Falkirk and the Dundas family


I have a kind of list of things to go and have a look at if I’m ever in a certain place, and so when I found myself in Falkirk I went to have a look by the old parish church for the grave of Sir Lawrence Dundas, grandfather of the ‘real’ George Heneage Dundas, whose original home (although he bought houses all over the place) was at the Kerse, now in – or underneath – Grangemouth.

It’s not really a grave, I discovered, but a family mausoleum, originally standing in the churchyard, but joined on to the main building since the church was rebuilt in 1811.

Church and mausoleum
Dundas mausoleum

It’s a fairly impressive little building, but there’s nothing there to say what it is or who it’s for, apart from the Dundas family crest above the door – apparently the memorial plaques have even been stolen from the coffins inside!

Dundas family crest

The graveyard was cleared in the 1960s, presumably as the town centre grew more and more closely around it, and only a few major graves were left, but some fragments from other stones have been set into the ground.

Gravestone fragments

I had really gone to Falkirk to go out to the Kelpies and start walking along the Forth and Clyde canal (of which more another day), but although I had meant to start walking from the lock right by the Kelpies, I found that the extension along the river towards Grangemouth had been marked as the Charlotte Dundas trail, and couldn’t resist that.

Charlotte Dundas trail

The Charlotte Dundas was one of the very first steam powered ships – probably the first practical design – and the trials took place on the canal here or on the adjacent stretch of river.

Sir Lawrence Dundas was a major shareholder in the canal, but didn’t live to see it completed, and it was his son Thomas, the first Lord Dundas, who became involved with the steamship experiments, and named the boat after his daughter (GHD’s sister).

The boat was certainly used on the canal later on, but there were concerns that the banks would be damaged, and the ship ended up rotting away by one of the locks.

Charlotte Dundas

This part of the canal runs side by side with the river, which also looks a bit like a canal here, having been greatly rerouted and tamed by various industrial works. Earlier on they didn’t run so close together, but the original line of the canal was built over to provide road access to the Grangemouth docks.

River Carron and the new canal

It’s not that there’s anything historic to actually see along the trail, but the information was well done – about the canal, and the history of Grangemouth, and steam power, and the boat itself.

Steam as a method of power was not at all new by this stage – the first Newcomen pumping engines were nearly 100 years old, and it was more than 20 years since Watt had invented a way for his improved engine to produce rotary motion, removing the need for water on site to power industrial machines. But steam as a method of propulsion was still new, although Symington had made experiments with both boats and carriages 10 years earlier, using his own improved version of Watt’s engine.

Boat plan

It was obviously a great event locally, in any case, because the coat of arms of the town of Grangemouth includes a picture of the boat!

Grangemouth coat of arms

Telford in northern Wales


About a month or so ago now, I made a flying visit to north Wales – one castle, a handful of hills, and two Telford bridges.

Unlike Scotland, which was being opened up at least partly for its own benefit, Telford’s works in Wales were primarily concerned with access to Ireland, after the union of 1801 – with rapid movement and communication between London and Dublin suddenly far more important, and Holyhead the main port for Dublin, a good road link across north Wales suddenly became essential.

The main achievement of the route was the bridge across the Menai Straits, the first suspension bridge to be designed for traffic, and on an entirely new scale (although it did take so long to build that the much smaller Union Bridge, a few miles upstream from Berwick, became the first suspension bridge to open to traffic, although it was started later).

My first stop in Wales was Conwy, and so I started with the smaller and slightly later bridge there, now closed to traffic, and flanked on one side by Stephenson’s railway bridge, enclosed in a box, and on the other by the modern road bridge – this has always been an obvious crossing point, and the first bridge replaced an old ferry.

Three bridges

The bridge looks a bit like a little castle itself – its towers, and the towers of the later railway bridge, were built to echo the towers of the castle, which overlooks the river crossing.

Castellated tower

The chains of the bridge are actually anchored into the castle walls on the Conwy side.

Anchored in the castle

The bridge still has its original iron suspension chains, four layers of links, although cables were added in 1903 to strengthen them.

Iron chains

Although the bridge is beautiful, it was these chains which really struck me, suddenly startlingly real. These days we’re used to things which do their job without apparent effort – maybe metal ropes, or maybe no obvious supports. But these chains are clearly from the early days of using metal, and someone has thought carefully about how large a piece could be cast, and how they could be joined, and how many would be needed to take the weight, and there’s a real sense of force about it.


The design of the main Menai Straits bridge was dictated by the setting – with strong currents and a shifting bed, building the piers for a more traditional bridge would have been very difficult, and it was also necessary to leave the space, and the height, for tall ships to pass through the straits. But it was a real leap forward in construction – the concept wasn’t new, but earlier suspension bridges had been small pedestrian ones, and this was the longest bridge span in the world when it was built.

Menai Straits bridge

The chains on both sides are anchored in tunnels driven deep into the ground, but on the mainland side they also run through the tollhouse – tolls were charged for crossing the bridge until 1940.

Menai bridge tollhouse

A plaque on the tollhouse (or two plaques, one in English and one in Welsh) describes the bridge as an ‘international historic civil engineering landmark’, which seems fair enough.

Civil engineering landmark

Telford’s name as engineer is carved into the tower of the bridge itself, although I don’t know when the carving was done.

Telford plaque

One of the piers is built on a little rocky island, but the others stand in the water.

Stone piers

The original iron chains were replaced by steel cables in 1938 – getting the cables into place was the biggest challenge of the original construction, with cables run up to the towers on either side, and the central sections then floated into place below and raised by a team of 150 men.

New cables

The bridge is a local landmark, of course – the pub at the far side has the bridge on its sign, although the pub on the mainly side is slightly bizarrely called The Antelope!

Bridge Inn

Down at the waterside is a building which predates the bridge, and which was once the ferry house for one of the boats crossing the water.

Old ferry house

Collingwood Society AGM 2018

More Collingwood Society last week, with the AGM – nothing very much to report, except that the 2019 programme is more or less complete.

The battle of Cape St. Vincent in January, the March lecture on the Franklin expedition, as we knew – then the use of trees in shipbuilding, the history of HMS Calliope (the latest incarnation being the local RNR unit), a possible summer visit to Sunderland, justice in the Georgian navy, Nelson’s funeral, and Hardy to finish off the year. A bit of a mix!

I think the quiz following was slightly less… esoteric than last year – I managed a very respectable third place (the two ahead of me were seriously knowledgeable) by getting half the available marks, but there were still a few things in there that I’d known once, or might have remembered on a different day. Good fun, anyway.

Collingwood Society: Pickle Night

The Collingwood Society tried a new experiment this year, a Pickle Night, which as far as I can tell is mostly an excuse for getting drunk – nominally it’s a commemoration of the arrival of the Pickle in England with the news of the victory at Trafalgar.

It was held in the main room at Trinity House, which made a lovely setting, and the food was really good. And everyone had to dress up – most people had just gone in stripy tops as sailors, but a few had made a real effort (and apparently we rather baffled the Tesco across the street, as people kept popping over!). And there were various bits of silliness through the night, a thing where the table had to all gather round a small model cannon and shout BANG, and sea cadets come to teach the hornpipe, and ‘turns’ from each table, and other odds and ends of games and forfeits for going wrong.

It was a very enjoyable evening, but it did seem to be mostly aimed at people who knew each other already, which of course a lot of people did from other local groups – there were none of the team challenges or things that you tend to do if you’re trying to mix people from different backgrounds, and really no chance to interact with people from other tables at all – and the forfeits were more often fines than anything other people could laugh at, as well as sometimes being for things people had done in another context. So maybe not quite as social as it could have been, for a social event, but still good fun.

Book of the Month: October – James Hutton

James Hutton : The father of modern geology
Donald B. McIntyre and Alan McKirdy

I seem to be having a geology fit at the moment – I came across this book in the library catalogue while looking for a different bit of geological history, and then found when I went to get it that it wasn’t really a proper book, just the flat kind full of pictures – but that was a good thing, both because I was behind with my reading, and because the pictures are very informative.

The book was published by the National Museum and Dynamic Earth, and is more about Hutton’s ideas than his life, but I’m certainly not complaining about that.

Hutton started off in a world still believed to be about 6000 years old – which was probably not as silly a belief as it sounds now, because if you don’t know of anything happening earlier, you don’t need to leave time for it. However, Hutton’s great achievement was to show that things which seemed inexplicable became perfectly reasonable if you just allow enough time for them to occur.

Hutton began by developing an interest in chemistry while studying at the University of Edinburgh in his teens, discovering a new process for producing sal ammoniac, used in various industries, and went on to study medicine in Paris and Leiden. Returning to Scotland, he settled on a family farm, giving up medicine and taking to agriculture as a science. It was from an agricultural point of view that he first seems to have taken an interest in the ground, touring England, and later parts of the continent, to study farming methods, and becoming interested in geological features along the way.

Later tours of Scotland were more deliberately geological, and brought him a strong practical knowledge of the rocks to be found in various places which was very important to him later on when developing and proving his theories.

Hutton’s real strength seems to have been his ability to use rocks as experiments which had already taken place – in the same way a chemist might predict that a particular reaction would occur, and test it to see, Hutton would come to believe that a certain event had occurred, and that the result would show in a certain kind of place or kind of rock – at which point his knowledge of where to find the different types would come into play.

It had long been recognised that rocks wore away, and even that soil was formed from the remnants of rocks, but without a method of renewal this was only the decay of the earth towards its eventual end. Hutton came to believe that most of the rocks he had seen were formed from layers of sand and gravel produced by the wearing away of older rocks, and made solid by heat from within the earth, which also distorted and transformed them. (This great heat within the earth, somehow burning without oxygen, was needed to produce effects seen on the surface, but something which he was very aware could not be directly observed – its effects could only be predicted and checked for confirmation.)

One of the pieces of confirmation for this theory was the presence of igneous intrusions, rocks which had cut through earlier regular strata while in a molten state and solidified there, and could be easily traced because they often wore away much more slowly than the surrounding rocks. A related interest was in granite, often believed at the time to be the oldest rock in existence. Hutton believed it to be relatively young, and formed from a molten state, and knew that this could be tested – if veins of granite could be found intruding into other rocks, then the other rocks had been there first. To demonstrate this, he would have to use his wide knowledge of rock types to find a place where granite and another rock came in close contact, which he found in Glen Tilt.

After this, he came across a junction of greywacke and sandstone in the Borders, originally at Jedburgh, where the underlying stone had been deformed and worn away before the upper layers were deposited – something which would simply take a great deal of time. It was the search for a clearer example of this which took him to Siccar Point.