The riveting yarn of the Forth Bridge

The Forth Bridge is an internationally recognised symbol, writes Britain from the Rails author Ben le Vay.

Written by Ben le Vay


Forth Bridge Scotland British Isles by Copycat84 ShutterstockThe Forth Bridge is an internationally recognised outline © Copycat37, Shutterstock

We are now in full view of the Forth Bridge – that stupendous undertaking which is, by universal consent, held to be the greatest engineering triumph of the kind that has ever been consummated.

From a 1904 traveller’s guide

The Forth Bridge, the railway bridge that opened in 1890, is an internationally recognised outline like that of the Taj Mahal or Statue of Liberty. Crossing it, you fly like a plane high over the rooftops of South Queensferry on the Edinburgh side, and the train – running 150ft above high water to allow shipping through – is completely dwarfed by the mighty structure.

It is far more massive than it needed to be because, not long before it was built, a trainload of passengers had disappeared under the waves when the Tay Bridge, on the next great inlet up the coast, had collapsed. The same designer was about to build the Forth Bridge, so that project was swiftly shelved and thousands of tons of perhaps unnecessary steel were used to make it as strong as possible. It was also one of the first large bridges made of steel – as opposed to iron – so it was experimental in its tube and lattice construction. It is 1½ miles long, the towers are 360ft tall and 55,000 tons of steel and eight million rivets were used to build it.

‘Painting the Forth Bridge’ (all 145 acres of steelwork on the 1½ mile-long structure) became an international phrase for something you could never finish, because when you got to the end you had to start again to stop it rusting. When the cocked-up reprivatisation of the railways took place in 1996, they stopped painting it, and guess what – it started rusting, and had to be rescued at great expense. All is well again now, however.

Anyway, back to the spooky stuff – when the Forth Bridge was being built in 1890, the enormous cantilevered arms were reaching out to meet each other, but they were so huge that they couldn’t exactly meet. Although perfectly made and aligned, they were so big that the effect of the sun on the eastern side in the morning, and the west in the afternoon, could bend the structure enough to prevent perfect alignment. The solution was to send men inside the massive tubes, each itself large enough to take a London Tube train, to light bonfires and ‘trick’ the bridge, as it were, into thinking that it was sunny on both sides.

The ends aligned perfectly, the bolts were dropped in and the last plates riveted up. But did all the men get out of the smoke-filled tubes? Is that knocking and groaning you can hear just the bridge expanding or the ghosts of something else?That much may be pure myth. What is true though is the staggering toll of workers who died building the thing, in accidents orblown off while walking the high girders: 71 deaths by the best count (see the memorial in South Queensferry).

Even more recently I have heard a local widow talk of how a man when he tripped on the highest part, probably because he would  keep his hands in his pockets against the cold and therefore couldn’t save himself. It makes you realise when the Health and Safety mob festoon places like this with fussy walkways and handrails, they may have a point.

The bridge features in Hitchcock’s great film, The 39 Steps, in an Iain Banks novel The Bridge, on some pound coins in your pocket and in the computer game ‘Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’ . It’s well worth a look around South Queensferry at the south end of the two bridges getting off at Dalmeny station. Spectacular.

And some wonderful news: from 2016, the public should be able to ascend the North Queensferry tower by lift and also walk across the bridge from the south at a high level,thanks to a new visitor centre being built by Network Rail. I’ve seen the pictures and it will be breathtakingly brilliant; see

Inspired? Read more in Britain from the Rails.

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