Westerkirk to Westminister Abbey
The Dumfriesshire Companion
Haig Gordon



Some Historical Background

The Border

From Westerkirk to Westminster Abbey -
Thomas Telford

Robert Burns - Doonhamer

The Sage of Ecclefechan - Thomas Carlyle

Hugh MacDiarmid and the Muckle Toon

Other Literary Figures

The Artists

Fame and Fortune

Other Pairs of Eyes

From Westerkirk to Westminster Abbey

The great civil engineer Thomas Telford (1757-1834) features so pervasively in the tourism literature of Langholm in Eskdale that the assumption could easily be made that the Muckle Toon was where he was born and brought up. In fact his birthplace was not even in Eskdale but some ten miles to the north-west of Langholm at the far northern end of the valley of the Meggat Water. His father John was a shepherd at the farm of Glendinning. An older son had died in infancy and this replacement child was given his dead brother's name.

Young Tammie Telfer, as he came to be known locally, did not remain long at Glendinning. He was born on 9 August. On 12 November in the same year his father died, and he and his mother Janet had to vacate the shepherd's accommodation. They moved a mile and a half down the valley to Crooks where they had to share a two-roomed thatched cottage with another family. The meagre living that Mrs Telford managed to scrape together doing odd jobs around the farm was supplemented by whatever relatives could afford to give her. It was an austere existence of hard work and self-reliance. But Telford seems never to have had any sense of childhood deprivation and amidst the success of his later life he consistently looked back upon this lowly upbringing with affection. From his earliest years he displayed a cheerful and positive disposition: his boyhood nickname was 'Laughing Tam'.

The Telfords' nearest village was Bentpath, located at the point where the Meggat Water flows into the River Esk. It was there at Westerkirk parish school that Telford received the firm grounding in literacy and numeracy that was to serve him so well for the rest of his life. Among the local gentry were some kindly mentors, most notably Miss Elizabeth Pasley who encouraged the widow's son to make use of her library. The first of her books to have a big impact on his imagination was Milton's Paradise Lost. This formative exposure to literature was the start of a lifelong passion, particularly for poetry, a medium in which he developed a certain facility of his own. He almost hero-worshipped men of letters and the friendships of his maturity were with writers as much as with fellow engineers. His posthumous bequest to the Westerkirk library in Bentpath was an expression of his gratitude for the cultural opportunities of his early years.

Given the modesty of the family resources, university study was out of the question for the young Telford. From school he went straight into a stonemason's apprenticeship, first at Lochmaben, subsequently at Langholm. During his period in the Muckle Toon he worked on the building of New Langholm, a housing scheme for the incoming workers needed for the town's expanding mill trade. He also worked, in the late 1770s, on the new town bridge across the Esk, where his mason's mark is said to be still discernible. Soon after the bridge was completed the river flooded and there were fears that the new structure might collapse. A story told by Telford's first biographer Samuel Smiles shows that the rookie stonemason was already thinking like an engineer:

Robin Hotson, the master mason, was from home at the time, and his wife, Tibby, knowing that he was bound by his contract to maintain the fabric for a period of seven years, was in a state of great alarm. She ran from one person to another, wringing her hands and sobbing, "Oh! we'll be ruined - we'll a' be ruined!" In her distress she thought of Telford, in whom she had great confidence, and called out, "Oh! where's Tammy Telfer - where's Tammy?" He was immediately sent for. It was evening, and he was soon found at the house of Miss Pasley. When he came running up, Tibby exclaimed, "Oh, Tammy! they've been on the brig, and they say it's shakin'! It 'll be doon!" "Never you heed them, Tibby," said Telford, clapping her on the shoulder, "there's nae fear o' the brig. I like it a' the better that it shakes - it proves it's weel put thegither."

Telford was fortunate that his time as a trainee in stonemasonry coincided with a period of massive upgrading of the country's infrastructure and the Langolm area was no exception to this. Ever curious about building techniques and ways of improving them, he learned a great deal during his Langholm phase that would stand him in good stead as his career developed: 'Regular roads were substituted for the old horse tracks, and wheeled carriages introduced. Bridges, numerous but small, were built over the mountain streams.and I was here early experienced in the several operations required in their construction.'

When his apprenticeship came to an end Telford went to work in Edinburgh on the building of the New Town. But after a year he came to the conclusion that his best option from then on was the well-trodden path of emigration: 'Having acquired the rudiments of my profession, I considered that my native country afforded few opportunities of exercising it to any extent, and therefore judged it advisable (like many of my countrymen) to proceed southward, where industry might find more employment and be better remunerated.'

He decided to head for the building boom of London but there was the question of how he would get there. His luck was in. Local landowner Sir James Johnstone of Westerhall needed to have a horse delivered to London and so it was that, in 1782, with his chisels, mallet and leather apron in his kitbag, he rode south. Thanks to the intercession of dear old Miss Pasley, Telford on reaching the capital went straight to see her brother, who introduced the twenty-five-old jobseeker to no less than the two leading architects of the time, Sir William Chambers and Robert Adam. Such was the benign influence of the Eskdale mafia.

At that time the new Somerset House was being built beside the River Thames and Chambers was its designer. Telford immediately joined the workforce and remained with the project for a couple of years. He then moved on to Portsmouth where he worked on harbour schemes and picked up a great deal of subsequently invaluable information about water-resistant mortars. While at Portsmouth he was promoted to supervisor but he was starting to feel acutely that it was time for him to be breaking through the restrictions of being just a plain stonemason.

The longed-for turning-point in his fortunes came once again through the intervention of his patrician connections back in Eskdale. William Pulteney MP was, despite the surname, another of the Johnstones of Westerhall. He adopted his wife's family name after she inherited a huge fortune founded on estates throughout England including one based around Shrewsbury Castle in Shropshire. Pulteney recruited Telford to supervise the castle's renovation and put so many other projects his way that in Shrewsbury Telford came to be known as 'young Pulteney'. It was again through Pulteney's patronage that Telford was hired by the British Fisheries Society to undertake harbour improvements the length and breadth of northern Scotland. One of them was at Wick and was named - guess what - Pulteneytown! This coastal work led to Telford advising on the whole range of infrastructural development. His most ambitious highland undertaking was the sixty-mile Caledonian Canal, begun in 1804 and not completed for another eighteen years.

It was back in Shropshire and north Wales, however, that Telford first made his name as a structural designer of astonishing ingenuity. In 1793 he was appointed 'General Agent, Surveyor, Engineer, Architect and Overlooker' for the sixty-eight-mile Ellesmere Canal linking the rivers Mersey, Dee and Severn. His piece de resistance was the Pontcysyllte aqueduct across the Dee. He overcame the problem of top-heavy masonry by placing a lighter cast-iron trough across its eighteen stone piers. When the writer Sir Walter Scott set eyes on it he thought it 'the greatest work of art' he had ever seen.

After that Telford was the virtuoso who could do no wrong. Commissions poured in: more canals and harbours; new highways across the country, including Carlisle to Glasgow through Dumfriesshire; schemes for land drainage and for water supply; spectacular river crossings like the Menai suspension bridge across to Anglesey. He was courted abroad too. The Russians consulted him and in 1808 the King of Sweden enticed him across the North Sea to advise on extending the Gotha canal. The Swedes were so grateful for his services that they conferred upon him their equivalent of a knighthood and all subsequent letters from them were addressed to 'Sir Thomas Telford'.

The Telford brand was becoming ubiquitous and the need for quality control required the presiding genius to be continuously on the move. His life became that of a wandering maestro. Nowhere in his voluminous correspondence is there a single mention of any love interest, unsurprising perhaps in the light of this constant pressure of work. 'I am tossed about like a tennis ball: the other day I was in London, since that I have been in Liverpool, and in a few days I expect to be at Bristol. Such is my life; and to tell you the truth, I think it suits my disposition.'

There was not even much time for visiting his old mother. He sent her regular cash payments but otherwise they seem to have grown apart and when yet another urgent site inspection forced a planned visit home to be postponed, there was almost a sense of relief on his part: 'Indeed I am rather distressed at the thoughts of running down to see a kind parent in the last stage of decay, on whom I can only bestow an affectionate look, and then leave her: her mind will not be much consoled by this parting, and the impression left upon mine will be more lasting than pleasant.' He did manage to get back to Crooks shortly before she died in 1794.

All the while the workaholic engineer had his one great recreational release, the love of poetry engendered at Miss Pasley's. 'It is to me something like what a fiddle is to others; I apply to it in order to relieve the mind after being much fatigued with close attention to business.' He not only read poetry but also dabbled in writing it. In 1795 he was confident enough of his literary ability to publish 'Eskdale: A Descriptive Poem', though in a preface there was a conventional note of self-effacement explaining that it 'was written in early Youth, when the Situation of the Author gave him little Opportunity of being acquainted with English Poetry. It was then published at the Request of some Friends who had the Kindness to take an Interest in it, from the Circumstances in which it was composed.' He portrays Eskdale as having ascended from reiving barbarity into the civilised stability of the Scotland-England union:

Alternate Plunder mark'd the varying Years;
Each Ev'ning brought its Triumphs, or its Tears:
While Power and Rapine grew from Sire to Son,
And the Song sanctioned what the Sword had won.
Awaked at length, BRITANNIA reared her head,
And feudal Power, and Superstition fled.
One equal Law the hostile Nations bound,
And Peace diffus'd her unknown joys around;
Commerce at last her daring Sails unfurl'd,
And BRITAIN rose the envy of the World.

He throws in a glowing reference to an earlier Langholmite poet William Julius Mickle:

Resolved their fav'rite POPE should live again,
They [the Muses] gave thy MICKLE all his tuneful Strain,
Taught him to roll the Tide of Verse along,
And GAMA'S deeds immortalize in Song.

And there are politic acknowledgements of his patrons, the Johnstones and the Pasleys, and of course he doffed his cap in particular to Sir William Pulteney 'who is well known in the political World, and for the very active Part which he takes in the promoting every Plan for the Improvement of the Country.'

Telford was 39 when Robert Burns died in Dumfries and he felt compelled to write an elegy expressing outrage that someone of Burns's stature should have ended up being told what to do by petty officials in the excise service:

The Muses shall that fatal hour
To Lethe's streams consign,
Which gave the little slaves of pow'r,
To scoff at worth like thine.

But thy fair fame shall rise and spread,
Thy name be dear to all,
When down to their oblivious bed,
Official insects fall.

For Telford one of the privileges of his burgeoning fame was that he could mix with outstanding figures in other professions. Because of his immense and almost awestruck respect for the world of literature he sought out in particular the company of poets. There was no shortage in London of impecunious Scottish writers on the make and Telford was pleased to both befriend and support them. The principal beneficiary of his generosity was Glasgow-born poet and critic Thomas Campbell, who showed his gratitude by naming his son Thomas Telford Campbell.

Telford's most intriguing literary friendship was with Robert Southey, then the Poet Laureate, and this led to an extraordinary shared adventure, the details of which still make for hilarious reading. For three months the two of them joined up for a jolly saunter around Scotland. Telford was inspecting his numerous projects-in-progress while Southey tagged along, taking notes which were subsequently published as Journal of a Tour in Scotland in 1819. While the self-made practical man may have slightly revered the royal appointee, the poet for his part seemed almost envious of someone with such tangible achievements: 'Telford's is a happy life: everywhere making roads, building bridges, forming canals, and creating harbours - works of sure, solid, permanent utility; everywhere employing a great number of persons, selecting the most meritorious, and putting them forward in the world, in his own way.' It was Southey who coined for Telford the delightful punning epithet 'The Colossus of Roads'.

We have Southey's word for it that Telford was still, in effect, the 'Laughing Tam' of old: 'There is so much intelligence in his countenance, so much frankness, kindness and hilarity about him, flowing from the never-failing well-spring of a happy nature, that I was upon cordial terms with him in five minutes.' As the journey continued he noticed the engineer's kindness to those serving him: 'When Mr Telford paid the bill, he gave the poor girl who had been waiter, chambermaid, and probably cook in chief also, a twenty shillings bill. I shall never forget the sudden expression of her countenance and her eyes when she understood that it was for herself.'

It was just as well that the two men hit it off so well because for most of their Scottish tour, moving from one small hostelry to another, they had to share a bed. What an enchanting vision we have here: the monarch's poet and the famous engineer snoring contentedly side by side! One night, though, they did not get to sleep straightaway. There was a loud noise coming from above and Southey, getting up to investigate, was informed that it was coming from 'the masons'. A comic misunderstanding followed:

I supposed they were employed up on the roof of the house, and were working at it without intermission, day and night, in order to compleat it while the weather continued dry. Thus I had reasoned in a disturbed and half dreamy state, when neither asleep nor awake. But T. laughing at my mistake, told me the Freemasons were holding a lodge upstairs.

Being together at bed-time turned out to be a boon for Southey, for his room-mate was on hand to help with the treatment of ailments that troubled him throughout the journey. A physician had to be consulted at Perth:

Dr Wood set me at ease concerning one of the tumours on my head which has just begun to suppurate, having been there more than ten years without annoying me before. He says it will discharge itself, and recommends a poultice at night, and some simple ointment on a piece of lint by day. The former part of his advice it is impossible to follow while I am travelling. But I laid in lint and ointment, and must trust to Mr Telford's kindness to apply them: we are generally quartered in a double bedded room.

On another occasion, when Southey was again seeking medical help for what he called 'my volcano', Telford teased him with a story about an Englishman breaking a leg in the Highlands: 'the two Highlanders who were carrying him to the nearest town laid him down by the way, and bargained for the reward of their services, one of them saying to the other in Gaelic, which was understood by the poor stranger's servant, "We must ask enough, for it is not every day that an Englishman comes here and breaks a leg!" '

Telford was ever anxious that the poet should take away the best impression of his homeland, not least on matters of cuisine: 'At tea last night, and at breakfast this morning we had Findon haddocks, which Mr Telford would not allow us to taste at Dundee, nor till we reached Stonehaven, lest this boasted dainty of Aberdeen should be disparaged by a bad specimen.'

Southey does not neglect to pay attention to the details of Telford's work, including his road-building method:

...first to level and drain; then, like the Romans, to lay a solid pavement of large stones, the round or broad end downwards, as close as they can be set; the points are then broken off, and a layer of stones broken to about the size of walnuts, laid over them, so that the whole are bound together; over all a little gravel if it be to hand, but this is not essential.

Having set off in the middle of August, the not so unlikely couple reached the end of their journey at the beginning of October. Southey felt sad:

This parting company, after the thorough intimacy which a long journey produces between fellow travellers who like each other, is a melancholy thing. A man more heartily to be liked, more worthy to be esteemed and admired, I have never fallen in with; and therefore it is painful to think how little likely it is that I shall ever see much of him again - how certain that I shall never see so much. Yet I trust that he will not forget his promise of one day making Keswick on his way to and from Scotland.

After Telford's death Southey got a pleasant surprise when the contents of the will were revealed: he had been left the then substantial sum of 850, a windfall that was most welcome to a man who at the time was wrestling with financial problems.

The almost constant travelling meant that for many years Telford was of no fixed abode. It was not until he was well into his sixties that he finally established a home of his own. Previously whenever he had to be in London he took a room at the Salopian Coffee House near Charing Cross. He became such a fixture there, such a celebrity attraction, that his regular presence was a factor in the valuation of the business. So when in 1821 he announced the acquisition of a permanent base a newly installed landlord protested: 'What, leave the house! Why, sir, I have just paid 750 for you!'

The new home was at 24 Abingdon Street in Westminster, close to the Houses of Parliament. The property had once been occupied by the architect Sir William Chambers, the man who had given Telford, while he was still a young stonemason, his first job in London. The novelty of having his first proper home since childhood was one of the great pleasures of his declining years. He delighted in having dinner parties and showing visitors round. He provided lodgings for trainees in his employment. 'The old gentleman treated us as sons,' said one of them.

Having young people around the house was no doubt compensation of sorts for a man who had been too busy all his working life ever to get round to having a family of his own. At heart there was an aloneness about the elderly Telford, especially as he sank into the isolation of increasing deafness. His thoughts inevitably returned to the scenes of his upbringing. Forty or so years after it was written he looked again at his long poem on Eskdale and added eight more lines at the end:

Yet still, one Voice, while fond Remembrance stays,
One feeble Voice, shall celebrate thy praise,
Shall tell thy Sons that, wheresoe'er they roam,
The Hermit Peace hath built her Cell at home;
Tell them, Ambition's wreath, and Fortune's gain,
But ill supply the Pleasures of the Plain;
Teach their young Hearts thy simple Charms to prize,
To love their native Hills, and bless their native Skies.

Telford became the first president of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1820 and when he died in 1834, at the age of 77, he was still in post. He wanted to be buried at St Margaret's Church in Westminster, just round the corner from Abingdon Street. Members of the Institution overruled his wish and insisted on full national honours in Westminster Abbey. He was laid to rest in the centre of the great nave and a commemorative statue was erected in the Chapel of St Andrew. That other eminent engineer Robert Stephenson, when he died twenty-five years later, was buried at his own request alongside his hero Telford. But, for all the glory of such a setting, Westerkirk, where as a young man he had carved the stone for his 'unblameable shepherd' father, might have been a more fitting final resting-place for the unblameable engineer, of whom his twentieth-century biographer L T C Rolt wrote:

It is a strange coincidence that Telford, the man of the hills and the lover of great beauty, should have been called upon to execute his greatest works in the Highlands of Scotland and among the mountains of North Wales. That these works match the grandeur of their setting, however, is no coincidence for they represent the mature achievement of the eye that was first opened in wonder upon the hills of Eskdale.


Kirkpatrick Fleming
Newton Wamphray

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