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Thomas Telford in Clydesdale





Born on August 9th. 1757 in Westerkirk on the banks of the Esk a few miles from Langholm, Dumfrieshire, Thomas Telford began life in a turf and stone cottage where his father earned a living as a shepherd. He and his mother, however, were to know severe poverty when his father died three months after his birth.

When he was old enough he went to live with a relative, also a shepherd, and spent his summers on the hillsides. In winter he lived with a neighbouring farmer and worked for payment in kind – meat, stockings and clogs.

Thomas’ childhood ended when he became apprenticed to a stonemason at the age of fourteen. During a seven year apprenticeship, he learnt his trade raising rough walls to form enclosures, erecting bridges across burns and rivers and generally making improvements on the Duke of Buccleuch’s estate. He left Eskdale in 1780 at the age of twenty three to work as a stonemason inEdinburgh. Stonemasons were in great demand during the building of the New Town and Thomas easily found employment there.

Two years later he moved toLondon where he was involved in additions to Somerset House and two years later still, he found work atPortsmouthdockyard. Throughout this period he lived a very frugal lifestyle, drinking only water, avoiding “all sweets and nick nacks” and even darning his own socks! He never forgot, however, his childhood friend Andrew Little whom he visited when he could, and to whom he wrote copious letters enclosing money for Thomas’ mother and for Andrew himself who by this time was blind.

Thomas had a great thirst for knowledge and studied mathematics, architecture, languages, philosophy and Roman history. He loved books and readMilton’s Paradise Lost many times.

It was in 1787 that he really came into his own when appointed surveyor for Shropshire. A new Shrewsbury gaol was one of his first tasks in consultation with the prison reformer John Howard. Between 1790 and 1792 he built the bridge over the River Severn and the Menai Suspension bridge joining the North of Wales to the Island of Anglesey- one of his greatest achievements.

By this time he was mixing with the great industrialists and his reputation, once provincial, now became national and international. He had reached the forefront of his profession at the age of 45.

In 1802 Thomas was commissioned by the government to make a survey   of Scotland in  order to develop the Highlands. The Highlands Roads and Bridges Commission had found Scotland to be “barren, uncultivated, inhabited by inheritors, without capital or enterprise and by a poor and ill employed peasantry and destitute of trade, shipping and manufactures.”

The Scottish towns were mostly thatched mud cottages with a hole in the roof for smoke. The common people had little food, clothing or shelter. Those who lived in the countryside lived with their animals for warmth; oppressed and poverty stricken. If the crofter was too poor to own a horse as a beast of burden, loads were carried on either his own back or that of his wife.

Communication between one town and another was severely limited by the state of the roads or absence of them altogether. In wet conditions tracks became “more sloughs in which the carts and carriages had to slumper through in a half swimming state whilst in times of drought it was a continual jolting out of one hole into another”. (Robertson’s Rural Recollections) Cadgers, who were one horse-traffickers, supplied goods to towns and villages, carrying their wares in sacks or creels hung on the horses’ backs. The military roads which had been made by soldiers under General Wade after the rebellions of 1715 and 1745 were inadequate for the purpose of trade and communication, and in some circumstances were in need of bridges over the rivers.

Telford, in his report, recommended new roads to improve trade between North and South, bridges to span rivers, harbour improvements to open up the fishing industry and a canal to cross the country from East to West.

The opening up of Scotland to trade between its own towns and those of the South was essential to the future prosperity of its people. His plans were enthusiastically received. In 1803, as a result of his report, practical improvements began and Telford received instructions to proceed with the laying out of roads and bridges.

He was also, however, a great road builder and, besides smaller routes criss-crossing the country, he determined to improve the road between Carlisle and Glasgow. (Robert Owen had complained that it took him two days and three nights to get fromManchestertoGlasgowin 1795!)

Thomas Telford took great care in perfecting his road building techniques to take account of heavy traffic. Horses pulling heavy loads needed the gradient to be minimal and the centre of the road was to be thoroughly prepared beneath so as to cope with the heavy loads. The roads were drained under the bottom layers to ditches on either side so that the road surface could cope with all weathers. By 1822, the Caledonian Canal had opened to save the long and arduous trip all roundScotland. It was 22 miles long, has 29 locks raising 120ft. – a great masterpiece of engineering.

Over eighteen years 920 miles of roads and 1200 bridges were built, aiding the development of industry and the progress of agriculture. They connectedEngland to Scotlandand the resulting trade was hugely beneficial to both countries. As part of this amazing and rapid progress the Scottish Lowlands saw roads and bridges built which were to transform the lives of people in unimaginable ways.

The face of the countryside was completely changed. Work became available where previously there was none. Hunger and indolence were now things of the past.

Thomas Telford himself describes the effect upon the lives of the people:

“In these works and in theCaledonian Canal, about 32000 men have been annually employed. At first they could scarcely work at all, they were totally unacquainted with labour, they could not use 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 800 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, or they have been usefully distributed through 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 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 £200.00 has been granted in 15 years. It has been the means of advancing the country by at least a century.”


The countryside through which the Carlisle to Glasgow road passed necessitated the building of many bridges over deep ravines. In Clydesdale, Fiddler’s Burn  , Braidwood, is one such bridge. It required three arches of 150 feet and 105 feet spans. Drawings show a truly elegant construction so typical of Telford’s work. After over 100 years of use by increasing amounts of traffic (both horse drawn and, eventually, motorised) the Fiddlers Bridge was in such a poor and dangerous state of disrepair that it had to be reconstructed in 1958. Today there appear to be no remnants of the original bridge and a thoroughly awful replacement now stands there, happily unseen from the road.

Plan of Telford's Bridge at the Fiddler's Burn


                                                                            Bridge  over Fiddler’s Burn Today 

The bridge over the Mouse Water at Cartland Crags is possibly the most beautiful in the Clydesdale area. Sadly this wonderful feat of engineering cannot be seen from the road which passes over it, and any access to it is totally overgrown and dangerous. Here the Mouse Water flows through a deep ravine in some places almost 400 feet high. ThisTelforddesigned bridge is a spectacular masterpiece. Its parapet is 129 feet above the water and it stands to this day as a testament toTelford’s amazing skill.

                                                                                                       Cartland Bridge

Unfortunately some of Telford’s bridges have not stood the test of time and have been allowed to fall into disrepair. The bridge at Duneaton over the Duneaton Water is a case in point. It is no longer a part of any road and has become dangerous. Again, it is a beautiful testament to Telford’s work. It is elegant in design and deserving of some loving care but the cost to the farmer on whose land it stands is prohibitive and he is seeking permission to demolish it on health and safety grounds.


Where original roads have had to be re-routed to take account of increased traffic and housing, some bridges have become redundant. The bridge atMiltonwhich crosses the River Nethan at Lesmahagow was once part of the Carlisle toGlasgowroad. It now stands hidden behind a petrol station, a road to nowhere, with Buddleia growing from the masonry and the ubiquitous shopping trolley languishing below. It is crumbling and crying out for help but like others will probably be left to crumble into the river below.

                                                                                                Bridge over Nethan


Several bridges which have been claimed asTelford’s can no longer be found. With new roads having to replace the original ones, the bridges were demolished or even buried. Some may have been washed away by floods, demolished for safety reasons or plundered for materials. Whatever the reason, it may be time to restore and preserve what we have left.

After his amazingly prolific life, Thomas died in 1834 and was buried in Wesminster Abbey: a fitting tribute to this brilliant man. Retiring and modest though he was, he never lost touch with his roots and he probably would have preferred to go home to his beloved Langholm.

Thomas Telford deserves to be remembered.

  Article researched and written by Mary Fossey  May 2012

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