The Forth Bridge

IT is Saturday night, almost Sunday morning, and 150 feet above the chill, black water of the Forth, in a sheet-metal bothy the colour of blood, the men of the bridge are waiting to begin work. “Sweetie?” Someone offers a barley sugar. “That’s what gets you through these shifts. Better than a hip flask.”

The bothy has been part of the Forth Rail Bridge since the 1930s. It is slightly below the level of the railway tracks and has the look of an air-raid shelter. Inside, it is small and plain – white walls, water-stained ceilings, stickers of Old Firm stars and pin-up girls and the Bash Street Kids stuck around the darkened windows. There are around fifteen or so men in here, bleary-eyed and midnight-stubbly, dressed in bright orange overalls and dirty jackets. They drink coffee from plastic cups, scan the tabloids and wind each other up about the day’s football. The chat is a mix of technical jargon and swear-strewn banter. “Right,” says the gaffer, “we need to be off the track at ten to seven. Wheels-free at ten to seven.”

A man walks in – slight and gaunt, middle-aged, switching off the light on his helmet. He looks like a miner straight from the pit, and is greeted with a warmth that must be welcome, given the freezing temperatures outside. “Pistol Pete! Y’awright? Is it rainin’ oot there?”

“Batterin’ doon.”

“Coulda had another coupla oors in bed, man.”

There is a low rumble nearby that you can feel in your guts. One of the workers cocks an ear. “Is that a train? Cannae hear fuck all over that wind.”

The wee small hours of Sunday morning is the only time in the course of the week that trains do not run over the Forth Bridge. Usually, they pass back and forward, between Edinburgh and Fife, at a rate of eight an hour. So this shift is an opportunity for the workers of Balfour Beatty, the company charged with repainting and restoring the bridge these last ten years, to bring on and take off all the materials necessary for their work. The bridge is owned and operated by Network Rail; this weekly handover of the tracks is known as “taking possession”. But it isn’t an exact science, and sometimes there is a lot of waiting around for the phone call, hence these men crowded into the bothy, bored and restless, passing the time with coffee and craic.

“This is torture, eh?” says George Lowe, the general foreman, wryly. “All these men eager to work and they cannae go. Look at him, lying like a burst couch over there.”

The worker on the receiving end of this pleasant simile, Gordon McAulay, is a short, stocky Glaswegian of middle years. He’s reclining with his head on the radiator and his boots up on the back of a chair. If he hears the foreman’s remark, he chooses to ignore it, preferring instead to explain what it’s like to graft away high on the bridge while most Scots are enjoying either a warm bed or last orders. “We’ve been doing it so long we’re used to it,” he shrugs. “But there’s some folk can’t handle it because it’s dark and they can’t see the water. See when we first started this job? The fire brigade came out to do some safety checks and the chief fire officer, as soon as he got out over the water, just froze. He had to be carried off.”

There’s laughter at this, a laughter containing pride, and cutting through it a mobile ring tone – Mozart’s Symphony No 40, written less than a century before construction began on the Forth Bridge. It is 1.15am and this is the call they have been waiting for. “Right guys,” says the gaffer, “let’s roll.”

A downing of coffee, a grabbing of helmets, and we’re out the door. Straight away, the whole world is wind. Like an angry ghost, it howls in your ears and tries to shove past. It’s dark on the bridge at night, the narrow walkways lit by a string of bulbs, protected by cages, rocking back and forth in the wind. Look down and it’s just black. The water is invisible; the grey back and outstretched wings of a herring gull float, spectral, through the inky void. You can hear the phantom shriek of seabirds nesting on Inchgarvie but the island itself can’t be seen. The flaring gas of Mossmorran refinery causes the horizon to flicker and glow, giving the hills of Fife the look of active volcanoes. Above, through the struts and braces and booms, you can see the stars.

The whole scene is quite astonishingly atmospheric, and the workers, despite having been here for years, are not inured to its charms. Standing in the dim buttery light of a walkway bulb, Aaron Paddon, a 22-year-old labourer from Bo’ness, takes a moment to contemplate what the bridge has come to mean to him. “I’ll be sad to finish,” he says. “Working here is something I’ll always remember.”

Endings. Beginnings and endings. Construction work began on the Forth Bridge in the summer of 1883, and the last of 6.5 million rivets was driven home on 4 March 1890. The bridge was built but needed constant care as it was lashed and scoured by wind, water and haar. The years passed and ‘painting the Forth Bridge’ came to mean a never-ending task. Start at one end, carry on to the end, taking so long about it that you must then start again – that was the way, each painter a Scottish Sisyphus. But all that is ending now.

In 2002, Network Rail gave Balfour Beatty the green-light to begin the job, at a cost of over £130 million, of painting the Forth Bridge using a new technique and exceptionally durable paint, so that it would not need painted again for more than 20 years. The job is not purely aesthetic. “The bridge was quietly decaying,” says Ian Heigh, sometimes known as the bridgemaster, who has overall responsibility for the bridge for Network Rail. “It was rusting away. We had to arrest the corrosion before it got to a critical stage.” He regards himself and the team as custodians of the bridge’s future. “This,” he says, “is the best bridge in the world.”

The work is due to finish on 9 December. By then, some 240,000 litres of paint will have been used. The paint, manufactured by Leighs of Bolton, is known officially as Transgard TG168, but everyone calls it Forth Bridge Red and it is used only here, nowhere else. It would cost you £6 per square metre if you wanted to apply the paint to your kitchen wall; putting it on the bridge, due to the difficulties of access, costs around £370 per square metre.

At the peak of the restoration work, there were up to 350 men working on the bridge. All men. You hear, from time to time, about a female abseiler who was employed for a brief period, but she is talked about as a remarkable sighting, akin to the pod of orcas spotted in the Forth a few years back.

Now, as the work reaches its end, there are still around 120 workers, and the bridge continues to have the feel of a community in the air, something like an old-fashioned pit village lying out there on the water. It is rough and tough, yes, but there is also a feeling of men looking out for one another, and not just in terms of their physical safety. Over the decade, many of them have experienced life’s cyclical storms – bereavement, divorce, the challenges of new fatherhood – and have been consoled and steered by workmates.

A bridge is all about support, and the Forth Bridge is supportive in more ways than one. “It’s about the bridge,” says John Andrew, business development director at Balfour Beatty. “It’s not about individuals. Everyone’s working together to restore this wonderful icon.” And while that may be true, mostly, there is also a sense in which the work is meaningful precisely because it is about individuals; about the men who embody the same traditional Scottish values as the bridge on which they work – strength, ingenuity, comradeship, endurance, effort and a certain kind of masculine grace. Look at the old photographs of the men who built the bridge, those Victorian briggers with their blurred and shadowy faces – what a pity we do not know their names. However, that can be put right, now, as we meet their 21st-century descendants.

On a bright day in early September, Colin Hardie, the construction manager, walks up the steps outside the South Queensferry office compound and leads the way out on to the bridge. The plan is to walk right across to Fife, a distance of a mile and a half. Hardie is 48 and comes from Grangemouth, a big man with a surprisingly gentle and considered manner. You probably wouldn’t want to cross him, but as a guide to the bridge he is expert and enthusiastic. He has worked on it for almost a decade and feels proud that, through his graft, he has written himself into the story of this place. “I wish we had another ten years,” he says. “The bridge gets in your blood.”

It is a fairly mild day, the sky blue, the water glittering through the girders. The weather is not always this kind. They’ve worked in minus fourteen before now. But it’s not so much the cold that’s the problem as the wind. Hardie explains that when it gets up to between 40-45mph they have to evacuate the workers as it becomes unsafe. Over the course of the decade, an entire year’s work has been lost to the punishing Scottish climate.

High on the bridge, with a long view to all points of the compass, you can see the weather coming from far away, eerie hail storms that drift in like solid walls of white. The workers are supplied with special thermal clothing, but it is not unknown for them to supplement these official garments with pairs of women’s tights.

The weather gets to you. Matt Costello, an actor who for the last few years has worked as an electrician’s mate, once stood on the top of the Fife cantilever, heartsick of the cold, and shouted lines from Macbeth into the wind and rain. “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow/Creeps in this petty pace from day today/To the last syllable of recorded time.”

Keeping warm can be a state of mind, and so the bridge rings out, day and night, with the sound of yelling, whistling and kid-on slagging matches; all this on top of the clanging of work and sirens warning of approaching trains. Walking through, it’s hard to tell where the noise is coming from, above or below. The scaffolding platforms are known as dancefloors, and this can on occasion be a literal description. “Up on the catwalk, up on the catwalk,” bellows one young scaffolder near the top of the Fife cantilever, channelling Right Said Fred and shaking his touche some 300-odd feet above the Forth. He is, of course, secured to the bridge by his safety harness – as are all employees working at the so-called leading edge.

“Look!” he breaks off and points.”The peregrine!” And sure enough, there it is – one of a pair which nest on the bridge, stooping at a pigeon. The peregrines are cherished by the workers, who value such sightings and consider the birds as being under their protection. If the workers of the Forth Bridge had a heraldic emblem, it would be a peregrine perched on a girder and holding a paintbrush in its beak.

Not that the workers actually use brushes much. The rivets are all done by hand, but every other part of the bridge has paint sprayed on. First, the old lead paint and rust is removed by blasters dressed in protective clothing that gives them the look of astronauts; they are armed with high-pressure hoses firing grit and compressed air. The interior of the encapsulated areas – visible from outside as white ‘bandages’ wrapped around the bridge – fills quickly with dust and lead, making it difficult to see. The hoses are powerful enough to cut through flesh and bone, and the blasters know to work in a clockwise direction to avoid contact with workmates. The job requires trust and true grit. Primer, epoxy glass flake and finally an acrylic urethane finish is then applied; the bridge gets a further fourth coat at the level low enough to be splashed by waves. The paint is of a type used on oil rigs and has been compared in its toughness to the platelets of an armadillo.

From the top of the middle cantilever – known to the workers as Garvie – the vista is as extraordinary as you would expect, and then some. You can see the Pentlands, Fife, out to the Bass Rock, but what is unexpected is the view west – as far as Ben Lomond. Hanging off the underside of the platform are dozens of 21ft-long ‘droppers’ – steel poles that end in a short T-bar, just wide enough for a man to stand on. Incredibly, the scaffolders climb down these in order to work, nothing below them but more than 300 feet of air and then the hungry water. These droppers represent a rite of passage – a man looking for work on the bridge will be invited to climb down. If he cannot bring himself to do it, he will not be hired. Of the 300 or so men employed on the bridge, another 700, roughly, did not have the required head for heights.

For those with the right stuff, working on the Forth Bridge is the equivalent of a campaign medal earned in a particularly hard-fought combat zone. “If you can scaffold here,” says Andy Wright, the general foreman, “you can scaffold anywhere in the world.”

Of course, for some with a particular temperament, the idea of working at great heights, above the Forth or speeding trains, is terrifically attractive. One abseiler spotted walking through the bridge has “Living the dream” written across his helmet and describes the bridge as “the biggest climbing frame in the world”.

Thrill-seeking is not encouraged, however. Safety is stressed constantly by the contractors, because this is very risky work. During construction of the bridge, at least 71 men died, and there have been deaths since. The most recent came during the current restoration work, in January last year, when Robert MacDonald, a 52-year-old painter working the nightshift, fell 150 feet and landed on scaffolding near the railway tracks. “Every man on this bridge was affected,” Hardie recalls. “Morale was down. Our programme probably fell behind at that point by as much as three or four months. We closed the site for ten days as a mark of respect. It’s very hard to describe the feelings. I was devastated. That guy left for work, just like me, and didn’t manage to get home in the morning. I’m quite a big man, I think I’m a man’s man, but there’s times even now when I look back and it does bring a lump to the throat. You are actually numb. You’re numb. We are a working family, and we lost one of our own.”

Two workmates who were with MacDonald at the time of his fall have testified at a fatal accident inquiry that he fell through a gap in a walkway while the crew were taking an unauthorised shortcut. His daughter Clare has spoken about her father’s love for the bridge. He was proud to be part of the painting crew, she said, and considered the bridge as being his own. What makes this especially moving is that it is precisely what you hear from many of the bridge workers; it belongs to those who toil upon it, and though their devotion is sometimes sorely tested, it seems to endure like steel.

Just ask Fraser Marshall. He is 65, acts as a point of contact between the workers and the railway to make sure no one is injured by the trains, and will retire when the current work ends. He grew up in South Queensferry, in a house overlooking the bridge, and has seen it almost every day of his life. He remembers the steam trains passing in the days when passengers would throw pennies out of the windows and into the water for luck.

He loves the bridge, despite the fact that he has every reason to hate it. “I was 15 when I lost my eldest brother, and then I was 26 when I lost my father,” he recalls. “Both accidents out on the bridge there. My brother out on the north approach span, my father on Fife south.” Both were called John. His brother was a painter who fell from the bridge. His father, a rigger, was killed on Christmas Eve, 1972, when the platform on which he was working collapsed into the Forth; his body was never recovered.

The bridge has taken much from Marshall, but to hear him tell it he has gained a great deal too. He started here almost 30 years ago, working on the railway track, and considered that he had the best job in the world. “You feel you’re doing your bit for Scotland,” he says, “keeping the bridge there and in use.”

Thole is a good Scottish word. It means to endure or bear. You might thole the death of a father or brother. The Forth Bridge was built to thole. Its 53,000 tonnes of steel are strong but are also intended to have the appearance of strength, thereby convincing its first nervous rail passengers that it would not collapse, as the Tay Bridge had done. What’s striking, therefore, is that John Fowler and Benjamin Baker’s design does not look brutish. It has, instead, a shiplike elegance that has led a number of the workers to refer to the bridge as she.

Walking within ‘her’ is an experience like no other. It feels, at times, like being inside an Escher print, especially when going up in one of the lifts, or hoists, and seeing the Fife countryside tilting at a crazy angle, or when walking down the cloistered slope of an internal catwalk at the top of Garvie. Mostly, what you notice is the psychedelic geometry of the bridge – all those repeating X and W shapes, all those hypnotic vanishing points.

Down on the water, from the perspective of The Forth Linesman, a works barge, there is an incredible moment while rounding Inchgarvie, when the cross on what appears to be a small chapel at the eastern end of the island lines up precisely with the huge cross-shaped brace of the cantilever. Little wonder that Gary Hutchison, the 42-year-old skipper, is moved to write poetry about the bridge, describing it as “a giant wrapped in steel” breaking through the waves.

That giant, come Christmas, will stand alone in the water. The work will be done, the workers departed to other bridges, other buildings or to the dole. There’s a sadness in that, of course, but this is a new beginning too.

Standing on the promenade at South Queensferry early one Sunday morning, watching the sun rise behind the bridge, its awesome frame reddening in the dawn’s rays, what strikes most forcefully is that this structure represents much of what is great about Scotland, what we value in ourselves, and so it is right that we should treat it with such passionate care.

It is 7.10am, the overnighters are just finishing their shift, and one of them is visible on the level of the racks. A tiny figure, unidentifiable, he could be any brigger from any era, part of the crew who built this icon and who have acted as its guardians since. He is silhouetted against the pale morning sky, framed by the diamond struts of the walkway, and is soon lost to history amid the beautiful complexity of the Forth Bridge.

This story is also available in my book Daunderlust