The Tay Bridge Disaster

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

’Twas about seven o’clock at night,
And the wind it blew with all its might,
And the rain came pouring down,
And the dark clouds seem’d to frown,
And the Demon of the air seem’d to say-
“I’ll blow down the Bridge of Tay.”

When the train left Edinburgh
The passengers’ hearts were light and felt no sorrow,
But Boreas blew a terrific gale,
Which made their hearts for to quail,
And many of the passengers with fear did say-
“I hope God will send us safe across the Bridge of Tay.”

But when the train came near to Wormit Bay,
Boreas he did loud and angry bray,
And shook the central girders of the Bridge of Tay
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

So the train sped on with all its might,
And Bonnie Dundee soon hove in sight,
And the passengers’ hearts felt light,
Thinking they would enjoy themselves on the New Year,
With their friends at home they lov’d most dear,
And wish them all a happy New Year.

So the train mov’d slowly along the Bridge of Tay,
Until it was about midway,
Then the central girders with a crash gave way,
And down went the train and passengers into the Tay!
The Storm Fiend did loudly bray,
Because ninety lives had been taken away,
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

As soon as the catastrophe came to be known
The alarm from mouth to mouth was blown,
And the cry rang out all o’er the town,
Good Heavens! the Tay Bridge is blown down,
And a passenger train from Edinburgh,
Which fill’d all the peoples hearts with sorrow,
And made them for to turn pale,
Because none of the passengers were sav’d to tell the tale
How the disaster happen’d on the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

It must have been an awful sight,
To witness in the dusky moonlight,
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

Dreadful Accident on the Tay Bridge

Loss of Passenger Train

Dundee, Sunday Midnight

To-night a heavy gale swept over Dundee and a portion of the Tay bridge was blown down while a train from Edinburgh due at 7.15 was passing. It is believed that the train is in the water, but the gale is still so strong that a steamboat has not yet been able to reach the bridge. The train was duly signalled from Fife as having entered the bridge at 7.14. It was seen running along the rails, and then suddenly was observed a flash of fire. The opinion was that the train left the rails, and went over the bridge. Those who saw the incident repaired immediately to the Tay-bridge station at Dundee and informed the station master of what they had seen. He immediately put himself in communication with the man in charge of the signal-box at the north end of the bridge. The telegraph wires are stretched across the bridge, but when the instrument was tried it was soon seen that the wires were broken.

Mr. Smith, the station-master and Mr. Roberts, locomotive superintendent, determined, notwithstanding the fierce gale, to walk across the bridge as far as possible from the north side, with the view of ascertaining the extent of the disaster. They were able to get out a considerable distance, and the first thing that caught their eye was the water spurting from a pipe which was laid across the bridge for the supply of Newport, a village on the south side, from the Dundee reservoirs. Going a little further, they could distinctly see by the aid of the strong moonlight that there was a large gap in the bridge caused by the fall, so far as they could discern, of two or three of the largest spars. They thought, however, that they observed a red light on the south part of the bridge, and were of the opinion that the train had been brought to a standstill on the driver noticing the accident. This conjecture has, unfortunately, been proved incorrect. At Broughtyferry, four miles from the bridge, several mail bags have come ashore, and there is no doubt that the train is in the river. No precise information as to the number of passengers can be obtained, but it is variously estimated at from 150 to 200.

The Provost and a number of leading citizens of Dundee started at half-past 10 o’clock in a steam-boat for the bridge, the gale being moderated; but they have not yet returned.

Monday, 1.30 A.M.

The scene at the Tay-bridge station to-night is simply appalling. Many thousand persons are congregated around the buildings, and strong men and women are wringing their hands in despair. On the 2d of October 1877, while the bridge was in course of construction, one of the girders was blown down during a gale similar to that of to-day, but the only one of the workmen lost his life. The return of the steamboat is anxiously awaited.

The Times, 29th December 1879


Despite well over a century of subsequent train travel, the Tay Bridge disaster remains one of Britain’s worst ever railway accidents. A terrific storm, which had spread mayhem and destruction throughout central Scotland, was howling down the Tay just as the Edinburgh train was crossing the bridge. As the train reached the “high girders” at the centre of the bridge, they suddenly collapsed – plunging the train and its seventy-five passengers and crew into the icy waters. There were no survivors, and only forty-six bodies were ever recovered.

The bridge, which had been hailed as an engineering masterpiece on its opening the previous year, was found to have been severely flawed. The official enquiry discovered that the iron superstructure was of inferior quality and had been badly maintained. Most damning of all, little or no account was made of wind pressure in the design of the bridge. The enquiry laid the blame at the door of the designer, Sir Thomas Bouch. Bouch vehemently denied the charge, but his career was in ruins. He died just ten months after the fall of the great bridge.

Though none of the passengers were saved, there was a survivor of a sort. The engine that had hauled the train to its doom was recovered from the river bed and put back into service. Sardonically nicknamed “The Diver” by railway staff, it carried on working for the North British Railway until 1908.

The masonry piers that once supported the iron columns of the bridge remain standing in the river to this day, a grim reminder of that terrible December night in 1879.

If the events of the 28th December 1879 have indeed been long remembered outside the ranks of civil engineers and Dundonian rail passengers it is thanks to McGonagall’s poem. The Tay Bridge Disaster is by far his best known poem. How it became so is unclear. By his own account, it was his initial address to The Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay that “was the only poem that made me famous universally”. Nor did the poem figure prominently in his live performances, where the “Poet and tragedian” would usually recite Bruce at Bannockburn, The Battle of Tel-El-Kebir and The Rattling Boy from Dublin. Yet somehow this unhappy story of the Tay Bridge has become the definitive McGonagall poem. Perhaps, since it deals with visionary ideals plunged into total disaster, it’s a fitting commemoration of his career.

Soon a new bridge would rise beside the ruins of the old, and the “Bard of the Tay” would once again be inspired to pick up his pen.

Further Reading


Related Gems

Comments (57) »

  1. Alex
    In the year 2011, on the 16th day of November at 8:48 pm

    Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
    At least many sensible men confesses…

    For some reason, I always end up reading these two lines as

    Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
    At least many sensible men confuttresses…

    Maybe I’m just weird.

  2. Chris Hunt
    In the year 2011, on the 17th day of November at 1:04 am

    Possibly, though your version rhymes better at least.

  3. Robert Rasciauskas
    In the year 2011, on the 27th day of November at 4:31 pm

    hahaha i love this shit :)

  4. In the year 2011, on the 7th day of December at 4:23 am

    Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
    (but then again, maybe it should have been mattresses),

  5. In the year 2011, on the 24th day of December at 1:50 am


    The Tay Bridge railway disaster =
    What I’d say a terrible tragedy is.

  6. terence lee
    In the year 2012, on the 13th day of January at 12:00 am

    The most terrible tragedy of all is accepting McGonagall lines as ‘poetry’

  7. drew
    In the year 2012, on the 23rd day of May at 7:16 pm

    wow i feeel so bad for all the ones who where close or knew people in the disaster

  8. Slartibartfast
    In the year 2012, on the 30th day of September at 12:52 pm

    Definitely the worst poem in the English language. It’s even worse than “Ode to a small lump of green putty I found in my armpit one midsummer morning” which goes like this:
    Putty. Putty. Putty.
    Green Putty – Grutty Peen.
    Grarmpitutty – Morning!
    Pridsummer – Grorning Utty!
    Discovery….. Oh.
    Putty?….. Armpit?
    Armpit….. Putty.
    Not even a particularly
    Nice shade of green.

  9. Peri Farnsworth
    In the year 2012, on the 1st day of November at 9:41 pm

    That’s even worse than this poem, by Paul Neil Milne Johnstone, a scoolmate of Douglas Adams. I apologize for writing this…

    The dead swans lay in the stagnant pool.
    They lay. They rotted. They turned
    Around occassionally.
    Bits of flesh dropped off them from
    Time to time.
    And sank into the pool’s mire.
    They also smelt a great deal.

  10. Michael Byrne
    In the year 2012, on the 27th day of November at 12:30 pm

    What terrible poetry I do say
    About this terrible tragedy on the river Tay.
    It could have been written far better I do think
    Because this “poem” gives off a stink!

  11. Michael Byrne
    In the year 2012, on the 3rd day of December at 12:04 pm

    It’s not that bad, you want to read some of my poetry,it doesn’t scan or rhyme,and you could say it’s a waste of time.

  12. L. C. Nielsen
    In the year 2012, on the 19th day of December at 12:30 pm

    I make it a virtue to read this poem once in a while, to never forget this horrid disaster. Every time I read the first three lines;

    “Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
    Alas! I am very sorry to say
    That ninety lives have been taken away”

    I burst into tears. The blunt force with which McGonagall delivers the awful truth pierces my chest and wounds my heart. Occasionally, I read it out loud to a few friends, and most of us are invariably crying before the first stanza is over.

    Never forget the last sabbath day of 1879, which will be remember’d for a very long time. Never.

  13. Conrad von Metzke
    In the year 2013, on the 26th day of January at 5:50 pm

    Somehow I wandered into this site, courtesy of a friend’s suggestion, as an extension of my spending time with the Bulwer-Lytton Awards. Let me just say that, after today, Bulwer’s not so bad at all!

    I’ve never been to Scotland. (I’m in the USA.) Is the accompanying story about the disaster still correct, i.e. do the old pier supports still stand in the river?

  14. Chris Hunt
    In the year 2013, on the 28th day of January at 4:37 pm

    The second stanza has a Bulwer-Lyttonesque ring to it, doesn’t it? It was a dark and stormy night and all that.

    McGonagall was fond of putting all sorts of factual information into his poems, most of which was true. When I add notes to the poems, I aim for 100% accuracy – so yes, the old pier supports are still there. Not only did they use the old bridge as a handy platform from which to build the new one, they even reused some of the old girders in the new structure. There’s nothing new about recycling.

    Here’s a picture of the new bridge today, alongside the remains of the old one.

  15. In the year 2013, on the 25th day of March at 12:05 am

    Ballad of the Tay Rail Bridge –

  16. Philippe WINES
    In the year 2013, on the 28th day of April at 7:47 pm

    The first time i heard a rendition of this work, about 30 years ago, I just sat, open-mouthed, with blank disbelief. It was such an awful moment – I think that even time stopped.

    I snapped back into a fully conscious state and tried to relate the poet’s work to the sentimental Victorian obsession with tragic affairs. Then i started to giggle – and I haven’t stopped giggling ever since.

    The poem must be read out loud, with a distinct Scottish accent, to generate tear-jerking disbelief and giggles.

  17. dylan
    In the year 2013, on the 22nd day of May at 2:34 pm

    hi this was bottom dollar quality

  18. Pete Kurton
    In the year 2013, on the 22nd day of May at 4:51 pm


    Oh Robert Rasciauskas what is the translation word for ‘shit’?
    Are you perchance from Europe, the Lithuanian bit?
    Or maybe your forebears from that poor land did come,
    To escape their poor lives which were very humdrum.

    You have come a long way since those far off days bleak and drear,
    When your ancestors made their way over here.
    Their poor broken English you have put in the past.
    With your knowledge of syntax, grammar and vocabulary so vast.

    So now we have a Lithuanian Anglo Saxon as well
    The last of which upon you let your mind overdwell
    But at much as you struggle and however you might.
    You should never use words that rhyme with might.

    To be a true and loyal subject of Her Gracious Majesty the Queen
    You should refrain from and never give in to venting your spleen.
    A straight back and stiff upper lip is what is required here,
    Understatement is better than expletives so clear.

    So come Robert Rasciauskas, we can tell by your handle
    That to true sons of our soil you can’t hold a candle
    But what’s in a name? I don’t really know.
    But if you use words like that you must be a cazzo.

  19. In the year 2013, on the 5th day of August at 8:37 am

    Here’s My Animated version!

  20. Megan
    In the year 2013, on the 9th day of October at 5:28 pm

    I will remember this touching poem for a very long time.

  21. Derek A
    In the year 2013, on the 17th day of October at 3:09 pm

    It will be remembered for a very VERY very long time/

  22. In the year 2013, on the 17th day of October at 9:55 pm

    The Tay Bridge Disaster – A Hero from Sunderland.

    Henry (Harry) Watts is a famous Diver hero from Sunderland who save 36 lives at sea and in rivers. Having at one time been a heavy drinker, Harry ‘saw the light’ and became a Christian and stopped drinking and became involved in the church. At the time of the Disaster, Harry went to the Tay Bridge with a recovery team and worked for 3 weeks bring bodies from the river. Harry refused to be paid for this work as he felt that it was his ‘duty’ as a Christian to recover these people from the river and return them to their families.

    Harry was not a stranger to tragedy. In 1883 there was a disaster in Sunderland which resulted in the loss of approx 150 children who died in the Victoria Hall Disaster when they were crushed to death, due to doors opening inwards instead of outwards – thus a change in the law regarding public buildings.

    2 of the children who died were Harry’s niece and nephew named Pescod. He also helped to recover the bodies of the children from the Victoria Hall.
    – WHAT A HERO !!!!!!!

  23. Chris Hunt
    In the year 2013, on the 18th day of October at 11:38 am

    The Victoria Hall Disaster inspired a Poetic Gem of its own. So Mr Watts has the dubious distinction of being connected to the subjects of two McGonagall disaster poems.

  24. In the year 2014, on the 27th day of June at 10:00 pm

    […] synopsis, from a blurb that reads in parts like the Great McGonagall, says that on a bitterly cold evening, schoolteacher Kyra Hollis (Mulligan) receives an unexpected […]

  25. Ted
    In the year 2014, on the 23rd day of August at 6:05 am

    I find this particular work to be sort of an accidental avant triumph. Well, actually I feel that way about most of McGonagall’s poems, but the way that this one seems to puzzle continuously as I attempted to wrap my head around the rhyming scheme is especially wonderful. It’s like a textual version of one of those picture illusions, where you stare at it really hard attempting to figure it out and suddenly all the concave cubes appear convex and vice versa, and then you can’t figure out the mental trigger to bring back your original perception of them. Sorta like that.

  26. In the year 2014, on the 29th day of September at 6:30 pm

    […] as a poet and, as such, is unbelievably entertaining to read. If you don’t believe me, read The Tay Bridge Disaster which is one of his most famous poems. While you’re on his website, do take a look around. […]

  27. In the year 2014, on the 10th day of October at 11:45 am

    […] carriage; Eliot’s Shimbleshanks: the [bleeding] railway cat; McGonagall’s classic The Tay Bridge Disaster; Wilfred Owen’s sombre The […]

  28. In the year 2014, on the 18th day of October at 10:21 pm

    […] it’s not like narrative poems had to be even as good as Coleridge’s. The existence of William Topaz McGonagall’s infamous “Tay Bridge Disaster” (about the, erm, infamous Tay Bridge Disaster of 1879) shows that the bar was set comfortably low […]

  29. In the year 2015, on the 2nd day of February at 6:25 pm

    […] they were published in The Los Angeles Times. Is your child the next Sylvia Plath – or more of a McGonnagall? Share their poems with us in the comments, or on Twitter […]

  30. In the year 2015, on the 4th day of February at 8:11 am

    […] McGonagall, acclaimed’ as the worst poet in history, wrote the poem, The Tay Bridge Disaster in 1880.  It begins: “Beautiful railway bridge of the silvery Tay. Alas! I am very sorry to […]

  31. Pete Kurton
    In the year 2015, on the 19th day of March at 11:28 am

    For such a questionable ‘poet’ McGonagall’s name survives above many others far more accomplished.
    So he wasn’t such a fool, if indeed fame was his goal. Perhaps it was, most of us want recognition.
    Maybe it doesn’t matter that the lines were so bad.
    He has brought pleasure to millions and inspired no end of books and this website.
    Just a pity Queen Victoria snubbed him. That says more about her than about him.
    I wonder if Prince Charles likes his work.

  32. In the year 2015, on the 7th day of April at 10:55 pm

    […] who tried – and failed horribly – to follow the rules of poetry in his day, check out William McGonnagall from my mum’s home town of Dundee, famously the worst poet in the English language. We had […]

  33. In the year 2015, on the 23rd day of April at 12:10 pm

    […] is only supposed to happen in a world with a citizen’s income. Under the Green Party, even William McGonagal wouldn’t starve as a full time artist. (And I can safely say that the Citizen’s Income […]

  34. IGotBupkis, "'Faeces Evenio', Mr. Holder?"
    In the year 2015, on the 13th day of June at 2:12 am

    Who is in charge of the Clattering Train?
    The axles creak and the couplings strain,
    And the pace is hot
    And the points are near
    For Sleep has deadened the drivers’ ear.
    And the signals flash through the night in vain,
    For Death is in charge of the Clattering Train.

  35. In the year 2015, on the 16th day of June at 6:09 pm

    […] Gedicht kann hier nachgelesen werden. Es endet mit einer guten Lehre: “For the stronger we our houses do […]

  36. In the year 2015, on the 22nd day of June at 10:32 pm

    […] So, we’ll primarily be posting shorter, more accessible pieces: flash fiction (a maximum of 250 words) or our very own 404s (404 words exactly and preferably, although not constrained to, geekier topics). We’ll also be posting some poetry; don’t hold it against us – again this will be both old and new – although the older work will be heavily screened so as not to put William McGonagall to shame (oh for inspiration profound enough to replicate The Tay Bridge Disaster). […]

  37. In the year 2015, on the 30th day of June at 6:55 am

    […] :D’ practically seeps from every pore. I almost feel bad for making fun of it. On the other hand, The Tay Bridge Disaster was a labour of love. They wanted silly, addictive combat mechanics. Total Overdose combat is […]

  38. In the year 2015, on the 22nd day of July at 9:01 am

    […] and his creation are thus also indirectly responsible for the best-known poem, “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” by the gentleman widely-regarded to have been the the worst published poet in British […]

  39. In the year 2015, on the 21st day of September at 3:00 pm

    […] 3. His most celebrated poem (if ‘celebrated’ is quite the word) is the one he wrote commemorating the Tay Bridge disaster. In December 1879, the Tay Rail Bridge at Dundee collapsed, killing everyone aboard the train – reckoned to be some 75 people. Soon after the event, in 1880, McGonagall took up his pen to write an elegy for the lost souls. The intention, no doubt, was to create a moving lament about the disaster. Unfortunately, McGonagall’s cackhanded way with rhyme had quite the opposite effect, producing a poem that was unintentionally funny. Here’s how it opens: ‘Beautiful railway bridge of the silv’ry Tay / Alas! I am very sorry to say / That ninety lives have been taken away / On the last sabbath day of 1879 / Which will be remember’d for a very long time.’ It ends with the resounding couplet: ‘For the stronger we our houses do build, / The less chance we have of being killed.’ You can read the whole poem here. […]

  40. In the year 2015, on the 22nd day of September at 10:20 pm

    […] His poems were published by his friends in a series of compilations known as the “Poetic Gems” where, in one such book, can be found his most famous poem “The Tay Bridge Disaster”. […]

  41. In the year 2015, on the 30th day of September at 11:27 am

    […] really want to laugh about the Tay Bridge Disaster. You can read all of McGonagall’s poem here, but I’m going to provide you with a short excerpt. This is the very end of the poem. Keep in […]

  42. In the year 2015, on the 4th day of December at 7:30 pm

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  43. Dan E
    In the year 2015, on the 4th day of December at 9:40 pm

    In the late forties early fifties we used to listen to Family Favourites on the BBC Sunday lunch time, occasionally this poem would be requested. Now I used to read a lot of poetry when I was young as did my older brother, now I didn’t think it was great poetry but I thought it was something like a spoof. However I did like the that wonderful Scottish voice that read it and for some reason thought he was he person who actually wrote it, in fact old William himself.
    Now as a young lad at that time I had never heard of the Tay bridge disaster, so if it wasn’t for William I might still be in the dark about this event.
    John Laurie the actor gave a good rendition of this poem and I must say some of the other poem’s also, the strong Scottish accent seems to carry it off very well.
    So I have to confess that although this unique way he expresses himself has something that falls short of other great poet’s, he has made his mark where others have failed to be remembered.
    This site is a mine of information as all of Williams works do render some knowledge to whoever wants to learn something of past events, I’ll even say that it is something most of our young could do with.
    So instead of mocking this man which is all to easy for some folks to do, I suggest we look at him in a different light in the way he has informed us in a somewhat humorous fashion.

  44. In the year 2015, on the 28th day of December at 1:34 pm

    […] of the Tay Bridge Disaster. The tragedy is now remembered in connection with the disaster of the poem it inspired. …read […]

  45. In the year 2016, on the 16th day of January at 6:24 pm
  46. Iain Pollock
    In the year 2016, on the 26th day of January at 8:59 am

    The grammar of some of the correspondents to this thread leaves a bit to be desired, and is worse than William’s poetry. E.g., ‘none’ is short for ‘not one’, and is singular. Hence, ‘none of them WAS’, not ‘none of them WERE’, for example. Also, you’re all missing the point as far as William’s poetry is concerned. It’s so bad, it’s good! End of story. I’ll bet we all wish we could write such bad poetry, and be remembered over 100 years later! I certainly do.

  47. In the year 2016, on the 25th day of March at 10:46 am

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  48. In the year 2016, on the 18th day of April at 8:18 am

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  49. In the year 2016, on the 27th day of June at 11:40 pm

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  50. In the year 2016, on the 4th day of July at 6:36 pm

    […] reminder of past failure. I was reminded by these stumps of that piece of epic poetry by McGonagell The Tay Bridge Disaster Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay! Alas! I am very sorry to say … if you click the link you can enjoy the poem in all its […]

  51. In the year 2016, on the 29th day of July at 6:19 pm

    […] William Topaz McGonagall, possibly the clumsiest poet in history. In Lerner’s analysis of “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” he displays to great comedic effect just why McGonagall falls flat on his face. “And […]

  52. In the year 2016, on the 29th day of August at 8:07 am

    […] through a detailed exposition of the poetic and human failings of William Topaz McGonagall’s famously awful poem on the tragic 1879 collapse of the Tay Bridge in the city of Dundee. Lerner is adept at pinpointing […]

  53. In the year 2016, on the 22nd day of September at 8:22 am

    […] cement McGonagall’s reputation as a terrible poet. You can read the poem here and follow this link for more information about the historical events described in the […]

  54. In the year 2016, on the 18th day of October at 7:01 pm

    […] life. In a sort of, you could not make this up, the tragedy is most often remembered in the poem by William McGonagall. If you look up  – worst poet in the world, he is top in the Guinness Book of Records. We […]

  55. In the year 2016, on the 1st day of November at 11:00 am

    […] If we define “beauty” to suggest a close alignment between the finished product and its design goals, then I suggest both the cathedral and the bridge are beautiful from the perspective of the engineers, architects, and craftsmen who contributed to their construction. The fact the cathedral catches the attention of passers-by while the bridge goes unnoticed as people cross it means nothing less than both structures have achieved their design goals. Their “users” appreciate the value both objects bring, even if they don’t grasp the nuances of craftsmanship that went into their construction. And without those nuances, the cathedral would be nothing more than “a big hut for people to meet in” and the bridge would be a disaster waiting to happen. […]

  56. allison
    In the year 2016, on the 1st day of December at 3:14 pm

    My favorite part is the scolding advice for engineers in the last few lines.

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