The Life of Thomas Telford by Smiles
by Samuel Smiles
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"I have been perfectly astonished," wrote Romilly from Stirling, in 1793, "at the richness and high cultivation of all the tract of this calumniated country through which I have passed, and which extends quite from Edinburgh to the mountains where I now am. It is true, however; that almost everything which one sees to admire in the way of cultivation is due to modem improvements; and now and then one observes a few acres of brown moss, contrasting admirably with the corn-fieids to which they are contiguous, and affording a specimen of the dreariness and desolation which, only half a century ago, overspread a country now highly cultivated, and become a most copious source of human happiness."*[1] It must, however, be admitted that the industrial progress thus described was confined almost entirely to the Lowlands, and had scarcely penetrated the mountainous regions lying towards the north-west. The rugged nature of that part of the country interposed a formidable barrier to improvement, and the district still remained very imperfectly opened up. The only practicable roads were those which had been made by the soldiery after the rebellions of 1715 and '45, through counties which before had been inaccessible except by dangerous footpaths across high and rugged mountains. An old epigram in vogue at the end of last century ran thus:

"Had you seen these roads before they were made, You'd lift up your hands and bless General Wade!"

Being constructed by soldiers for military purposes, they were first known as "military roads." One was formed along the Great Glen of Scotland, in the line of the present Caledonian Canal, connected with the Lowlands by the road through Glencoe by Tyndrum down the western banks of Loch Lomond; another, more northerly, connected Fort Augustus with Dunkeld by Blair Athol; while a third, still further to the north and east, connected Fort George with Cupar-in-Angus by Badenoch and Braemar.

The military roads were about eight hundred miles in extent, and maintained at the public expense. But they were laid out for purposes of military occupation rather than for the convenience of the districts which they traversed. Hence they were comparatively little used, and the Highlanders, in passing from one place to another, for the most part continued to travel by the old cattle tracks along the mountains. But the population were as yet so poor and so spiritless, and industry was in so backward a state all over the Highlands, that the want of more convenient communications was scarcely felt.

Though there was plenty of good timber in certain districts, the bark was the only part that could be sent to market, on the backs of ponies, while the timber itself was left to rot upon the ground. Agriculture was in a surprisingly backward state. In the remoter districts only a little oats or barley was grown, the chief part of which was required for the sustenance of the cattle during winter. The Rev. Mr. Macdougall, minister of the parishes of Lochgoilhead and Kilmorich, in Argyleshire, described the people of that part of the country, about the year 1760, as miserable beyond description. He says, "Indolence was almost the only comfort they enjoyed. There was scarcely any variety of wretchedness with which they were not obliged to struggle, or rather to which they were not obliged to submit. They often felt what it was to want food.... To such an extremity were they frequently reduced, that they were obliged to bleed their cattle, in order to subsist some time on the blood (boiled); and even the inhabitants of the glens and valleys repaired in crowds to the shore, at the distance of three or four miles, to pick up the scanty provision which the shell-fish afforded them."*[2]

The plough had not yet penetrated into the Highlands; an instrument called the cas-chrom*[3]

[Image] The Cas-Chrom.

—literally the "crooked foot"—the use of which had been forgotten for hundreds of years in every other country in Europe, was almost the only tool employed in tillage in those parts of the Highlands which were separated by almost impassable mountains from the rest of the United Kingdom.

The native population were by necessity peaceful. Old feuds were restrained by the strong arm of the law, if indeed the spirit of the clans had not been completely broken by the severe repressive measures which followed the rebellion of Forty-five. But the people had hot yet learnt to bend their backs, like the Sassenach, to the stubborn soil, and they sat gloomily by their turf-fires at home, or wandered away to settle in other lands beyond the seas. It even began to be feared that the country would so on be entirely depopulated; and it became a matter of national concern to devise methods of opening up the district so as to develope its industry and afford improved means of sustenance for its population. The poverty of the inhabitants rendered the attempt to construct roads—even had they desired them—beyond their scanty means; but the ministry of the day entertained the opinion that, by contributing a certain proportion of the necessary expense, the proprietors of Highland estates might be induced to advance the remainder; and on this principle the construction of the new roads in those districts was undertaken.

The country lying to the west of the Great Glen was absolutely without a road of any kind. The only district through which travellers passed was that penetrated by the great Highland road by Badenoch, between Perth and Inverness; and for a considerable time after the suppression of the rebellion of 1745, it was infested by gangs of desperate robbers. So unsafe was the route across the Grampians, that persons who had occasion to travel it usually made their wills before setting out. Garrons, or little Highland ponies, were then used by the gentry as well as the peasantry. Inns were few and bad; and even when postchaises were introduced at Inverness, the expense of hiring one was thought of for weeks, perhaps months, and arrangements were usually made for sharing it among as many individuals as it would contain. If the harness and springs of the vehicle held together, travellers thought themselves fortunate in reaching Edinburgh, jaded and weary, but safe in purse and limb, on the eighth day after leaving Inverness.*[4] Very few persons then travelled into the Highlands on foot, though Bewick, the father of wood-engraving, made such a journey round Loch Lomond in 1775. He relates that his appearance excited the greatest interest at the Highland huts in which he lodged, the women curiously examining him from head to foot, having never seen an Englishman before. The strange part of his story is, that he set out upon his journey from Cherryburn, near Newcastle, with only three guineas sewed in his waistband, and when he reached home he had still a few shillings left in his pocket!

In 1802, Mr. Telford was called upon by the Government to make a survey of Scotland, and report as to the measures which were necessary for the improvement of the roads and bridges of that part of the kingdom, and also on the means of promoting the fisheries on the east and west coasts, with the object of better opening up the country and preventing further extensive emigration. Previous to this time he had been employed by the British Fisheries Society— of which his friend Sir William Pulteney was Governor—to inspect the harbours at their several stations, and to devise a plan for the establishment of a fishery on the coast of Caithness. He accordingly made an extensive tour of Scotland, examining, among other harbours, that of Annan; from which he proceeded northward by Aberdeen to Wick and Thurso, returning to Shrewsbury by Edinburgh and Dumfries.*[5] He accumulated a large mass of data for his report, which was sent in to the Fishery Society, with charts and plans, in the course of the following year.

In July, 1802, he was requested by the Lords of the Treasury, most probably in consequence of the preceding report, to make a further survey of the interior of the Highlands, the result of which he communicated in his report presented to Parliament in the following year. Although full of important local business, "kept running," as he says, "from town to country, and from country to town, never when awake, and perhaps not always when asleep, have my Scotch surveys been absent from my mind." He had worked very hard at his report, and hoped that it might be productive of some good.

The report was duly presented, printed,*[6] and approved; and it 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. Mr. 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," he says, "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."*[7] 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.*[8] 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."*[9] 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.

Mr. 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," says he, "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. Even were the chiefs to quarrel, de'il a Highlandman would stir for them. 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."*[10] 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.

[Image] Map of Telford's Roads.

By the end of the session of 1803, Telford received his instructions from Mr. Vansittart as to the working survey he was forthwith required to enter upon, with a view to commencing practical operations; and he again proceeded to the Highlands to lay out the roads and plan the bridges which were most urgently needed. The district of the Solway was, at his representation, included, with the object of improving the road from Carlisle to Portpatrick—the nearest point at which Great Britain meets the Irish coast, and where the sea passage forms only a sort of wide ferry.

It would occupy too much space, and indeed it is altogether unnecessary, to describe in detail the operations of the Commission and of their engineer in opening up the communications of the Highlands. Suffice it to say, that one of the first things taken in hand was the connection of the existing lines of road by means of bridges at the more important points; such as at Dunkeld over the Tay, and near Dingwall over the Conan and Orrin. That of Dunkeld was the most important, as being situated at the entrance to the Central Highlands; and at the second meeting of the Commissioners Mr. Telford submitted his plan and estimates of the proposed bridge. In consequence of some difference with the Duke of Athol as to his share of the expense—which proved to be greater than he had estimated—some delay occurred in beginning the work; but at length it was fairly started, and, after being about three years in hand, the structure was finished and opened for traffic in 1809.

[Image] 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 14,000L., one-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 Egg.

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 Frith; while another line, striking off at the head of the Dornoch Frith, 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,*[11] 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.*[12] 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. Mr. 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 Mr. Telford after a similar plan, has stood perfectly well, and to this day remains a very serviceable structure.

[Image] Craig-Ellachie Bridge.

Its appearance is highly picturesque. The scattered pines and beech trees on the side of the impending mountain, the meadows along the valley of the Spey, and the western approach road to the bridge cut deeply into the face of the rock, combine, with the slender appearance of the iron arch, in rendering this spot one of the most remarkable in Scotland.*[13] An iron bridge of a similar span to that at Craig-Ellachie had previously been constructed across the head of the Dornoch Frith at Bonar, near the point where the waters of the Shin join the sea. The very severe trial which this structure sustained from the tremendous blow of an irregular mass of fir-tree logs, consolidated by ice, as well as, shortly after, from the blow of a schooner which drifted against it on the opposite side, and had her two masts knocked off by the collision, gave him every confidence in the strength of this form of construction, and he accordingly repeated it in several of his subsequent bridges, though none of them are comparable in beauty with that of Craig-Ellachie.

Thus, in the course of eighteen years, 920 miles of capital roads, connected together by no fewer than 1200 bridges, were added to the road communications of the Highlands, at an expense defrayed partly by the localities immediately benefited, and partly by the nation. The effects of these twenty years' operations were such as follow the making of roads everywhere—development of industry and increase of civilization. In no districts were the benefits derived from them more marked than in the remote northern counties of Sutherland and Caithness. The first stage-coaches that ran northward from Perth to Inverness were tried in 1806, and became regularly established in 1811; and by the year 1820 no fewer than forty arrived at the latter town in the course of every week, and the same number departed from it. Others were established in various directions through the highlands, which were rendered as accessible as any English county.

Agriculture made rapid progress. The use of carts became practicable, and manure was no longer carried to the field on women's backs. Sloth and idleness gradually disappeared before the energy, activity, and industry which were called into life by the improved communications. Better built cottages took the place of the old mud biggins with holes in their roofs to let out the smoke. The pigs and cattle were treated to a separate table. The dunghill was turned to the outside of the house. Tartan tatters gave place to the produce of Manchester and Glasgow looms; and very soon few young persons were to be found who could not both read and write English.

But not less remarkable were the effects of the road-making upon the industrial habits of the people. Before Telford went into the Highlands, they did not know how to work, having never been accustomed to labour continuously and systematically. Let our engineer himself describe the moral influences of his Highland contracts:—"In these works," says he, "and in the Caledonian Canal, about three thousand two hundred men have been annually employed. At first, they could scarcely work at all: they were totally unacquainted with labour; they could not use the tools. They have since become excellent labourers, and of the above number we consider about one-fourth left us annually, taught to work. These undertakings may, indeed, be regarded in the light of a working academy; from which eight hundred men have annually gone forth improved workmen. They have either returned to their native districts with the advantage of having used the most perfect sort of tools and utensils (which alone cannot be estimated at less than ten per cent. on any sort of labour), or they have been usefully distributed through the other parts of the country. Since these roads were made accessible, wheelwrights and cartwrights have been established, the plough has been introduced, and improved tools and utensils are generally used. The plough was not previously employed; in the interior and mountainous parts they used crooked sticks, with iron on them, drawn or pushed along. The moral habits of the great masses of the working classes are changed; they see that they may depend on their own exertions for support: this goes on silently, and is scarcely perceived until apparent by the results. I consider these improvements among the greatest blessings ever conferred on any country. About two hundred thousand pounds has been granted in fifteen years. It has been the means of advancing the country at least a century."

The progress made in the Lowland districts of Scotland since the same period has been no less remarkable. If the state of the country, as we have above described it from authentic documents, be compared with what it is now, it will be found that there are few countries which have accomplished so much within so short a period. It is usual to cite the United States as furnishing the most extraordinary instance of social progress in modem times. But America has had the advantage of importing its civilization for the most part ready made, whereas that of Scotland has been entirely her own creation. By nature America is rich, and of boundless extent; whereas Scotland is by nature poor, the greater part of her limited area consisting of sterile heath and mountain. Little more than a century ago Scotland was considerably in the rear of Ireland. It was a country almost without agriculture, without mines, without fisheries, without shipping, without money, without roads. The people were ill-fed, half barbarous, and habitually indolent. The colliers and salters were veritable slaves, and were subject to be sold together with the estates to which they belonged.

What do we find now? Praedial slavery completely abolished; heritable jurisdictions at an end; the face of the country entirely changed; its agriculture acknowledged to be the first in the world; its mines and fisheries productive in the highest degree; its banking a model of efficiency and public usefulness; its roads equal to the best roads in England or in Europe. The people are active and energetic, alike in education, in trade, in manufactures, in construction, in invention. Watt's invention of the steam engine, and Symington's invention of the steam-boat, proved a source of wealth and power, not only to their own country, but to the world at large; while Telford, by his roads, bound England and Scotland, before separated, firmly into one, and rendered the union a source of wealth and strength to both.

At the same time, active and powerful minds were occupied in extending the domain of knowledge,—Adam Smith in Political Economy, Reid and Dugald Stewart in Moral Philosophy, and Black and Robison in Physical Science. And thus Scotland, instead of being one of the idlest and most backward countries in Europe, has, within the compass of little more than a lifetime, issued in one of the most active, contented, and prosperous,—exercising an amount of influence upon the literature, science, political economy, and industry of modern times, out of all proportion to the natural resources of its soil or the amount of its population.

If we look for the causes of this extraordinary social progress, we shall probably find the principal to consist in the fact that Scotland, though originally poor as a country, was rich in Parish schools, founded under the provisions of an Act passed by the Scottish Parliament in the year 1696. It was there ordained "that there be a school settled and established, and a schoolmaster appointed, in every parish not already provided, by advice of the heritors and minister of the parish." Common day-schools were accordingly provided and maintained throughout the country for the education of children of all ranks and conditions. The consequence was, that in the course of a few generations, these schools, working steadily upon the minds of the young, all of whom passed under the hands of the teachers, educated the population into a state of intelligence and aptitude greatly in advance of their material well-being; and it is in this circumstance, we apprehend, that the explanation is to be found of the rapid start forward which the whole country took, dating more particularly from the year 1745. Agriculture was naturally the first branch of industry to exhibit signs of decided improvement; to be speedily followed by like advances in trade, commerce, and manufactures. Indeed, from that time the country never looked back, but her progress went on at a constantly accelerated rate, issuing in results as marvellous as they have probably been unprecedented.

Footnotes for Chapter VIII.

*[1] Romilly's Autobiography,' ii. 22.

*[2] Statistical Account of Scotland,' iii. 185.

*[3] The cas-chrom was a rude combination of a lever for the removal of rocks, a spade to cut the earth, and a foot-plough to turn it. We annex an illustration of this curious and now obsolete instrument. It weighed about eighteen pounds. In working it, the" upper part of the handle, to which the left hand was applied, reached the workman's shoulder, and being slightly elevated, the point, shod with iron, was pushed into the ground horizontally; the soil being turned over by inclining the handle to the furrow side, at the same time making the heel act as a fulcrum to raise the point of the instrument. In turning up unbroken ground, it was first employed with the heel uppermost, with pushing strokes to cut the breadth of the sward to be turned over; after which, it was used horizontally as above described. We are indebted to a Parliamentary Blue Book for the following representation of this interesting relic of ancient agriculture. It is given in the appendix to the 'Ninth Report of the Commissioners for Highland Roads and Bridges,' ordered by the House of Commons to be printed, 19th April, 1821.

*[4] Anderson's 'Guide to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland,' 3rd ed. p.48.

*[5] He was accompanied on this tour by Colonel Dirom, with whom he returned to his house at Mount Annan, in Dumfries. Telford says of him: "The Colonel seems to have roused the county of Dumfries from the lethargy in which it has slumbered for centuries. The map of the county, the mineralogical survey, the new roads, the opening of lime works, the competition of ploughing, the improving harbours, the building of bridges, are works which bespeak the exertions of no common man."—Letter to Mr. Andrew. Little, dated Shrewsbury, 30th November, 1801.

*[6] Ordered to be printed 5th of April, 1803.

*[7] 'Memorials of his Time," by Henry Cockburn, pp. 341-3.

*[8] 'Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Sir John Sinclair, Barb,' vol. i., p. 339.

*[9] Extract of a letter from a gentleman residing in Sunderland, quoted in 'Life of Telford,' p. 465.

*[10] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated Salop, 18th February, 1803.

*[11] The names of Celtic places are highly descriptive. Thus Craig-Ellachie literally means, the rock of separation; Badenoch, bushy or woody; Cairngorm, the blue cairn; Lochinet, the lake of nests; Balknockan, the town of knolls; Dalnasealg, the hunting dale; Alt'n dater, the burn of the horn-blower; and so on.

*[12] Sir Thomas Dick Lauder has vividly described the destructive character of the Spey-side inundations in his capital book on the 'Morayshire Floods.'

*[13] 'Report of the Commissioners on Highland Roads and Bridges.' Appendix to 'Life of Telford,' p. 400.



No sooner were the Highland roads and bridges in full progress, than attention was directed to the improvement of the harbours round the coast. Very little had as yet been done for them beyond what nature had effected. Happily, there was a public fund at disposal—the accumulation of rents and profits derived from the estates forfeited at the rebellion of 1745—which was available for the purpose. The suppression of the rebellion did good in many ways. It broke the feudal spirit, which lingered in the Highlands long after it had ceased in every other part of Britain; it led to the effectual opening up of the country by a system of good roads; and now the accumulated rents of the defeated Jacobite chiefs were about to be applied to the improvement of the Highland harbours for the benefit of the general population.

The harbour of Wick was one of the first to which Mr. Telford's attention was directed. Mr. Rennie had reported on the subject of its improvement as early as the year 1793, but his plans were not adopted because their execution was beyond the means of the locality at that time. The place had now, however, become of considerable importance. It was largely frequented by Dutch fishermen during the herring season; and it was hoped that, if they could be induced to form a settlement at the place, their example might exercise a beneficial influence upon the population.

Mr. Telford reported that, by the expenditure of about 5890L., a capacious and well-protected tidal basin might be formed, capable of containing about two hundred herring-busses. The Commission adopted his plan, and voted the requisite funds for carrying out the works, which were begun in 1808. The new station was named Pulteney Town, in compliment to Sir William Pulteney, the Governor of the Fishery Society; and the harbour was built at a cost of about 12,000L., of which 8500L. was granted from the Forfeited Estates Fund. A handsome stone bridge, erected over the River Wick in 1805, after the design of our engineer, connect's these improvements with the older town: it is formed of three arches, having a clear waterway of 156 feet.

The money was well expended, as the result proved; and Wick is now, we believe, the greatest fishing station in the world. The place has increased from a little poverty-stricken village to a large and thriving town, which swarms during the fishing season with lowland Scotchmen, fair Northmen, broad-built Dutchmen, and kilted Highlanders. The bay is at that time frequented by upwards of a thousand fishing-boats and the take of herrings in some years amounts to more than a hundred thousand barrels. The harbour has of late years been considerably improved to meet the growing requirements of the herring trade, the principal additions having been carried out, in 1823, by Mr. Bremner,*[1] a native engineer of great ability.

[Image] Folkestone Harbour.

Improvements of a similar kind were carried out by the Fishery Board at other parts of the coast, and many snug and convenient harbours were provided at the principal fishing stations in the Highlands and Western Islands. Where the local proprietors were themselves found expending money in carrying out piers and harbours, the Board assisted them with grants to enable the works to be constructed in the most substantial manner and after the most approved plans. Thus, along that part of the bold northern coast of the mainland of Scotland which projects into the German Ocean, many old harbours were improved or new ones constructed—as at Peterhead, Frazerburgh, Banff, Cullen, Burgh Head, and Nairn. At Fortrose, in the Murray Frith; at Dingwall, in the Cromarty Frith; at Portmaholmac, within Tarbet Ness, the remarkable headland of the Frith of Dornoch; at Kirkwall, the principal town and place of resort in the Orkney Islands, so well known from Sir Walter Scott's description of it in the 'Pirate;' at Tobermory, in the island of Mull; and at other points of the coast, piers were erected and other improvements carried out to suit the convenience of the growing traffic and trade of the country.

The principal works were those connected with the harbours situated upon the line of coast extending from the harbour of Peterhead, in the county of Aberdeen, round to the head of the Murray Frith. The shores there are exposed to the full force of the seas rolling in from the Northern Ocean; and safe harbours were especially needed for the protection of the shipping passing from north to south. Wrecks had become increasingly frequent, and harbours of refuge were loudly called for. At one part of the coast, as many as thirty wrecks had occurred within a very short time, chiefly for want of shelter.

The situation of Peterhead peculiarly well adapted it for a haven of refuge, and the improvement of the port was early regarded as a matter of national importance. Not far from it, on the south, are the famous Bullars or Boilers of Buchan—bold rugged rocks, some 200 feet high, against which the sea beats with great fury, boiling and churning in the deep caves and recesses with which they are perforated. Peterhead stands on the most easterly part of the mainland of Scotland, occupying the north-east side of the bay, and being connected with the country on the northwest by an isthmus only 800 yards broad. In Cromwell's time, the port possessed only twenty tons of boat tonnage, and its only harbour was a small basin dug out of the rock. Even down to the close of the sixteenth century the place was but an insignificant fishing village. It is now a town bustling with trade, having long been the principal seat of the whale fishery, 1500 men of the port being engaged in that pursuit alone; and it sends out ships of its own building to all parts of the world, its handsome and commodious harbours being accessible at all winds to vessels of almost the largest burden.

[Image] Peterhead

It may be mentioned that about sixty years since, the port was formed by the island called Keith Island, situated a small distance eastward from the shore, between which and the mainland an arm of the sea formerly passed. A causeway had, however, been formed across this channel, thus dividing it into two small bays; after which the southern one had been converted in to a harbour by means of two rude piers erected along either side of it. The north inlet remained without any pier, and being very inconvenient and exposed to the north-easterly winds, it was little used.

[Image] Peterhead Harbour.

The first works carried out at Peterhead were of a comparatively limited character, the old piers of the south harbour having been built by Smeaton; but improvements proceeded apace with the enterprise and wealth of the inhabitants. Mr. Rennie, and after him Mr. Telford, fully reported as to the capabilities of the port and the best means of improving it. Mr. Rennie recommended the deepening of the south harbour and the extension of the jetty of the west pier, at the same time cutting off all projections of rock from Keith Island on the eastward, so as to render the access more easy. The harbour, when thus finished, would, he estimated, give about 17 feet depth at high water of spring tides. He also proposed to open a communication across the causeway between the north and south harbours, and form a wet dock between them, 580 feet long and 225 feet wide, the water being kept in by gates at each end. He further proposed to provide an entirely new harbour, by constructing two extensive piers for the effectual protection of the northern part of the channel, running out one from a rock north of the Green Island, about 680 feet long, and another from the Roan Head, 450 feet long, leaving an opening between them of 70 yards. This comprehensive plan unhappily could not be carried out at the time for want of funds; but it may be said to have formed the groundwork of all that has been subsequently done for the improvement of the port of Peterhead.

It was resolved, in the first place, to commence operations by improving the south harbour, and protecting it more effectually from south-easterly winds. The bottom of the harbour was accordingly deepened by cutting out 30,000 cubic yards of rocky ground; and part of Mr. Rennie's design was carried out by extending the jetty of the west pier, though only for a distance of twenty yards. These works were executed under Mr. Telford's directions; they were completed by the end of the year 1811, and proved to be of great public convenience.

The trade of the town, however, so much increased, and the port was found of such importance as a place of refuge for vessels frequenting the north seas, that in 1816 it was determined to proceed with the formation of a harbour on the northern part of the old channel; and the inhabitants having agreed among themselves to contribute to the extent of 10,000L. towards carrying out the necessary works, they applied for the grant of a like sum from the Forfeited Estates Fund, which was eventually voted for the purpose. The plan adopted was on a more limited scale than that Proposed by Mr. Rennie; but in the same direction and contrived with the same object,—so that, when completed, vessels of the largest burden employed in the Greenland fishery might be able to enter one or other of the two harbours and find safe shelter, from whatever quarter the wind might blow.

The works were vigorously proceeded with, and had made considerable progress, when, in October, 1819, a violent hurricane from the north-east, which raged along the coast for several days, and inflicted heavy damage on many of the northern harbours, destroyed a large part of the unfinished masonry and hurled the heaviest blocks into the sea, tossing them about as if they had been pebbles. The finished work had, however, stood well, and the foundations of the piers under low water were ascertained to have remained comparatively uninjured. There was no help for it but to repair the damaged work, though it involved a heavy additional cost, one-half of which was borne by the Forfeited Estates Fund and the remainder by the inhabitants. Increased strength was also given to the more exposed parts of the pierwork, and the slope at the sea side of the breakwater was considerably extended.*[2] Those alterations in the design were carried out, together with a spacious graving-dock, as shown in the preceding plan, and they proved completely successful, enabling Peterhead to offer an amount of accommodation for shipping of a more effectual kind than was at that time to be met with along the whole eastern coast of Scotland.

The old harbour of Frazerburgh, situated on a projecting point of the coast at the foot of Mount Kennaird, about twenty miles north of Peterhead, had become so ruinous that vessels lying within it received almost as little shelter as if they had been exposed in the open sea. Mr. Rennie had prepared a plan for its improvement by running out a substantial north-eastern pier; and this was eventually carried out by Mr. Telford in a modified form, proving of substantial service to the trade of the port. Since then a large and commodious new harbour has been formed at the place, partly at the public expense and partly at that of the inhabitants, rendering Frazerburgh a safe retreat for vessels of war as well as merchantmen.

[Image] Banff.

Among the other important harbour works on the northeast coast carried out by Mr. Telford under the Commissioners appointed to administer the funds of the Forfeited Estates, were those at Banff, the execution of which extended over many years; but, though costly, they did not prove of anything like the same convenience as those executed at Peterhead. The old harbour at the end of the ridge running north and south, on which what is called the "sea town" of Banff is situated, was completed in 1775, when the place was already considered of some importance as a fishing station.

[Image] Banff Harbour.

This harbour occupies the triangular space at the north-eastern extremity of the projecting point of land, at the opposite side of which, fronting the north-west, is the little town and harbour of Macduff. In 1816, Mr. Telford furnished the plan of a new pier and breakwater, covering the old entrance, which presented an opening to the N.N.E., with a basin occupying the intermediate space. The inhabitants agreed to defray one half of the necessary cost, and the Commissioners the other; and the plans having been approved, the works were commenced in 1818. They were in full progress when, unhappily, the same hurricane which in 1819 did so much injury to the works at Peterhead, also fell upon those at Banff, and carried away a large part of the unfinished pier. This accident had the effect of interrupting the work, as well as increasing its cost; but the whole was successfully completed by the year 1822. Although the new harbour did not prove very safe, and exhibited a tendency to become silted up with sand, it proved of use in many respects, more particularly in preventing all swell and agitation in the old harbour, which was thereby rendered the safest artificial haven in the Murray Firth.

It is unnecessary to specify the alterations and improvements of a similar character, adapted to the respective localities, which were carried out by our engineer at Burgh Head, Nairn, Kirkwall, Tarbet, Tobermory, Portmaholmac, Dingwall (with its canal two thousand yards long, connecting the town in a complete manner with the Frith of Cromarty), Cullen, Fortrose, Ballintraed, Portree, Jura, Gourdon, Invergordon, and other places. Down to the year 1823, the Commissioners had expended 108,530L. on the improvements of these several ports, in aid of the local contributions of the inhabitants and adjoining proprietors to a considerably greater extent; the result of which was a great increase in the shipping accommodation of the coast towns, to the benefit of the local population, and of ship-owners and navigators generally.

Mr. Telford's principal harbour works in Scotland, however, were those of Aberdeen and Dundee, which, next to Leith (the port of Edinburgh), formed the principal havens along the east coast. The neighbourhood of Aberdeen was originally so wild and barren that Telford expressed his surprise that any class of men should ever have settled there. An immense shoulder of the Grampian mountains extends down to the sea-coast, where it terminates in a bold, rude promontory. The country on either side of the Dee, which flows past the town, was originally covered with innumerable granite blocks; one, called Craig Metellan, lying right in the river's mouth, and forming, with the sand, an almost effectual bar to its navigation. Although, in ancient times, a little cultivable land lay immediately outside the town, the region beyond was as sterile as it is possible for land to be in such a latitude. "Any wher," says an ancient writer, "after yow pass a myll without the tonne, the countrey is barren lyke, the hills craigy, the plaines full of marishes and mosses, the feilds are covered with heather or peeble stons, the come feilds mixt with thes bot few. The air is temperat and healthful about it, and it may be that the citizens owe the acuteness of their wits thereunto and their civill inclinations; the lyke not easie to be found under northerlie climats, damped for the most pairt with air of a grosse consistence."*[3] But the old inhabitants of Aberdeen and its neighbourhood were really as rough as their soil. Judged by their records, they must have been dreadfully haunted by witches and sorcerers down to a comparatively recent period; witch-burning having been common in the town until the end of the sixteenth century. We find that, in one year, no fewer than twenty-three women and one man were burnt; the Dean of Guild Records containing the detailed accounts of the "loads of peattis, tar barrellis," and other combustibles used in burning them. The lairds of the Garioch, a district in the immediate neighbourhood, seem to have been still more terrible than the witches, being accustomed to enter the place and make an onslaught upon the citizens, according as local rage and thirst for spoil might incline them. On one of such occasions, eighty of the inhabitants were killed and wounded.*[4] Down even to the middle of last century the Aberdonian notions of personal liberty seem to have been very restricted; for between 1740 and 1746 we find that persons of both sexes were kidnapped, put on board ships, and despatched to the American plantations, where they were sold for slaves. Strangest of all, the men who carried on this slave trade were local dignitaries, one of them being a town's baillie, another the town-clerk depute. Those kidnapped were openly "driven in flocks through the town, like herds of sheep, under the care of a keeper armed with a whip."*[5] So open was the traffic that the public workhouse was used for their reception until the ships sailed, and when that was filled, the tolbooth or common prison was made use of. The vessels which sailed from the harbour for America in 1743 contained no fewer than sixty-nine persons; and it is supposed that, in the six years during which the Aberdeen slave trade was at its height, about six hundred were transported for sale, very few of whom ever returned.*[6] This slave traffic was doubtless stimulated by the foreign ships beginning to frequent the port; for the inhabitants were industrious, and their plaiding, linen, and worsted stockings were in much request as articles of merchandise. Cured salmon were also exported in large quantities. As early as 1659, a quay was formed along the Dee towards the village of Foot Dee. "Beyond Futty," says an old writer, "lyes the fisher-boat heavne; and after that, towards the promontorie called Sandenesse, ther is to be seen a grosse bulk of a building, vaulted and flatted above (the Blockhous they call it), begun to be builded anno 1513, for guarding the entree of the harboree from pirats and algarads; and cannon wer planted ther for that purpose, or, at least, that from thence the motions of pirats might be tymouslie foreseen. This rough piece of work was finished anno 1542, in which yer lykewayes the mouth of the river Dee was locked with cheans of iron and masts of ships crossing the river, not to be opened bot at the citizens' pleasure."*[7] After the Union, but more especially after the rebellion of 1745, the trade of Aberdeen made considerable progress. Although Burns, in 1787, briefly described the place as a "lazy toun," the inhabitants were displaying much energy in carrying out improvements in their port.*[8] In 1775 the foundation-stone of the new pier designed by Mr. Smeaton was laid with great ceremony, and, the works proceeding to completion, a new pier, twelve hundred feet long, terminating in a round head, was finished in less than six years. The trade of the place was, however, as yet too small to justify anything beyond a tidal harbour, and the engineer's views were limited to that object. He found the river meandering over an irregular space about five hundred yards in breadth; and he applied the only practicable remedy, by confining the channel as much as the limited means placed at his disposal enabled him to do, and directing the land floods so as to act upon and diminish the bar. Opposite the north pier, on the south side of the river, Smeaton constructed a breast-wall about half the length of the Pier. Owing, however, to a departure from that engineer's plans, by which the pier was placed too far to the north, it was found that a heavy swell entered the harbour, and, to obviate this formidable inconvenience, a bulwark was projected from it, so as to occupy about one third of the channel entrance.

The trade of the place continuing to increase, Mr. Rennie was called upon, in 1797, to examine and report upon the best means of improving the harbour, when he recommended the construction of floating docks upon the sandy flats called Foot Dee. Nothing was done at the time, as the scheme was very costly and considered beyond the available means of the locality. But the magistrates kept the subject in mind; and when Mr. Telford made his report on the best means of improving the harbour in 1801, he intimated that the inhabitants were ready to cooperate with the Government in rendering it capable of accommodating ships of war, as far as their circumstances would permit.

In 1807, the south pier-head, built by Smeaton, was destroyed by a storm, and the time had arrived when something must be done, not only to improve but even to preserve the port. The magistrates accordingly proceeded, in 1809, to rebuild the pier-head of cut granite, and at the same time they applied to Parliament for authority to carry out further improvements after the plan recommended by Mr. Telford; and the necessary powers were conferred in the following year. The new works comprehended a large extension of the wharfage accommodation, the construction of floating and graving docks, increased means of scouring the harbour and ensuring greater depth of water on the bar across the river's mouth, and the provision of a navigable communication between the Aberdeenshire Canal and the new harbour.

[Image] Plan of Aberdeen Harbour

The extension of the north pier was first proceeded with, under the superintendence of John Gibb, the resident engineer; and by the year 1811 the whole length of 300 additional feet had been completed. The beneficial effects of this extension were so apparent, that a general wish was expressed that it should be carried further; and it was eventually determined to extend the pier 780 feet beyond Smeaton's head, by which not only was much deeper water secured, but vessels were better enabled to clear the Girdleness Point. This extension was successfully carried out by the end of the year 1812. A strong breakwater, about 800 feet long, was also run out from the south shore, leaving a space of about 250 feet as an entrance, thereby giving greater protection to the shipping in the harbour, while the contraction of the channel, by increasing the "scour," tended to give a much greater depth of water on the bar.

[Image] Aberdeen Harbour.

The outer head of the pier was seriously injured by the heavy storms of the two succeeding winters, which rendered it necessary to alter its formation to a very flat slope of about five to one all round the head.*[9]

[Image] Section of pier-head work.

New wharves were at the same time constructed inside the harbour; a new channel for the river was excavated, which further enlarged the floating space and wharf accommodation; wet and dry docks were added; until at length the quay berthage amounted to not less than 6290 feet, or nearly a mile and a quarter in length. By these combined improvements an additional extent of quay room was obtained of about 4000 feet; an excellent tidal harbour was formed, in which, at spring tides, the depth of water is about 15 feet; while on the bar it was increased to about 19 feet. The prosperity of Aberdeen had meanwhile been advancing apace. The city had been greatly beautified and enlarged: shipbuilding had made rapid progress; Aberdeen clippers became famous, and Aberdeen merchants carried on a trade with all parts of the world; manufactures of wool, cotton, flax, and iron were carried on with great success; its population rapidly increased; and, as a maritime city, Aberdeen took rank as the third in Scotland, the tonnage entering the port having increased from 50,000 tons in 1800 to about 300,000 in 1860.

Improvements of an equally important character were carried out by Mr. Telford in the port of Dundee, also situated on the east coast of Scotland, at the entrance to the Frith of Tay. There are those still living at the place who remember its former haven, consisting of a crooked wall, affording shelter to only a few fishing-boats or smuggling vessels—its trade being then altogether paltry, scarcely deserving the name, and its population not one fifth of what it now is. Helped by its commodious and capacious harbour, it has become one of the most populous and thriving towns on the east coast.

[Image] Plan of Dundee Harbour.

The trade of the place took a great start forward at the close of the war, and Mr. Telford was called upon to supply the plans of a new harbour. His first design, which he submitted in 1814, was of a comparatively limited character; but it was greatly enlarged during the progress of the works. Floating docks were added, as well as graving docks for large vessels. The necessary powers were obtained in 1815; the works proceeded vigorously under the Harbour Commissioners, who superseded the old obstructive corporation; and in 1825 the splendid new floating dock—750 feet long by 450 broad, having an entrance-lock 170 feet long and 40 feet wide—was opened to the shipping of all countries.

[Image] Dundee Harbour.

Footnotes for Chapter IX.

*[1] Hugh Millar, in his 'Cruise of the Betsy,' attributes the invention of columnar pier-work to Mr. Bremner, whom he terms "the Brindley of Scotland." He has acquired great fame for his skill in raising sunken ships, having warped the Great Britain steamer off the shores of Dundrum Bay. But we believe Mr. Telford had adopted the practice of columnar pier-work before Mr. Bremner, in forming the little harbour of Folkestone in 1808, where the work is still to be seen quite perfect. The most solid mode of laying stone on land is in flat courses; but in open pier work the reverse process is adopted. The blocks are laid on end in columns, like upright beams jammed together. Thus laid, the wave which dashes against them is broken, and spends itself on the interstices; where as, if it struck the broad solid blocks, the tendency would be to lift them from their beds and set the work afloat; and in a furious storm such blocks would be driven about almost like pebbles. The rebound from flat surfaces is also very heavy, and produces violent commotion; where as these broken, upright, columnar-looking piers seem to absorb the fury of the sea, and render its wildest waves comparatively innocuous.

*[2] 'Memorials from Peterhead and Banff, concerning Damage occasioned by a Storm.' Ordered by the House of Commons to be printed, 5th July, 1820. [242.]

*[3] 'A Description of Bothe Touns of Aberdeene.' By James Gordon, Parson of Rothiemay. Reprinted in Gavin Turreff's 'Antiquarian Gleanings from Aberdeenshire Records.' Aberdeen, 1889.

*[4] Robertson's 'Book of Bon-Accord.'

*[5] Ibid., quoted in Turreff's 'Antiquarian Gleanings,' p. 222.

*[6] One of them, however, did return—Peter Williamson, a native of the town, sold for a slave in Pennsylvania, "a rough, ragged, humle-headed, long, stowie, clever boy," who, reaching York, published an account of the infamous traffic, in a pamphlet which excited extraordinary interest at the time, and met with a rapid and extensive circulation. But his exposure of kidnapping gave very great offence to the magistrates, who dragged him before their tribunal as having "published a scurrilous and infamous libel on the corporation," and he was sentenced to be imprisoned until he should sign a denial of the truth of his statements. He brought an action against the corporation for their proceedings, and obtained a verdict and damages; and he further proceeded against Baillie Fordyce (one of his kidnappers, and others, from whom he obtained 200L. damages, with costs. The system was thus effectually put a stop to.

*[8] 'A Description of Bothe Touns of Aberdeene.' By James Gordon, Parson of Rothiemay. Quoted by Turreff, p. 109.

*[8] Communication with London was as yet by no means frequent, and far from expeditious, as the following advertisement of 1778 will show:—"For London: To sail positively on Saturday next, the 7th November, wind and weather permitting, the Aberdeen smack. Will lie a short time at London, and, if no convoy is appointed, will sail under care of a fleet of colliers the best convoy of any. For particulars apply," &c., &c.

*[9] "The bottom under the foundations," says Mr. Gibb, in his description of the work, "is nothing better than loose sand and gravel, constantly thrown up by the sea on that stormy coast, so that it was necessary to consolidate the work under low water by dropping large stones from lighters, and filling the interstices with smaller ones, until it was brought within about a foot of the level of low water, when the ashlar work was commenced; but in place of laying the stones horizontally in their beds, each course was laid at an angle of 45 degrees, to within about 18 inches of the top, when a level coping was added. This mode of building enabled the work to be carried on expeditiously, and rendered it while in progress less liable to temporary damage, likewise affording three points of bearing; for while the ashlar walling was carrying up on both sides, the middle or body of the pier was carried up at the same time by a careful backing throughout of large rubble-stone, to within 18 inches of the top, when the whole was covered with granite coping and paving 18 inches deep, with a cut granite parapet wall on the north side of the whole length of the pier, thus protected for the convenience of those who might have occasion to frequent it."—Mr. Gibb's 'Narrative of Aberdeen Harbour Works.'



The formation of a navigable highway through the chain of locks lying in the Great Glen of the Highlands, and extending diagonally across Scotland from the Atlantic to the North Sea, had long been regarded as a work of national importance. As early as 1773, James Watt, then following the business of a land-surveyor at Glasgow, made a survey of the country at the instance of the Commissioners of Forfeited Estates. He pronounced the canal practicable, and pointed out how it could best be constructed. There was certainly no want of water, for Watt was repeatedly drenched with rain while he was making his survey, and he had difficulty in preserving even his journal book. "On my way home," he says, "I passed through the wildest country I ever saw, and over the worst conducted roads."

Twenty years later, in 1793, Mr. Rennie was consulted as to the canal, and he also prepared a scheme: but nothing was done. The project was, however, revived in 1801 during the war with Napoleon, when various inland ship canals—such as those from London to Portsmouth, and from Bristol to the English Channel—were under consideration with the view of enabling British shipping to pass from one part of the kingdom to another without being exposed to the attacks of French privateers. But there was another reason for urging the formation of the canal through the Great Glen of Scotland, which was regarded as of considerable importance before the introduction of steam enabled vessels to set the winds and tides at comparative defiance. It was this: vessels sailing from the eastern ports to America had to beat up the Pentland Frith, often against adverse winds and stormy seas, which rendered the navigation both tedious and dangerous. Thus it was cited by Sir Edward Parry, in his evidence before Parliament in favour of completing the Caledonian Canal, that of two vessels despatched from Newcastle on the same day—one bound for Liverpool by the north of Scotland, and the other for Bombay by the English Channel and the Cape of Good Hope —the latter reached its destination first! Another case may be mentioned, that of an Inverness vessel, which sailed for Liverpool on a Christmas Day, reached Stromness Harbour, in Orkney, on the 1st of January, and lay there windbound, with a fleet of other traders, until the middle of April following! In fact, the Pentland Frith, which is the throat connecting the Atlantic and German Oceans, through which the former rolls its, long majestic waves with tremendous force, was long the dread of mariners, and it was considered an object of national importance to mitigate the dangers of the passage towards the western Seas.

As the lochs occupying the chief part of the bottom of the Great Glen were of sufficient depth to be navigable by large vessels, it was thought that if they could be connected by a ship canal, so as to render the line of navigation continuous, it would be used by shipping to a large extent, and prove of great public service. Five hundred miles of dangerous navigation by the Orkneys and Cape Wrath would thereby be saved, while ships of war, were this track open to them, might reach the north of Ireland in two days from Fort George near Inverness.

When the scheme of the proposed canal was revived in 1801, Mr. Telford was requested to make a survey and send in his report on the subject. He immediately wrote to his friend James Watt, saying, "I have so long accustomed myself to look with a degree of reverence at your work, that I am particularly anxious to learn what occurred to you in this business while the whole was fresh in your mind. The object appears to me so great and so desirable, that I am convinced you will feel a pleasure in bringing it again under investigation, and I am very desirous that the thing should be fully and fairly explained, so that the public may be made aware of its extensive utility. If I can accomplish this, I shall have done my duty; and if the project is not executed now, some future period will see it done, and I shall have the satisfaction of having followed you and promoted its success." We may here state that Telford's survey agreed with Watt's in the most important particulars, and that he largely cited Watt's descriptions of the proposed scheme in his own report.

Mr. Telford's first inspection of the district was made in 1801, and his report was sent in to the Treasury in the course of the following year. Lord Bexley, then Secretary to the Treasury, took a warm personal interest in the project, and lost no opportunity of actively promoting it. A board of commissioners was eventually appointed to carry out the formation of the canal. Mr. Telford, on being appointed principal engineer of the undertaking, was requested at once to proceed to Scotland and prepare the necessary working survey. He was accompanied on the occasion by Mr. Jessop as consulting engineer. Twenty thousand pounds were granted under the provisions of the 43 Geo. III. (chap. cii.), and the works were commenced, in the beginning of 1804, by the formation of a dock or basin adjoining the intended tide-lock at Corpach, near Bannavie.

[Image] Map of Caledonian Canal

The basin at Corpach formed the southernmost point of the intended canal. It is situated at the head of Loch Eil, amidst some of the grandest scenery of the Highlands. Across the Loch is the little town of Fort William, one of the forts established at the end of the seventeenth century to keep the wild Highlanders in subjection. Above it rise hills over hills, of all forms and sizes, and of all hues, from grass-green below to heather-brown and purple above, capped with heights of weather-beaten grey; while towering over all stands the rugged mass of Ben Nevis—a mountain almost unsurpassed for picturesque grandeur. Along the western foot of the range, which extends for some six or eight miles, lies a long extent of brown bog, on the verge of which, by the river Lochy, stand the ruins of Inverlochy Castle.

The works at Corpach involved great labour, and extended over a long series of years. The difference between the level of Loch Eil and Loch Lochy is ninety feet, while the distance between them was less than eight miles. It was therefore necessary to climb up the side of the hill by a flight of eight gigantic locks, clustered together, and which Telford named Neptune's Staircase. The ground passed over was in some places very difficult, requiring large masses of embankment, the slips of which in the course of the work frequently occasioned serious embarrassment. The basin on Loch Eil, on the other hand, was constructed amidst rock, and considerable difficulty was experienced in getting in the necessary coffer-dam for the construction of the opening into the sea-lock, the entrance-sill of which was laid upon the rock itself, so that there was a depth of 21 feet of water upon it at high water of neap tides.

At the same time that the works at Corpach were begun, the dock or basin at the north-eastern extremity of the canal, situated at Clachnaharry, on the shore of Loch Beauly, was also laid out, and the excavations and embankments were carried on with considerable activity. This dock was constructed about 967 yards long, and upwards of 162 yards in breadth, giving an area of about 32 acres, —forming, in fact, a harbour for the vessels using the canal. The dimensions of the artificial waterway were of unusual size, as the intention was to adapt it throughout for the passage of a 32-gun frigate of that day, fully equipped and laden with stores. The canal, as originally resolved upon, was designed to be 110 feet wide at the surface, and 50 feet at the bottom, with a depth in the middle of 20 feet; though these dimensions were somewhat modified in the execution of the work. The locks were of corresponding large dimensions, each being from 170 to 180 feet long, 40 broad, and 20 deep.

[Image] Lock, Caledonian Canal

Between these two extremities of the canal—Corpach on the south-west and Clachnaharry on the north-east—extends the chain of fresh-water lochs: Loch Lochy on the south; next Loch Oich; then Loch Ness; and lastly, furthest north, the small Loch of Dochfour. The whole length of the navigation is 60 miles 40 chains, of which the navigable lochs constitute about 40 miles, leaving only about 20 miles of canal to be constructed, but of unusually large dimensions and through a very difficult country.

The summit loch of the whole is Loch Oich, the surface of which is exactly a hundred feet above high water-mark, both at Inverness and Fort William; and to this sheet of water the navigation climbs up by a series of locks from both the eastern and western seas. The whole number of these is twenty-eight: the entrance-lock at Clachnaharry, constructed on piles, at the end of huge embankments, forced out into deep water, at Loch Beady; another at the entrance to the capacious artificial harbour above mentioned, at Muirtown; four connected locks at the southern end of this basin; a regulating lock a little to the north of Loch Dochfour; five contiguous locks at Fort Augustus, at the south end of Loch Ness; another, called the Kytra Lock, about midway between Fort Angustus and Loch Oich; a regulating lock at the north-east end of Loch Oich; two contiguous locks between Lochs Oich and Lochy; a regulating lock at the south-west end of Loch Lochy; next, the grand series of locks, eight in number, called "Neptune's Staircase," at Bannavie, within a mile and a quarter of the sea; two locks, descending to Corpach basin; and lastly, the great entrance or sea-lock at Corpach.

The northern entrance-lock from the sea at Loch Beauly is at Clachnaharry, near Inverness. The works here were not accomplished without much difficulty as well as labour, partly from the very gradual declivity of the shore, and partly from the necessity of placing the sea-lock on absolute mud, which afforded no foundation other than what was created by compression and pile-driving. The mud was forced down by throwing upon it an immense load of earth and stones, which was left during twelve months to settle; after which a shaft was sunk to a solid foundation, and the masonry of the sea-lock was then founded and built therein.

In the 'Sixteenth Report of the Commissioners of the Caledonian Canal,' the following reference is made to this important work, which was finished in 1812:— "The depth of the mud on which it may be said to be artificially seated is not less than 60 feet; so that it cannot be deemed superfluous, at the end of seven years, to state that no subsidence is discoverable; and we presume that the entire lock, as well as every part of it, may now be deemed as immovable, and as little liable to destruction, as any other large mass of masonry. This was the most remarkable work performed under the immediate care of Mr. Matthew Davidson, our superintendent at Clachnaharry, from 1804 till the time of his decease. He was a man perfectly qualified for the employment by inflexible integrity, unwearied industry, and zeal to a degree of anxiety, in all the operations committed to his care."*[1]

As may naturally be supposed, the execution of these great works involved vast labour and anxiety. They were designed with much skill, and executed with equal ability. There were lock-gates to be constructed, principally of cast iron, sheathed with pine planking. Eight public road bridges crossed the line of the canal, which were made of cast iron, and swung horizontally. There were many mountain streams, swollen to torrents in winter, crossing under the canal, for which abundant water-way had to be provided, involving the construction of numerous culverts, tunnels, and under-bridges of large dimensions. There were also powerful sluices to let off the excess of water sent down from the adjacent mountains into the canal during winter. Three of these, of great size, high above the river Lochy, are constructed at a point where the canal is cut through the solid rock; and the sight of the mass of waters rushing down into the valley beneath, gives an impression of power which, once seen, is never forgotten.

These great works were only brought to a completion after the labours of many years, during which the difficulties encountered in their construction had swelled the cost of the canal far beyond the original estimate. The rapid advances which had taken place in the interval in the prices of labour and materials also tended greatly to increase the expenses, and, after all, the canal, when completed and opened, was comparatively little used. This was doubtless owing, in a great measure, to the rapid changes which occurred in the system of navigation shortly after the projection of the undertaking. For these Telford was not responsible. He was called upon to make the canal, and he did so in the best manner. Engineers are not required to speculate as to the commercial value of the works they are required to construct; and there were circumstances connected with the scheme of the Caledonian Canal which removed it from the category of mere commercial adventures. It was a Government project, and it proved a failure as a paying concern. Hence it formed a prominent topic for discussion in the journals of the day; but the attacks made upon the Government because of their expenditure on the hapless undertaking were perhaps more felt by Telford, who was its engineer, than by all the ministers of state conjoined.

"The unfortunate issue of this great work," writes the present engineer of the canal, to whom we are indebted for many of the preceding facts, "was a grievous disappointment to Mr. Telford, and was in fact the one great bitter in his otherwise unalloyed cup of happiness and prosperity. The undertaking was maligned by thousands who knew nothing of its character. It became 'a dog with a bad name,' and all the proverbial consequences followed. The most absurd errors and misconceptions were propagated respecting it from year to year, and it was impossible during Telford's lifetime to stem the torrent of popular prejudice and objurgation. It must, however, be admitted, after a long experience, that Telford was greatly over-sanguine in his expectations as to the national uses of the canal, and he was doomed to suffer acutely in his personal feelings, little though he may have been personally to blame, the consequences of what in this commercial country is regarded as so much worse than a crime, namely, a financial mistake."*[2]

Mr. Telford's great sensitiveness made him feel the ill success of this enterprise far more than most other men would have done. He was accustomed to throw himself into the projects on which he was employed with an enthusiasm almost poetic. He regarded them not merely as so much engineering, but as works which were to be instrumental in opening up the communications of the country and extending its civilization. Viewed in this light, his canals, roads, bridges, and harbours were unquestionably of great national importance, though their commercial results might not in all cases justify the estimates of their projectors. To refer to like instances—no one can doubt the immense value and public uses of Mr. Rennie's Waterloo Bridge or Mr. Robert Stephenson's Britannia and Victoria Bridges, though every one knows that, commercially, they have been failures. But it is probable that neither of these eminent engineers gave himself anything like the anxious concern that Telford did about the financial issue of his undertaking. Were railway engineers to fret and vex themselves about the commercial value of the schemes in which they have been engaged, there are few of them but would be so haunted by the ghosts of wrecked speculations that they could scarcely lay their heads upon their pillows for a single night in peace.

While the Caledonian Canal was in progress, Mr. Telford was occupied in various works of a similar kind in England and Scotland, and also upon one in Sweden. In 1804, while on one of his journeys to the north, he was requested by the Earl of Eglinton and others to examine a project for making a canal from Glasgow to Saltcoats and Ardrossan, on the north-western coast of the county of Ayr, passing near the important manufacturing town of Paisley. A new survey of the line was made, and the works were carried on during several successive years until a very fine capacious canal was completed, on the same level, as far as Paisley and Johnstown. But the funds of the company falling short, the works were stopped, and the canal was carried no further. Besides, the measures adopted by the Clyde Trustees to deepen the bed of that river and enable ships of large burden to pass up as high as Glasgow, had proved so successful that the ultimate extension of the canal to Ardrossan was no longer deemed necessary, and the prosecution of the work was accordingly abandoned. But as Mr. Telford has observed, no person suspected, when the canal was laid out in 1805, "that steamboats would not only monopolise the trade of the Clyde, but penetrate into every creek where there is water to float them, in the British Isles and the continent of Europe, and be seen in every quarter of the world."

Another of the navigations on which Mr. Telford was long employed was that of the river Weaver in Cheshire. It was only twenty-four miles in extent, but of considerable importance to the country through which it passed, accommodating the salt-manufacturing districts, of which the towns of Nantwich, Northwich, and Frodsham are the centres. The channel of the river was extremely crooked and much obstructed by shoals, when Telford took the navigation in hand in the year 1807, and a number of essential improvements were made in it, by means of new locks, weirs, and side cuts, which had the effect of greatly improving the communications of these important districts.

In the following year we find our engineer consulted, at the instance of the King of Sweden, on the best mode of constructing the Gotha Canal, between Lake Wenern and the Baltic, to complete the communication with the North Sea. In 1808, at the invitation of Count Platen, Mr. Telford visited Sweden and made a careful survey of the district. The service occupied him and his assistants two months, after which he prepared and sent in a series of detailed plans and sections, together with an elaborate report on the subject. His plans having been adopted, he again visited Sweden in 1810, to inspect the excavations which had already been begun, when he supplied the drawings for the locks and bridges. With the sanction of the British Government, he at the same time furnished the Swedish contractors with patterns of the most improved tools used in canal making, and took with him a number of experienced lock-makers and navvies for the purpose of instructing the native workmen.

The construction of the Gotha Canal was an undertaking of great magnitude and difficulty, similar in many respects to the Caledonian Canal, though much more extensive. The length of artificial canal was 55 miles, and of the whole navigation, including the lakes, 120 miles. The locks are 120 feet long and 24 feet broad; the width of the canal at bottom being 42 feet, and the depth of water 10 feet. The results, so far as the engineer was concerned, were much more satisfactory than in the case of the Caledonian Canal. While in the one case he had much obloquy to suffer for the services he had given, in the other he was honoured and feted as a public benefactor, the King conferring upon him the Swedish order of knighthood, and presenting him with his portrait set in diamonds.

Among the various canals throughout England which Mr. Telford was employed to construct or improve, down to the commencement of the railway era, were the Gloucester and Berkeley Canal, in 1818; the Grand Trunk Canal, in 1822; the Harecastle Tunnel, which he constructed anew, in 1824-7; the Birmingham Canal, in 1824; and the Macclesfield, and Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canals, in 1825. The Gloucester and Berkeley Canal Company had been unable to finish their works, begun some thirty years before; but with the assistance of a loan of 160,000L. from the Exchequer Bill Loan Commissioners, they were enabled to proceed with the completion of their undertaking. A capacious canal was cut from Gloucester to Sharpness Point, about eight miles down the Severn, which had the effect of greatly improving the convenience of the port of Gloucester; and by means of this navigation, ships of large burden can now avoid the circuitous and difficult passage of the higher part of the river, very much to the advantage of the trade of the place.

The formation of a new tunnel through Harecastle Hill, for the better accommodation of the boats passing along the Grand Trunk Canal, was a formidable work. The original tunnel, it will be remembered,*[3] was laid out by Brindley, about fifty years before, and occupied eleven years in construction. But the engineering appliances of those early days were very limited; the pumping powers of the steam-engine had not been fairly developed, and workmen were as yet only half-educated in the expert use of tools. The tunnel, no doubt, answered the purpose for which it was originally intended, but it was very soon found too limited for the traffic passing along the navigation. It was little larger than a sewer, and admitted the passage of only one narrow boat, seven feet wide, at a time, involving very heavy labour on the part of the men who worked it through. This was performed by what was called legging. The Leggers lay upon the deck of the vessel, or upon a board slightly projecting from either side of it, and, by thrusting their feet against the slimy roof or sides of the tunnel-walking horizontally as it were — they contrived to push it through. But it was no better than horsework; and after "legging" Harecastle Tunnel, which is more than a mile and a half long, the men were usually completely exhausted, and as wet from perspiration as if they had been dragged through the canal itself. The process occupied about two hours, and by the time the passage of the tunnel was made, there was usually a collection of boats at the other end waiting their turn to pass. Thus much contention and confusion took place amongst the boatmen—a very rough class of labourers— and many furious battles were fought by the claimants for the first turn "through." Regulations were found of no avail to settle these disputes, still less to accommodate the large traffic which continued to keep flowing along the line of the Grand Trunk, and steadily increased with the advancing trade and manufactures of the country. Loud complaints were made by the public, but they were disregarded for many years; and it was not until the proprietors were threatened with rival canals and railroads that they determined on—what they could no longer avoid if they desired to retain the carrying trade of the district the enlargement of the Harecastle Tunnel.

Mr. Telford was requested to advise the Company what course was most proper to be adopted in the matter, and after examining the place, he recommended that an entirely new tunnel should be constructed, nearly parallel with the old one, but of much larger dimensions. The work was begun in 1824, and completed in 1827, in less than three years. There were at that time throughout the country plenty of skilled labourers and contractors, many of them trained by their experience upon Telford's own works, where as Brindley had in a great measure to make his workmen out of the rawest material. Telford also had the advantage of greatly improved machinery and an abundant supply of money—the Grand Trunk Canal Company having become prosperous and rich, paying large dividends. It is therefore meet, while eulogising the despatch with which he was enabled to carry out the work, to point out that the much greater period occupied in the earlier undertaking is not to be set down to the disparagement of Brindley, who had difficulties to encounter which the later engineer knew nothing of.

The length of the new tunnel is 2926 yards; it is 16 feet high and 14 feet broad, 4 feet 9 inches of the breadth being occupied by the towing-path—for "legging" was now dispensed with, and horses hauled along the boats instead of their being thrust through by men. The tunnel is in so perfectly straight a line that its whole length can be seen through at one view; and though it was constructed by means of fifteen different pitshafts sunk to the same line along the length of the tunnel, the workmanship is so perfect that the joinings of the various lengths of brickwork are scarcely discernible. The convenience afforded by the new tunnel was very great, and Telford mentions that, on surveying it in 1829, he asked a boatman coming; out of it how he liked it? "I only wish," he replied, "that it reached all the way to Manchester!"

[Image] Cross Section of Harecastle Tunnel.

At the time that Mr. Telford was engaged upon the tunnel at Harecastle, he was employed to improve and widen the Birmingham Canal, another of Brindley's works. Though the accommodation provided by it had been sufficient for the traffic when originally constructed, the expansion of the trade of Birmingham and the neighbourhood, accelerated by the formation of the canal itself, had been such as completely to outgrow its limited convenience and capacity, and its enlargement and improvement now became absolutely necessary. Brindley's Canal, for the sake of cheapness of construction—money being much scarcer and more difficult to be raised in the early days of canals—was also winding and crooked; and it was considered desirable to shorten and straighten it by cutting off the bends at different places. At the point at which the canal entered Birmingham, it had become "little better than a crooked ditch, with scarcely the appearance of a towing-path, the horses frequently sliding and staggering in the water, the hauling-lines sweeping the gravel into the canal, and the entanglement at the meeting of boats being incessant; whilst at the locks at each end of the short summit at Smethwick crowds of boatmen were always quarrelling, or offering premiums for a preference of passage; and the mine-owners, injured by the delay, were loud in their just complaints."*[4]

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