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GREAT HEROES OF GREAT BRITAIN

          Travel is people. You may go abroad to see the famous sites, but what you remember best are the people you meet. Among them, like unexpected treasure, are a few memorable contacts that will make your travels unique, special, and delightful. "People" is devoted to some of those you may come in contact with during your Home At First travels.

VISIONARY ENGINEER OF THE INDUSTRIAL AGE — PART ONE

This article first appeared in July, 2004. Most recent update: 2015.

It seems most everywhere we go we run into his name on bridges, on canals, on roadways, on harbors. There are towns named after him in England and Pennsylvania. We had to find out more about this man whose path we — and Home At First guests to England, Scotland, Wales, and

"The Colossus

of Roads"

 

Sweden — often cross,
the man called:

THOMAS TELFORD


THOMAS TELFORD didn’t invent the Industrial Revolution, but he was its first great star, a star of the order of Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Bill Gates. He was the most glamorous and most sought after civil engineer of his time. He made engineering into a science and an art. He helped invent modern times, literally paving the way into the future. Like Elvis prepared the world for the Beatles, Telford caught the public’s imagination, making public acceptance easy for the geniuses that followed, especially Robert Stephenson and Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
 
         Telford was a lowlands Scot, born August 9, 1757, near Langholm, Dumfries & Galloway, a few miles from the English border, and mid-way between dramatic Hermitage Castle and the ill-fated town of Locherbie. In this region where sheep vastly outnumber people, Telford was the son of a poor shepherd, and helped support the family as a shepherd until becoming an apprentice stonemason at 14. From the family farm at Bentpath (west of the A7 on the B709 in Eskdale), Telford’s path led to Scotland, England, Wales, and Sweden, and always went uphill. The path led ultimately to Westminster Abbey, where Telford, who died September 2, 1834, aged 77, was buried among the great kings and citizens of Britain.
          Along the way, the path of Thomas Telford crossed many paths familiar to us at
Home at First. Join us as we journey with Telford to some of the fascinating destinations we share.

PART ONE OF A FOUR-PART SERIES:  

TELFORD IN SCOTLAND

Edinburgh: In his early twenties Telford left home for Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh. During this time King George III was on the throne, and the American Revolution was still raging Edinburgh was one of the great cultural and learning centers of the world, ground zero of the intellectual flowering now called the Scottish Enlightenment. Edinburgh was also the Calcutta of its day the world’s most densely populated city, gaining its nickname of "Auld Reekie" for its inability to cope with the problems of unbridled growth. When Edinburgh’s town fathers decided to expand the city by filling in a loch below the castle and building New Town, Telford was one of the many artisans brought to do the job. The project transformed Edinburgh into the city visitors admire today, with the majestic old capital perched on its hilltop veined with a maze of roads and alleyways, and the New Town lining its sensible grid of streets in the sophisticated, planned community below. The

Princes Street Gardens at the base of the Castle connect Edinburgh's Old Town with its New Town. Photo © Greg Elwell (used with permission).
Princes Street Gardens at the
base of the Castle connect
 Edinburgh's Old Town
with its New Town.

Photo © Greg Elwell
(used with permission)

Old Town is full of history, pomp, and shopping, with

 

the Royal Mile an axis of stores and restaurants connecting the Holyrood Palace with Edinburgh Castle. Exiting old Edinburgh on Princes Street leads past Waverley train station and past the pretty Princes Street Gardens (pictured above right in a Greg Elwell photo) at the foot of Edinburgh Castle and into New Town. Still a residential area in great demand, New Town is known for its trendy shops and restaurants as much as its crescents, circles and squares of elegant Georgian townhouses. Fittingly, several of Home at First’s Edinburgh apartments are nearby, with excellent access to old and "new" Edinburgh.


The whitewashed rows of sturdy Georgian inns and shops by the harbor at Thomas Telford's Ullapool in northwestern Scotland. Photo © Home At First.
The whitewashed rows of
sturdy Georgian inns and
shops by the harbor at
Thomas Telford's Ullapool
in northwestern Scotland.

Photo © Home At First

Inverness & The Northern Highlands: Within eight years Telford had become skillful enough to give up his job as a mason and become a design engineer. In the wild northwest of Scotland he designed a new town 1788, Ullapool (pictured at left), built around a safe harbor by Loch Broom. The town and its harbor is still there much as Telford designed it to exploit the boom in the herring industry. It makes a great destination for lunch (try the catch of the day at the Seaforth Restaurant on the harbor side) on a long and scenic day-trip through Ross-shire and Sutherland from Home at First’s lodgings in Inverness and the Northern Highlands. Ullapool is a ferry port connecting the Scottish mainland with Stornoway 2½ hours west on the Isle of Lewis in the Western Isles (Hebrides).
          With his reputation as a leading civil established, in 1801 Telford was awarded a government contract to develop a transportation network in the north and west of Scotland. Most of this territory was in the rugged Highlands that had

 

last seen improved roads when the Redcoats under General

Wade built military roads to suppress the rebellious Jacobites after Bonny Prince Charlie’s uprisings of 1745-6. Over the next 20 years Telford oversaw the building of almost 1,000 miles of roads with more than 100 bridges, plus numerous harbors, docking facilities and, importantly, the Caledonian Canal. This work, making it possible to sail across (rather than around) Scotland, and avoid treacherous weather and currents, must be considered one of Telford’s great achievements. The canal connected the Atlantic coast of West Central Scotland at Ft. William with the Moray Firth and the North Sea at Inverness in the northeast, and followed a natural fissure line already partly navigable with Scottish lochs, including famous Loch Ness called the Great Glen. The Caledonian Canal was an instant failure. It did not attract the commercial shipping expected. But today, 180 years later, the Caledonian Canal has become a great commercial success, drawing pleasure craft, hikers, cyclists, and other tourists to what was once an inaccessible region rich in Highlands scenery. Home at First guests from Central Scotland and Inverness and the North can easily trace the canal by car, and keep an eye out for the Loch Ness Monster while doing so (Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle pictured at right). Like easy walking in classic Highlands scenery? Try walking portions of the 70+ mile long Great Glen Way that follows the canal’s towpath all the way from Ft. William to

Inverness.
          The harbor at Ullapool and canal in the Great Glen were two major works that changed northern Scotland. But it Telford’s network of roadways, several emanating from the town of
Dingwall by the Cromarty Firth, that really opened up the north to transportation. Dingwall closest market town to Home at First’s Northern Highlands Cottages in Ross-shire has been an important crossroads since the Viking invasions of 800AD and Shakespeare’s real life King Macbeth was born there 200 years later. Telford recognized Dingwall’s centrality by making it the hub for roads departing in all directions: south to Inverness, east to the Black Isle and Cromarty, west to the coast at

Loch Ness--largest in Scotland--is one of 3 natural inland bodies of water Thomas Telford connected with his Caledonian Canal to cross Scotland from the Atlantic to the North Sea. Photo © Home At First.
Loch Ness — largest loch in Scotland — is
one of 3 natural inland bodies of water
Thomas Telford connected with his
Caledonian Canal to cross Scotland
from the Atlantic to the North Sea.

Photo © Home At First

Ullapool, and north to the end of Britain at John

 

Groats. When, a generation later, railways came to the region, Dingwall’s centrality made it the logical junction point for lines north, south and west. Dingwall is no less important as a regional market town and transportation center today. In Northern Scotland, Dingwall is Rome all roads (and railroads) continue to lead there.


 

Colorful Tobermory harbor, Isle of Mull, another Telford fishing settlement that has become a tourist mecca in Scotland. Photo © Home At First.
Colorful Tobermory harbor, Isle of Mull,
another Telford fishing settlement that
has become a tourist mecca in Scotland.

Photo © Home At First

Central Scotland: Among the public works Telford built before or during the first two decades of the 19th century were several noteworthy projects in Central Scotland, including the 1793 arched "Bridge across the Atlantic" at Seil Island near Oban, and the Tobermory harbor on the Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides. Home At First Central Scotland guests easily visit the former on a day trip covering the West Coast of Scotland between Oban and Ft. William. (Stop for a bite at the Tigh an Truish Inn just across the bridge on Seil Island. It’s the

 

place where island Highlanders changed from

their kilts to pants before coming onto the Scottish mainland. Fashion sense? Not hardly. After the rebellion of 1745, kilts and other Highland dress was outlawed by the Crown. The inn’s name means "house of trousers".) Colorful Tobermory town (pictured above left) is within reach by day trip, but it deserves an overnight stay to be done in conjunction with a visit to the adjacent islet of Iona — the most important ecclesiastic site in Scotland, and burial ground of Scottish kings. Tobermory like Iona has become something of a place of pilgrimage, owing to its fame as the setting for popular British TV shows for children. If you go and we think you should be sure to visit the Tobermory Distillery (scotch!) and the dramatic Castle Duart set on its rocky coastal perch (pictured below right). One of its former inhabitants reportedly blew up a Spanish ship that had sought shelter and re-supply in Tobermory harbor while running from the Spanish Armada disaster.

          Closer to Home at First’s Central Scotland

 

home villages is the small town of Dunkeld on the banks of the swift and deep River Tay not far from its emergence from Loch Tay. Little Dunkeld once the religious center of Scotland due to the relocation of the relics of St. Columba from Iona is a small town with a ruined medieval cathedral and a 7-arched Thomas Telford bridge from 1809. The cathedral, despite its significant history, lacks the crucial importance of Telford’s bridge, which made it possible to cross Scotland from south to north without needing a river ferry somewhere along the way. This crossing was a key point along what

Duart Castle, is another reason besides Telford's Tobermory to visit Isle of Mull. Photo © Home At First.
Duart Castle, is another reason besides
Telford's Tobermory to visit Isle of Mull.

Photo © Home At First

would become the A9 north-south trunk road. The

 

modern A9 now races past Dunkeld as a limited access artery, but it is worth getting off the highway and meandering into old Dunkeld, across Telford’s classic bridge and up the high street lined with pleasant Scottish shops, to the ruined cathedral.

END OF PART 1 — TELFORD IN SCOTLAND

PART 2 — TELFORD IN ENGLAND

PART 3 — TELFORD IN WALES

PART 4 — TELFORD IN SWEDEN

You can travel in the footsteps of Thomas Telford and discover
history from some of the living monuments to this great engineer.
More information about travel with Home At First:

To SCOTLAND    To ENGLAND    To WALES    To SWEDEN

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