Museum’s memorabilia traces our proud history of civil engineering – Professor David McGuigan

Professor David McGuigan says the collection is worth a ‘virtual’ visit

Thursday, 24th September 2020, 7:30 am
The museum holds what is believed to be the only colour portrat of Sir William Arro
The museum holds what is believed to be the only colour portrat of Sir William Arro

Civil engineering embodies a wide range of skills from design and construction of structures large and small; hydrology; transport planning; traffic management; ground engineering and much more. The museum of the Scottish Region of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) has a growing collection of artefacts representing this diversity. It is the only museum in the UK dedicated to civil engineering.

Along with others in our team I take great pleasure in curating a cross-section of Scotland’s historic civil engineering memorabilia. The collection boasts over 500 items dating from the mid-18th century up to the present day including the Queensferry Crossing, the majority of which are on display.

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The museum is housed in the William Arrol Building at Heriot-Watt University’s Edinburgh Campus. Although closed at present because of Covid-19 restrictions, the museum is normally open to the public between 9am and 6pm on weekdays.

The brass water flow meter made for the Stevensons

In recent years the museum has participated in the Edinburgh Doors Open Day event which has been cancelled this year.

As a contribution to a virtual event being organised by the Cockburn Association we prepared a virtual guided tour of the museum. This tour is available to view on the museum’s website.

The website also contains a full catalogue and hosts an array of lecture notes by Professor Roland Paxton on a range of nationally important topics.

The collection forms a vital part of Scotland’s civil engineering heritage and includes items relating to civil engineers who have shaped the world including Thomas Telford; Sir William Arrol; Edinburgh-based David and Charles Stevenson (the “Lighthouse Stevensons”) and John Scott Russel.

There are four original letters written by Thomas Telford one of which is addressed to James Jardine relating to the employment of a works superintendent on the Dean Bridge, Edinburgh, dated 28 August 1829.

Sir William Arrol is also represented with an original hydraulic riveting machine used on the construction of the Forth Bridge and an original colour portrait in oils believed to be the only colour image of Sir William.

A display board chronicles some of the achievements of John Scott Russell a Scottish civil engineer and polymath. Among his many achievements he designed (with Brunel) the “Great Eastern” and built it; the Vienna Rotunda and helped to design Britain’s first armoured warship (the “Warrior”). Not happy with that he made the first experimental observation of the “Doppler shift” of sound frequency.

One of my personal favourites is a brass water flow meter (c.1864) made for the Stevensons. This item – still in working order – was displayed immersed in a flume for an event held at the museum in 1998.

From the Union Chain Bridge over the River Tweed at Paxton, the collection holds an interconnecting wrought iron chain link and cross pin.

The bridge was opened in 1820 and at the time was the longest wrought iron suspension bridge in the world with a span of 13m.

Professor David McGuigan is a retired chartered civil engineer and is Chair and Secretary of the ICE Scotland Museum which manages the running of the 
museum.

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