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Scottish Design Icons: Forth Bridge

Scottish Design Icons is a series of small articles showcasing the big hitters of Scottish design. Stuart Fallow takes a closer look at the Forth Bridge and reflects on its dizzying position in Scotland’s consciousness.

Many things might come to mind when asked about quintessentially Scottish things, from tartan and shortbread to Nessie and whisky. If you were to specifically ask about Scottish engineering, though, I think the first answer should be the Forth Bridge.

I still remember my first time crossing the bridge. I must have been about three years old and I was absolutely terrified by the whole experience. Huge, red support beams whizzed past the windows; too fast for me to really figure out what they were. We were so high up that the boats below looked like toys and the Forth stretched off into the horizon; it was like flying through the sky.

While I’ve still not gotten over my fear of heights, I’ve come to understand the bridge a bit better. Growing up in Fife, I saw the bridge frequently, whether going to Edinburgh on a day trip or visiting places around Fife (the council’s logo proudly incorporates the bridge into it).

Sepia photograph of the Forth Bridge with a countdown clock attached to its top.
Forth Rail Bridge as it counts down to the Millennium. Photo courtesy of Peter Stubbs.

There’s a real sense of pride in Scotland when it comes to the bridge and we like to show it off whenever we can. It always gets screen-time in the annual Scotland flyover on Hogmanay celebrations on the TV and was even turned into a huge countdown clock in the lead-up to the millennium. The image of the bridge is well and truly branded in my mind and it’s the first one I think of when I hear the word.

The bridge has even become a part of common Scots vernacular, with “painting the Forth Bridge” meaning “an endless task”. Though with the new paint that it was coated in back in 2002 (which involved a highly technical process of stripping the paint, restoring the steel, then repainting in an atmosphere-controlled environment), it’s likely that the phrase will be out of use for a few years yet.

Image from above of the three Forth Bridges spanning the Firth of Forth. Photo by Thomas Nugent
The Forth Bridge next to the other two Forth Bridges, the Forth Road Bridge and the Queensferry Crossing. Photo by Thomas Nugent

A technical marvel, the Forth Bridge was completed in 1890. William Bouch's original design for a suspension bridge was rejected following the disaster that befell the Bouch-designed Tay Bridge earlier that century.

In its stead, Benjamin Baker and Thomas Fowler's diamond-shaped cantilever design was much safer, able to withstand harsh winds and heat changes. This was in part because they proposed it to be built from steel; it was the first major structure in the UK to use this material and was truly innovative.

The construction was a huge undertaking and took seven years to complete. 4,600 workers from across the country got involved; steel was brought from England and France to construct the framework, as well as granite from Aberdeen for the stonework. The Glasgow firm Sir William Arrol & Co. built the bridge.

Sepia photograph of the Forth Bridge just after its construction.
This Victorian photograph by an unknown photographer was taken shortly after the Forth Bridge was completed in 1889.

When I look at the photographs in our Scottish Design Galleries of the bridge being constructed, I can’t help but wonder what it must have been like to be involved at the time. It must have been exciting, with workers from across Scotland and the UK coming together. Did they realise what an icon this bridge would become and that it would not only become an integral part of Scottish infrastructure and identity, but a UNESCO world heritage site as well?

We’ll never really know, but I'm certainly one of many Scottish people who are proud to see what an impact all that hard work has had and how it’s celebrated worldwide.

Still not a fan of the height though.

Stuart Fallow is the Bookings and Enquiries Officer at V&A Dundee.