19 November 2017

"Bridgescapes" by L. Bruce Keith

Bridgescapes (Dunnottar Productions Limited, 184pp, 2017) is a timely survey of Scotland's bridge heritage, published to coincide with the completion of the Queensferry Crossing. This tremendous new cable-stayed design is the 21st century neighbour to a 20th century and 19th century bridge, each an impressive example of historic achievement.

This new book is aptly subtitled "A personal journey through history celebrating Scotland's bridge-building heritage". L. Bruce Keith is an experienced surveyor (indeed, a recent President of CIWEM), but not a bridge specialist by any means. He traces his interest in bridges to his father, who was a local authority engineer responsible for bridges in the Highlands of Scotland. His book is dotted throughout with autobiographical detail, which lends a pleasingly informal touch, although much of the personal history is not directly bridge-related.

The bulk of the book is arranged chronologically, with chapters covering medieval bridges, the 18th century etc. Four chapters on 19th century bridges are arranged thematically: canals, highways, railways, and an entire chapter for the failure and success of the Tay and Forth bridges. The coverage is up to date, with a number of 21st century structures, and a chapter of its own for the Queensferry Crossing.

This is a book which will be of interest to many, although its primary audience is the general public, especially those with an interest in history, geography and architecture. As the author notes right from the beginning, "This book is not intended for 'anoraks'". There's an extensive bibliography, but nothing in the way of footnoting or references. One occasional casualty of this is factual accuracy: there are a number of claims of "firsts" and "longests" which I doubt would survive thorough scrutiny. There are also quite a few typos including a repeated mis-spelling of Babtie (as in John Babtie, whose firm Babtie and Bonn became Babtie, Shaw and Morton, eventually assimilated into the Jacobs borg in 2004).

There are also a number of omissions, although no doubt only the anoraks would be greatly concerned with many of them: Craigmin Bridge, Faery Bridge, Falls of Gharb Allt Footbridge, Maryhill House Footbridge, Roxburgh Viaduct Footbridge, Gogarburn Bridge, and Greenside Link Place Bridge are examples just from those that I've had the good fortune to visit. However, I don't see this as a significant criticism given the book's many good points.

The book opens with a reasonable introduction to the classic structural forms and materials of bridges, drawing on the many relevant Scottish examples and well illustrated with archive and newly taken photographs. This sets the tone for the remainder of the book, which is well-written, informative, sensibly prioritised, and filled with high quality images. On this count, it's great value for money, and even the anoraks should discover plenty that they didn't know, or had forgotten.

A chapter near the end of the book addresses the worldwide legacy of Scottish bridge builders and designers, which I think is a very welcome inclusion. It brings home the significance of well-known Scots such as Robert Mylne, John Rennie, Thomas Telford, and William Arrol, but also features significant but lesser known names such as Louis Harper, Peter Seton Hay and Alexander Nimmo (plus many more I'd never heard of).

I very much enjoyed Bridgescapes. It's indispensable for anyone with a serious interest in Scotland's bridges, and should be enjoyed by others with a more casual appreciation.

For details of how to purchase the book, contact the author at lbrucekeith@yahoo.co.uk.

Update 20th November: Readers of The Happy Pontist can purchase Bridgescapes for a discounted price of £18 (UK) and £25 (overseas), which I think is tremendously good value!

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