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Last Updated: Sunday, 24 July, 2005, 08:33 GMT 09:33 UK
Human toll of an iconic crossing
The Forth Rail Bridge has shut for the longest period in its 115-year existence for painting work.

As the eight-day closure begins, BBC Scotland's news website looks back at the history of the landmark structure.

Forth Rail Bridge at North Queensferry (Picture by Undiscovered Scotland)
The bridge is being painted as part of a 13m facelift

It has established itself as an iconic feat of engineering, but the Forth Rail Bridge could have looked very different had tragedy not intervened.

In 1879 construction work began on a suspension bridge which would carry trains between Fife and the Lothians.

It was designed by Thomas Bouch, who was also responsible for the Tay Bridge.

But with just one pier built the project was scrapped after the collapse of the Tay structure, a disaster which led to the loss of 75 lives.

John Fowler and Benjamin Baker took over, coming up with the design which has become famous across the world.

Work completed

Three separate double cantilevers are linked by 350ft long girder spans, joined to the main structure of the bridge by huge pins.

The whole bridge is balanced by 1,000 ton counterweights on the outside of the outer cantilever structures.

Work on the bridge, which joins North and South Queensferry, began in 1883 and was completed seven years later.

At the time it had the longest span of any cantilever bridge in the world, and even today it remains second only to the Quebec Bridge in Canada.

We have been in touch with a number of descendents of people killed on the bridge and have been able to give them a lot more information
Jim Walker
Queensferry History Group

The Forth bridge, which is painted a distinctive red colour, was constructed using more than 54,000 tons of steel.

The main contractor was the in-demand William Arrol, who was also working on the second Tay Bridge and Tower Bridge in London at the same time.

The structure cost 3.2m to build - equivalent to more than 230m today - with 4,500 people working on the project at its peak.

There was also a human cost, which is only now becoming fully apparent.

For many years it was believed that 57 people died during the construction of the bridge, but the local Queensferry History Group believes that figure is closer to 80.

Possible locations

Member Jim Walker is one of the team involved in the painstaking research to establish the exact numbers - while also campaigning for the construction of a memorial to those who lost their lives.

A committee, chaired by MP John Barrett, is looking at potential locations, including the possibility of placing memorials on each side of the river.

Mr Walker said they had never been able to find a list of those who died.

Forth Rail Bridge at South Queensferry (Picture by Undiscovered Scotland)
Dozens of people died during the construction of the bridge

However, the research team - members of Queensferry History Group, assisted by two genealogists - has come up with a roll of its own after examining contemporary newspaper articles, genealogical records and family recollections.

It has produced a list of 65 names for which the team has established an "advanced level of verification", while more work is required to confirm whether a further 14 men died during the construction.

"We have been in touch with a number of descendents of people killed on the bridge and have been able to give them a lot more information," said Mr Walker.

"In some cases there was a family story that one of their predecessors had been killed on the bridge but they weren't quite sure, so we have been able to verify a lot of that sort of information.

"We have had people from all over the world getting in touch with us."

'Horrendous' deaths

He said the research has uncovered details of some "horrendous" deaths.

One 14-year-old boy died after falling from the cantilever and landing close to the feet of his father, who was working underneath the bridge.

On another occasion, when the structure was nearing completion, scaffolding blew over in a gale.

Two men fell to their deaths near the Hawes Inn in South Queensferry in front of crowds of tourists and visitors.

Forth Rail Bridge (Picture by Undiscovered Scotland)
The link spans the Forth between North and South Queensferry

"They were horrified when they heard screams from above and they saw a man still hanging on the end of a rope," said Mr Walker.

"Eventually his strength gave out and he fell to his death as well."

He said maintenance workers had added to the bridge's death toll since its completion, but stressed that modern health and safety measures meant it had been many years since the last fatal accident.

The last of the bridge's 6.5 million rivets - this one made out of gold - was tapped into place by Edward, Prince of Wales on 4 March, 1890.

In addition to establishing itself as an iconic image of Scotland, the bridge has gone on to inspire authors and filmmakers alike.

The 39 Steps

Scottish novelist Iain Banks grew up in the shadow of the crossing, and its influence shows up in the structure of his novel The Bridge.

More famously, the bridge earned its place in cinema history for a scene in Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, itself an adaptation of the book by John Buchan.

In the film the character of Richard Hannay escapes pursuit by stopping a train on the bridge and hiding behind one of the girders, clinging to steelwork 150ft above the river.

The task of painting the bridge has also gone down in legend as a saying which sums up a never-ending job.

Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock immortalised the bridge in film

According to the story, when the paint job is finally completed it is time to start work again at the beginning.

Last year a report in New Civil Engineer, the official magazine of the Institution of Civil Engineers, suggested that this was never actually the case.

Even if the myths are true, the days of continuous painting are well and truly in the past.

The bridge closed on Sunday for eight days to allow 170 workers to carry out repair and painting work as part of a 13m facelift.

The old paint will be blasted off before the application of a new coating designed to last 30 years.

Painting closes Forth Rail Bridge
22 Jul 05 |  Scotland
Bridge death inquiry gains pace
02 Apr 05 |  Scotland

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