The Spey Viaduct

1883, Great excitement.  At long last the villages and towns of the north east were to have a coastal railway built by the Great North of Scotland Railway Company and it was going to pass through Garmouth.  Can you imagine – no more long waits for the irregular, three-times weekly omnibus.  Heavy goods delivered almost to the door.  Summer visits from family and friends with few transport problems to overcome and the joy of young and old on hearing and seeing the chugging steam engines stopping at their very own station.

However, the GNSR engineers faced a problem before building could commence in 1883.  They needed a bridge to span the Spey.  With no rock banks north of the Fochabers road bridge, how were they to contain the mighty Spey within the bridge’s span or ensure the security of middle supports to cope with frequent spring spates and constant changes of the river’s channel.  As Dick-Lauder quotes in his book on the Muckle Spate, ‘The Spey’s a wanton wuman, who’ll nae stay in her ain bed.’ And how true that has proved to be over the past centuries.

Finally a decision was reached.  To sink paired, cast iron cylinders, 14 feet in diameter, filled with concrete and sunk to a depth of 52 feet below the level of the river bed.  Metal blocks with a total weight of 150 tons were placed round the inside of the cylinders.  With pumps working continually to keep the insides free of water men descended inside and undermined the base of each cylinder, allowing it to sink further into the bed.

At the time it was built and for many years to follow the 350 ft. central span remained the longest on any single line bridge in Scotland and second largest in the UK exceeded only by the Britannia Bridge across the Menai Straits.  The three spans on either side are each 100ft long, giving a total length of 947 ft. The outer spans have level girders 10ft high and the centre has a bowstring 40ft 8 inches in height.

Mr Fyfe, civil engineer, Aberdeen was the contractor with the difficult task of forming the foundations, erecting the piers, and diverting the river’s flow while work progressed, while Messrs. Blaikie of Aberdeen constructed the metal bridgework.

The Elgin Courant, always up-to-date with current news describes the completed work as ‘if not the prettiest, one of the most durable and substantial in the kingdom.’

Although completion took only three years, work did not always run smoothly.

Throughout 1883, ‘84 and ’85 as work progressed, the Elgin Courant, Banffshire Advertiser and Forres Gazette kept Moray abreast with reports and frequent illustrations of the bridge.  Spring thaws played havoc with the diverted river on several occasions, halting work until it safely subsided back into its new channel.  Dykes on the embankment required strengthening and in November 1885 a new problem arose when the navvies demanded a pay rise of 1d per hour for their work of diverting the river.  When this was refused 300 of them marched as a body through the streets of Garmouth in a most warlike manner to the new station, found the timekeeper and seriously assaulted him.  It then broke into an all round brawl with several men being injured.  A telegram was sent to Elgin to Chief Constable Pirie but by the time he and Sergeant McGregor and his officers arrived the fight had ended and the rioters dispersed.  130 men recommenced the work at the original rate.By January of ’86 the bridge was nearing completion, but the Duke of Richmond and Gordon was not pleased.  He was convinced the main flow of the river would not be resumed before commencement of the salmon fishing season on May 1st and lodged a claim for compensation of £21,000.  This legal battle was not resolved until December 1889 when the action was finally dismissed by Lord Kinnear. In March 1886, prior to the official opening, tests were run to assess the bridge’s strength.  A testing load of 400 tons, made with the GNSR’s heaviest engine pulling twenty trucks of gravel, deflected the central span by only one and one eight of an inch.The river was now routed into its new central channel beneath the middle span, but the following winter the Spey broke through the new gravel embankments and returned to its old eastern channel.  Which is why today when you walk across this proud structure, on one of the prettiest walks around, you do not pass over the mainstream until you are almost over the bridge itself. April 1886 and the first train chugged through Garmouth on the coastal route.  However, as with many wonderful innovations there was a downside too.  The dying shipping industry, once thriving on the Kingston shoreline, was dealt a further death knell with much of the imported and exported freight now carried by train.

At one time the line was double tracked, but soon was singled as a later plan shows.  The station had a wooden building similar to others on the coastal route and two platforms.  A signal box and two sidings lay at the eastern end.

Apart from a short closure for renovation work in 1928, the line to Garmouth remained in use until the Beeching cuts in 1963 when the coastal rail route was closed bringing yet another village era to an end.  For a short while in 1972 there were talks  of turning it into a road bridge to ease traffic on the A96, giving a more direct route to Buckie.  Cost at that time being estimated at £100,000 with British Rail offering to sell at £5000.  However, it was decided the idea was too costly and impractical.  So, it planned to leave it as a public walkway with maintenance by Moray Council at that time being £700 p.a.

Today all we have left are names, e.g. ‘Station Road,’ the small housing estate appropriately called ‘The Sidings’ and the ‘Whistlestop Pond’ on the south side of the old line.  Memorials to what must have been a grand sight, steam engines and carriages puffing through Garmouth

P.B.

Published in the Garmouth & Kingston Newsletter Dec 2004

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