Born near Langholm in Dumfries & Galloway in 1757, Thomas Telford began work as a shepherd boy but went on to become one of Britain’s greatest civil engineers. His work can be found all over the UK, but some of his greatest projects were in Scotland.
Here Julian Glover, author of a new biography of Telford, Man of Iron, shares his favourites with VisitScotland.
1. Westerkirk Churchyard and Library
Telford’s story began by the beautiful River Esk, and yours should too. His birthplace was at the top of Meggat Water, on a farm called Glendinning, and there is a cairn marking the spot amid the hills. At the bottom of the valley you can find two more extraordinary monuments. The first, in the little churchyard at Westerkirk, is a gravestone, carved, it is said, by Telford to remember his father who died when his son was still a baby. You can run your fingers through lettering cut by the young Telford. Nearby, Westerkirk library contains books bought by miners in the valley in the 1790s. Telford, a great reader, left money to support the institution in his will and books today still have ‘Telford Legacy’ stamped on their spine.
2. Neptune’s Staircase
Working with other engineers, Telford oversaw the building of Britain’s most amazing canal, the Caledonian Canal running from coast to coast between Fort William and Inverness. Along the way boats sail through a series of natural waterways, including Loch Ness, but linking them to the sea was a mighty task which took longer and cost more than anyone had expected. At the western end, just north of Fort William and under the shadow of Ben Nevis, sits Neptune’s Staircase. It is a series of eight great locks, designed to lift vessels into the hills, the longest of its type in Britain. Just below, the canal is crossed by the scenic West Highland railway, on a swing bridge.
3. Clachnaharry Locks
At the eastern end of the Caledonian Canal near Inverness, Telford and his team had to wrestle with a massive challenge: how to get boats into safe water in the sea. The coast consisted of seemingly bottomless mud flats and digging them out proved impossible. The solution? To extend the land into the sea, by piling up roads until a solid peninsula was formed. The route of the canal was then cut through the middle of it. This was cold, hard, backbreaking work and it took years. Today you can walk out to the lock gate which guards the canal and appreciate their efforts.
4. Craigellechie Bridge
Telford built many amazing bridges but in a competition to find the most beautiful surely the lovely Craigellechie Bridge over the River Spey would come first. Perhaps it helps that some of Scotland’s finest whisky distilleries are nearby. The bridge, built between 1812 and 1815, springs from castle-like stone abutments, but is made of the finest iron. It was innovative and much admired when it opened. Today cars use a noisy concrete bridge nearby but you can walk or cycle across Telford’s great creation.
5. Dean Bridge
Not long before he retired and well into his 70s. Telford oversaw the building of a radical road bridge in Edinburgh incorporating the Dean Bridge, a viaduct high above the Water of Leith which still carries traffic into the city today. There are fine views from the top of this elegant structure, whose engineering looks ahead to the railway age which was about to begin.
Far to the north, on the east coast by the town of Wick, lies one of Telford’s most remarkable creations. Pulteneytown – named after an early patron of Telford’s – is a planned, industrial fishing port which he designed to improve the size of the herring catch. Telford was an architect as well as an engineer and you can see the care he took in his work to give people good housing and working conditions. There is a garden and curved crescents modelled, it was said, on the town of Bath in England and intended to shelter people from cold winter winds. Today much of it is intact. You can follow a signed trail and learn more about the herring fleet in the town’s museum.
7. Iona Church
Telford designed churches in the English county of Shropshire, early in his career, but it was only in the 1820s that he began building them in Scotland. Funded by the government, and built to a simple, economical design, there were originally 32 Telford churches across the Highlands and Islands. Today, not all survive. One that does is Iona Parish Church, on the famous island, itself to the west of the Isle of Mull. It is a journey to reach it but worthwhile.
8. Dunkeld Bridge
Striding across the River Tay, Dunkeld Bridge, near the ruins of Dunkeld Cathedral, is a striking sight. It leads into the lovely small town, crossing a river which in spate carries more than twice as much water as the Thames. This was one of the first big bridges Telford built in Scotland and he chose an elegant design in stone. At one end, under the arch, you can find the rusted iron gate of the old town gaol.
9. The Mound, Dornoch
Today the A9 road rushes north from Inverness, crossing deep estuaries cut into the coast. One of them is Loch Fleet near Dornoch. Here Telford designed one of his most innovative structures, a long, low embankment that cuts the Loch off from the sea. To allow water to flow through it Telford fitted a row of one-way iron gates, blocking the rising tide from flowing inland but opening at low tide to allow water to drain out to sea – and wild salmon to swim up to spawn. These sluice gates have been expanded but still work today. You can park off the main road and when you do take a moment to look out to sea, where seals are a common sight.
10. Highland Roads
Finally, take a tour of the Highlands and you are likely to visit a Telford monument without realising it. In the early nineteenth century, with government help, he oversaw the building of around a thousand miles of roads through the previously-impenetrable Highlands. He took care to give them a good, secure surface and to make sure they could stand up to the worst of weathers. One section to look out for runs through the mighty mountains of Glen Coe.
Discover Thomas Telford for yourself in the Year of History, Heritage & Archaeology 2017. Don’t forget to share your favourite moments using #HHA2017.