A Victorian Vision – the Almond Valley Viaduct

Star of paintings, countless photographs, West Lothian Council’s logo and a striking feature in the landscape for 170 years, Almond Valley Viaduct strides purposefully and majestically across the river valley and flood plain.

The viaduct took 3 years to build (1839 – 1842) and formed part of the new Edinburgh to Glasgow railway line. The viaduct and railway line are still in use today, Scotrail’s Sprinter trains flashing across it in seconds.

Rail travel in the early to mid-19th century was in its infancy, with each new line being promoted by a private company. In 1837, the newly-formed Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway Company put together plans to connect Edinburgh and Glasgow by rail. Led by chairman John Leadbetter, a linen merchant and member of Glasgow Town Council, the new company appointed John Miller as engineer.

Miller’s route and design kept the railway as level as possible over as much of the route as he could. Early steam locomotives struggled with gradients, and viaducts and tunnels helped avoid this. The planned maximum gradient was 1 in 880 making the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway the most level main line in the UK.

An Act of Parliament on 4th July 1838 authorised the line giving the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway Company the green light. The adopted route began at a new eastern terminus in Edinburgh – Haymarket – (Edinburgh General Station, later renamed Waverley, didn’t open till 1846), continued over the Almond Valley Viaduct, through the Winchburgh Tunnel, via Linlithgow to Falkirk, and on to its new western terminus at Glasgow’s Queen Street.

The 45-mile route was divided up like slices of cake. Advertisements appeared in the public newspapers for contractors to give in tenders for execution of different sections of the work. The advertisement for the largest slice, including the heaviest engineering work on the line – the Almond Valley Contract – said, “Contract No 1: Being that part of the line extending from near Norton Farm House in the Parish of Ratho to near West Inch in the Parish of Abercorn, and in length 9000 yards or thereby. This contract will include a great extent of cutting and embankment, two viaducts the one across the Almond Water Valley 682 yards long and about 70 feet high and the other across the Edinburgh and Glasgow road 108 yards long and about the same height, a tunnel thro’ Winchburgh Ridge 350 yards long, laying the rails and otherwise completing the lot”.

Each contract stated “Contractors shall be completely finished on or before the 1st day of July 1841 with a penalty of £20 per day for every day it shall remain unfinished after that date”.

At 1.5 miles, the viaduct is the longest structure on the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway. It is in 2 sections, separated by a high embankment 400 metres long. The eastern section is made up of 36 ashlar-faced (prepared stonework, dressed or cut) segmental masonry arches, each with a 15.2m span, and up to 21.3m high. The western section has 7 arches, the central and largest arch bridges the A89. It has a span of 20.1m, with 3 arches of 15.2m span on either side. Leading bridge builder, John Gibb & Son of Aberdeen, won the Almond Valley Contract with a quote of £147, 669 and set to work on their Herculean task in February 1839. (The company made a loss of £40, 000).

Over the next 3 years, the entire route echoed to an army of men, thunderous explosions and constant clanging of picks and shovels. In the nick of time before the Railway Company’s deadline, the River Avon Viaduct’s last arch completed, the contractor treated his 160 workmen to a splendid dinner in Linlithgow Town Hall. Down the line, the Polmont section of track finished too, and great celebrations ended with “a merry dance on the green to the strains of bagpipes”.

But the Railway Directors high hopes of a July 1841 completion hit the buffers as other sections of line went unfinished. Penalty clause now kicking in, the Railway Directors complained to the Almond Valley Viaduct contractor that works were falling behind schedule.

In reply, a letter from John Gibb & Son’s Broxburn office said, “At present we have 350 workmen and 25 horses employed on the different cuttings and tunnel on the line – 80 masons, 100 labourers, 18 joiners, 8 blacksmiths and 20 horses employed on the viaducts and bridges besides nearly 150 men with a corresponding number of horses employed in quarrying stone for the viaducts and bridges. This force you will see is not small and will be rapidly increased in the course of a very short time”.

The Directors, whilst reassuring the shareholders, urged the contractor to work at night, by “torchlight”. The contractor’s claim for more money for overcoming unforeseen obstructions, unfavourable weather and doing night work cut no ice. On the workmen toiled through December and the New Year’s Day edition of the Scotsman, 1842, reports the viaduct’s arches finished, though the banks still incomplete, with hundreds of workmen working furiously.

With huge sighs of relief all round, and the last sweat-lashed shovel flung aside, 18th February 1842 marked the opening ceremony of the Edinburgh to Glasgow Railway. At 1pm a steam locomotive pulling 52 carriages loaded with invited guests arrived at Haymarket from Glasgow, then this train, and another 52-carriage steam locomotive, laden with the Edinburgh contingent – more excited shareholders and invited guests – 1100 people in all – set off triumphantly for Queen Street and a grand banquet. Schools had a holiday and along the line, people waved and cheered this big, loud, newfangled kid on the block.

Full steam ahead? Not a bad way to start the New Year!

The Almond Valley Viaduct is a Category A listed structure. Strengthening work was carried out in the 1950s and 1988.

Information from the Scotsman Archives and the National Library of Scotland

Article first appearing in the Konect Directory, Livingston edition December 2012

2 thoughts on “A Victorian Vision – the Almond Valley Viaduct”

  1. Fascinating review of the problems with this major feat of engineering. Where may the letter written from the Broxburn office of John Gibb & Sons be seen?

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