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Glenfinnan Railway Viaduct

Railway Viaduct (20th Century)

Site Name Glenfinnan Railway Viaduct

Classification Railway Viaduct (20th Century)

Alternative Name(s) Glenfinnan Viaduct; River Finnan; River Finna; Loch Shiel

Canmore ID 23340

Site Number NM98SW 2

NGR NM 90992 81343

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number AC0000807262. All rights reserved.
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Administrative Areas

  • Council Highland
  • Parish Arisaig And Moidart
  • Former Region Highland
  • Former District Lochaber
  • Former County Inverness-shire

Recording Your Heritage Online

Glenfinnan Less than a century after the Commissioners' first Parliamentary road had opened up this district for travel overland as far as Arisaig (1804-12 ), steam trains were clattering their way along the spectacular 'iron road to the Isles' -the Fort William to Mallaig extension of the West Highland Railway, engineered by Simpson & Wilson of Glasgow, with contractors Robert McAlpine & Sons.

Glenfinnan Viaduct, 1897-1901 The tour de force of this outstanding feat of concrete engineering was the first and longest mass concrete viaduct in Britain. A rhythm of 21 arches supports a crescent 1,24 8 ft long, carrying the railway line 100 ft above the river.

Taken from "Western Seaboard: An Illustrated Architectural Guide", by Mary Miers, 2008. Published by the Rutland Press

Archaeology Notes

NM98SW 2 90992 81343

Glenfinnan Viaduct [NAT]

OS 1:10,000 map, 1974.

Location formerly entered as from NM 908 813 to NM 911 812, and as NM 90986 81349.

For Glenfinnan Station (NM 89872 80974), see NM88SE 1.

Opened 1.4.1901 West Highland Railway, Mallaig Extension.

North British Railway; West Highland Extension. Concrete pylon construction.

(Undated) information in NMRS.

(Location cited as NM 910 813). Glenfinnan Viaduct, opened 1901 by the West Highland Extension Rly. A magnificent 21-span curved viaduct, with semicircular arches, constructed of mass concrete. The longest concrete railway bridge in Scotland, at 416 yds (380m) long.

J R Hume 1977.

This viaduct was built by Robert McAlpine & Sons of Glasgow to carry the West Highland (Extension) railway across the valley of the River Finna (or Finnan) at the head of Loch Shiel. The viaduct itself is chiefly of interest for its pioneering concrete construction, and remains in regular use by passenger traffic.

Information from RCAHMS (RJCM), 12 December 2000.

M Smith 1994.

A RCAHMS photographic survey of Glenfinnan Viaduct was carried out following the centenary celebrations in 1997.

Visited by RCAHMS (MKO) July 1997.

The location assigned to this record defines the midpoint of the structure. The available map evidence indicates that it extends from NM c. 90838 81305 to NM c. 91174 81238.

Information from RCAHMS (RJCM), 21 April 2006.


Build (1898)

Largely completed by 1898.

R Paxton and J Shipway, 2007.

Reproduced from 'Civil Engineering heritage: Scotland - Highlands and Islands' with kind permission from Thomas Telford Publishers.

Aerial Photography (3 May 2007)

Publication Account (2007)

West Highland Extension Railway

(Institute Civil Engineers Historic Engineering Works no. HEW 0084/02)

The West Highland Railway, originally worked by the North British Railway, is one of the world’s most scenic railways. It could also be said to be the last considerable piece of railway building in Britain, its single track

snaking north-west 140 miles from Craigendoran on the Clyde to the fishing port of Mallaig. The 100-mile Craigendoran to Fort William section was begun in 1889 and opened in 1894, and the 40-mile Mallaig extension, was begun in 1897 and completed in 1901.

The Craigendoran–Fort William section was engineered by Formans & McCall, and the main contractor was Lucas & Aird, a prominent London firm whose driving force was John Aird, an MP of crofting stock. The summit is at Corrour, 1345 ft above sea level on Rannoch Moor. The

methods of crossing the waterlogged moor on brushwood were developed from traditional experience.

Spectacular viaducts include Glen Falloch (NN 3170 2020) 145 ft high, and two in the great Horseshoe Curve above Tyndrum (NN 3350 3620).

Financially the line fared precariously during construction and had to be rescued on one occasion by a director, J. H. Renton, using his private fortune. In gratitude his head was sculpted on a massive rock at Rannoch Station by navvies using only the tools of their trade. It is still there.

The Mallaig extension, built to support the fish trade, struggles westwards through inhospitable mountainous country and winding inlets of the sea. The line has gradigradients as steep as 1 in 40 and curves of 12 chains radius (800 ft) both of which impose drastic limits on speed of trains. Much of its length is on embankment, bridges or hewn out of the living rock in cuttings and tunnels. Today the line is a major tourist attraction with many

steam ‘specials’ in addition to regular services. In engineering terms the line is renowned for the early use of mass concrete in bridge construction. The structures were originally planned to be constructed in masonry, but

the local rock ( mica schist) was too hard and difficult to dress. Concrete offered a cheap alternative solution. In consequence of his usage of this material Robert McAlpine became known as ‘Concrete Bob’. The line’s most notable elements are Glenfinnan and Loch nan Uamh viaducts and Borrodale Arch. The railway was designed by Simpson & Wilson, consulting engineers, and the contractor was Robert McAlpine & Co.

R Paxton and J Shipway, 2007.

Reproduced from 'Civil Engineering heritage: Scotland - Highlands and Islands' with kind permission from Thomas Telford Publishers.

Publication Account (2007)

Glenfinnan Viaduct

(Institute Civil Engineers Historic Engineering Works no. HEW 0021/01)

This spectacular viaduct winds round the hillside, far back and above the Jacobite memorial tower. Its 21 semicircular arched concrete spans of 50 ft, largely completed by 1898, cross 100 ft above the Finnan on an 800 ft radius curve. The width between parapets is 18 ft. Each span has a joint

at the crown to allow shrinkage movement of the concrete. The two ‘King’ piers are hollow.

The cost of the viaduct was £18 904.

R Paxton and J Shipway, 2007.

Reproduced from 'Civil Engineering heritage: Scotland - Highlands and Islands' with kind permission from Thomas Telford Publishers.

Note (July 2008)

Confirming a West Highland Railway viaduct legend by Professor Roland Paxton MBE

In 1984, when recording the 21-arch, mass-conctrete, Glenfinnan Viaduct for the Institution of Civil Engineers' Panel for Historic Engindeering Works, the legend of a Robert McAlpine horse and cart being buried in a pier after an accident during construction in c.1898 was addressed by Prof. Roland Paxton.

In 1987, Prof. Paxton and colleagues invetstigated the viaduct by inserting a camera into cavities within the piers in the viaduct big enough to hold a horse and cart. There were two: a fish-eye lens camera mounted of a long pole was inserted via inspection holes into each pier cavity and photographs taken at 45 degree intervals i.e. from 0 degrees (vertical) clockwise to 315 degrees. Dissappointingly, the images did not show any evidence of a horse and cart, although it was on interest that some upper timberwork left in place after construction still remained.

The Professor then heard from Dr Jim Shipway, great grandson of the designer, Alexander Simpson, that Ewen Macmillan of Borrowdale remembered local hearsay in his father's time that the accident had occurred at Loch-nan-Uamh viaduct. The central pier of Loch-nan-Uamh viaduct was the only one large enough to have accommodated the remains of a horse and cart. In 2001, eleven hours of intensive site work involving transmission of radio waves through walls up to 9 feet thick revealed the remains of the horse, propped vertically against the east wall of the cavity above the wreck of the cart. This seems consistent with the horse having been dragged down into the cavity from about track bed level as the viaduct was nearing completion by a loaded stone cart.

Information from Prof. R Paxton, July 2008.


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