Spanning the Tay: George Heriot and the Dunkeld bridge

by John Bonehill

On arriving at Dunkeld in the touring season of 1806, the visitor – there perhaps to make the walk out to the Duke of Atholl’s celebrated pleasure grounds – would also encounter another form of striking modern spectacle. Earlier that year work had begun on a prestigious new stone bridge to a design by Thomas Telford. Seen against a backdrop of ecclesiastical ruins and densely forested hillsides, the efforts to span the fast-flowing Tay made for a dramatic scene. The theatre of the setting and this prodigious feat of engineering certainly caught the eye of one George Heriot, who set about sketching the bridge mid-construction Worked-up into a highly finished watercolour, the artist evidently thought it a more than worthy subject, not just full of picturesque incident but historically and socially resonant too. Taking up a station on the river’s southern banks, Heriot took care to situate Telford’s new technological wonder in relation to several landmark features of what was a now canonical cultural landscape. Stretching out across the swift, hazardous currents of the Tay, the rhythmic framework of the modern bridge arches overlay the skeletal remnants of the cathedral on the far shore. Beyond the screen of buildings and woodland that edge the northern bank lies the parkland of Atholl’s Dunkeld House.