The Forth Rail Bridge

photo of forth rail bridge viewed from north queensferry
Forth Rail Bridge Viewed From North Queensferry

This is the rail bridge over the river Forth. On the southern shore, on the far side across the water in this photograph, is Edinburgh.

Note: You can find the ecard of this image in the Urban Landscapes category of Quillcards. Just head over there and then navigate to the images on page two of that category.

To the east (to the left of this photo) is the North Sea – just a few miles away.

There is a saying in Britain that something ‘is like painting the Forth Bridge’, which means that a task is a never ending.

The saying comes from the fact there is so much steel in the Forth Rail Bridge that the task of painting it is continuous and never ending.

The painters start at one end and by the time they get to the other end, the end where they started needs to be painted again.

There is even a 1930s British Pathe Film news item showing painters painting the bridge, with a voice-over describing how the work must go on (and on, and on). You can watch the wonderful British Pathe film here.

A Modern Solution To An Old Saying

Time moves on, and now painters are halfway through painting the Forth Rail Bridge with a glass flake epoxy coating that will last for decades and put an end to the continuous painting efforts.

It is not just a matter of repainting. There were concerns that the thick glass flake epoxy wouldn’t stick unless the steel was sandblasted clean, and with over 50,000 tons of steel, six and one half million rivets, and a surface of two and one half million square feet (230,000m²) to cover, sandblasting would have taken rather a long time.

There were also concerns that the paint wouldn’t flex enough in the hostile weather conditions of the River Forth. The bridge twists and turns in the wind, and heats up and cools down during the day and night.

Leighs Paints who produce the new paint, set up a flex-bed to investigate whether the glass flake epoxy would stick and the result was that the paint held despite the flexing. Sandblasting was also found to be unnecessary and so the task of painting the bridge could get under way.

Six years later the painters are halfway through the task.

So it looks like it’s the death knell for ‘It’s like painting the Forth Bridge’.

Why There Is So Much Steel In The Forth Rail Bridge

The bridge was built not only to be strong but also to look strong.

That is because in 1879 – not many years before the Forth Rail Bridge was built – the bridge over the Firth of Tay near Dundee collapsed during a gale taking a train and its 75 passengers and crew to the river below.

The passengers and crew all died. However, the North British Railway Company (who owned the train and the Tay Bridge) eventually recovered the train from the depths and put it back to work.

I have this image in my mind of a barnacle-and-seaweed-encrusted engine blowing ghostly smoke from its stack and it makes its way in the dead of night over the new bridge over the river Tay.

A Public Outcry

The effect of the Tay Bridge disaster was that there was an outcry, and the public demanded that any new bridges be safe beyond question: Hence the amount of steel in the Forth Bridge.

Now looking up at the Forth Bridge from the northern shore, everything is quiet until a train comes through. Then the steel screeches and groans until the train suddenly appears high above, heading north.

Down below there is a small collection of houses and a public house, and this is a view of the bridge through the pub window.

It seems such a strong statement on the landscape, don’t you think, to have this view outside the window.

photo of forth rail bridge seen through pub window
Forth Rail Bridge Seen Through Pub Window

Up Close

Walking up a small road that overlooks the shore, the stanchions of the bridge are hidden and the girders seem like something from The War of The Worlds.

photo of the forth rail bridge from beneath at waters edge on the north queensferry side
Forth Rail Bridge From Beneath

The Forth Road Bridge

In comparison, the road bridge a thousand yards upstream is a distant sliver of concrete that shoots across the Firth.

It’s far enough from the rail bridge that there is no traffic hum. It’s so strange. Just across the water is Edinburgh, but here it feels like a loop out of time, peaceful and slowed down.

photo of the Forth Road Bridge
Forth Road Bridge

The Firth Of Forth

A firth is the Scottish word for an estuary. It derives from the Norse word fjord, and geologically speaking the Firth Of Forth is a fjord.

It is tidal as far as Stirling, 30 miles, (50km) to the west, which accounts for the importance of the bridges across the Forth that save the westward deviation on the road north to Perth and beyond that to the Highlands.

The Firth Of Forth is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest and the islands in the firth are home to many tens of thousands of seabirds.

Bass Rock in the Firth is world famous for its colonies of gannets, puffins, guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, eider duck, peregrine falcons, and grey seals, with bottlenose dolphins sighted off the island.

It is for this reason that the Grangemouth oil refinery about 20 miles west of Edinburgh is so closely monitored. The refinery is operated by INEOS Group Limited and the last oil spill was in 2008.

Like with most of the world today, there is a ticking time bomb of technology behind the pleasant views across the Firth Of Forth.

photo of the shore at North Queensferry by the Forth Rail Bridge
The Shore At North Queensferry


  1. says

    That’s one very cool bridge – and a timely read, since I’ll be in Edinburgh next week. I once had a similar view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge through a window; just drew me in, could stare at it forever.

    Very strong statement on the landscape indeed. That pub – do you remember the name? Would it be easy to find?

    • David Bennett says

      Hi Sophie,
      It’s the Albert Hotel on the corner of Battery Road. Turn off the road bridge and wend your way down and down (and down). You will see signs for Deep Sea World and just keep heading down into the village.

  2. Esther Hecht says

    The words “firth of Forth” were always just nonsense syllables for me until I read this fascinating post. It’s hard to imagine such a vast amount of steel and both the danger and the cost of the constant repainting that was necessary until now.
    I wonder if San Francisco will copy the Scots on this and use the same coating on the Golden Gate Bridge.

    • David Bennett says

      I agree; it was hard to take in how big the bridge was even as I was standing under it. A friend told me the other day that it is possible to drive a horse and cart inside some of the main tubes.

  3. says

    Really love the article. The Forth rail bridge is definitely one of the stand out steel bridges not only in Fife but in the world.

    • David Bennett says

      Glad you liked it. Forth rail bridge is definitely one to visit again.

      I am getting to know Scotland more and I like it a lot.

  4. Ann says

    Very nice article and a new wonder of the world. The Forth Rail Bridge is amazing and huge. I am familiar with the Golden Gate bridge, but this bridge is so much larger and more complicated. Thanks for sharing this beautiful bridge. I love Quillcards!

    • David Bennett says

      Thanks Ann,
      I have been across the Golden Gate bridge, and also seen some of those amazing photos of it shrouded in fog and mist. Yes, it’s quite different from the Forth Bridge which seems to be from the age when the idea was to show the materials rather than with modern bridges that seem designed to show how materials can be conquered.

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