Thomas Telford was born on 9 August 1757 near Westerkirk in Dumfries-shire, the posthumous son of a shepherd. He spent his childhood supplementing the family's limited income by shepherding and left his parish school at the age of 14 to become an apprentice stonemason in Langholm. In 1780 he went to Edinburgh to work as a mason on the development of the New Town. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
In 1782 Telford moved to London to work on the greatest construction project of the day, Somerset House. His ability, his desire to better himself, and the strong impression he made on an increasing number of influential people allowed him rapidly to catch up on his missed education, and to moved from stonemason to engineer.
By 1784 he was managing construction works at Portsmouth Dockyard. In 1788, through the influence of the MP for Shropshire, William Pulteney, he was appointed Surveyor of Public Works in Shropshire.
He returned to Scotland in 1790 to survey harbours and piers on behalf of the British Fisheries Society, for whom he had designed Ullapool in 1788, but by 1793 was back in Shropshire, building the Ellsmere Canal, including the spectacular Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.
In 1801 the Government asked Thomas Telford to develop his earlier work on harbours and piers with a survey of roads across Scotland. This revealed a network that barely existed north and west of the Great Glen. Over the 20 years from 1804 Telford followed up his survey with the construction of over 920 miles of road and 120 bridges in the Highlands. During this period he also built many harbours and jetties in Scotland as well as the Caledonian Canal, although this took much longer than planned, and was overtaken by developments in shipbuilding by the time it opened. Meanwhile he also continued his work south of the border, notably on the London to Holyhead road. He also worked abroad, designing the Gotha Canal for the King of Sweden.
In 1818 Thomas Telford was made first President of the Institute of Civil Engineers. He was back in Scotland in 1823 to begin construction of 32 standardised "Parliamentary Churches" across the Highlands and Islands, each comprising a T-shaped church and an accompanying manse. When completed in 1830 this programme had cost a total of £54,500.
Telford was still working when he died in London on 2 September 1834 at the age of 77. He was buried in Westminster Abbey. As an engineer he had made a huge and lasting impression on his native Scotland, and far beyond. His major achievements were, despite its problems, the Caledonian Canal in Scotland and the Menai Suspension Bridge linking Anglesey to Wales. But his influence is really felt through the huge number of roads, bridges, harbours and churches he left behind him, many of which still stand today, 200 years later. And in Shropshire the town of Telford is named in his memory.
Achievements in Scotland
- 1788 Designs Ullapool for the British Fisheries Society.
- 1804-1824 Builds 920
miles of "Parliamentary Road" and 120 bridges across Scotland. These include:
- Bridges: The River Don Bridge at Alford; Tongland Bridge; Dunkeld Bridge; Bonar Bridge; Craigellachie Bridge; Ballater Bridge; and Roy Bridge.
- Roads: Carlisle to Glasgow; Carlisle to Portpatrick; Fort William to Arisaig; Perth to Inverness; Invergarry to Loch Hourn; Ardgour to Acharacle; Glen Shiel; Dingwall to Lochcarron and Shieldaig; Dingwall to Tongue; Dingwall to Dornoch, Wick and John o' Groats; Carrbridge to Banff; Fort William to Kingussie; Kyleakin to Portree and Uig; and the "String Road" across Arran.
- 1798-1825 Builds or improves harbours across Scotland, including those at Kirkwall, Wick, Portmahomack, Dingwall, Invergordon, Fortrose, Nairn, Burghead, Cullen, Banff, Fraserburgh, Peterhead, Aberdeen, Dundee, Leith, Tayvallich, Portree, Tobermory, and Port Logan.
- 1803-1822 Builds the Caledonian Canal.
- 1816 Redesigns the Crinan Canal.
- 1823-1830 Builds 32 "Parliamentary Churches", 19 in the Highlands and 13 in the Islands. Most of these churches are still standing, including those at Tomintoul, Acharacle, Strontian, Plockton, Poolewe, Ullapool, Kinlochbervie, Ulva, Iona, Waternish and Strathy.
- 1829-1831 Builds Dean Bridge, Edinburgh.
- 1833-1836 Builds Glasgow Bridge at Broomielaw.
Major Achievements outside Scotland
- 1793 Ellsmere Canal and Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.
- 1796 Bildwas Bridge, River Severn.
- 1808 Gotha Canal in Sweden.
- 1819-1826 Menai Straits Suspension Bridge.