The workers that had begun building the Forth Railway Bridge, nine miles west of Edinburgh, in 1882 were haunted by the tragic events of a few years earlier.
On a winter night in 1879, a storm whipped up the waters of the Firth of Tay. Freezing rain lashed down on the new railway bridge that spanned it, while hurricane-force winds buffeted the iron sides that stretched out into the darkness.
Out in the distance, a light was seen. Through the roar of the wind, the determined grunting of a steam engine grew louder, making its way towards the bridge. As it trundled across, its red tail light vanished.
A witness in the signalling house couldn’t believe his eyes. Then the grim reality dawned on him. The iron supports had crumpled, pitching the locomotive into the water. No one survived.
Sir Thomas Bouch had designed that bridge. He was devastated by the accident (for which he was largely blamed), and died a few months later. The problem was he already had another project on the go – a railway bridge over the Firth of Forth.
Work on Bouch’s Forth Bridge was immediately halted. Engineers Sir John Fowler and Sir Benjamin Baker went back to the drawing board, and came up with a new design for a cantilever bridge that called on the latest in steel manufacture.
Seven years later, in November 1889, the Forth Bridge was finally finished. It was the longest bridge in the world at over a mile and a half when it was officially opened the following March by the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII.
Rumour had it that the bridge was so long that no sooner had you finished painting it you had to begin all over again at the other end, leading to the expression “painting the Forth Bridge” to mean a never-ending task – not something I’d like to test.