IT is not often that you see a terrific piece of engineering on a theatre stage, but those people lucky enough to have tickets for the current production by Dundee Rep theatre company are very fortunate. Not only will they witness Tracy Letts’s tremendous play August: Osage County performed by a wonderful ensemble cast and brilliantly directed by the company’s new artistic director Andrew Panton, they will see a set the like and the scale of which has rarely been seen on a normal Scottish stage before. (I loved all three but cannot class Bill Bryden’s The Ship and The Big Picnic plus the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch as being “normally” staged plays, whereas this play doesn’t depart from its stage roots.)

One of the many distinguishing features of August: Osage County at Dundee Rep is the extraordinary set by Alex Lowde, which is basically a see-through two-storey house mounted on a revolving platform. It is not just a piece of hugely innovative and ambitious theatre design, it is a wonder of modern engineering and provides the backdrop for what has to be one of the greatest stage productions in Scotland in this century.

All credit to Lowde, production chief Ian Dow and stage manager Lesley Neilson for their contribution to a wonderful show – if you haven’t been yet, then buy a ticket now.

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Scotland’s engineering and construction skills are very much in the news these days, and whereas you might think it’s a giant leap of imagination from the stage of Dundee Rep to the harsh waters of the Firth of Forth, the engineering innovation that underpins Lowde’s theatrical set and the new Queensferry Crossing comes from the same wellspring – Scotland’s long tradition of excellence in building and engineering.

As a sort of tribute to the Queensferry Crossing, which truly is both a beautiful structure and a construction and engineering achievement of the highest order I will profile what I consider to be three of the greatest engineering and construction feats in Scottish history. The first of these, appropriately enough, is the original Forth Bridge, the daddy of them all and undoubtedly Scotland’s greatest built wonder – as was voted for by the public last year.

The Forth Bridge (now known as the Forth Rail Bridge)

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The Forth Bridge, or Forth Rail Bridge as we must now call it, is one of the most iconic structures associated with Scotland. It is a World Heritage site, deemed so by Unesco because of the genius of its construction as the first permanent major structure in Britain to be built of steel. Yet it was nearly not built at all, and there was much criticism of the death toll during its construction – we’ll deal with that later.

To understand why it was so wondrous, we need to look further back in time and see how Scotland’s place at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution was one of the main reasons why engineering became such a popular profession in this country.

In the early 17th century there were already builders and innovators experimenting in what we would now call civil engineering. Sir George Bruce (1550-1625), or example, sank the Moat Pit into the Forth’s coal seams and his other mines and salt works were far in advance of anything else found anywhere in the world.

Andrew Meikle (1710-1811) invented the threshing machine – every combine harvester in the world derives from it – and other farming innovations, and Dumfriesshire shepherd’s son Thomas Telford (1757-1834) designed and built the Caledonian Canal, among other civil engineering masterpieces.

The Industrial Revolution transformed Scotland, with James Watt’s genius as a scientist, engineer and inventor to the fore. If all he had done was to make the steam engine practical, then Watt would still be lauded. As it was, he accomplished so much in so many fields that he is rightly remembered as one of our greatest, if not the greatest, innovators.

Yet it was his protege John Rennie (1761-1821) who did much to shape modern Britain, because he not only built canals, bridges and harbours, he designed the dockyards that made the Royal Navy invincible around these shores.

Robert Stirling (1790-1878) was the Kirk minister who invented his eponymous engine; the Stevenson family worked on lighthouses; James “Paraffin” Young (1811-1883) founded the petrochemical industry; and Robert Napier (1791-1876) and John Elder (1824-1869) between them made the Clyde the world centre of shipbuilding.

William Thompson (1824-1907), or Lord Kelvin as he is better known, invented so much that is vital to modern life; James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) gave us the foundations of electrical and electronic engineering; and the remarkable but often unremarked William John Macquorn Rankine (1820-1872) was not only a brilliant scientist himself but campaigned vigorously for engineering to be taught on a formal basis. That is why Scotland had some of the first dedicated engineering faculties – Glasgow University’s School of Engineering is the UK’s oldest.

All these great 19th-century figures took Scottish engineering on to a different plane, but it was Sir William Arrol, builder of the Forth Bridge, who gloriously crowned that century of achievement. Yet it nearly did not happen at all, as a direct result of the Tay Bridge disaster in 1879.

There had been ferries across the Forth for centuries before the first tunnels and bridges were proposed at the beginning of the 19th century. These ideas came to nothing until Sir Thomas Bouch (1822-1880) came on the scene as chief engineer of the Edinburgh and Northern Railway – and it was the railways above all which were driving the need for a Forth crossing.

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He had invented the first roll-on, roll-off ferries for rail companies before he argued that the Firths of Tay and Forth could and should be bridged. Bouch was working for the North British Railway when the Tay Bridge was authorised and it was made mostly of iron, completed to his design in 1878.

Queen Victoria crossed it in June 1879, and Bouch was knighted for his work. It was just as well he got the award early, for in December the bridge collapsed as a train crossed it, killing 75 people.

After the disaster, an inquiry found that it was design and building faults which principally led to the collapse of the structure. Bouch got the blame, and an urban legend sprang up that the word “botch” derived from his name – it didn’t, but he had overall responsibility for a botched job.

The disaster forced a rethink of the design for the Forth Bridge, and after Bouch died in 1880, two engineers, John Fowler and Benjamin Baker, came up with new plans which were approved by Parliament in 1882. There was only one man in the frame to actually lead the construction – William Arrol, the Renfrewshire-born entrepreneur who had risen from blacksmith’s apprentice to being head of the civil engineering company that bore his name.

He had already built numerous bridges and had won the contract to rebuild the Tay Bridge – like the Forth, it still stands and is in use to this day.

Work on the Forth Bridge and second Tay Bridge began in 1883, and Arrol, Fowler and Baker all insisted on massive safety features being incorporated – there would be no second bridge collapse on their shift.

The Forth Bridge was to be made of steel manufactured in Scotland and Wales and held together by millions of rivets – a new departure in bridge building. It would be huge, more than 8000 feet in length, with the distinctive central spans rising to 350ft and the track itself 150ft above sea level.

From the outset it was realised that the Forth Bridge, with its unusual cantilever design was going to be something very special. Sightseers flocked from all over to see the construction work going on both north and south of the Forth, and boats were hired so they could see what was going on in the middle of the river, too.

In those days there were no broadcasters, of course, but newspapers kept up a steady commentary of progress as the main spans began to be completed.

The press also cottoned on to the fact that construction work was highly dangerous. They gave Arrol a hard time, and a rescue boat service had to be set up – it would eventually save at least eight lives.

Arrol was phlegmatic about the death toll. He said: “There are no more accidents here than in an ordinary ship-building yard but as there is only one Forth Bridge, and as everything that takes place on it seems to get reported in every newspaper in the country, people get quite erroneous ideas about the fatalities that do occur.”

Modern research has shown that the given figure of 57 fatalities was an understatement – the figure is likely to have been nearer 80. The youngest was a 13-year-old rivet catcher, David Clark, who fell 150ft to his death in September, 1888.

The work was hard and dangerous, and all involved knew that. Many injuries happened to men working in the caissons in mid-stream, but the main cause of death was falls.

Arrol really did care about the “briggers” as the bridge builders became known, devising ways of making their jobs safer. They were also well paid by the standards of the time, especially the riveters, who would put more than 6.5 million rivets into the 55,000-ton bridge. And did I mention the 650,000 cubic feet of granite supporting the structure on either side of the bridge?

It is often said that the painting of the bridge began as soon as it was finished and never stopped. And yes, for many years the paint job would be continuous – a team of painters regularly topped up the distinctly reddish paint where it faded.

That all stopped in 2011 when a new type of paint was applied in a refurbishment project that had lasted several years.

The Forth Bridge was officially opened by the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, on March 4, 1890. From the start, it was massively successful with the travelling public, for it knocked hours off the journey to and from Aberdeen and opened up a new era of travel between Edinburgh and Fife.

To this day, it remains the second-longest cantilever bridge in the world behind only the Quebec Bridge in Canada. It has exceeded all expectations, for it is very doubtful that Arrol himself anticipated his bridge lasting so long and still being able to handle more than 200 trains running across it every day.

It says everything about the Forth Rail Bridge’s importance to the public that most people thought it was the target of the first Nazi German air raid of the Second World War. The German bombers were actually aiming for the Royal Naval Dockyard at Rosyth, but it soon became known as the Forth Bridge raid, and propaganda films of the time emphasised that the bridge had survived undamaged.

Now owned and maintained by Network Rail, the original Forth Bridge has been joined by two others, and the latest, the Queensferry Crossing, shows that Scotland is a place where engineering genius is still appreciated.

The Forth Road Bridge

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There are those who decry the Forth Road Bridge as a failure of Scottish engineering and construction because it only lasted for 53 years of its expected 120-year lifespan. They point to the Queen, who officially opened the road bridge in 1964 and its successor the Queensferry Crossing earlier this month as being a much longer survivor.

That is so dreadfully unfair to a marvel of Scotland’s modern industries, not least because nothing is longer lasting than Her Majesty.

When it was first planned, the “experts” said that around five million cars, lorries, buses, and motor cycles would cross the bridge every year and they were very hesitant in saying that one day far in the future, that figure might have to increase to around eight million.

Within 15 years of its coming into existence, it was clear that the experts were very badly wrong and the bridge was carrying up to ten million vehicles per year. Another factor that the detractors usually fail to take account of was that the weight of vehicles vastly increased – the maximum weight for lorries in 1964 was 24 tonnes and that increased to 44 tonnes, and there were many more HGVs than anyone ever thought would cross the Forth.

And who ever foresaw the rise of white van man and his goods-laden vehicle? So it is no wonder that the bridge deteriorated much quicker than planned.

In its last full year of operation, about 25 million vehicles crossed the bridge, nearly 10 times the number it carried in its first full year of operations. That is surely not a bad record at all.

It seems almost remarkable now that for decades until 1964 the connection between North and South Queensferry relied on a roll-on roll-off area for which the queues never ceased to lengthen.

Practically since Sir William Arrol’s magnificent rail bridge had opened, there had been talk of a similar crossing for road vehicles but one major problem existed – the rail bridge had taken the best route across the Forth.

By the 1920s, the number of cars on Britain’s frankly poor roads was rising annually. By the early 1930s, when various Road Traffic Acts brought in improvements such as driving tests and compulsory insurance – no wonder, as more than 7,000 people were killed or injured in a single year – meant that proper statistics of road usage could be collated. It was found that 2.5 million vehicles were abroad on Britain’s roads – a much higher number than officialdom perceived.

As early as 1923, the Ministry of Transport had considered the idea of a rail bridge across the Forth to link Edinburgh and the Lothians to Fife and the growing road network in the north and east of Scotland. The ‘missing link’ from Perth to the Forth was designated the A90 instead of the A9 as originally conceived, largely because there was no road link across the Firth.

Though the number of vehicles continued to increase slowly during the Great Depression, that era of austerity followed by the Second World War effectively put all road bridge plans on the back burner, and it was not until 1947 that the Forth road crossing plans resurfaced. Clement Atlee’s government in London started the ball rolling by setting up the Forth Road Bridge Joint Board with the councils around the Forth all involved.

The ferry service continued to expand, and by the 1950s there were four ferries operating round the clock carrying 1.5 million vehicles per year. In 1955, the Joint Board proposed a tunnel under the Firth near the Rail Bridge, but the so-called Maunsell Scheme was abandoned and the Board instead opted for a suspension Road Bridge one mile upstream from the original Forth Bridge, with the towers erected above the sunken Mackintosh Rock on the north side and a rock shelf on the south side.

The project was approved in 1958 with money raised by the various authorities and a contribution from HM Government. The original cost ran over budget and it was eventually built at a cost of £11.5 million with a further £8 million on connecting roads. It was planned that the loans to fund the construction would be recovered from tolls.

The foundations began to be laid in September, 1958, and once again the famous Scottish name of Sir William Arrol & Co was involved. Together with the Cleveland Bridge and Engineering Co, and Dorman Long Ltd, Arrol & Co formed the consortium of the three largest engineering firms in the UK that actually built the bridge which was designed by the two firms of Mott, Hay and Anderson, and Freeman Fox and Partners – all of them British, all using British materials, a point to which I will return.

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The construction of what was then the world’s fourth longest bridge span was a long and difficult process, and often dangerous – eleven men lost their lives during the building work, four of those on the bridge itself.

The single worst accident of the whole project was on June 22, 1962, when the Masterton viaduct that was to carry a section of one of the approach roads collapsed and trapped four men, three of them being killed.

Still the work rolled on. Some 210,000 tonnes of concrete were poured into the foundations and bridge surface while the steel cables and other steel elements totalled nearly 40,000 tonnes.

By the end of 1962 more than 30,000 miles or steel cable were in place and the following year, just before Christmas, the last box girder was swung into place to complete the crossing. It bore a Lion Rampant and a Union Flag.

Two engineers who worked on the Bridge told the BBC in 2014 that they, and not foreman Jimmy Lafferty, who was officially the first to cross the bridge, had made it across before the walkways were finished.

Hector Woodhouse, then an assistant engineer on the bridge, said: “They had not quite finished the mesh but we were not going to be stopped.”

His friend Alan MacDonald, a section engineer, added: “We did a tightrope act down the cables so that we could become the first people to cross the bridge.”

The pair stepped off together so that both now claim to be first across the Forth by road bridge.

There then came the task of surfacing the carriageways across the bridge. Incredibly the top layer across the whole surface had to be applied by hand.

There is a documentary that was made to archive the whole building process. You can view it on Youtube, and if you can ignore the deathly commentary, it’s actually a very good overview of the considerable engineering skills that went into the construction.

At its finish, as the official history states, “it was the first bridge of its kind in the UK, the longest outside the USA, and the fourth longest in the world. ‘Guid Passage’ was the fitting motto given the Forth Road Bridge at its opening.”

At 3,300 ft, the central span itself between the two towers was a thing of wonder and awe on the part of the hundreds of thousands who flocked to see it in the months before the bridge’s official opening by Queen Elizabeth.

The opening ceremony itself was very nearly a disaster, for on the morning of September 4, 1964, the haar - the sea mist that often bedevils the east coast of Scotland and is known as a ‘fret’ in England - smothered much of the Firth of Forth.

Television news was then in its infancy and it was up to the newsreels, the radio and the newspapers to bring an expectant Scotland up to date with what had been happening. The haar seemed to deepen but just before noon the sun miraculously broke through and the mist dissipated just enough for the huge crowds of spectators at either end of the bridge to see what was going on. Among them were the 400 workmen who had built the bridge.

Her Majesty’s Royal Cavalcade slowly crossed the bridge and soldiers from Lowland and Highland Regiments linked up to demonstrate the link between the north and south of Scotland.

A flypast by the RAF took place while down in the Forth itself, some 25 warships fired a salute only for the haar to return around them so that HMS Lowestoft crashed into the Home Fleet’s flagship HMS Lion, fortunately with no casualties.

The initial toll charge of a half crown was never going to be enough to repay the various loans that built the Bridge, though such was the volume of traffic in later years that the Forth Road Bridge was said to have paid for itself.

The bridge’s travails in later years have been well documented, including the corrosion of the steel cables that eventually forced the decision to built the Queensferry Crossing, as was the fact that it was declared a Listed Building in 2001.

I will leave the last word to that perspicacious Fifer, Ian Jack, writing in The Guardian the other day: “The new bridge has a tiny British input: a few box girders from Cleveland Bridge, a safety monitoring system from the Arup Group, and 16% of the building work by Morrison Construction.

“The main designers are American, Danish, Dutch, Swedish and German. The main contractors are American, German and Spanish. The steel comes from China, the concrete from Germany, and the cable stays from Switzerland.

“In 1964, a person of a certain age could look back on half a century of terrible events. Looking back at 1964 today, a person of the same certain age can only marvel that Britain was then still an industrial nation, and that its decline has been so recent and so steep.”

The new road bridge over the Forth is both a very international and highly Scottish achievement, and proof, if any were needed, that Scotland can not only survive on our own in the world, but thrive.

The QE2

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It was 50 years ago this week on September 20, 1967, that the Queen came to Clydebank to launch a magnificent ship which until the moment she pressed the button to smash champagne on to the bow had officially been known only as Q4.

The codename disguised the identity of the ship which is profiled here as the third and last of our short series on great engineering feats in Scotland, and its construction was begun just after the second in our series, the Forth Road Bridge, was seeing its first traffic.

Q1 had been the Queen Mary, Q2 had been Queen Elizabeth, Q3 was planned but never built, and so in 1964, Cunard went back to the home of the first two Queens, John Brown’s yard at Clydebank, to build Q4.

On that September day, with tens of thousands watching, the Queen started the launch process, and Queen Elizabeth 2 – note, never Queen Elizabeth II – was sent into the world.

To this day, many people on Clydeside still think of the Cunard liner QE2 as the Q4, and there is marvellous song The Ballad Of The Q4 by that kenspeckle figure, the late, great Matt McGinn, which sums up the feelings that many Scottish people had for the ship.

“Oh Mary and the Lizzie they were made right here, but you’ll never see the likes of them I fear, they were the finest on the silver sea, they were built by the hands of men like me.”

Delivered in his raucous voice, McGinn’s song sent out a defiant growl about the Clyde and its shipbuilders. The Clyde yards had been in decline for many years, and it was no secret that by the early 1960s, some of the most famous shipbuilding concerns on the river were in trouble.

At the same time, Cunard was also finding out that the transatlantic liner was almost a thing of the past, as jet aircraft made a five-day passage by sea into a six-hour sprint by air. Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth had been designed for that transatlantic trade, and their construction had made them more or less inconvertible.

The SS France, launched in 1960, was to prove to be the last of the great liners designed for the transatlantic route, but her owners, the Compagnie Général Transatlantique, had been shrewd enough to see that the greatest of all French liners could be used as a cruise ship in future and she had only two classes of passenger as opposed to the normal three.

Cunard knew that Mary and the Lizzie had to be replaced and began working up the concept of Q3, a transatlantic liner. There are drawings of her still in existence and she would have been an innovative beauty.

Yet the revenue from Atlantic crossings continued to fall and Q3 was cancelled before the tendering process had even begun.

Cunard knew that they needed a new liner that would be cheaper to run and which, crucially, could enter ports that the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth could not. They also specified that the new liner had to be able to transit the Panama Canal and thus make round-the-world voyages. That they were already thinking ahead to the days of cruise travel was shown by the demand that the new ship had to have extensive recreational facilities such as four swimming pools and an upmarket shopping area.

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Cunard decided to go ahead with Q4 in mid 1964. Only two yards tendered for the job – Harland and Wolff in Belfast and John Brown & Co at Clydebank, builders of the first two Queens as well as the Lusitania and Aquitania before them. The ill-fated HMS Hood and the Royal Yacht Britannia were other Brown creations, and the yard was rightly famed worldwide for the quality of its ships.

A bid of around £30 million – a loss-making bid, as it turned out – secured the project for Clydebank and in November 1964, the keel for job number 736 as she was prosaically known, was laid on the “Queen’s slipway” which lay at angle to the river as the ship would have to be launched diagonally into the Clyde since her near 1,000 feet length would swamp the Clyde that was considerably less wide at that point.

Soon she was known as Q4 and the Clyde was abuzz with rumours about the ship that was designed to be the last word in luxury as a transatlantic liner, but could also be converted for cruising. Designed in house by Cunard’s teams in Liverpool and Southampton with input from some of the top interior designers of the day, Q4 would be lighter than her predecessors as her upper works featured a lot of aluminium, though her steel was all British.

There were slight delays during the construction, and more when she was being fitted out after being launched. She was to be run on oil, and the engines were also problematic, but gradually Q4 came together in the way that only great ships do – by dint of clever design, superior draughtmanship and sheer expert hard work by everybody from welders to painters.

Hundreds of men swarmed all over Q4 as she slowly rose above the rest of the yard, while to a young boy like me it seemed she dwarved the whole town of Cydebank.

The majority of the superstructure and especially the funnel were always intended to be added once the ship was launched. By mid-1967 she was on schedule and the date was set for her launch many months in advance.

The name was still secret, but when it was learned that the Queen herself would perform the launching ceremony for the Cunard flagship, all bets were off.

There has long been controversy about why she is QE2 and not QEII. One version is that Cunard did not want to upset Scottish nationalists who did not recognise the current monarch as the second Queen Elizabeth of Scotland. Yet that version does not sit with the fact that the SNP, for example, was still many months away from Winnie Ewing’s Hamilton by-election win – indeed, the by-election itself would not be called until October when Labour MP Tom Fraser resigned. Some party historians opine that the boost to the pride of ordinary Scots by the launching of the QE2 may have impacted on that by-election.

The more likely version is that Cunard followed an old shipping tradition and did not want to name her “the Second” when the original Queen Elizabeth was still in service, albeit that Q2 finished her sailing career before Q4 started hers. It’s just not true that Her Majesty added “the Second” as an afterthought – she read what was on the card in front of her. Whatever the reason, the name stuck and the QE2 became the world’s most famous ship.

The launch went precisely as intended, the smashing of the bottle followed by long seconds before the new Queen slowly slipped into the river, stopped by thousands of tons of drag chains and swiftly attended by tugs who manoeuvred her into the John Brown fitting berth – it was there that the glorious black and white funnel was fitted after the launch to give the QE2 such a distinctive look.

It seemed as though the whole of Scotland celebrated the launch for days afterwards, and for a short while there was a huge feelgood factor on the Clyde again.

We all know of her remarkable career, her six million miles of sailing, her service in the Falklands War, the numerous refits including new engines that enabled the QE2 to stay in service for more than 40 years – the longest-serving Cunard liner of them all. Perhaps we did not appreciate then that she would indeed be the last of the great Clyde liners, or just what an outstanding piece of shipbuilding and engineering she was.

Many people have distinct memories of that time. My own date from November 1968 when the completed ship went down the Clyde to dry dock at Greenock and then her sea trials. I was one of tens of thousands of people, a great many of them schoolchildren like me, who lined the banks of the river to cheer the QE2 as she made her stately progress.

Our teacher told us that we were seeing a bit of history because the liner would never be able to go back to Clydebank – the Erskine Bridge was coming and the QE2 was just too tall to go under the bridge, so this would be her one and only voyage on the Clyde.

My abiding memory is not just of her sheer bulk but also that she was amazingly beautiful. I remember thinking how could ordinary people in Clydebank create something so wondrous, so gorgeous? Then I went home and taught myself all I could about shipbuilding on the Clyde, a subject that fascinates me to this day, and learned about the artists in steel.

Others have more direct memories of being up close and personal with Q4. Peter Kemp wrote to tell me: “I myself had the privilege to serve my apprenticeship as an engineering pattern maker in John Brown’s. I was there the day the keel was laid. The day she was launched and the day she left. Happy times. Momentous times.”

THEY were indeed momentous times, and sadly long gone. Within a year of the QE2’s launch, the five great closure-threatened yards of John Brown, Fairfields in Govan, Alexander Stephen at Linthouse, and Charles Connell and Yarrows at Scotstoun, had amalgamated to form Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, which in turn led to the momentous events on the Clyde in the 1970s which will be the subject of a future Back In The Day.

Shipbuilding on the Clyde has not ceased entirely but the days when the yards north and south of the river created a third of the world’s shipping, and when Clydebuilt meant biggest and best, cannot be brought back. And that is truly sad, for a way of life was extinguished, one that brought great distinction to Scotland.

The last word to McGinn, the folk singer, activist, teacher and force of life who we will also profile in a future Back In The Day – here are the closing lines of The Ballad Of The Q4.

“We’ve worked a sweated and toiled an’ all, see the experts’ hand from stern to bow, she’s ready for the torments o’ the sea, she’s a credit to the Clyde and you and me.

“Thank you dad for all your skill, but the Clyde is a river that’ll no’ stand still, you did gey well but we’ll do more, make way for the finest of them all, Q4.”