The River Tay is the longest river in Scotland, running east into the North Sea near the port of Dundee. The main line railway runs up the east coast of Scotland from Edinburgh and through Fife, then must cross the Tay to reach Dundee and Aberdeen. In February 1878, a bridge across the Tay was completed, designed by Thomas Bouch, and opened on May 31 the same year. It was 88 feet (27 metres) above the water and nearly 2 miles long: at the time the longest bridge in the world.

On December 28, 1879 the bridge was buffeted by a force 10-11 gale. At around 7.15 pm, the central spans of the bridge collapsed into the river. A train was crossing at the time, with 75 people in its 6 carriages. They all perished. A Court of Inquiry found that the bridge was woefully under-designed for the weather in the Firth of Tay, but was unable to decide if Sir Thomas Bouch was to blame.

As a final cruel twist, the tragedy was immortalised by William McGonagall, often called the worst poet of all time, in his poem "The Tay Bridge Disaster"; see under William McGonagall.

The collapse of the bridge did, however have some good effects, leading to massive overcompensation in the enormously solid design of the steel cantilevered Forth Bridge. A new lower bridge was built across the Tay a few years later, using some of the iron from the old bridge, and you will still cross it today if you travel into Dundee by rail from Edinburgh and South-East Scotland.

Reference: T J Martin, "The Tay Bridge Disaster". http://www.tts1.demon.co.uk/tay.html, viewed 2001-11-06.

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