The Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
With your numerous arches and pillars in so grand array
And your central girders, which seem to the eye
To be almost towering to the sky.
The greatest wonder of the day,
And a great beautification to the River Tay,
Most beautiful to be seen,
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
That has caused the Emperor of Brazil to leave
His home far away, incognito in his dress,
And view thee ere he passed along en route to Inverness.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
The longest of the present day
That has ever crossed o’er a tidal river stream,
Most gigantic to be seen,
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay !
Which will cause great rejoicing on the opening day
And hundreds of people will come from far away,
Also the Queen, most gorgeous to be seen,
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
And prosperity to Provost Cox, who has given
Thirty thousand pounds and upwards away
In helping to erect the Bridge of the Tay,
Most handsome to be seen,
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
I hope that God will protect all passengers
By night and by day,
And that no accident will befall them while crossing
The Bridge of the Silvery Tay,
For that would be most awful to be seen
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
And prosperity to Messrs Bouche and Grothe,
The famous engineers of the present day,
Who have succeeded in erecting
The Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay,
Which stands unequalled to be seen
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

The Tay-bridge was something more than a merely local interest. As a triumph of engineering skill and well-directed energy and perseverance, it is worthy of, as indeed it has already attracted, very general attention. It is certainly the longest bridge of its kind in the world, and that is a thing of which its projectors and makers are quite entitled to be proud. There are longer viaducts over meadows and marshes, but there is no structure of nearly the same length over a running stream. Its length may be stated broadly at two miles. Including the extension on the northern shore, the exact length is 10,612ft. — that is to say, it is longer than the Victoria-bridge, Montreal, and the Britannia tubular bridge taken together. This great length is taken in 85 spans of varying width, the widest (of which there are 11) being 245ft. The level at the shores is between 70ft. and 80ft. above the sea; in the middle it is 130ft. above high-water mark. The skill displayed in a work of this kind is proportioned to the difficulties that were encountered and overcome; and in this view the engineers of the Tay-bridge are deserving of the highest praise. In many respects their resources were put to a severe test, but on no point have they failed. The greatest difficulty that met them arose from the varying character of the bed of the river, which compelled them to adapt both the foundations and the superstructure of the piers to the different conditions that presented themselves. Near the shore the rocky bed was easily reached, and on it piers were raised built of brick throughout. Further out it was found that the rock suddenly shelved away to a great depth under clay and gravel. There, the cylinders, filled with concrete, which form the foundation were made of much greater diameter, and above the high-water level iron pillars were substituted for brick. The lattice-work girders, as well as the cylinders were prepared on shore and were floated out on rafts to their position. The only serious accident that occurred in connection with the undertaking was the bursting of a cylinder within which men were excavating; the water rushed in, and six of the workmen were drowned. The platform on the top of the bridge, which carries the single line of rails, is only 16ft. wide. The bridge does not form a straight line; towards the north end it curves towards Dundee. The whole structure has a remarkably light and graceful appearance. It is so lofty, and yet so narrow, that when seen from the heights above Newport it seems like a mere cable strung from shore to shore; and seeing a train puffing along it for the first time excited the same kind of nervousness that must have been felt by those that watched Blondin crossing the Niagra. Fragile as its appearance is, however, there is no doubt of its thorough stability. The total cost of the bridge was £350,000. The cost of the Britannia tubular bridge, which, however, has a double line of rails, was £601,865. The Tay-bridge was designed by Mr. Thomas Bouch, C.E. Mr. A. Grothe was the superintending engineer; and the contractors were Messrs. Hopkins, Gilkes and Co. of Middlesborough.

The Times, 30th May 1878


Stretching nearly two miles across the river, the Tay Bridge was the longest bridge in the world. Visitors came from far and wide to see this wonder, including the Emperor of Brazil (incognito or not), Prince Leopold of the Belgians and Ulysses S. Grant, ex-US President and Civil War commander.

Construction of the bridge was a massive undertaking, taking six years and a workforce of six hundred men. A foundry was built at Wormit, at the south end of the bridge, to produce the cast iron pillars and girders which carried a single rail track up to 88 feet over the river below. Watertight iron caissons were sunk to the river bed within which men dug the bridge’s foundations with picks and shovels. The work was difficult and dangerous, and the lives of twenty workmen were lost before the bridge was finished.

Early misgivings about the delicate appearance of the long, narrow bridge – The Times noted (right) that “when seen from the heights above Newport it looks like a mere cable slung from shore to shore” – were soon forgotten. The journey time to Edinburgh was shortened by an hour whilst freight trains carried coal from the mines of Fife to Dundee’s harbour. The bridge was a huge success.

The Queen declined an invitation to attend the opening ceremony, on 31st May 1878, but did cross the bridge on her way south from Balmoral the following year. She leaves this account in her diary entry for Friday, June 20 1879:

We reached the Tay Bridge station at six. Immense crowds everywhere, flags waving in every direction, the whole population out; but one’s heart was too sad for anything. The Provost, splendidly attired, presented an address. Ladies presented beautiful bouquets to Beatrice and me. The last time I was in Dundee was in September 1844, just after Affie’s birth, when we landed there on our way to Blair, and Vicky, then not four years old, the only child with us was carried through the crowd by old Renwick. We embarked there also on our way back.

We stopped here about five minutes, and then began going over the marvellous Tay Bridge, which is rather more than a mile and a half long. It was begun in 1871. There were great difficulties in laying the foundation, and some lives were lost. It was finished in 1878.

Mr. Bouch, who was presented at Dundee, was the engineer. It took us, I should say, about eight minutes going over. The view was very fine.

Thomas Bouch was knighted at Windsor Castle a week later.

McGonagall, too, was caught up in the success of the bridge. According to his Autobiography this poem, only the second he ever wrote, “was the only poem that made me famous universally”. Who knows whether the “Bard of the Tay Bridge” might have remained an unknown hand loom weaver had it not been for the huge structure taking shape a mere stone’s throw from his home on Patons Lane.

Of course, both the bridge and the poem were soon to be overshadowed by the events of 28th December 1879 – The Tay Bridge Disaster.

Further Reading

Wikipedia Article

Related Gems

Comments (14) »

  1. Hi
    In the year 2013, on the 30th day of April at 6:16 pm

    This is a bit pedantic but Fife is not called Fifeshire. Just Fife. The Kingdom of Fife.

  2. Chris Hunt
    In the year 2013, on the 7th day of May at 12:59 am

    Pedantry gratefully received – I’ve fixed my text accordingly

  3. In the year 2014, on the 4th day of January at 7:15 am

    Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay !
    And wonderful poetry was written this day,
    The builders who lost their lives will in their hearts be gay,
    When St Peter tells them of the glory of the Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay,
    Which I hope will be by everyone seen
    Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

  4. ian
    In the year 2014, on the 11th day of August at 6:52 pm

    McG’s most famous poem..
    why did Tennison not write an Ode? it was left to W.T.M.
    Well it is great epitaph, whatever his failings with metre and scansion. HE DID HIS BEST.


  5. In the year 2014, on the 2nd day of September at 5:04 am

    […] The Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay – August 1877 […]

  6. In the year 2015, on the 3rd day of December at 6:04 pm

    […] W. (No Date) McGonagall Online: The Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay Available at: (Accessed: […]

  7. In the year 2017, on the 15th day of May at 8:09 pm

    We are planning a WTG evening on September 29th 2017 to introduce the Dundee bard to our members at Glagow Golf Club.
    Tips on the event have been given but a Master of Ceremony would be considered with a modest fee, to guide us in reverse through our evening.

  8. In the year 2017, on the 15th day of May at 8:13 pm

    The Clyde is wide
    But it could never have
    Long term Kazoo Studies

  9. In the year 2017, on the 15th day of May at 8:14 pm

    Does this go on and on?

  10. In the year 2017, on the 15th day of May at 8:16 pm

    My arithmetic is running thin
    And any more
    You can win

  11. Claire Dixon
    In the year 2017, on the 5th day of October at 9:48 pm

    I love this poem! And I like the name Tay.

  12. In the year 2020, on the 19th day of August at 7:42 pm

    […] The rest may be found at McGonagall Online. […]

  13. In the year 2022, on the 20th day of October at 11:05 pm
  14. In the year 2022, on the 4th day of November at 8:31 pm

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