The Forth Bridge: Building an icon

Building an icon

Skill and sacrifice went into the building of the famous rail bridge over the River Forth. Our display tells the story of its construction. Runs from 1 April to 21 June.


Photo of Forth with artist's view of the bridge
Forth Bridge: artist's view.
From Forth Bridge
illustrations 1886-1887

We commemorate the construction and opening of the iconic Forth Bridge in the latest Treasues display at the National Library of Scotland.

'The Forth Bridge: Building an Icon' presents items from the Library's collections that highlight the evolution of the rail bridge's design, the challenges of construction and the celebration of the bridge's opening in 1890.

Crossing the Forth

For hundreds of years ferries provided a connection across the river, but by the 19th century a better solution was needed. In 1806, designers considered digging a tunnel under the Forth.

With the spread of the railway network in the 19th century, railway companies competed to operate the fastest route from London to the north of Scotland. Developments in engineering and steel manufacture meant that dreams of a bridge on the scale required to enable trains to cross the Forth could become a reality.

Constructing the bridge

The Forth Bridge was a pioneering design equipped to withstand enormous pressure and strong winds.

Workmen were exposed to all weather conditions and the dangers of working at height. Accidents were frequent. Some safety measures were introduced, such as boats in the Forth ready to rescue anyone who fell, but these did not prevent fatalities.

At the opening ceremony on 4 March 1890, the Prince of Wales declared that the bridge 'marks the triumph of science and engineering skill over obstacles of no ordinary kind'.

Highlights from the collections

The display includes early crossing designs, newspapers, technical illustrations, inspection reports and photographs of the development of the bridge.

All the items give an insight into the origins, building and grand opening of the Forth Railway Bridge 125 years ago.

Highlights on show include:

  • 'Human cantilever', 1887: A photographic demonstration of engineering principles behind a cantilever bridge, using human subjects
  • Construction images, 1886-1887:
    The son of a contractor captured the construction of the bridge at regular intervals in a series of photographs
  • Opening day luncheon menu, 1890: The grand luncheon that followed the opening ceremony highlights the confidence and ambition of the Forth Bridge project
  • W A Stephenson's 'Journal of a tour in Scotland', August 1890:
    Stephenson's week-long holiday in Scotland included a steamer boat trip underneath the new bridge, and a trip across the bridge on the train.

Bridge facts and figures

A testament to Victorian engineering, the Forth Bridge took eight years to build.

  • When completed it was the longest single cantilever bridge in the world
  • It was the first major structure in the UK to be made of steel
  • The main bridge is over one and a half miles long
  • The superstructure is made of 50,000 tons of steel connected by around 6.5 million rivets
  • Around 4,600 workers were employed on the bridge when work was at its peak
  • Officially the total number of fatalities was 57 — though recent research suggests this number should be higher — and many more were seriously injured.

Opening hours

The display in our George IV Bridge Building is open daily:

Monday to Friday: 10.00-20.00
Saturday: 10.00-17.00
Sunday: 14.00-17.00

Admission free.



The treasures display in our George IV Bridge Building is a small sample of the millions of items in our collections. We change the display several times a year.

Past treasures displays


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