark, only the 5th in Scotland. Past recipients include the Eiffel Tower and the Thames Tunnel, simply emphasizing the importance of this engineering tour de force.

2 Forth Rail Bridge Queensferry

The Forth Rail Bridge is one of Scotland’s most distinctive structures and one of the finest examples of engineering in the world. It took 4,000 men seven years to build at a cost of £3.2 million and when opened in 1890, it had required over 54,000 tons of steel and 6.5 million rivets in its construction, yielding a length of over 8,000 feet. Construction on the Forth Rail Bridge started in 1879 from a design by Thomas Bouch, architect of the Tay Rail Bridge. However with the Tay Bridge’s collapse in December 1879, work on the Forth Rail Bridge temporarily came to a halt. It began again in 1883 after a complete redesign and when it came into operation in 1890, it was the first all steel bridge in Britain. A major 10 year restoration project began in 2002, one that employed 1550 people and took 4.5 million working hours and it is hoped that in 2015 the Forth Rail Bridge will be granted World Heritage Site status.

3 The Tay Rail Bridge Dundee 

Just like the Forth Rail Bridge, the Tay Rail Bridge helped open up trade and travel opportunities along Scotland’s east coast. Spanning a 2-mile section of the River Tay, between Dundee and Wormit in Fife, it opened in 1887 (there had been plans for a railway bridge here as far back as 1854) as a replacement for the previous bridge after it had collapsed in 1879, only 19 months after it had opened. The collapse, which became known as the Tay Bridge Disaster, happened during severe winter gales and killed all passengers and crew of a train that was crossing the bridge at the time – Queen Victoria had used the bridge earlier in the year and its designer, Thomas Bouch, had been knighted. The new bridge, designed by William Henry Barlow, was constructed 60 feet upstream from the old one (which was used to hold men and materials) and required 70,000 metric tons of concrete, over 10 million bricks and 3 million rivets. In 1989, the Tay Rail Bridge was listed as a Grade I structure.

4 The Scott Monument Edinburgh

287 steps stand between you and the top of the Scott Monument – the spiralling staircase also narrows considerably as the pinnacle is approached. Therefore a little exertion is required to reach its apex but once there the panorama is exceptional, extending along the length of Princes Street Gardens to Castle Rock and Edinburgh Castle’s magnificent profile. The iconic structure, which stands over 200 feet high and dominates Princes Street, was erected in 1846, 14 years after the death of Sir Walter Scott and six years since the foundation stone was laid. It is a stunning and fitting memorial to Scotland’s most famous novelist. The Scott Monument was designed by George Meikle Kemp who took his inspiration from Melrose Abbey and Rosslyn Chapel. Sadly Kemp did not live to see his masterpiece completed as he drowned in the Union Canal in 1840. Sir John Steell, who was appointed Queen Victoria’s Sculptor in Scotland in 1844, fashioned the marvellous marble statue of Scott that sits at the monument’s base.

5 Glenfinnan Viaduct Lochaber 

Although over 100 years old it took the release of the first Harry Potter movie in 2001 for the Glenfinnan Viaduct to receive the recognition it richly deserves. In the movie, the Hogwart’s Express can be seen travelling across the bridge and granting this iconic structure, for a fleeting moment, centre stage. This magnificent curved bridge, which crosses the River Finnan, and grants a superb view of Loch Shiel and the famous Glenfinnan Monument, has 21 arches (with the tallest being around 100 feet in height) travelling along its full 416 yards of length. It was completed in 1901 as part of the extension of the West Highland Railway from Fort William to Mallaig (the railway quickly became known as the ‘Iron Road to the Isles,’ a nod to Thomas Telford’s famous ‘Road to the Isles’ that runs almost parallel with the railway), which had been constructed by engineer Sir Robert McAlpine. The viaduct was built entirely of concrete rather than stone, and its solidity means it is still in remarkable condition today.

6 The Falkirk Wheel Falkirk 

The engineering of Scotland’s canals are incredible examples of our design, architectural and industrial heritage. The Falkirk Wheel, at the confluence of the Forth and Clyde and Union Canals, provides contemporary evidence of Scotland’s continuing design and engineering legacy. The world’s first (and so far only) rotating boat-lift was opened in 2002 and restored navigability between the two canals of Central Scotland, a link that had been broken since 1933. The Falkirk Wheel contains around 1200 tonnes of steel, 15,000 bolts (each of which were hand tightened during construction) as well as another 600 tonnes of weight when you add the gondolas and 500,000 litres of water. Amazingly, again emphasising the incredible precision of the design, it only takes 1.5kw of electricity to turn it – the same amount it would take to boil eight household kettles. A wonderful 50-minute journey will lift you the 35 metres from the Forth and Clyde Canal onto the Union Canal.

7 The Caledonian Canal Caledonia

Linking the four great lochs of Oich, Lochy, Ness and Dochfour, the Caledonian Canal runs for 60 miles through the spectacular scenery of the Great Glen, connecting Inverness and Loch Linnhe at Corpach near Fort William. Construction work began in 1803, with William Jessop and the great Thomas Telford as project engineers. This incredible feat of engineering required 22 miles of artificial waterway to be dug by hand and 28 locks constructed (including Neptune’s Staircase), taking 19 years to complete. However, by 1844 major repairs were required and it was closed for three years. As well as providing much needed employment for the Highlands, the Caledonian Canal granted safe passage for ships travelling from the Atlantic Coast to the North Sea. The canal also helped boost tourism into the Highlands, particularly when ships became too large to negotiate its waters and steamers took passengers along the canal. Today, the Caledonian Canal is used predominantly for leisure. 

8 Marischal College Aberdeen

Marischal College (pronounced Marshall) is one of the finest examples of architecture in Britain. George Keith, 5th Earl Marischal of Scotland, founded the college in 1593, as a Protestant alternative to nearby King’s College although the structure we see today was not built until the 19th Century. Between 1895 and 1906, the building, designed by Alexander Marshall Mackenzie, was extended to become the second largest granite building in the world, after the Escorial Palace outside Madrid (Aberdeen got one over on Madrid when Aberdeen Football Club famously beat Real Madrid in the European Cup Winner’s Cup final of 1983). Its many elaborate spires soar skywards, the highest rising to 70 metres and the entire building can’t fail to take your breath away. Since 2006, Marischal College has been the home of Aberdeen City Council, whilst within the building is the Marischal Museum, which holds a collection of national significance, including Egyptian, classical antiquities, and Scottish prehistory displays.

9 Maeshowe Neolithic Chambered Cairn Orkney

Described as the finest chambered tomb in north west Europe, the Maeshowe Neolithic Chambered Cairn was built more than 5,000 years ago. It has been hailed as a masterpiece of construction and design, particularly because of the rudimentary tools our ancestors would have used. The cairn forms part of Orkney’s Neolithic World Heritage Site that also includes the Ring of Brodgar, the Stones of Stenness and Skara Brae. At first glance Maeshowe is simply a turf-covered mound (howe is the old Norse word for hill) but once inside the gigantic stone slabs that run along the length of its 10-metre long passageway dwarf the standing stones and a central chamber. It was built on a certain alignment that allowed for the setting sun to shine down the passageway and illuminate the central chamber a few weeks before and after the shortest day of the year. The cairn seems to have been used as a burial chamber for several hundred years and it was left untouched for 3,000 years until the Viking’s broke in.

10 Bell Rock Lighthouse Angus

It has been called one of the greatest feats of engineering of all time. Having withstood being battered by the elements for over 200 years, Bell Rock Lighthouse rises to 115 feet in height and stands on Bell Rock (also known as Inchcape) in the North Sea, between the Firths of Forth and Tay, nearly 13 miles south of Arbroath. It was built to designs by Robert Stevenson, using ground breaking construction techniques that were perfected by the engineer John Smeaton – these had to be deployed as Bell Rock lighthouse would not stand the force of the sea by gravity alone. Another of the challenges faced when building it was the fact that Bell Rock Lighthouse was submerged by the sea twice daily, sometimes to a depth of 16 feet and it was only possible to work on the rock for an average of two hours every low tide. Bell Rock Lighthouse has endured everything the raging North Sea can throw at it and, although automated in 1988, it is still the oldest surviving sea washed lighthouse in the world.