The Forth Bridge… deceit, disaster and design

It’s 1853, three years after Thomas Bouch launched his ‘floating railway’ over the Firth of Forth. But – though trains are now being ferried over the river – Bouch is disappointed and frustrated.

Why is he dissatisfied? There are fundamentally two reasons.

First, ferrying trains is not a great solution. Certainly Bouch’s employers in the Edinburgh and Northern Railway are happy – they’ve launched a similar ferry to cross the other east coast estuary of the River Tay. But the ferries carry only a train, not its carriages. That makes everything awkward. Here’s what happens for a train leaving Edinburgh and going north:

– leaves its first carriages on the south shore of the Forth

– gains its second carriages on the north shore of the Forth

– leaves its second carriages on the south shore of the Tay

– gains its third carriages on the north shore of the Tay.

Only after all that does the train have an uninterrupted journey north to Aberdeen. All the transitions before that are time-consuming and logistically complicated.

Second, ferrying is also a horrible experience for passengers. Think how the journey just described is for them. Trains are unheated so they arrive at the Forth already chilled, stand on a pier as the wind whips off the water, clamber on board a ferry which has no shelter for passengers, so they huddle beside the train or boxes or carts while the ferry sails through rough seas. Then they do it all again when they get to the Tay. They’re frozen, miserable and frightened. They’ve occupied three different sets of carriages, walked down or up four piers, and stood on open decks across two wide estuaries. No-one thinks this is a good experience.

Bouch agrees. There’s a centuries-old saying that you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear – if something is fundamentally bad you’ll never make it wonderful, no matter what you do. His ferries are better than nothing, but they’ll never be a good solution to crossing the east coast of Scotland estuaries.

Bouch is also frustrated. His goal and his passion is to build bridges over the rivers Forth and Tay, not organise a ferry service. Bouch had a self-confidence which some would consider arrogance. And a boldness many would think reckless. That’s before mentioning his super-abundance of ambition and determination.

Rather than sticking to a diet of dissatisfaction, in 1853 he informs his employers, now called the Edinburgh, Perth and Dundee Railways Company, that he wants to build a bridge over the Tay. They don’t take long to answer him. Bouch gets a near-instantaneous ‘no’, and he’s told his idea is insane. Bouch is not in the least happy with that response. Soon after he resigns and establishes his own consultancy firm.

The next few years saw two trends among rail companies: the amalgamation of firms and fierce competitiveness between them to establish the best route north. Then Bouch’s old company was consumed by the North British Railways Company, and Bouch believed new leadership meant new opportunity. He knew the company was desperate to improve the northern route, so in 1860 he approached the North British directors promising he could build bridges over both the Forth and the Tay.

This time Bouch is not rebuffed. It’s a new and more optimistic age, and Bouch leaves with a commission to put his plans on paper.

For the Firth of Forth Bouch planned a lattice-girder bridge. Gardeners know about training plants up a wooden or plastic lattice structure. A lattice bridge is fundamentally the same, a criss-crossed web design, strong and resistant to bending. Perhaps the most famous lattice structure is the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Bouch’s design was not a problem, but his proposed location was. The river between North and South Queensferry was too deep, so Bouch planned to build his bridge five miles upstream where it was shallower. However, there was a problem. Yes, the depth from surface to river bed was shallower, but below that river bed was more than 200 feet (61 metres) of mud. Mud could not support the piers of a bridge.

Or could it?

At the end of the last blog, I asked if there was ever a serious proposal for bridge supports simply to float in the river. Bouch’s proposal was almost that.

Bouch wouldn’t be stopped by 200 feet of mud on the river bed. He pressed forward with a plan for a two-mile bridge held up by 61 stone piers. Those piers would not sit on rock but on mud. His logic was like this: think of walking on wet sand – your footprints press down but they don’t keep sinking because the sand compresses and holds you up. Bouch’s piers would so compress the mud that the piers would sit – or float – firmly in place.

Convinced? Bouch was, but many were not. Not for a bridge set in a tidal estuary where the water was never still, and, on stormy days, would experience turbulence above and below the surface. An official enquiry studied his plans, and asked hard questions. But Bouch stood firm, showed great confidence, and argued his bridge would stand strong. Remarkably Bouch was given a ‘green light’ and in 1866 a beginning was made.

Work started in June and in August it was stopped. Because of new concern about the design? No – it stopped because of financial deceit. For some time the accounts of the North British Railway Company had been falsified to show profits which never existed. The books had been misrepresented, well and truly cooked, and the company was actually in serious financial trouble. Shareholders were up in arms. One day company directors turned up at the Forth, ordered that work stop immediately, and the builders’ employment was terminated with immediate effect.

Once more Bouch was thwarted. He was about to bridge the Forth, and suddenly he wasn’t. The disappointment was enormous.

However, Bouch was Bouch. Though he was down, he was certainly not out.

In the last blog, I also said we’d find out why Thomas Bouch was hired and then fired. That story comes next.

The action now moves 40 miles north, to the River Tay.

The North British Railway Company is being revived under a new chairman, John Stirling. In 1864, with Bouch at his side, Stirling asks officials in Dundee to provide financial support for a bridge over the Firth of Tay. They agree, and work begins in 1871. (I told the story of the Tay Bridge in an earlier blog. You can find it among those posted here:

Bouch was not only responsible for the design of the Tay Bridge, but for its manufacture, construction, and maintenance. Everything was under his control.

But the work at the Tay did not get Bouch’s sole attention. By 1873 he had a new design for a bridge over the Forth. This bridge could be built over the deep water between North and South Queensferry because it would be a suspension bridge, with one of its towers securely anchored on Inchgarvie island, approximately half way across the river. (There is a map showing Inchgarvie island in my last blog.) The towers of the bridge would be 600 feet (183 metres)  high, with 1600 foot (488 metre) spans in either direction from the centre tower. Steel chains would hold two railway tracks.

Design of Bouch’s suspension bridge.
Attrib: Wilhelm Westhofen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But there was new concern about this design, this time not about the foundations but the ability of the bridge to withstand wind pressure. Experts gave cautious support, but they would not say this was the best possible design. Despite the concerns, the official Act permitting construction was passed in 1873, and a consortium of railway companies formed The Forth Bridge Railway Company to build the bridge.

At first nothing happened. For one thing there was insufficient money to build. For another, the attention of the North British company was on the Tay Bridge’s construction. No work took place at the Forth until September 1878 (four months after the official opening of the Tay Bridge). Mrs Bouch laid a foundation stone, and by the next spring brickwork appeared on the western edge of Inchgarvie (and can still be seen today).

And not much more was ever done. On a late December evening in 1879 an immense gale blew through the Tay estuary. The northern-bound evening train made its way on to the Tay Bridge. As it passed through the central high girders the pressure against the bridge and the train collapsed that whole section, and every person on the train, some 75 people, perished in the waters of the Tay. What happened that night has been known around the world as the Tay Bridge disaster.

An official Court of Enquiry into the disaster began work just six days later, and took only a few months to present its report. The cause, they wrote, ‘was the pressure of the wind, acting upon a structure badly built, and badly maintained.’ Later they concluded, ‘For these defects both in the design, the construction, and the maintenance, Sir Thomas Bouch is, in our opinion, mainly to blame. For the faults of design he is entirely responsible.’[1]

Bouch disagreed with the Enquiry’s findings but, fairly or unfairly, his opinion didn’t matter. He was disgraced as a bridge designer and builder. A broken man, Bouch became a recluse, and died of ‘stress’ in October 1880. He was just 58.

Some work had continued at the Forth before the Tay Bridge Court of Enquiry report was issued. But now public opinion turned against Bouch, and pressurised The Forth Bridge Railway Company to abandon Bouch’s suspension bridge design. The majority view of public and press became one of doubt that any bridge over either estuary could be safe. All work at the Forth stopped in January 1881, and an Act of Abandonment began its passage through Parliament.

But the case for a bridge was still compelling – not least because rail companies stood to make great profits. If Bouch’s bridge could never be built, then a different design from a respected engineer might succeed. The railway companies asked engineers who knew Bouch’s plans, and knew the challenges of bridging the Forth, to consider options. One of these experts was John Fowler, who, with his partner, Benjamin Baker, had built bridges across the Severn estuary (which divides the west of England from south Wales). These highly qualified engineers believed a bridge at the Forth could be done. With no time to lose, financial and legal steps were taken, and the Abandonment Bill was withdrawn before it could finally pass and become law.

Work on the previous bridge had ended in January 1881 and Fowler and Baker laid a new plan before railway companies less than nine months later. It took only two hours for the companies to accept their proposals, and work began on preparing a new Parliamentary Bill. That Bill passed easily because the engineers were highly regarded and government inspectors validated their plans. The Bill went through all its stages and was given Royal Assent on 12th July, 1882. At last there was a realistic design.

The original (above) and final design for the Forth Bridge.
Attrib: Wilhelm Westhofen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
John Fowler, Consulting Engineer
Attrib: Lock & Whitfield (?)., CC BY 4.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons

But there was still widespread fear whether any bridge over the Forth could be safe. Therefore approval came with many stipulations about its strength, and included rules requiring inspection of construction work by the Board of Trade four times a year. The completed bridge had to be secure, but the incomplete structure must be equally secure at every stage. Parliament specified that this must be the biggest, strongest and stiffest bridge in the world. It must have maximum rigidity downwards under the weight of trains and sideways to withstand wind pressure. Only the best of materials should be used. In addition, the Admiralty required that a bridge must not restrict shipping (the Rosyth naval dockyard lies only a short distance upstream). Murray, in his book The Forth Railway Bridge, writes: ‘The concern and caution of the engineers, combined with these restrictions resulted in the finished installation being at least twice as secure as it needed to be’.[2] (As I wrote before, I’m happy to acknowledge the help Murray’s book has been in providing detail not available elsewhere.)

Benjamin Baker, designer
Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the end three men were crucial for the design and construction of the Forth Bridge. The two designers have already been mentioned: Benjamin Baker, the designer, and John Fowler, the consulting engineer. The third would be responsible for actually building the bridge. His name was William Arrol, a construction engineer. His business base was only 40 miles away in Glasgow.[3] All three of these men were knighted shortly after the Forth Bridge opened.[4]

William Arrol, Building contractor
Attrib: Wilhelm Westhofen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The design Fowler and Baker presented was for a three tower cantilever-truss bridge. More on what those terms mean next time. As well as drawings, they presented a 13 foot (almost 4 metre) model of the bridge to Parliament. All those who found construction drawings hard to follow – the vast majority – were entranced by the model. It was soon put on show to the public.

Today, since the Forth Bridge has stood strong for more than 130 years, it seems strange that opinion was divided on whether this bridge would last. Even the Astronomer Royal wrote to The Times newspaper asserting a gale less than had blown down the Tay Bridge might destroy this Forth Bridge. Spectators stood in lines to see the bridge model, and Fowler and Baker were constantly interviewed about its safety.

Finally Fowler and Baker had a photo taken to illustrate the stability of a cantilever design. Two men (many suppose they were Fowler and Baker themselves) sat on chairs, with arms extended supporting a plank on which sat Kaichi Watanabe, a Japanese apprentice of the firm. Behind them was an illustration of the bridge. As well as their arms they used broomsticks. The men represented the bridge towers, and piles of bricks represented the far ends of the bridge. Kaichi’s weight created compression, with every part of the arrangement supporting the rest. It was all stable.[5] Fowler and Baker were not just engineering experts but superb publicists. The photograph was published in newspapers around the world, convincing many about the bridge’s stability. The photo still features on postcards today.

I’ll stop here. The design work is done and approved, and the next blog will cover the remarkable story of the bridge’s construction.

Before finishing, three things have stood out for me from what’s been covered this time.

First, because someone is sure they’re right doesn’t prove they are. I have some sympathy for Thomas Bouch. He was a visionary who never stopped trying. But I suspect he was also too great a salesman, persuading people his ideas were sound when, very possibly, they had doubts. Did they really believe a bridge resting on mud was a great idea? I suspect not. Corrupt finances halted that plan but Bouch returned later with a different design. Why not the original? Might he have always been uncertain about a bridge resting on a bed of mud? Yet he’d persuaded everyone to let him build it just seven years earlier. A great salesman can sell a bad idea. Wisdom lies in recognising what’s bad and refusing it.

Second, the futures we envisage can suddenly change. Bouch had a bridge complete and operating over the Tay, and another just beginning across the Forth. Surely disappointments were all in the past? Then the Tay Bridge collapsed, he was discredited and all he had done and all he might one day do was changed. He never recovered. For others – especially Fowler, Baker and Arrol – the day of opportunity suddenly dawned, and their names have gone down in bridge-building history for their work on the Forth Bridge. There’s no place for either uncertain optimism or uncertain pessimism about the future.

Third, getting the brilliant best pays off in the long-run. The Forth Bridge met all the conditions laid down for it. It’s a marvel of design and construction. Recent inspections have shown it’s still in excellent condition. I’ve detailed many earlier attempts to bridge the Firth of Forth. None were built. The best was worth waiting for, the Forth Bridge.

Lastly, there are points I raised last week which are not yet addressed:

  • The surprising reason so many construction workers died.
  • When painters reached the bridge end, they began painting again at the beginning – true or false?

We’ll get to those. But here’s one more:

  • How did men work under water (without diving suits of any kind) building the piers on which the bridge rests?

I’m learning a lot, and I hope you are too. More to come.

[1] The official report can be found at: The extracts quoted are from pages 41, 44.

[2] Murray, A. (1983/1988) The Forth Railway Bridge A Celebration, Mainstream Publishing Company, Edinburgh.

[3] Arrol’s business was eventually called Sir William Arrol & Co., and among its many other major construction projects are these: the replacement Tay Rail Bridge (1887), Tower Bridge in London (1894), Forth Road Bridge (1964), Severn Bridge (1966).

[4] Further fascinating information about these three men can be found here:

[5] Knowing little about engineering, I may have explained Fowler and Baker’s illustration poorly. It was, thankfully, sufficiently convincing to the public of their day.

The Forth Bridge … beginnings

A tourist was told he must see the Forth Bridge. ‘Of course,’ he replies, ‘but where are the other three bridges?’ That’s an old  joke which rests on the tourist only hearing the bridge name and not knowing the spelling is Forth, not fourth, or that the bridge in question is over the Firth of Forth[1] in east central Scotland near Edinburgh.

© Sue Brown Used with permission

The Forth Bridge is only 30 miles from where I grew up. I was young when my parents took me almost underneath the bridge, down by the river where the ferry took car and foot passengers from North Queensferry across to South Queensferry. I hardly remember the ferry, but the memory has remained of the giant bridge towering over me, carrying trains high in the sky.

When I refer to the Forth Bridge, I’m using its proper name. But for some 60 years it has been commonly referred to as the Forth Rail Bridge to distinguish it from the nearby Forth Road Bridge and from the recently constructed Queensferry Crossing, a second road bridge. All three bridges impress me, but it’s the Victorian-era rail bridge that has always taken my breath away.

I’m hoping my excitement and fascination about that bridge is contagious. At the end of October 2021 I wrote a blog about the Tay Bridge and its disastrous collapse during a storm. Around 75 lives were lost. (You’ll find it here: Many people have read that blog, including a surprising number in America. I hope this bridge story also captures interest. There’s no collapse to describe though, tragically, more died building the Forth Bridge than were lost when the Tay Bridge fell into the river.

The Tay Bridge and Forth Bridge both straddle estuaries, and they have a shared geographic connection. The Tay Bridge goes north from the county of Fife towards Dundee and the Forth Bridge goes south towards Edinburgh. As a Fifer, I like the idea that my county is at the centre.

The Forth Bridge stands where it does because it almost couldn’t have been anywhere else. The maps explain. The first one shows east central Scotland. Fife is the county in the middle – it looks like a Scottie Dog facing right. At the top of Fife lies the estuary of the River Tay. The Tay Bridge was constructed where the river narrows just south of Dundee.

Map data ©2022 Google

Look to the southern edge of Fife and you see the much wider estuary of the Forth with Edinburgh just below it. What train companies wanted was an uninterrupted route north passing through Edinburgh and Dundee. Where could a bridge be constructed over the Forth? Most of the eastern part of the estuary was too wide. To the west the river narrows the further you go upstream, but building a bridge there would be a major diversion from a straight route up the east coast of Scotland. There was just one place near the mouth of the Firth where the land to the south and north jutted out, exactly where the two Queensferry villages were located.

That point is the focus of the close-up map below. The river narrows just south of Dunfermline and Inverkeithing, which is why most ferries crossed there. That part of the river had another advantage – a small island halfway across. It’s hard to make out, but an outcrop of rock pokes its head just above the water at the midpoint. That’s Inchgarvie Island which will be a significant secure base for the central tower of the Forth Bridge.

Map data ©2022 Google

But, our story begins not just hundreds but thousands of years earlier. In this blog I’ll focus on events before the Forth Bridge was even designed.

As we begin, let me commend Anthony Murray’s book The Forth Railway Bridge,[2] one of the most valuable sources of information for me. (I suspect the book is out of print, but there are second hand copies for sale.)

The era of boats

The first crossings of the Firth of Forth happened in ancient times before history was recorded. Small boats are fragile, and the Forth estuary was no stranger to strong tides and fierce winds, so those voyages were hazardous. Yet, the people who lived by the sea or large rivers weren’t fools. They knew when to cross.

Ferry crossings also began millennia ago. Ferries would be slightly larger vessels, likely capable of carrying several people plus cows and horses. They increased in importance when Dunfermline, located just north of the river, became the ancient Scottish capital. Margaret, an English princess, married King Malcolm III of Scotland in 1070. Queen Margaret (later Saint Margaret) was a pious Christian and apparently a good influence on her husband. She became noted for her charitable works, and part of her charity was to properly establish a ferry across the Firth of Forth so pilgrims could travel more easily to St Andrews (in the north east of Fife). The ferry became known as the Queens Ferry and the villages between which the ferry crossed were called North Queensferry and South Queensferry. Some 820 years later those two places would mark the ‘ends’ of the Forth Bridge.

One of Margaret’s sons, King David I, put the ferry crossing on a sounder footing, and granted oversight of it to monks in Dunfermline. During medieval times the ferry was a profitable enterprise. In 1589 James VI (later James I of England) gave the ferry rights to his bride as a wedding present. Early in the 1600s, the ferry passage was divided between 16 feudal superiors. They didn’t operate the ferries, but raked in their share of considerable profits.

The ferrymen appear to have been rough characters, seeing off rivals trying to steal business, lacking civility to customers, and having punch-ups among themselves. In 1637 two ferrymen were fined five pounds each for fighting. That was a substantial fine but each had to pay his five pounds fine to the other, so neither won nor lost. What may have bothered the men more was an order that required them to be friends and drink together.

An oddity for us, but not for those times, was that ferry fares were charged according to the status of the passenger, ranging from three shillings and four pence for a duke, earl or viscount, down to one penny for a humble man or woman. Ordinary folk were cheaper than some animals. A horse, cow, or ox was two pennies, but 20 sheep just four pennies. Everyone and everything had its value, with a simple citizen half the price of a cow. Clearly a boatload of aristocracy was the ferryman’s dream cargo.

The ferry service was much criticised: ferries not in good condition; landing places inconvenient and dangerous; piers scarce; services irregular, and impossible when wind and tide unfavourable; no oversight of the system; ferrymen unpleasant. It was also difficult to access the shores to catch a ferry – transport was bad on the Edinburgh side and nearly non-existent on the Fife side. No airport buses departing every 15 minutes in those days.

Despite the problems, by the early 19th century ferry traffic was increasing. That stirred a demand for change. So a Board of Trustees was set up to consider what could be done. It reported that the private individuals running the ferries were not likely to take account of public convenience to the extent now required, and recommended nationalising the ferry service. The proposal was fiercely resisted by those who owned the ferries – they called it ‘a violent invasion of private property’ – but the Bill to nationalise the service was passed in 1809.

New ways to cross the river

The increased traffic, and inadequacy of the ferries, stirred ideas for other ways to cross the Forth. This was the early 1800s, close to the Age of Enlightenment, and several more-or-less enlightened ideas were put forward.

One radical proposal came from a group of Edinburgh engineers – they would tunnel under the river. They knew of a London tunnel project under the Thames, and of a mining tunnel under the Firth of Forth at Bo-ness (about 10 miles upstream) which had gone a mile out under the river without difficulty. Led by John Grieve, three engineers surveyed the bed of the Forth at Queensferry and concluded a tunnel was very possible.

But there were challenges other tunnel projects had not faced: the great depth of the water between North and South Queensferry, and the type of rock under the river bed. Both of these factors would make tunnelling difficult. They were forced to modify the route the tunnel would take, but that meant the southerly entrance would be close to Hopetoun House, considered one of Scotland’s finest stately homes with 6,500 acres of grounds. The owner, the Earl of Hopetoun, strongly objected. Grieve pressed on as best he could and drew up plans for a £160,000 project:

  • It would take four years to construct
  • There would be two separate tunnels, described by Grieve as ‘one for comers; one for goers’
  • Each passage would be 15 feet high and 15 feet wide (15 ft = approx 4.5 metres)
  • There would be a raised sidewalk for pedestrians

Grieve issued a prospectus and shares were offered at £100 each. It got little interest. He tried again the following year, but with no greater success. The scheme collapsed. Grieve was disappointed. The Earl of Hopetoun was delighted.

A quick aside: the idea of a tunnel under the Firth of Forth was revived in 1955. A Forth Road Bridge Joint Board had been set up to plan and oversee the building of a road bridge. But first the Board considered drilling a tunnel under the estuary close to the rail bridge. But, like Grieve’s proposal, after research the idea was abandoned as being too ambitious and too expensive.

Back to our main story. Between 1808 and 1817 new piers were built on both shores. These were ramped piers (sloping down into the water), allowing ferries to dock whether the tide was high or low. They were so well constructed they handled ferry traffic until 1964. It stopped then only because the Forth Road Bridge was opened, and the ferries were consigned to history.

New piers made a big difference to the ferry service, but ferries could never satisfy 19th century transport needs. This was an era of growth and innovation. Engineering flourished, new roads were built, and bridges constructed where previously they were thought impossible. Imaginative and impressive engineering projects were being developed across Scotland, and all around the world.

An Edinburgh civil engineer, John Anderson, was excited by giant wooden bridges built in China. One bridge was reported to be three miles long. Anderson’s idea was not for a wooden bridge across the Forth, but a suspension bridge so extraordinary it would be one of the wonders of the world. His favoured site was where the ferries crossed. That was the most obvious location, partly because the river at that point was narrow, and because of the small island, Inchgarvie (as explained earlier) The name Inchgarvie is Gaelic and means ‘rough island’. That’s what it is, a small island of solid rock. However, it’s not as modest as it appears, because (like an iceberg) it’s bigger below sea level than above it. Inchgarvie was barren rock but perfect for supporting the centre of a large bridge. The pillars and columns of Anderson’s bridge would be made of cast iron, and coated in linseed oil when hot to ward off rusting. The roadway would be sufficiently wide to allow two-way traffic plus pedestrians. It would be suspended by chains either 90 or 110 feet above sea level, and could be no lower as ships with tall masts had to pass underneath.

Anderson wanted his bridge to be a thing of great artistic merit. He wanted it to look very light so he would use as little iron as possible to reduce the bridge’s weight and mass. With dry humour one later writer said the bridge would indeed have looked very light and slender, almost invisible on a dull day, ‘and after a severe gale it might been no longer seen, even on a clear day’. Anderson’s imaginative but unrealistic design won no support and the plan for a near invisible bridge became exactly that: invisible.

Other developments during the 19th century were significant for the eventual construction of the Forth Bridge.

Travel by train. The first purpose built railway, a line between Liverpool and Manchester, was authorised in 1826 and opened in 1830. It was a success from the start, beating other forms of transport on time and cost. Road transport was slow and expensive. Canals were used between Liverpool and Manchester but the journey time by rail was one and three quarter hours compared to 20 hours by canal, and the charge for carriage by rail was half the cost of carriage by canal barge. From the start trains were used by the Post Office and soon after for newspaper circulation around the country.

The expansion of railways lines was fast. In 1836, 378 miles of track were open.  Eight years later that number had risen to 2210 miles and soon many more. Railways changed society. People moved out of cities because they could now commute to work. Seaside resorts were developed because they could now be reached. Businesses sent their goods throughout the nation, because transport was affordable and fast. In today’s jargon, trains were a breakthrough or disruptive technology.

Because of these economic and convenience benefits of rail travel, it was no longer realistic to think a bridge over the Firth of Forth should be designed for horses, carts and pedestrians. It must carry trains.

Oddly, though, before any bridge was built trains were already crossing the Forth estuary. They floated over.

In 1849 a young man called Thomas Bouch was appointed manager and chief engineer of the Edinburgh and Northern railway and tasked with developing travel up the east coast of Scotland. But Bouch faced two immense problems – the wide estuaries of the Tay and Forth rivers. To make a lengthy journey north or south you could take a train close to an estuary shore. Then goods and people had to detrain, board a ferry, travel through Fife by road or train, get on another ferry, and finally board another train to complete the journey. East coast travel could never prosper while those difficulties existed.

Bouch’s ambition was to build bridges, but he needed a quick fix. His initial solution for crossing the Firth of Forth was what he called a ‘floating railway’ – steam ships big enough and strong enough to carry a train. His first ferry was named ‘Leviathan’, which had proved its seaworthiness because it was built in shipyards on Scotland’s west coast, then sailed north, across the top of Scotland where wind and waves were anything but friendly, and back down the east coast to the Firth of Forth.[3]

Bouch had wasted no time. Within two years of his appointment, his train-carrying ferries began. There were already rail lines running to Granton, near Edinburgh, on the south coast of the Forth, and from Burntisland in Fife on the north coast, so the train-carrying ferries sailed between those two places. It worked, and the floating railway operated for several decades.

But Bouch’s ferries could not be a long-term solution. They had limited capacity, limited frequency, and limited convenience. The demand was for rapid and comfortable train transport, and the answer did not lie with ferries.

A bridge had to be built. And at exactly that time another major development made a large, strong bridge over the Forth a better prospect than ever before.

Reliable steel. Well into the 19th century, iron dominated the building world. It came in two forms:

  • Wrought iron – wrought is a past participle of work, so wrought iron is ‘worked iron’
  • Cast iron – iron shaped by a casting process.

Each has advantages and disadvantages.

Wrought iron is pliable when heated and reheated, so can be bent into any desired shape. It gets stronger the more it’s worked, is not prone to fatigue, and can suffer a lot of deformation before it fails. It’s been used since about 2000 BC.

Cast iron is not pure iron; it contains small elements of carbon, silicon, manganese, perhaps traces of sulphur and phosphorus. The elements are heated beyond melting point, then poured into moulds which give the cast iron its shape. It’s very hard but also brittle. When stressed it’ll break before it bends.

The advantage of cast iron is suitability for complex shapes – think of the decorative metal back to a garden seat – which would take enormous time for a blacksmith to create. But, though strong, cast iron won’t bend when pressure is put on it, and may possibly collapse.

Many buildings and bridges were built with iron. But they had limits. Several bridges collapsed because their underpinnings were cast iron.

Around the mid 1850s, Sir Henry Bessemer developed manufacturing processes to create quality steel which could be used economically in construction. He intended his work to be used for weapons, but it had wider applications. The Bessemer process is described this way: it ‘involved using oxygen in air blown through molten pig iron to burn off the impurities and thus create steel’.[4] It was revolutionary.

This new steel was sufficiently strong, resilient and economic for the grandest and greatest of engineering projects. It didn’t become used widely until about 1880, but that was exactly when it was needed for the Forth Bridge.

It was now time for a serious approach to a bridge over the Forth. The ‘beginnings’ of this story are, therefore, at an end. It’s where we pause, but the story will continue in the next blog.

Already there are lessons we can learn, including these:

  • During the early years there were people who believed a bridge spanning the Firth of Forth could never be built. They were wrong.
  • The first bridge concepts were too small and too fragile to meet the need, although understandable given the technology of the time.
  • New developments created a need and an opportunity. The creation and expansion of train services were the need. The upgrading of steel to major construction quality was the opportunity.
  • Eventually the time came to act. An age had dawned which demanded bold innovators. Those innovators emerged, and their work was and is magnificent. After more than 130 years the Forth Bridge still fulfils its purpose perfectly.

These four points make me ask these questions. What is there I could be doing but my vision is too small? Beyond me, what are the challenges of this age that need great innovators, and a population willing to adapt, so dangers like viruses, inequality, racism, and climate change can be challenged? This is not a time for saying ‘That could never be done’. It’s the time when something must be done.

Thank you for persevering through a long blog. As the story progresses, we’ll find out:

  • Was there a serious proposal for bridge supports simply to float in the river?
  • A surprising reason so many construction workers died.
  • Why Thomas Bouch was hired and then fired as bridge designer
  • When painters reached the bridge end, they began painting again at the beginning – true or false?

And many other important and not-really-important facts. So much more to come.


[1] ‘Firth’ – often used in Scotland – can refer to a river estuary or an inlet of the sea. The Firth of Forth is both.

[2] Murray, A. (1983/1988) The Forth Railway Bridge A Celebration, Mainstream Publishing Company, Edinburgh.

[3] Some of these details come from an obituary of Thomas Bouch following his death in October 1880.


Celebration of discipline

The word ‘discipline’ has more than one meaning. So you know the sense I intend here, I’ll begin with a definition: Discipline is an attitude of mind and a way of doing things without which hardly anything worthwhile or lasting gets done.

Therefore, I’m not writing about discipline as punishment. During my school years in Scotland I had unwelcome meetings with the tawse[1] (the word is plural of taw which means whip) which inflicted considerable pain on my hand. Thankfully, this so-called discipline was abolished in the 1980s. Punishment is not what I’m meaning here when I use the word ‘discipline’.

Nor does my title ‘celebration of discipline’ imply the meaning of discipline used by Richard Foster in his 1978 book ‘Celebration of Discipline’. Wikipedia describes Foster’s book as an examination of ‘the inward disciplines of prayer, fasting, meditation, and study in the Christian life, the outward disciplines of simplicity, solitude, submission, and service, and the corporate disciplines of confession, worship, guidance, and celebration.’[2] It’s a remarkable book which has sold over a million copies. But I’m not writing about spiritual disciplines.

A few examples will show the sense of ‘discipline’ I mean.

Example 1    At the age of 17 I learned to touch type. (I was taught both shorthand and typing at a further education college, as part of training for journalism. There were only two males in a class with 20 females.) On large, old-fashioned typewriters, we learned to rest our index fingers on the ‘f’ and ‘j’ keys, and type fffff jjjjj, over and over again. Then we did fjfjfjfjfj and jfjfjfjfjf. The following week we did the same drills with middle fingers on the ‘d’ and ‘k’ keys, moving gradually from ddddd kkkkk to dfjkdfjkdfjk or kjfdkjfdkjfd or even dkfjdkfjdkfj. When more fingers and keys were in play, we moved on to simple words and sentences. Initially these exercises were mind-numbingly boring but, with practice, I did learn to touch type which gave me a great sense of achievement. While most of my fellow journalists typed with only two fingers and stared at their keyboards, I used eight fingers and one thumb (the other thumb is never used), and to this day don’t look at the keyboard. The discipline of those drills gave me a skill for life.

Example 2    For many years I prepared at least one but often two sermons every week. Often I’d write them out in full, some 4000 words each. There were two problems:

1) Never enough time to research and prepare;

2) Sometimes a mind blank about the next sermon.

There were two answers to those two problems:

1) The absolute deadline of an approaching Sunday. I had to be ready by then, which forced me to get on with the preparation;

2) The remark of Scottish theologian William Barclay about ‘writer’s block’: that the art of inspiration is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. In other words, stop faffing about and get on with the work.

The discipline of the deadline and the discipline of just sitting down, starting the work, and letting inspiration come, meant my sermons were always ready.

Example 3    Twice recently we’ve noticed a woman go past our house, but she pauses after every two or three steps. Why stop like that? She’s training her young dog to walk on the lead by her side. She moves forward, so does the dog, but after only a few steps the dog pulls ahead. So, she stops, makes the dog wait, and then begins again. When the dog gets it right, it’s rewarded; when it gets it wrong, she never shouts, just waits and then they restart. Most importantly, she never gives up on the training. My wife Alison knows a lot about dog behaviour and she’s impressed. That woman’s discipline – of herself and the dog – will have huge benefits for years to come.

So, with these examples in mind, I hope you can see why, for this blog, I defined discipline as:

  • an attitude of mind
  • a way of doing things
  • without which hardly anything worthwhile or lasting gets done

Discipline is about how we think and how we act. And discipline is necessary to succeed in things that matter.

I’ll expand on each of these.

Discipline as an attitude of mind

I was probably only the right weight once: on the day I was born. That day came only a few years after World War II ended, while food shortages were still common. My parents’ idea was that a chubby child was a healthy child. In fact I was overweight. I’m still chubby, though keep protesting much of it is muscle. I’ve read various books on losing weight. One book effectively pronounced me a lost cause. The author said that, in middle age, almost no overweight person gets back to their ideal weight and stays there. The very few who maintain their right weight have rigid discipline. They’d achieve their daily step count no matter the weather, and would not eat even a single square of chocolate.

The rigidity of that statement troubled me then and still. But I got the author’s point that a seriously disciplined mindset was essential. I’ve known people try to break drinking and smoking habits who lost the battle early on because they told themselves ‘Breaking the rules won’t matter just once’ or ‘I can have a holiday day occasionally’. But those ‘just once’ and ‘holiday’ days soon become frequent, and the cause is lost. Sometimes being lax with discipline is immediately and seriously dangerous. If, when I’m riding my motorbike, I wasn’t unfailingly disciplined about doing my life-saver shoulder check, I might be dead.

Whether we’re thinking of personal safety or goal achievement, a ‘happy go lucky’ attitude isn’t good enough. A disciplined way of thinking is essential.

Discipline as a way of working

I’ve had six books published and contributed chapters to two more. Is it difficult to write a book? For me, the honest answer is ‘no’ and ‘yes’. At any moment I have 50 ideas of things I could write about, and at least one of them makes some sense and would be of interest. So I don’t lack a subject. Then, once the idea is clear, writing isn’t difficult for me. I’ve written easily since I was a child. I could churn out thousands of words a day if I needed to.

But I have at least two difficulties with a major writing project. The first is the simple but hard one of making myself sit down and type the words. My mind will flip to ten other things I could do, some of which will be more fun and give quick rewards. Writing can be a slog, and a book is a long game. The work is tough. The second challenge is editing. Writing the first draft for a book is creative and perhaps exciting, but after that comes revision after revision: correcting typos, clarifying thought, cutting unnecessary material, watching for contradictions, and so on. That’ll happen at least ten times, and I’ve edited some books more than twenty times. Editing is very tedious.

I deal with the first of these – making myself do the work – by creating a non-negotiable deadline (publishers often impose those anyway!) A favourite phrase of mine is ‘A deadline is the mother of motivation’. It works for me.

And I deal with the second – making myself do the boring work – by defining minimum targets I must meet each day. So, when I typed my 400+ page thesis on a typewriter where almost no errors can be corrected, my goal was three pages a day. I would get home from an evening meeting about 10.00, then type and retype from 11.00 to 1.00 in the morning to achieve three perfect pages. I could not do that every night (I was often travelling), but on every day possible I produced three pages without fail. It got done – and the thesis was accepted.

Each person will have their own method, but it must be a disciplined way of working.

Discipline as essential for anything worthwhile or lasting to get done

Three things fit under this heading.

First, you can be casual with trivial things but must be serious to achieve important things. When a young golfer began on the professional tour, his brilliant play got everyone’s attention. He won a few tournaments, and the experts tipped him for the top, saying that with his potential he’d win all the major championships. Yet as he moved through his 20s there were only a handful of modest successes. When he was 30, he admitted he’d put more into living the good life than into his golf game. Now he would change. But he didn’t change. He didn’t dedicate himself to practise or to follow his coach’s instruction, and never succeeded at the highest level. He lacked discipline, and never fulfilled his potential.

We’re constantly tempted to dabble. We do a little of this, then some of that. We start and then stop. We do what we like and avoid what we dislike.

Life can be lived without discipline. But it’ll be a life devoid of what’s most worthwhile.

Second, the best things in life last only with hard work. You can bring in a team of designers, gardeners, labourers and volunteers and create a beautiful garden in one or two days. Plenty TV programmes show that’s possible. But, all too often, the garden they make is at its most gorgeous only until the TV cameras leave, or for only a few days. Why not longer? Why not always? Because a garden is a living, changing thing, and without disciplines like weeding, watering, fertilising, pruning, cutting, planting its beauty won’t last.

Nor does a marriage stay wonderful without constant care and investment. Or a career mature without development and upskilling. Even a product needs continual adjustment or reinvention to meet evolving tastes and needs.

Disciplined hard work is essential for longevity.

Third, to win a race you must both start and finish. In London and Chicago I’ve watched marathon runners stream past heading for their medals at the 26 mile finishing line. I’ve stood off to the side thinking how marvellous it would be to run a marathon and get a medal. But there are two barriers for me. One, I’d never have the courage to enter. Two, I’d never have the ability to finish. And you don’t get the medal without entering and finishing.

Many read a novel and think they could write just as well as the author. Or listen to a singer and reckon their voice is just as good. Or consider they could give advice just as ingenious as the consultant their firm brought in. But they don’t do any of these things. They don’t start, or, if they do, they don’t finish. They lack determination and they lack perseverance, both of which require discipline. Only with those do the best things actually get done.

Let me finish with this. Some people are super-disciplined. Some people are ill-disciplined. Then there are those who are disciplined in some things but not others. I’m in that middle category. Usually I long to be more disciplined. I’d achieve more of the things that really matter to me. Yet I wouldn’t want the possible downsides, such as the inflexibility that I sometimes see in my super-disciplined friends. So, in respect of discipline, my report card would read: ‘Has some discipline, but might benefit from more!’ Perhaps you’d like to ponder what your report card would say…


[1] More about the tawse here:


Celebration of ritual

Rituals get a bad press. The word implies something archaic, boring, mindless and pointless. Some rituals are. But I want to make a case for rituals, albeit rituals defined broadly enough to include reminders and procedures. Without those we’d lose track of what to do and how to do many of the important things of our lives.

But first I want to set aside the rituals which exist because people are odd or ill. Here are four examples I know:

  • When a senior manager attended a formal meeting, he always laid out three identical, good quality pens on the desk right in front of him. Likely he worried one might run out, hence having a spare. And then he needed a spare for the spare.
  • An office manager always had several pencils on his desk, all the same length, and all pointed in the same direction. When the manager went for lunch, juniors in the office would reverse some of his pencils. When he came back, the juniors watched to see how long before their manager noticed his pencils no longer all faced the same way. It was immediate, and he’d demand to know who had used his pencils.
  • One senior officer was always last out from the office at night. He’d switch off all the lights, then switch them on again, off again, on again, off again, on again, off again. Much the same happened with locking the outside door – lock, unlock, lock, unlock – at least four times before he could leave.
  • After everyone had gathered for the Sunday morning church service, Pastor George would leave his vestry, and join his congregation exactly on the hour for the service to begin. I mean ‘exactly’ on the hour. He’d watch the second hand of the clock count down and enter the sanctuary at precisely the right time.

I’m no clinician, but several of these seem like instances of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, which America’s National Institute of Mental Health describes: ‘Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a common, chronic, and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and/or behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over.’[1]

We’re tempted to smile at obsessive patterns, but OCD is no joke for the sufferer. Anyone with OCD deserves sympathy, not teasing.

So, to be clear, I’m not writing about uncontrollable or obsessive behaviour here, but about rituals we choose because they make our lives better. And, because they’re useful to us, we can celebrate them.

So, how do rituals make life better?

Rituals keep us safe

I’m usually last to go to bed, so it’s my job to make sure the house is secure for overnight. That consists of several tasks: 1) Make sure the dogs relieve themselves outside. That’s definitely important for them and us. 2) Once the dogs are in, check every outside door is locked, including the garage. 3) Fill the kettle so there’s no delay in making the first cup of tea in the morning. 4) Make sure all appliances and lights are off. 5) Close doors to retain heat.

I won’t be the only one with a last-thing-at-night routine. Nor the only who occasionally finds a door unlocked or a light still on. The ritual protects us.

In fact, we create many rituals to keep us safe, but we often call them rules, routines, codes or protocols. Think about these:

Safe crossing of roads: I was taught ‘Look right / Look left / Look right again / if all is clear, walk (don’t run) across’. There are more modern crossing codes now, but with the same aim. A young American, only a short time in the UK, got the ritual wrong. In a momentary mind-lapse, he stepped into the path of a car because he first looked left, as if he was still in America where traffic drives on the right. He didn’t die, but was so badly injured he never walked unaided again.

Driving routines: My driving instructor gave me a routine for every time I approached a junction or crossroads: mirror, signal, manoeuvre. That’s now been expanded and adjusted to M.S.P.S.L (Mirror, signal, position, speed and look). Motorcyclists have similar routines, with one important extra: a life-saver shoulder check. Motorcycle mirrors give limited vision, so glancing back on the side toward which you’re turning warns you if something has been in your blind spot. It’s saved me more than once.

Flying checklists: There are various checklists related to piloting and maintaining aircraft. Aviation historians say pre-flight checks were first mandated after a 1935 crash in Ohio. Accident investigators later found the pilots had tried to take off without disengaging the plane’s gust locks (which stop control surfaces moving in the wind while the plane is parked).[2] Both pilots died. These days there are checklists for each of several stages of an aircraft’s flight. You’ll be happy to know the final checklist includes ‘Landing gear – down’.

There are checklists for many industries and workplaces. But, by now you’ll have got the point – protocols are rituals that keep us safe.

Rituals bring welcome familiarity

Alison isn’t a fan of shopping in supermarkets she doesn’t normally use. ‘It’ll take me too long because I won’t know where everything is,’ she explains. Alison isn’t interested in browsing every part of a store. She knows what she wants, so shopping in her usual supermarket allows her to whizz round, get what she needs, pay, and go. Familiarity is her friend.

I like the story of the large department store which kept changing where the different sections were located. An exasperated shopper asked a member of staff, ‘Where’s the electrical goods department now?’ and got an equally exasperated reply, ‘I’m not sure but stay here and it’ll be along soon.’ Some changes are welcome, but we also appreciate familiarity, stability, even sameness. Rituals give us that.

In my earliest years as a church minister, I worried that Christmas services were much the same year after year. We sang the same carols, and Christmas sermons covered the same ground. It took me about ten years before I realised people weren’t expecting or needing novelty. They wanted to hear the old, old story told again and again, because the familiarity gave comfort. And their understanding of what it meant for God’s Son to be born in this world had grown and matured because of the regular repeating of the core truths about Christmas.

That constant focus on core truths is why some Christians follow a lectionary which focuses on major passages of the Bible (often on a three-year cycle), or structure their teaching around major Christian events (like Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Ascension, and so on). Lectionaries have never been part of my tradition, but I understand why many find these rituals ensure everything major is covered, and that repetition enhances understanding. Rituals have those advantages.

Rituals keep us on track

The first time I needed a ritual was when I first lived entirely on my own. I was 18 and had a small bed-sit in a flat where the landlord wasn’t usually present. I would have a serious problem if I went out without my house key, so I developed a routine. Every time I opened the front door, I paused and checked the key was safely in my pocket. That ritual meant I was never locked out.

In another place where I rented a room, the landlady cleaned the kitchen and bathroom on Mondays, front lounge on Tuesdays, hallways on Wednesdays, and bedrooms on Thursdays and Fridays. Probably she did ‘spot cleaning’ in between, but it was mainly her weekly ritual that kept the house in good shape.

My mum had a less-regimented method for keeping our house clean, but her absolute ritual was spring cleaning. As the dark days of winter faded, it was time for the house to be vacuumed and scrubbed from top to bottom. Cupboards were emptied, carpets were beaten, furniture moved so corners impervious to normal cleaning were conquered. My dad was busy too. We had a very large garden, and in spring especially he worked there every evening and on weekends. The spring rituals were a big deal, and never missed.

Many rituals involve cars. One neighbour washed his car twice a week whether it needed it or not. I used to take the wheels off my car once a month, just to be sure I could if I got a puncture. I also checked all my tyre pressures weekly. One old car leaked oil so badly, I monitored its oil level every day (and carried a large can of oil in the car). Rituals kept me motoring.

Many Christians (and people of other faiths) make sure they take time to pray morning and night; some follow a three times a day pattern. Good rituals aid spirituality.

I asked a friend who owned a hairdressing business how frequently some customers had their hair ‘done’ – apparently some came every week. A golf store owner told me he had customers who bought new golf clubs every six months. I know people who buy a new car every three years. Some rituals are good but expensive!

Rituals can help psychologically

At the beginning of this blog, I identified rituals that have got out of hand and become an illness. But more moderate rituals help psychologically.

Most of us know the things that really matter to us. If we have a routine that gets these things done, we’re at peace. The flowers were bought for the one you love. The elderly relative was visited. The car was maintained. The study schedule was met. The medicine was taken. The budget was done. And so on. Now, all done, there’s no nagging worry that we’ve missed something important. Our routine prioritised what matters, and we followed it, so those things can’t prey on our minds. No ritual can guarantee every area of life will run smoothly, but it can ensure everything significant gets attention.

On the website of The British Psychological Society, a ‘guest blogger’ article suggests that even meaningless rituals boost our self-control by making us feel more disciplined. (You can find the article here: I’m not a psychologist, so can’t evaluate the experiments described in the article, but I do understand the point being made – routines enhance our self-control and thus make us feel disciplined. That can’t be bad. Earlier I mostly described how rituals help us achieve more, but it’s interesting to think that rituals could also have a positive effect on our minds.

There are two reasons why writing about ‘rituals’ has been a strange subject for me. One, I dislike feeling imprisoned by a pre-defined way of doing things. Two, my friends would laugh at the idea of me recommending rituals. Not what I’m known for.

However, when I thought about rituals, I realised I’ve always had them. They’ve varied during my life, and never been the kind that gets written down and slavishly followed. But, I had a ritual about when I’d visit my dad when he was old and on his own. I have one now about how often I’ll play golf. And another about when I’ll write my weekly blog!

So, celebrate rituals. You almost certainly have them, and almost certainly benefit from them.


[1] The NIMH have a useful website:,to%20repeat%20over%20and%20over