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Wednesday 22 February 2017

Feature: Thomas Telford

9 August 2007 is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Telford and the National Archives of Scotland (NAS) is one of many institutions in Scotland and beyond celebrating his life and achievements. He was memorably described as 'the colossus of roads' but his talents extended beyond road and bridge building to the construction of canals, railways, harbours, piers, docks and many other public buildings and he was also a man of letters; befriending poets, contributing to the Edinburgh Encyclopedia and publishing his own poetry and travel journal.

Detail from the testament of Thomas Telford (National Archives of Scotland reference SC70/1/53, pp 1-6)

The extent of his impact on Scotland and the wider world can be quickly demonstrated by searching the online catalogue to the holdings of the NAS, using the search term 'Thomas Telford'.

His last will and testament shows how wide his interests were and how many individuals and organisations in engineering, public affairs and literature were associated with him.

Thomas Telford was born in Jamestown, in the parish of Westerkirk, in Eskdale, Dumfries-shire on 9 August 1757. He left school at the age of 14 to become an apprentice stonemason. He was for a time a journeyman mason, working, among other projects, on the Langholm Bridge. He moved to Edinburgh in 1780, at the age of 23, and two years later moved to London to work on Somerset House. In 1787 he was appointed surveyor of public works in Shropshire and the engineer of the Ellesmere Canal. He returned to Scotland in 1790 to survey harbours and piers on behalf of the British Fisheries Society. His most famous achievements include the construction of the Caledonian Canal, the building of almost 1000 miles of road and 120 bridges in the Highlands, the Gotha Canal (linking the Baltic with the North Sea), the Menai Bridge, and improvements to the Glasgow to Carlisle Road. Many of Scotland's archives hold records relating to Telford, especially survey reports and improvement plans for harbours, roads, churches, and other buildings and public works.

The last will and testament survives in the registers of Edinburgh Sheriff Court (National Archives of Scotland reference: SC70/1/53 pp.1-6). The inventory in the testament reveals the extent of Telford's personal wealth at the time of his death in 1834, including over £2537 in his bank account (with the Bank of Scotland), stocks and shares, and details of his property in Canterbury (not bad for the posthumous son of a shepherd who was, reputedly, brought up in poverty). The list of beneficiaries in his last will and testament confirms much of what is known about his social circle and personal interests. Several of the next generation of engineers benefited from his wealth as they had done from his experience: his beneficiaries included the civil engineers James Jardine (1776-1858), William Cubitt (1785-1861), the architect William Playfair (1789-1857), Joseph Mitchell (1803-83) - the engineer and proponent of the Highland Railway, and the Institution of Civil Engineers (which received £2000).

Telford's reputation as a man of letters may have preceded his fame as an engineer: he had published poetry between 1779 and 1784, and an account of a tour of Scotland with the poet Robert Southey (1774-1843). His will left bequests to Southey (who would later write Telford's biography), the poet Thomas Campbell (1777-1844) and to the publishers of the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia (to which he had been a contributor).

His public spiritedness and espousal of worthy causes, evident in his life, was also manifest in bequests to the ministers of the parishes of Westerkirk and Langholm (who each received £1000 to provide books for their respective parish libraries); Sir Henry Parnell (1776-1842), the Whig MP and advocate of Catholic emancipation; and the statisticians and demographers, James Cleland (1770-1840), and John Rickman (1771-1840), who devised the methodology of the first census in 1801.

You can see digital images and a transcript of the entire will and testament on the ScotlandsPeople website at To search the NAS catalogue for Telford material go to our Catalogues and Indexes page.



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