FIFTY YEARS OF THE ERSKINE BRIDGE

The Erskine Bridge at Old Kilpatrick. Photograph by Robert Beacon

From the social history book ‘Two Minutes Silence’ written by Bill Heaney

The Erskine Bridge, for most people living locally, is either a help or a hindrance in their daily lives.

It’s brilliant if you have someone to pick up off a flight at Glasgow Airport, but it’s a pain in the tail if you don’t have a car and you are trying to get to one of the hospitals in Paisley or Inverclyde on the other side of the River Clyde.

Pictured above is Princess Anne accompanied by Lord Lieutenant Mike Gregory on a visit to Erskine Care Home beside the bridge she officially opened 50 years ago.

It is even worse, of course, if the bridge is closed for high winds or for a traffic accident.  The first question visitors ask about the bridge is when we were finally no longer required to pay toll charges.

I covered all the debates about its construction which took place between Dunbartonshire County Council and Renfrewshire County Council in the 1960s.

Most politicians were in favour of building the bridge with Councillor Hugh Gillies in the red corner for Dunbartonshire and Councillor Robert Robertson in the blue for then Tory Renfrewshire, which at that time included Inverclyde.

Dumbarton man John F Miller was the County Clerk and a formidable figure behind the throne for Dunbartonshire. Construction began in 1967 and cost £10.5 million, which is the price of three large secondary schools in today’s money.

Contrast that with the £1.3 billion it cost to build the Queensferry Crossing which opened earlier this year.  The Erskine Bridge was inaugurated by Princess Anne on July 2, 1971, and I was there, with my wife to be, Bernie, to cover the event.

It was champagne all the way on a memorable day when the show jumping princess was presented with a saddle for her Olympic gold medal horse, Doublet, to mark the auspicious occasion.

The ceremonial plaque of the opening can be seen on the railings of the western footpath, at the centre of the main span.

It replaces the old, loved and reliable Erskine Ferry, which had been the link between Old Kilpatrick and Renfrewshire for eons before that. Can you imagine the tailbacks if we still had only a ferry service to cope with the 40,000 or so vehicles a day which nowadays cross the river?

The Erskine Bridge is used by all types of motor vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians and, as well as crossing the Clyde, the bridge also crosses the Forth and Clyde Canal and the North Clyde railway line. Labour’s John McFall MP, First Minister Jack McConnell and Jackie Baillie MSP., pictured right, combined forces to have the tolls scrapped

It was designed by Dr William Brown, a structural engineer and bridge designer who specialised in suspension bridges.

There are four mains pipes – they carry water from Loch Lomond – and two gas pipes running the full length of the underside of the bridge.

The eyes of the world were on Erskine during the construction because the West Gate Bridge in Australia, also designed by Freeman Fox & Partners, collapsed.

PS Waverley, the world’s last seagoing paddle steamer sails under the Erskine Bridge.

An investigation published on July 14, 1971, two weeks after the Erskine Bridge opened found faults in the design.

This meant that retrospective changes had to be made at Erskine given the findings of a report into the Australian bridge collapse.

There are wonderful views from the bridge, which is set at a high level to allow the passage of shipping beneath it.

As you cross it, you can see the Renfrewshire and Old Kilpatrick Hills, Dumbarton Rock, Mar Hall, Erskine Hospital, Erskine Bridge Hotel and Dumbarton.

The area around the bridge has some historical significance as there have been various pieces of Roman artefacts found.

Historical items found at the site include Roman coins known as sestertius and a crannog. That area is now a World Heritage Site.

The bridge is the furthest downstream of all the Clyde bridges and is the last point at which the estuary can be crossed by road by traffic bound for Loch Lomond and the Highlands.

It was a toll bridge until 2006 and politicians of all shades of opinion have tried to take the credit for this.

The bridge had collected £72 million in tolls by 2001 and it collected £5.676m in the last operating year, yet it was considered something of a white elephant given its elaborate design and relatively low traffic levels compared to the congested Kingston Bridge.

The bridge gave work to lots of local men. The first man to cross it unofficially was John ‘Poker’ Law a well-known figure in the world of Scottish boxing. He was a native of Brucehill in Dumbarton.

His workmates put a plank down between the last two metal “boxes” to be welded together and the brave Poker walked across it.

John Poker Law, was the first person to walk across the almost completed Erskine Bridge.

The old Erskine Ferry crossing the River Clyde

There have been two known births on the bridge. The first was a boy who was born on September 19, 1990, who was subsequently named Oliver Erskine Edwards in tribute to his place of birth.

A second baby, Kiera Sarah-Marie McFettridge was born in an ambulance on the bridge on January 18, 2011.

It has seen a number of incidents and accidents and – unfortunately – the Erskine Bridge has been witnessed a large number of suicides.

An oil rig called the Texaco Captain collided with the road deck in resulting in the closure of the bridge, a nightmare for the police and traffic authorities who have to send heavy traffic, including ambulances and buses, along lengthy diversions.

The repairs to the bridge cost £3.6 million with a further £700,000 in lost revenue from tolls.

The bridge is one of Scotland’s most notorious suicide spots and estimates suggest that more than fifteen people commit suicide there each year.

This has led to the Samaritans charity placing signs at each path leading onto the bridge and also within four public telephone boxes that are situated on the twin footpaths running adjacent to the roadway on either side of the river.

The bridge was brought into the media spotlight again after the death of two teenage girls from a nearby secure unit at Bishopston for young people.

This has led to the installation of suicide prevention barriers along the length of the bridge at a cost of £3.5 million.

Looking from Scott’s of Bowling to the Erskine Bridge

Finally, a story, about a baptism and the bridge, told to the Dumbarton Rotary Club by the late Neil McAllister, the Dumbarton Burgh Registrar.

Neil said that a family called Ferry from Donegal, who came to live in Brewery Lane, Dumbarton, hadwanted their child to be christened Erskine after Erskine Childers, who had been President of Ireland around that time.

The Registrar advised them this might not be a great idea since the child might take some ribbing in the school playground were he to be known as the Erskine Ferry.

Scott’s of Bowling. They took on small contracts for the construction of the Erskine Bridge.

John Poker Law, (second from right) the first man to cross the Erskine Bridge albeit unofficially, pictured with old boxing pals including Wattie Glover [Frankie Narrow], John Connolly, Peter Keenan, Donald McQueen.

Two local journalists who covered the Erskine Bridge story were Craig M Jeffery (left) and Bill Heaney, editor/publisher of The Dumbarton Democrat.

Readers can order a copy of Two Minutes Silence by Bill Heaney for £20 including postage and package by sending an e mail to heaneymedia@btinternet.com

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