When Edinburgh's North Bridge collapsed and killed five people

The creation of Edinburgh's first North Bridge should have been a time of celebration for Scotland's capital, but a series of crucial design flaws would result in one of the city's worst disasters of the Georgian era.

Wednesday, 25th September 2019, 2:52 pm
The original North Bridge pictured during dismantling circa 1896. Picture: Contributed

Edinburgh in the late eighteenth century was growing in both size and reputation. The city boundary, however, was restricted to the dramatic crag and tail feature which swept eastwards from the castle.

Up to 35,000 people inhabited a space under a mile long making Scotland’s capital one of the most densely populated urban areas in the world at that time.

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The original North Bridge pictured during dismantling circa 1896. Picture: Contributed

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Construction of a New Town had been proposed, sparking the need for a grand public communication to span the deep Nor' Loch valley that bordered the immediate north of the Old Town.

The foundation stone of architect William Mylne’s North Bridge was laid in October 1763 but it would be a further two years before any serious amount of progress was made.

Nearing completion, the magnificent multi-arched bridge first opened to pedestrians in 1769 to much fanfare and excitement.

A 1970s aerial view showing how the present North Bridge connects the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh. Picture: TSPL

However, the cheers would soon be emphatically silenced that summer due to a disaster of epic proportions.

The North Bridge disaster

On the evening of Thursday, 3 August 1769 the side walls of the south abutment of the bridge suddenly gave way, causing a partial collapse of the structure and tragically claiming the lives of five people.

Rescue efforts were recorded by newspaper the Caledonian Mercury which detailed the grim discoveries of bodies "buried in the rubbish, occasioned by the fall of the walls of the south abutment of the new bridge over the north loch".

The original North Bridge officially opened in 1772. Picture: Contributed

Two of the bodies were identified as belonging to Mr Lawson, shoemaker, and Mr James Fergus, a local writer.

The Caledonian Mercury mentions that workers had been digging almost day and night since the collapse and that at least three to four others were feared to have shared the "same unhappy fate with the two already found".

A contemporary letter penned by Darcy, Lady Maxwell recalls the evening of the collapse, which she laid witness to.

Lady Maxwell wrote: “The Lord, who is continually loading me with his benefits, has twice this day remarkable interfered on my behalf. In the evening he preserved me from broken bones to which I was exposed in a fall.

The present North Bridge has now stood for as long as its predecessor. Picture: TSPL

"A few hours after, when walking home from chapel, I witnessed a most melancholy scene occasioned by the falling in of the North Bridge. I… was within five minutes of passing over it… when almost in a moment, the greatest noise I ever heard (except on a similar occasion when I was remarkably preserved) filled the air.

"It seemed as if the pillars of nature were giving way. Instantly, the cry resounded “the bridge is fallen!”

A full inquiry followed and identified haste in construction and a poorly-calculated estimate regarding the depth of the foundations and sturdiness of the earth-filled abutments as the chief causes behind the disaster.

Rebuilding work demanded £18,000 (almost double the original £10,140 cost of the project) and the city would have to wait until 1772 before the grand reopening.

A new bridge

The original North Bridge survived more than a century until the 1890s, when engineers devised an improved link that would allow for greater flow of traffic and the redevelopment and expansion of Waverley railway station, which was being somewhat stifled by the narrow spaces available between the old bridge's stone piers.

Construction of the current steel bridge that we know today was completed in 1897 at a cost of £81,000., with the North British Railway Company contributing to a third of the cost.

A plaque recalling the founding and dismantling of the original North Bridge occupies a wall of the present bridge, which has now stood for roughly the same length of time as its predecessor.