Scotland’s Oldest Bridges.
A map-based catalogue of the oldest masonry bridges in Scotland.
Stirling Old Bridge.
Page updated last in Sept.2020
Earliest period. The Roman river crossing.
Bellenden’s translation of Boece (Ref) tells us that Agricola “come to Striuelyng.... and nocht lang efter he byggit ane bryg ouir Forth...”. The 16thcentury chronicler provides no source and is not renowned for reliability; no other historian mentions this bridge. The definitive source should be the Roman historian Tacitus, but he records nothing of the kind. However, he does write that moving into the country beyond ( the isthmus) was “…as if into another island” (The Agricola, 23 (Ref)). Certainly, the geographical and military significance of this particular river crossing continued throughout medieval times and on until the eighteenth century. Movement between the north and south of Scotland was vitally influenced by the topography of the Forth Valley.The Stirling crossing was always the great junction of Scottish traffic.
The first-century Roman road approaches from the south-east. Very recent archaeological findings by Cook (Ref) at Beechwood (279286 691995) appear to confirm the general direction shown on the 1856 edition Ordnance Survey, which traces the road from Torwood through the present day Pirnhall roundabout and on down into the town. Excavations in the 1970s confirmed the road in the gardens of houses in the King’s Park area (279169 692735) which lie on an extension of that line, and also just within the main gate of the Park itself (279129 692926). This last confirmed finding is still one mile short of the river. The crossing was most probably at the ancient ford of Kildean (278523 695021), but despite field observations and excavations, nothing has been found to confirm this. Equally the road might have veered west or east of the castle in the direction of today’s bridged crossing. Kildean and Bridgehaugh are a little more than a mile apart. There is nothing Roman to be found at either, nor is there any evidence of the road immediately on the north bank, athough there is a very ancient paved causeway going North from Bridgehaugh which could be significant. The confirmed Roman road first re-appears some 6 miles to the north, beyond Dunblane, at 279424, 704570, on the south bank of the Allan Water. From there it progresses up into Perthshire. The road was consolidated and repaired in the Antonine period (circa 140AD), and since we know it was still in use in medieval times it is reasonable to presume that it was used in the Roman Severan invasion of 208AD. Dio Cassius (Ref) describes the Severan campaign in some detail and tells us that time was spent by this enormous army ‘in cutting down the forests, levelling the heights, filling up the swamps, and bridging the rivers.’ It is interesting that a coin celebrating the emperor’s successes in Scotland, in 208, features a bridge over a river.
Early medieval period and the oldest bridge.
Boece also records that in 855 AD Scotland was invaded by two Northumbrian princes, Osbrecht and Ella who had united their forces with the Cumbrian Britons in order to defeat the Scots. Having secured the castle they threw a stone bridge over the Forth, and on the top, raised a crucifix with an inscription: -"Anglos a Scotis separat crux ista remotis. Hic armis Bruti: Scoti stant hic cruce tuti." Bellenden’s translation was in poetry. Later historians appear to avoid a translation, describing the language as crude ‘monkish’ Latin, but today an approximation seems to be agreed: "The cross separates English from Scots, distancing them. Highlanders (Picts?) stand protected by force of arms, Scots by the cross”.
John of Fordun (14th century) makes no record of this event and nor do medieval English historians. Its limited authenticity comes only from the 13th-century Common Seal of the Burgh of Stirling. This 9cm round seal impression shows a bridge, apparently of wood, with eight piers of stone, a crucifix and the last part of the same motto surrounding it: “Hic armis Bruti: Scoti stant hic cruce tuti." It seems possible that Boece’s 16thcentury narrative started with the 13thcentury seal and dubiously worked backwards to the 9thcentury. However, if ‘Bruti’ is a reference to Pictish Caledonians, or to Britons specifically distinct from Dalriada Scots, then that distinction alone appears to date the seal (and the bridge) to a demographic that existed several hundred years earlier than the late 13th-century; the seal has a firm date of 1296, although William Drysdale (Ref) claims to have seen a document of 1211, referring to it in the Edinburgh Advocates’Library. There is a casual reference to the Bridge at Stirling in a case of arbitration, dated 1220, in the Register of Dunfermline No 216. In 1230, it was referred to in the third Act of Alexander II, enacted at Scone.
Later Medieval Period.
Mathew Paris’s map of 1247 (right) appears to show only one bridge in the whole of Britain, at Stirling on the River Forth (London Bridge,1209, was certainly obscured by the city detail and perhaps others were similarly hidden). The ‘Pons Estruelin' seems to be a bridge of substance. The geography is inaccurate and distorted - maps of this age are impressionist rather than realistic - but the impression reflects a perception that the Forth and Clyde Valleys were an enormous barrier. They appeared to effectively create an island beyond Stirling, and this isolated area is prominently labelled Scocia Ultra Marina (Scotland beyond the sea). In medieval times the Forth estuary was indeed called ‘The Scottish Sea’. It seems that in the 13th century an extensive carse-marsh combined with a large estuary to limit access to the country beyond Stirling. Passage was wholly dependent on Paris’s bridge. That might suggest that it was not a temporary or recent feature on the landscape. The map also gives significance and credibility to Tacitus’s first-century Scottish isthmus description,“velut in aliam insulam” (as if into another island). Stirling remained the only Forth crossing until 1769 when the bridges at Frew and at Drip were built.
The Pons Estruelin was destroyed in 1297 at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. This Scottish military success in the Wars of Independence is the stuff of legend, inspiration and often propaganda. The story has been told and retold over 700 years. William Wallace’s role was minimised initially and then enhanced and romanticised over the centuries. It seems that resentment of a heavy-handed English regime had been focussed by crippling wool taxes applied by Edward I‘s agents. England was about to wage war in France and many Scottish nobles expected to be conscripted. There is historical consensus that the insurgence started in the spring in two distinct areas led by Wallace in the South and Moray in the Northeast. For six months both rebellions enjoyed success particularly in Aberdeen where an interim government was established. An English army was dispatched in response led by the Earl of Surrey and supported by Cressingham, Edward’s agent in Scotland, who had raised additional troops in the North of England. A combined Scottish force assembled north of Stirling in the August and faced the English army across the Stirling Bridge in September. There is disagreement about the size of the respective armies: on balance, probably fewer than 10,000 on either side. It is very clear from all sources that the English high command committed a tactical disaster; they started the long process of taking their troops across the bridge which was probably no more than 9 ft wide. It has been suggested that this strategic blunder arose from an over-confident view that they merely had to turn up in order to achieve success. Cressingham had rejected advice that a flanking manoeuvre via a nearby ford would be more prudent. The Scots waited until the English were suitably divided in strength before engaging. The bridge was collapsed, probably deliberately. Half the English army was killed, entirely on the north bank. Cressingham died. Surrey fled to Berwick. The wheeled cargo and baggage train were abandoned, and shortly after the castle was conceded. None of the ancient historians is helpful about the precise location of the bridge, although the advice given to Cressingham about the existence of a nearby ford may be important. (If this implied Kildean then the battle may have been at Bridgehaugh.) One attractive post-script to the legend is the role of John Wright, a Scots foot-soldier who reputedly was delegated to pull out the series of pins that caused the wooden bridge to collapse. Following the battle, he was nicknamed ‘Pin Wright’. The first-born of the Wright family was given the name ’Pin’ thereafter, and the last Pin Wright died in 1900, the family having kept alive the tradition for over 600 years.
Nineteenth-century historians argued relentlessly about whether the ancient crossing and ancient bridge had been at Kildean or at Bridgehaugh. It still seems probable that the Romans crossed at Kildean, but there are several other possibilities for Roman crossing further to the west. However, the matter of the ‘Wallace’ bridge now seems to be settled. In 1905, the remains of two ancient bridge piers were revealed at Bridgehaugh lying below water level some 60 yards upstream of the present medieval bridge. They were 8m long by 4m wide. Their existence was confirmed in the drought of 1955.
In 1996 and 1997, using sonar and sub-aqua probing, Ronald Page (Ref) along with teams from St. Andrews University, Stirling University and the British Geological Survey collaborated to locate and survey these piers. Two additional piers were found, of equal size and spacing. The whole layout strongly suggests that four more may yet remain to be discovered; perhaps they have been swept away. These bridge remnants, therefore, suggest an eight-piered wooden structure similar to the one depicted on the 13thcentury Stirling Burgh Seal. At least some of the stones which made up the newly found piers appeared to be of dressed masonry. Unfortunately, although some fragments of wood were recovered they were unsuitable for dendrochronology. The angle of these remnants to the flow of water is peculiar. The line lies at 60° to the river and at a 30° angle to the present medieval bridge, which itself has its cutwaters off-line from the flow. Bridges are rarely constructed in this way as the cutwaters are too important. Inglis (Ref), in 1913, made a suggestion that the river may be slowly changing course over centuries, which could explain the discrepancy with both bridges. Most old maps do not provide enough detail to study this possibility although some do suggest a more right-angular relationship of the river with the later medieval bridge. Page offers considerable detail to the findings and to the conjectured profile which comprises an eight pier structure with 9m gaps between them.
The Scottish success in 1297, was short-lived and Edward I had reoccupied the castle within a year. There were references to a ferry in 1304, and Edward issued a writ for repair of the bridge in 1305 but it seems this did not occur. Certainly, through most of the fourteenth century, boats were used to cross the river, but Treasury documents referring to ferries cease after 1392. This conflicts somewhat with a record that in 1407 a very old bridge was was in existence; Pope Benedict wrote from France that “….it is in a very ruinous condition on account of its great age….” In 1402, St.James’s Hospital and Inn was located at the north end of the bridge.
The Present Bridge
Work on a new bridge was started by Robert III and completed in 1415. In 1424 an English spy reported to Henry VI that the bridge was ‘broken’; the implication might be that it was still constructed of wood. In 1430 more wood was transported to the bridge for repairs. There were royal processions over it, in 1425 (James I), in 1452 (James II) and in 1470 ( James III). The Causeway( Calsay) approaching from the North was repaired and upgraded in 1456. In 1488, rebels defended the bridge a few days before the Battle of Sauchieburn at which James III was killed. In 1528 the young King James V escaped from ‘guardianship’ at Falkland to be given refuge and protection as he crossed at Stirling. In June 1565, Mary Queen of Scots rode ceremoniously over the bridge accompanied by her new fiancé, Henry Darnley. Ironically, in the aftermath of Darnley’s subsequent death, Archbishop Hamilton was hanged at the bridge (in1571) for his part in the plot and for his subsequent support for the Queen, whom, it was said, had colluded in her husband’s murder.
The bridge was completely ruinous again in 1598.
Seventeenth century and later.
A significant structural improvement followed. We know that by 1600 there were large masonry over-arches at both ends of the decking with an iron gate at the northerly arch which was part of the town defence. In this period the central pier buttress rose up as high as the parapet and was fashioned into a guardhouse; there were tolls at this point and customs for import into the Royal Burgh. In the later 17th-century these tolls were franchised-out for around £1000 per year which would amount to more than £3M if expressed relatively to today's GDP-per-capita. Throughout the 17tcentury there are many references to repairs for the bridge.
From 1600 onwards, the narrow corridor at Stirling became a key location in Scotland’s most important economic activity: cattle. The most striking aspect of Haldane’s (Ref) map of drove roads is that most of of his labyrinthine tree comes to a narrow bottleneck at Stirling before widening out again to the south. Trysts at Crieff and at Falkirk dominated the market and huge droves had to be brought down through Stirling on their way to Falkirk and then to England. The Scottish Highlands were viewed as the grazing fields of England.
In terms of later military importance, the bridge was garrisoned and fortified by Covenanters in 1644 to defend against the Marquis of Montrose. A little later the entire Covananter army crossed over it. Charles II ceremoniously crossed into Stirling for his Scottish coronation in 1650. In 1651, Cromwell had to resort to a dangerous sea-born invasion at Inverkeithing because the Stirling bridge was occupied by General Leslie and the Scots. In the 1715 Jacobite rebellion the Hanoverians occupied the bridge to prevent the rebels advancing south to meet up with reinforcements. In the latter part of the Battle of Sheriffmuir, Government forces were chased back to the bridge by the Earl of Mar. The bridge was a key component of the military road to Crieff built by Major William Caulfield in 1741. In the 1745 rebellion, Prince Charles’ army, going south, was forced to cross the river by the marshes at Frew, 15 km to the east, because the Stirling bridge was occupied and defended by Government troops. Governor Blakeney, from the castle, arranged to have the south arch of the bridge blown-up, for protection(despite townsmen's protests). In January 1746 Cumberland’s soldiers had to throw wooden beams across the breach in order to follow the Highlanders and avoid a long detour. The arch was not repaired until 1749. The repair to the breach can still be seen and at low tide, beneath the southern arch, dressed stone rubble is still lying around, some, perhaps, from the original damage. The south over-arch was lost at this time, and in 1773 the north over-arch with its iron gate was removed.
The bridge today.
Today, Stirling Old Bridge is a pedestrian way.There are four un-ribbed semicircular arches with varying spans of 38ft, 55ft, 56ft and 48ft, from south to north. It is 13 ft. wide, parapet to parapet.
There are two orders of voussoirs with well dressed opposed chamfering. The spandrels are also in very weathered ashlar although the approaches at both ends are in eighteenth-century un-faced un-coursed random rubble. The bridge has enormous piers and huge cutwaters (12 ft across) on both sides. There are large buttresses on the downstream side of the north approach. The decking is cobbled and not only humped but has a slight downstream bowing and a double defensive twist at the north approach, to obstruct charging horsemen. The springing of the arches is off-centre on each pier and consequently the parapets are marginally out of alignment. This is best seen at the central refuges. The additional twist was deliberate: a poorly understood association with preventing witchcraft; it seen also on some other Scottish bridges. There are pilasters and pilons at each end of the bridge and unusual stepped castellated parapet coping. The 18thcentury south arch repairs can still be seen on spandrels and intrados. Foundation repairs carried out in 1912 revealed that the piers were resting on a platform of oak beams laid horizontally. This a fairly good description of a brander (structure section).
The dating of the present bridge is contentious. It can be found on all the old maps, and is most often considered to be an early 15th century bridge from the time of Robert III. It is reputed to have been built from Ballengeigh stone- the same Stirling quarry that provided stone for the Holyrude Church in 1406. But Inglis (Ref) offers good argument that the present structure is of a much later style. He proposes that in 1410 bridges were more likely to have equally sized, smaller, Gothic-shaped arches with larger, wider piers and even raises the possibility of a rebuild in the 16th-century. He notes that the Old Bridge of Earn (finally demolished in 1976) was remarkably similar in style and structure to Stirling, suggesting the same period, if not the same architect. Both were ruinous in the 1590s. However, there is no solid confirmation of a build date for either bridge at that time. Stell (Fenton and Stell (Ref)) also notes this remarkable similarity in style and suspects a 16th-century date for both bridges. We do know that the Stirling Bridge was radiant once more in the early 1600s with overarches and a large iron gate. A new toll had been recently imposed. However, Harrison (2) in 1997 (Ref), notes the absence of 16th century archive evidence for such an impressive structure. Nevertheless, he did uncover a retrospective reference in Stirling archives: a record of money being allocated, in 1542, for “reformatioun of the bridge." This last is difficult to interpret but Harrison notes that this was a period of national turmoil and an 'informational black hole’ exists in national and local records; many of these were lost at sea in 1660 (History Section). In the final analysis, an early 15th century date for the present bridge still remains probable. It is fair to point out that Inglis was always convinced of a correlation between arch-size and later date, yet he inexplicably ignored the existence of some very large rounded arches from the 14th and 15th centuries in the North of England. Stirling Bridge’s design could well be matching this pattern.
In 1806, the town petitioned the Government for £6000 to widen the old bridge. Fortunately, nothing was done, and instead, Thomas Telford was consulted and offered plans providing a new bridge altogether. However, his plans were rejected, and the contract was given to Robert Stevenson (grandfather of the author of Treasure Island). Stevenson's creation was built in 1829 some 100m downstream. This is a beautiful five-span ashlar bridge with stilted segmental arches and rounded cutwaters. Particularly attractive is the way the courses of the spandrels follow the lines of the voussoirs.
The old medieval bridge closed to traffic in 1831 to become a pedestrian pathway and tourist attraction. It is now managed by Historic Scotland.
Page last updated Feb.’21