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May 26th 1770

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Smeaton's Tay Bridge

There are records of a bridge across the Tay at Perth as early as the 11th Century.

This structure crossed the river at the foot of the High Street, but was swept away in the great flood of 1210. “There happened such a great fall of rain as made the brooks and rivers exceed their usual channels and carry off much of the harvest crop from the fields. The waters of Tay, with the waters of Almond, being swelled by the increasing rain, passed through a great part of the town. In consequence of a mound or rampart giving way, not only some houses but also the large bridge of St John with an ancient chapel, were overthrown.” 

Plans were immediately made to rebuild the bridge but it seems to have been a century later before the structure was finished. From then onwards there was a continuous and fairly successful struggle to raise money for the upkeep of the bridge.

In January 1404, a charter was granted to William the Lyon, “for the common and public utility of the Kingdom, and the upholding of the Bridge of Perth, the support of which is necessary to the whole community of the Kingdom.”  Nearly a hundred years later James 4th “ordained that all the amerciaments and fines of the Justice-air of Perth should be put to the reparation of the foresaid Bridge of Tay.” 

By the end of the 16th Century the bridge was in a very parlous condition. “The first downfalling of the twa bows (two arches) of the Brig of Tay by inundation of water on 20th day of December 1573.”  “The downfalling of five bows of the Brig of Tay, on the 14th January 1582.”  December 20th 1589 “The downfalling of the twa tree pillars of the Brig of Tay.”  September 22nd 1601 “There fell a reik (Arch) of the timber Bridge of Tay with twa men, ane horse and ane load. One of the men was gotten safe again with the horse and load. The other man called Lamb drowned in the water.” 

In spite of the fact that James 6th could call the bridge “The most precious jewel of our Kingdom,”  it became obvious that it would not survive indefinitely and with the King’s assistance, plans were made for a new bridge under the supervision of John Mylne, master mason to the King. The old bridge finally broke up in 1608 and later that same year the plague broke out in Perth. But in spite of these difficulties the building of the new bridge proceeded. Weather conditions hampered the work at times. In January 1615 “the waters of Tay by weets (rains) and sleet, waxed so great that it covered haill our North Inch, the Muirton Haugh and almost all the South Inch.” 

By November 1616 the keystone of the last arch was laid and the bridge finished in the next year. It was not destined to last long. Four years later “a terrible inundation of the Tay”  swept away the bridge. Apart from probable faults in workmanship, the bridge suffered from the fatal defect of sitting too low in the water so that when the rains came the waters rose above the eleven low and narrow arches and the whole gave way.

Some years later a new scheme was produced. James 6th promised 30,000 merks and smaller but substantial subscriptions were promised by many of the nobility, but with the death of the King the plans fell into abeyance. For over a century and a half there was to be no bridge across the Tay at Perth. After several unsuccessful attempts to promote the erection of a new bridge the matter was taken up by the Earl of Kinnoull. He persuaded the government to subscribe £13,800 over a period of fourteen years and obtained contributions from Perth Town Council (£2,000), the Royal Burghs of Scotland (£500) and from a large number of gentry and nobility; his own contribution was £400. For the architect he secured the services of John Smeaton who had designed the Eddystone Lighthouse.

The new bridge was started in 1766 with the foundation stone being laid in September of that year. Thomas Pennant visiting Perth in 1769 wrote, “The stone bridge, which is to consist of nine arches, being at this time unfinished, the largest arch is 76 feet wide; when complete it promises to be a most magnificent structure.”  The building of the bridge proceeded smoothly, with the last arch being completed and the two lands joined on May 26th 1770. The total cost had been £26,446.

Pontage was levied until 1778. There was but one fault in the original bridge, it was too narrow. Plans were made for widening the roadway but the costs were felt to be excessive. Finally, in 1869 the operation was undertaken and completed in less than six months without any interruption to the traffic. The stone parapets of the main structure were removed and a five foot footpath was erected on each side, supported by iron brackets bolted together by iron rods. The cost of about £3,300 was raised by public subscription.

Smeaton’s bridge still stands today a credit to the architect and his workmen.

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