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The Life of Thomas Telford
Chapter XIV. Southey's tour in the highlands


While Telford's Highland works were in full progress, he persuaded his friend Southey, the Poet Laureate, to accompany him on one of his visits of inspection, as far north as the county of Sutherland, in the autumn of 1819. Mr. Southey, as was his custom, made careful notes of the tour, which have been preserved,*[1] and consist in a great measure of an interesting resume of the engineer's operations in harbour-making, road-making, and canal-making north of the Tweed.

Southey reached Edinburgh by the Carlisle mail about the middle of August, and was there joined by Mr. Telford, and Mr. and Mrs. Rickman,*[2] who were to accompany him on the journey. They first proceeded to Linlithgow, Bannockburn,*[3] Stirling, Callendar, the Trosachs, and round by the head of Loch Earn to Killin, Kenmore, and by Aberfeldy to Dunkeld. At the latter place, the poet admired Telford's beautiful bridge, which forms a fine feature in the foreground of the incomparable picture which the scenery of Dunkeld always presents in whatever aspect it is viewed.

From Dunkeld the party proceeded to Dundee, along the left bank of the Firth of Tay. The works connected with the new harbour were in active progress, and the engineer lost no time in taking his friend to see them. Southey's account is as follows:--

"Before breakfast I went with Mr. Telford to the harbour, to look at his works, which are of great magnitude and importance: a huge floating dock, and the finest graving dock I ever saw. The town expends 70,000L. on these improvements, which will be completed in another year. What they take from the excavations serves to raise ground which was formerly covered by the tide, but will now be of the greatest value for wharfs, yards, &c. The local authorities originally proposed to build fifteen piers, but Telford assured them that three would be sufficient; and, in telling me this, he said the creation of fifteen new Scotch peers was too strong a measure....

"Telford's is a happy life; everywhere making roads, building bridges, forming canals, and creating harbours--works of sure, solid, permanent utility; everywhere employing a great number of persons, selecting the most meritorious, and putting them forward in the world in his own way."

After the inspection at Dundee was over, the party proceeded on their journey northward, along the east coast:--

"Near Gourdon or Bervie harbour, which is about a mile and a half on this side the town, we met Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Gibbs, two of Mr. Telford's aides-de-camp, who had come thus far to meet him. The former he calls his 'Tartar,' from his cast of countenance, which is very much like a Tartar's, as well as from his Tartar-like mode of life; for, in his office of overseer of the roads, which are under the management of the Commissioners, he travels on horseback not less than 6000 miles a year. Mr. Telford found him in the situation of a working mason, who could scarcely read or write; but noticing him for his good conduct, his activity, and his firm steady character, he, has brought him forward; and Mitchell now holds a post of respectability and importance, and performs his business with excellent ability."

After inspecting the little harbour of Bervie, one of the first works of the kind executed by Telford for the Commissioners, the party proceeded by Stonehaven, and from thence along the coast to Aberdeen. Here the harbour works were visited and admired:--

"The quay," says Southey, "is very fine; and Telford has carried out his pier 900 feet beyond the point where Smeaton's terminated. This great work, which has cost 100,000L., protects the entrance of the harbour from the whole force of the North Sea. A ship was entering it at the time of our visit, the Prince of Waterloo. She had been to America; had discharged her cargo at London; and we now saw her reach her own port in safety--a joyous and delightful sight."

The next point reached was Banff, along the Don and the line of the Inverury Canal:--

"The approach to Banff is very fine,"*[4] says Southey, "by the Earl of Fife's grounds, where the trees are surprisingly grown, considering how near they are to the North Sea; Duff House-- a square, odd, and not unhandsome pile, built by Adams (one of the Adelphi brothers), some forty years ago; a good bridge of seven arches by Smeaton; the open sea, not as we had hitherto seen it, grey under a leaden sky, but bright and blue in the sunshine; Banff on the left of the bay; the River Doveran almost lost amid banks of shingle, where it enters the sea; a white and tolerably high shore extending eastwards; a kirk, with a high spire which serves as a sea-mark; and, on the point, about a mile to the east, the town of Macduff. At Banff, we at once went to the pier, about half finished, on which 15,000L. will be expended, to the great benefit of this clean, cheerful, and active little town. The pier was a busy scene; hand-carts going to and fro over the railroads, cranes at work charging and discharging, plenty of workmen, and fine masses of red granite from the Peterhead quarries. The quay was almost covered with barrels of herrings, which women were busily employed in salting and packing."

The next visit was paid to the harbour works at Cullen, which were sufficiently advanced to afford improved shelter for the fishing vessels of the little port:--

"When I stood upon the pier at low water," says Southey, "seeing the tremendous rocks with which the whole shore is bristled, and the open sea to which the place is exposed, it was with a proud feeling that I saw the first talents in the world employed by the British Government in works of such unostentatious, but great, immediate, palpable, and permanent utility. Already their excellent effects are felt. The fishing vessels were just coming in, having caught about 300 barrels of herrings during the night....

"However the Forfeited Estates Fund may have been misapplied in past times, the remainder could not be better invested than in these great improvements. Wherever a pier is needed, if the people or the proprietors of the place will raise one-half the necessary funds, Government supplies the other half. On these terms, 20,000L. are expending at Peterhead, and 14,000L. at Frazerburgh; and the works which we visited at Bervie and Banff, and many other such along this coast, would never have been undertaken without such aid; public liberality thus inducing private persons to tax themselves heavily, and expend with a good will much larger sums than could have been drawn from them by taxation."

From Cullen, the travellers proceeded in gigs to Fochabers, thence by Craigellachie Bridge, which Southey greatly admired, along Speyside, to Ballindalloch and Inverallen, where Telford's new road was in course of construction across the moors towards Forres. The country for the greater part of the way was a wild waste, nothing but mountains and heather to be seen; yet the road was as perfectly made and maintained as if it had lain through a very Goschen. The next stages were to Nairn and Inverness, from whence then proceeded to view the important works constructed at the crossing of the River Beauly:--

"At Lovat Bridge," says Southey, "we turned aside and went four miles up the river, along the Strathglass road--one of the new works, and one of the most remarkable, because of the difficulty of constructing it, and also because of the fine scenery which it commands.....

"Lovat Bridge, by which we returned, is a plain, handsome structure of five arches, two of 40 feet span, two of 50, and the centre one of 60. The curve is as little as possible. I learnt in Spain to admire straight bridges; But Mr. Telford thinks there always ought to be some curve to enable the rain water to run off, and because he would have the outline look like the segment of a large circle, resting on the abutments. A double line over the arches gives a finish to the bridge, and perhaps looks as well, or almost as well, as balustrades, for not a sixpence has been allowed for ornament on these works. The sides are protected by water-wings, which are embankments of stone, to prevent the floods from extending on either side, and attacking the flanks of the bridge."

Nine miles further north, they arrived at Dingwall, near which a bridge similar to that at Beauly, though wider, had been constructed over the Conan. From thence they proceeded to Invergordon, to Ballintraed (where another pier for fishing boats was in progress), to Tain, and thence to Bonar Bridge, over the Sheir, twenty-four miles above the entrance to the Dornoch Frith, where an iron bridge, after the same model as that of Craigellachie, had been erected. This bridge is of great importance, connecting as it does the whole of the road traffic of the northern counties with the south. Southey speaks of it as

"A work of such paramount utility that it is not possible to look at it without delight. A remarkable anecdote," he continues, "was told me concerning it. An inhabitant of Sutherland, whose father was drowned at the Mickle Ferry (some miles below the bridge) in 1809, could never bear to set foot in a ferry-boat after the catastrophe, and was consequently cut off from communication with the south until this bridge was built. He then set out on a journey. 'As I went along the road by the side of the water,' said he, 'I could see no bridge. At last I came in sight of something like a spider's web in the air. If this be it, thought I, it will never do! But, presently, I came upon it; and oh! it is the finest thing that ever was made by God or man!'"

Sixteen miles north-east of Bonar Bridge, Southey crossed Fleet Mound, another ingenious work of his friend Telford, but of an altogether different character. It was thrown across the River Fleet, at the point at which it ran into the estuary or little land-locked bay outside, known as Loch Fleet. At this point there had formerly been a ford; but as the tide ran far inland, it could only be crossed at low water, and travellers had often to wait for hours before they could proceed on their journey. The embouchure being too wide for a bridge, Telford formed an embankment across it, 990 yards in length, providing four flood-gates, each 12 feet wide, at its north end, for the egress of the inland waters. These gates opened outwards, and they were so hung as to shut with the rising of the tide. The holding back of the sea from the land inside the mound by this means, had the effect of reclaiming a considerable extent of fertile carse land, which, at the time of Southey's visit,--though the work had only been completed the year before,--was already under profitable cultivation. The principal use of the mound, however, was in giving support to the fine broad road which ran along its summit, and thus completed the communication with the country to the north. Southey speaks in terms of high admiration of "the simplicity, the beauty, and utility of this great work."

This was the furthest limit of their journey, and the travellers retraced their steps southward, halting at Clashmore Inn: "At breakfast," says Southey, "was a handsome set of Worcester china. Upon noticing it to Mr. Telford, he told me that before these roads were made, he fell in with some people from Worcestershire near the Ord of Caithness, on their way northward with a cart load of crockery, which they got over the mountains as best they could; and, when they had sold all their ware, they laid out the money in black cattle, which they then drove to the south."

The rest of Southey's journal is mainly occupied with a description of the scenery of the Caledonian Canal, and the principal difficulties encountered in the execution of the works, which were still in active progress. He was greatly struck with the flight of locks at the south end of the Canal, where it enters Loch Eil near Corpach:--

"There being no pier yet formed," he says, "we were carried to and from the boats on men's shoulders. We landed close to the sea shore. A sloop was lying in the fine basin above, and the canal was full as far as the Staircase, a name given to the eight successive locks. Six of these were full and overflowing; and then we drew near enough to see persons walking over the lock-gates. It had more the effect of a scene in a pantomime than of anything in real life. The rise from lock to lock is eight feet,--sixty-four, therefore, in all. The length of the locks, including the gates and abutments at both ends, is 500 yards;-- the greatest piece of such masonry in the world, and the greatest work of the kind beyond all comparison.

"A panorama painted from this place would include the highest mountain in Great Britain, and its greatest work of art. That work is one of which the magnitude and importance become apparent, when considered in relation to natural objects. The Pyramids would appear insignificant in such a situation, for in them we should perceive only a vain attempt to vie with greater things. But here we see the powers of nature brought to act upon a great scale, in subservience to the purposes of men; one river created, another (and that a huge mountain-stream) shouldered out of its place, and art and order assuming a character of sublimity. Sometimes a beck is conducted under the canal, and passages called culverts serve as a roadway for men and beasts. We walked through one of these, just lofty enough for a man of my stature to pass through with his hat on. It had a very singular effect to see persons emerging from this dark, long, narrow vault. Sometimes a brook is taken in; a cesspool is then made to receive what gravel it may bring down after it has passed this pool, the water flowing through three or four little arches, and then over a paved bed and wall of masonry into the canal. These are called in-takes, and opposite them an outlet is sometimes made for the waters of; the canal, if they should be above their proper level; or when the cross-stream may bring down a rush. These outlets consist of two inclined planes of masonry, one rising from the canal with a pavement or waste weir between them; and when the cross-stream comes down like a torrent, instead of mingling with the canal, it passes straight across. But these channels would be insufficient for carrying off the whole surplus waters in time of floods. At one place, therefore, there are three sluices by which the whole canal from the Staircase to the Regulating Lock (about six miles) can be lowered a foot in an hour. The sluices were opened that we might see their effect. We went down the Bank, and made our way round some wet ground till we got in front of the strong arch into which they open. The arch is about 25 feet high, of great strength, and built upon the rock. What would the Bourbons have given for such a cascade at Versailles? The rush and the spray, and the force of the water, reminded me more of the Reichenbach than of any other fall. That three small sluices, each only 4 feet by 3 feet, should produce an effect which brought the mightiest of the swiss waterfalls to my recollection, may appear incredible, or at least like an enormous exaggeration. But the prodigious velocity with which the water is forced out, by the pressure above, explains the apparent wonder. And yet I beheld it only in half its strength; the depth above being at this time ten feet, which will be twenty when the canal is completed. In a few minutes a river was formed of no inconsiderable breadth, which ran like a torrent into the Lochy.

"On this part of the canal everything is completed, except that the iron bridges for it, which are now on their way, are supplied by temporary ones. When the middle part shall be finished, the Lochy, which at present flows in its own channel above the Regulating Lock, will be dammed there, and made to join the Speyne by a new cut from the lake. The cut is made, and a fine bridge built over it. We went into the cut and under the bridge, which is very near the intended point of junction. The string-courses were encrusted with stalactites in a manner singularly beautiful. Under the arches a strong mound of solid masonry is built to keep the water in dry seasons at a certain height; But in that mound a gap is left for the salmon, and a way made through the rocks from the Speyne to this gap, which they will soon find out."

Arrived at Dumbarton, Southey took leave of John Mitchell, who had accompanied him throughout the tour, and for whom he seems to have entertained the highest admiration:--

"He is indeed," says Southey, "a remarkable man, and well deserving to be remembered. Mr. Telford found him a working mason, who could scarcely read or write. But his good sense, his excellent conduct, his steadiness and perseverance have been such, that he has been gradually raised to be Inspector of all these Highland roads which we have visited, and all of which are under the Commissioners' care --an office requiring a rare union of qualities, among others inflexible integrity, a fearless temper, and an indefatigable frame. Perhaps no man ever possessed these requisites in greater perfection than John Mitchell. Were but his figure less Tartarish and more gaunt, he would be the very 'Talus' of Spenser. Neither frown nor favour, in the course of fifteen years, have ever made him swerve from the fair performance of his duty, though the lairds with whom he has to deal have omitted no means of making him enter into their views, and to do things or leave them undone, as might suit their humour or interest. They have attempted to cajole and to intimidate him alike in vain. They have repeatedly preferred complaints against him in the hope of getting him removed from his office, and a more flexible person appointed in his stead; and they have not unfrequently threatened him with personal violence. Even his life has been menaced. But Mitchell holds right on. In the midst of his most laborious life, he has laboured to improve himself with such success, that he has become a good accountant, makes his estimates with facility, and carries on his official correspondence in an able and highly intelligent manner. In the execution of his office he travelled last year not less than 8800 miles, and every year he travels nearly as much. Nor has this life, and the exposure to all winds and weathers, and the temptations either of company or of solicitude at the houses at which he puts up, led him into any irregularities. Neither has his elevation in the slightest degree inflated him. He is still the same temperate, industrious, modest, unassuming man, as when his good qualities first attracted Mr. Telford's notice."

Southey concludes his journal at Longtown, a little town just across the Scotch Border, in the following words:--

"Here we left Mr. Telford, who takes the mail for Edinburgh.

This parting company, after the thorough intimacy which a long journey produces between fellow-travellers who like each other, is a melancholy thing. A man more heartily to be liked, more worthy to be esteemed and admired, I have never fallen in with; and therefore it is painful to think how little likely it is that I shall ever see much of him again,--how certain that I shall never see so much. Yet I trust that he will not forget his promise of one day making Keswick in his way to and from Scotland."

Before leaving the subject of Telford's public works in the Highlands, it may be mentioned that 875 miles of new roads were planned by him, and executed under his superintendence, at an expense of 454,189L., of which about one-half was granted by Parliament, and the remainder was raised by the localities benefited. Besides the new roads, 255 miles of the old military roads were taken in charge by him, and in many cases reconstructed and greatly improved. The bridges erected in connexion with these roads were no fewer than twelve hundred. Telford also between the year 1823 and the close of his life, built forty-two Highland churches in districts formerly unprovided with them, and capable of accommodating some 22,000 persons.

Down to the year 1854, the Parliamentary grant of 5000L. a year charged upon the Consolidated Fund to meet assessments and tolls of the Highland roads, amounting to about 7500L. a year, was transferred to the annual Estimates, when it became the subject of annual revision; and a few years since the grant was suddenly extinguished by an adverse vote of the House of Commons. The Board of Commissioners had, therefore, nothing left but to deliver over the roads to the several local authorities, and the harbours to the proprietors of the adjacent lands, and to present to Parliament a final account of their work and its results. Reviewing the whole, they say that the operations of the Commission have been most beneficial to the country concerned. They "found it barren and uncultivated, inhabited by heritors without capital or enterprise, and by a poor and ill-employed peasantry, and destitute of trade, shipping, and manufactures. They leave it with wealthy proprietors, a profitable agriculture, a thriving population, and active industry; furnishing now its fair proportion of taxes to the national exchequer, and helping by its improved agriculture to meet the ever-increasing wants of the populous south."

Footnotes for Chapter XIV.

*[1] We have been indebted to Mr. Robert Rawlinson, C.E., in whose possession the MS. now is, for the privilege of inspecting it, and making the above abstract, which we have the less hesitation in giving as it has not before appeared in print.

*[2] Mr. Rickman was the secretary to the Highland Roads Commission.

*[3] Referring to the famous battle of Bannockburn, Southey writes --"This is the only great battle that ever was lost by the English. At Hastings there was no disgrace. Here it was an army of lions commanded by a stag."

*[4] See View of Banff facing p. 216.


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