Scotland’s Oldest Bridges.

A map-based catalogue of the oldest masonry bridges in Scotland. 

Glasgow Old Bridge.

‍ A bridge at Glasgow was known of in the late 13th century.  According to Barbour’s 15th century poem(Ref) this bridge was wooden (“a bryygt made of tre”).   A completely stone structure replaced it in 1345, and this survived, largely intact, for 500 years. It was built by William Rae who was Bishop of Glasgow from 1339 to 1367.   The bishop’s bridge linked the Barony of Gorbals with the city. Gorbals belonged to the see of Glasgow from the 13th century apart from the small section of Bridgegate which was owned by the Campbells of Lochnow.  The widow Lady Lochnow assisted in the building contributing the cost of one arch along with the Bridgegate land on the south bank. The source of the quarried stone is not known.

Throughout the centuries it was called The Great Bridge or Old Stockwell Bridge. Fishergate along with Bridgegate was at its north end. Fisherman drew their water supplies from a wooden (stock) well which gave its name to Stockwell St.   At the time of William Roy’s survey, in 1750, Glasgow still had only a single bridge crossing the Clyde. It was not until 1771 that the city acquired a second bridge at Jamaica St.

The old Bishop’s Bridge had eight arches and was gently humped. The decking was 12 feet wide and it was a little over 400 feet long. The painting by Van Der Houten (1838) seems to show that it had stilted pointed arches of variable-span, yet this may be a perceptive illusion; other artists appear to show segmental arches of fixed-span. The central arch appears to have been around 35 ft. wide. The bridge would have been a defining landmark of the city until the eighteenth century. In 1618, it was described as “ane of the most remarcable monuments within this kingdome”.

In 1571, James VI had awarded rights to impose a toll. This was to raise funds because the bridge had been damaged by “great trowpes of ice”.   In 1581, there was a leper hospital at the south end.  In a charter of 1598, it was described as ‘much decayed’ and ‘pillars, pend and under-props being so shaken and brugille by the inundation force’. Stones were falling off in 1658, and carts were required to have the wheels removed while crossing in order to prevent damage to the decking. In 1671, on the day of the Glasgow Fair, one arch fell. This was rapidly repaired by public subscription. In 1776, instability and risk of flooding required the two most northerly arches to be filled-in and the bank narrowed to incorporate them. The bridge was also widened to 22ft. In 1821, Thomas Telford was contracted to further widen it  to 34 ft with iron footpaths on either side. It was now 500 years old and was becoming unsafe. Scouring had eroded the piers which had to be underpinned by piles. An odd artificial platform supported the arches which was always at risk of being swept away. Jamaica Street’s Glasgow Bridge was now the main crossing for traffic.                                                          

In 1850 the bridge trustees and the Town Council petitioned for an Act of Parliament to dismantle and remove the entire structure. Curiously, during the demolition a smooth decking was uncovered right down on to the arches. It seems that at some lengthy period in its history there had been no infill or spandrels on the eight arches implying a bumpy crossing. Even more surprising was the state of the foundations; oak branders were uncovered; they were found to be 'as fresh as when first put in’ despite being 500 years old.

Victoria Bridge was built as a replacement in 1851. It too was impressive for its time. At fifty-four feet wide, it was briefly the widest bridge in Britain. Beautifully built in Dublin granite ashlar with balustraded parapets, its five stilted segmental arches lie on enormous piers which themselves are underpinned by steam-driven wooden piles penetrating 20ft below the river bed.

Page last updated Oct.2020