Edinburgh Study Tour – Part III: Painting the Forth Bridge

Written by Kristin Potterton

The three Forth Bridges viewed from Queensferry. Photo by author.

To complete the study tour, the second day in Edinburgh included a viewing of the Forth and its famous bridge. Having looked at the Forth Bridge construction in previous studies, I was particularly looking forward to this portion of the weekend and it certainly did not disappoint. A clear morning provided an excellent opportunity to take in the 19th-century cantilever bridge and its younger neighbours, the Forth Road Bridge, a 20th-century suspension bridge, and the Queensferry Crossing (currently under construction), a 21st-century cable-stayed bridge. The showcase of bridge technology and history from one vantage point is an impressive sight and well worth the trip.

To build on this sight-seeing, we were met by Mark Watson, Deputy Head of Industrial Heritage, Conservation Directorate, Historic Environment Scotland, who was able to narrate the view, giving insight to the current bridge construction project, which is intended to relieve the overused 1960s road bridge, taking on a majority of vehicular traffic. The current road bridge, which was never designed to carry the current volume of traffic, will be repurposed for pedestrian, bicycle, and public transport, thereby dedicating each bridge to different modes of transport. Mark showed us into the Forth Bridges Contact and Education Centre, which currently highlights information on the Queensferry Crossing project, focusing on the design, engineering, and construction of a modern bridge.

Queensferry Crossing viewed from the Forth Bridge. The cable stayed construction is intended to mirror the original Forth Bridge’s three sections. Photo by author.

Mark then introduced us to the Forth Bridge, a Category A listed structure, history and place among similar bridges around the world, and factors which led to its 2014 nomination and subsequent inscription to the World Heritage list (in 2015). Leading the study tour in a discussion of what Outstanding Universal Values contributed to the nomination, Mark pointed to the bridge’s importance in engineering innovation, using what where new design principles and construction techniques at the time of building. Not only was the bridge the first successful all-steel bridge and the longest-multi-span cantilever bridge for several generations, it involved an international team of designers and craftsmen whose completed project went on to influence civil engineering for successive generations and is still held as an iconic example of engineering design.

Forth Bridge viewed from the Contact and Education Centre viewing platform. Photo by author.

This insightful talk was followed with a presentation by Ian Heigh, Senior Project Manager for Network Rail, the civil engineer responsible for recent conservation work to the Forth Bridge. The conservation programme has included a complete overhaul of the famous ‘Forth Bridge Red’ paint and selective replacement of the most corroded steel elements. This ten-year project involved complete stripping of generations of paint, to be replaced with a three-coat system matched to the original oxide red colour, with an intended lifespan of twenty years. Working around an active rail line on a site exposed to high winds over open water required an intricate phasing and planning of the maintenance efforts. The project used 240,000 litres of paint, applied at (due to the difficult access) a cost of £370 per square metre.

Ian continued by presenting some potential ideas for enhancing tourism of the bridge as a World Heritage destination, including dedicated visitor centres, walkways for viewing access of the bridge, and roped-in, guided tours to the top. A balance between the need for income and maintaining the integrity of the place as a monument to human ingenuity and as a World Heritage Site will be important in any future development. It was evident by his talk how much Ian loves the Forth Bridge and a particularly interesting discussion ensued with great insight from some of the craftspeople who attended the trip. Their approach to looking at the site and the work involved, seeking to understand the physical effort, considerations of material conservation, and processes necessary to complete the work, gave me deeper insight to the project and the enormity of the undertaking.

I think we were all captivated by historic film Ian showed of the original craftsmen walking along the steel sections and erecting the structure (without, of course, any fall protection). Contrasting this with modern footage of the conservation work in action was particularly poignant in showcasing a long tradition of workers employed onsite – to paint the bridge – and it is interesting to think how this insurmountable task will be viewed, now that it is, indeed, complete.

For additional information on the Forth Bridges, visit in person, or online at www.forth-bridges.co.uk.

Find out more about the Forth Bridge World Heritage nomination by viewing the nomination document, available in the King’s Manor Library and on the Forth Bridges webpage.


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