Scotland can stop painting its Forth Rail Bridge

Crossing Scotland’s iconic Forth Rail Bridge takes just two minutes. Painting the Victorian-era wonder takes forever. Or so the story goes.

Since it opened in 1890, the massive steel structure over the Firth of Forth estuary has been both blessing and curse. For train travelers, it was a boon, allowing them to speed across the swirling water from Edinburgh to points north. To the men charged with keeping the bridge looking red and cheerful, though, it was a boondoggle, a never-ending endeavor that became the stuff of legend.

Like Sisyphus of ancient Greek myth, condemned by the gods to push a boulder up a hill only to have it roll right back down again, painters would no sooner reach one end of the span than they reputedly had to return to the beginning and start over, their efforts erased by the mischievous Scottish weather.

It was such a famously fruitless and repetitive exercise that, even now, the phrase “like painting the Forth Bridge” is common British parlance for an exasperating, seemingly endless task that must be performed over and over. (See also: U.S. presidential elections.)

But technology has finally overtaken metaphor. Last month, after 63,000 gallons of a special long-lasting, heavy-duty paint and 10 years of almost nonstop work, the final stroke was applied, rendering obsolete one of Scotland’s most colorful and enduring metaphors.


For Shane Davidson, a member of the crew that put on that last lick, it was a moment of mixed emotions: pride, yes, but some melancholy too.

“We were all sad to leave the bridge. It’s been that long a part of your life, and then all of a sudden it comes to an end,” he said. “To be honest, I feel lost without it.”

During the eight years he toiled on the bridge, Davidson, 48, married his longtime girlfriend and became a grandfather. Through it all, the bridge was a comforting constant, its great bulk stretching across the Firth of Forth, looking a little like three brontosauruses standing nose to tail in the icy water.

But Davidson doesn’t mind laying to rest the idea of painting the span as a perpetual work in progress.

“That’s just a myth now,” he said with a smile.

It’s not the only myth associated with the Forth Bridge, twinned for the last 48 years with the sleek and gleaming Forth Road Bridge for vehicle traffic.

One harks back to the bridge’s design. The original plan by Thomas Bouch, in 1873, called for a suspension bridge similar to the one he had built across the Firth of Tay, north of here.

That structure collapsed in 1879, killing dozens and causing officials to ditch his design for the Forth Bridge. Bouch was so disgraced that, folks here are fond of saying, his name became synonymous with a poorly executed task; a “Bouch job” eventually gave us the phrase “botch job” or “botched job.”

Nice try. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “botch,” or some version of it, has been around for centuries.

And then there’s the matter of the continuous paint job. A report in 2004 said there were, in fact, times when the brushes and rollers gathered dust, though it’s not always clear whether that was due to lack of need or lack of money.

Regardless, maintenance of the 1.5-mile-long span seems to have been a headache ever since the hulking cantilevered structure, still considered a marvel of engineering, was opened by the Prince of Wales on March 4, 1890. The bridge afforded passengers an unbroken train journey from London to Aberdeen for the first time.

Wind, fog and rain immediately attacked every fresh coat of paint, forcing workers to keep at it constantly. The unlucky men assigned to the top of the bridge often had little in the way of safety measures to prevent them from plunging 350 feet.

Until recently, painting the bridge from end to end generally took three to five years, said Ian W. Heigh, a project manager with Network Rail, the company that now looks after the bridge it calls “the Forth Wonder of the World.”

But in 2002, Network Rail decided the time had come for a comprehensive solution. In a $200-million collaboration, the railway worked with contractor Balfour Beatty on the paint job that was to end all paint jobs, or at least for the next 20 to 30 years. That’s the estimated life span of the hardy new coat, which contains glass flakes and is used on oil rigs in the wind-whipped North Sea.

Given today’s safety and environmental concerns, figuring out the project’s logistics was almost as daunting as building the bridge. Nearly 60 people died during the span’s construction, a grim tally no one wanted to come close to matching this time around.

“There were areas of the bridge that were almost inaccessible,” said John M. Andrew of Balfour Beatty. Plus, the span was “still a working structure.... The trains [had] to continue running,” about 180 a day.

The tallest sections, the apex of each of the bridge’s three diamond-shaped towers, proved the toughest challenge, requiring almost two years each to scaffold, blast and paint. All 6.5 million rivets had to be painted by hand.

Some residents complained about the white sheeting that covered the work faces, which turned their masterpiece bridge into something resembling a Christo installation. But the material couldn’t be painted Forth Bridge Red (yes, the rusty hue has its own name) to blend in, because light wouldn’t get through.

All told, about 1,500 workers labored on the project, with up to 400 on the bridge at once, to paint nearly 2.5 million square feet of steel.

Davidson wasn’t sure he’d be one of them. Even after he signed up, he didn’t know whether he could cope with the dizzying heights, especially walking out onto the bridge and seeing trees and hillsides abruptly fall away, leaving only a metal grate between him and a watery doom.

“I was actually not well for two weeks. I would go home at night and say, ‘I don’t know if I can go back,’” he recalled. “But I stuck it out.”

He’s glad he did. Now when his 4-year-old grandson sees the span, “he says, ‘That’s Granddad’s bridge,’” Davidson said.

There were some amusing discoveries along the way. Workmen from previous generations had painted pennies onto the bridge, to leave a personal mark; Davidson has one from 1944.

Some of today’s painters might not have been above a little foolery themselves, acknowledged Tony Fairweather, a project manager with Pyeroy, the northern England-based company that painted the bridge’s southern end.

It’s just possible, Fairweather allowed, that a few “Sassenachs” (as Scots call the English) brought in from across the border to help might have scratched little English flags onto this very Scottish bridge before painting over the evidence.

With the project now complete, a ceremony is being planned for spring to celebrate the project’s completion.

But Britain probably hasn’t heard the last of the expression “like painting the Forth Bridge,” said Heigh, who reckons it’s now permanently part of the lingo.

“When I’m looking down from heaven,” he said, “I’d be very surprised if it’s stopped being a colloquialism.”