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The Kessock Bridge was opened 40 years ago in 1982 – new drone footage and archive photos help tell the story

By Neil MacPhail

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About to link in the middle.
About to link in the middle.

Forty years ago today the late Queen Mother lit up an atrocious day of mist and torrential rain to declare open the Kessock Bridge, and herald a bright new future for Inverness and the Highlands.

With typical humour Her Majesty told thousands who had braved the weather for the big occasion: “This bridge will for the first time link Inverness and Ross and Cromarty and turn the Black Isle into even less of the island it has never been.”

After years of delay and political in-fighting, work began on the crossing, and the giant structure was finally completed in 1982. It immediately began to bring massive economic benefits to both sides of the Beauly Firth.

The Kessock Bridge’s huge importance was that it carried that vital Highland artery, the A9 trunk road. With its also brand new little cousin the Cromarty Bridge, it was an instant boon to the burgeoning industrial development in Easter Ross from the Invergordon aluminium smelter and later oil and gas industry by vastly shortening the old A9 route round the end of the firth through villages such as Beauly, Muir of Ord, Conon Bridge and Dingwall.

Thousands of workers could now be whisked to Easter Ross while, equally, thousands could quickly commute south to Inverness and the promise of employment, a situation that remains today.

Around 28,000 vehicle crossings are now made each day.

A dramatic image of the bridge under construction.
A dramatic image of the bridge under construction.

The Kessock Bridge transformed road transport in the Highlands and proved a key factor in the astounding growth of the city of Inverness.

The cable-stayed bridge is a remarkable feat of engineering, and the builder Cleveland Bridge, working for the former Scottish Development Department, had to factor in measures to protect it from earthquake because it straddles the Great Glen fault line. Seismic buffers have been fitted to absorb tremors.

Julia Wilson presents flowers to the Queen Mother.
Julia Wilson presents flowers to the Queen Mother.

The bridge was designed by German civil engineer Hellmut Homberg and it won the design and construction Saltire Society Civil Engineering Award in 1983. It features on the Bank of Scotland’s £100 notes, and in 2019 was awarded Category B listed status.

Inverness economist Tony Mackay said: “There can be no doubt that the bridge has been a great benefit to the Highland economy and one of the best ever public sector investments in the region and Scotland as a whole.

“It has brought substantial travel time and cost savings. The transport alternatives before the bridge were to drive around the twisting A9 Beauly road or take the Kessock Ferry.

“The Cromarty and Dornoch Firth bridges have brought similar benefits.”

Mr MacKay estimated that the cost of the bridge works out at about £4 million a year at today’s prices, adding: “The annual economic benefits have been much greater than £4 million a year.

“The Kessock Bridge placed the Black Isle within easy commuting and shopping distance of Inverness and was one of the factors leading to the remarkable growth of Scotland’s fifth city.

“Travel times and travel costs were reduced, particularly for frequent users such as local shops and transport companies. Bigger businesses such as the oil-related firms on the Cromarty Firth, Dounreay and the local whisky distilleries may also have benefited.

“There can be little doubt that the main beneficiary has been the Black Isle, where there has been a big increase in the population since 1982, with a big increase in housebuilding in towns and villages.”

A series of archive photos, some reproduced here, have been released specially to mark the 40th anniversary of the Kessock Bridge.

Measuring 1056 metres in length, the link took around four years to build, at a cost of around £25 million – the equivalent of more than £100 million today.

Scotland’s transport minister Jenny Gilruth said: “The Kessock Bridge has become an iconic part of Scotland’s road network, with 335 million vehicles estimated to have used it over the past 40 years.

“The crossing has not only helped to cut journey times but it has also been recognised for its technical and architectural merits, so it’s fitting that we mark its four decades of service.

“The Scottish Government will invest £33 million in the years ahead to make sure the Kessock Bridge continues to play a vital role in the future.”

Stuart Baird, from the Scottish Roads Archive, said: “The Kessock Bridge has become a much-loved landmark. It remains an impressive feat of civil engineering and one of the country’s most recognisable crossings.

“The archive is delighted to have unearthed previously unseen photos of its construction and we look forward to sharing them on our website and social media channels.”

Steel erectors who worked on the bridge.
Steel erectors who worked on the bridge.

BEAR Scotland is responsible for the bridges’s management and the organisation’s Eddie Ross said: “We’re proud to be the custodians of this iconic Scottish structure.

“We’ve been responsible for an extensive maintenance and refurbishment programme since 2013 and the continuation of this, with major investment from Transport Scotland, will ensure the bridge operates effectively for many years to come.”

Two people taking a keen interest in the anniversary are Ken Wilson, of Inverness, who was the deputy resident engineer during construction, and his daughter Julia Sproul, who was at Crown Primary at the time and presented a bouquet to the Queen Mother on the bridge.

Mr Wilson, who worked with major civil engineers Crouch & Hogg, said: “It is a wonderful bridge and an important part of my life. There was a great team working on that project.”

Julia, now with her family in Balerno, said: “We are immensely proud of all that my dad has achieved, not least his significant role in creating such positive change for the Highlands. I feel very privileged to have played a small part in the bridge opening. It is a double family celebration in Inverness this weekend with a bridge reunion party and my dad’s 80th birthday on Sunday.”

Dawn-Maree Ross, from North Kessock, but now Inverness, presented the Queen Mother with a posy on behalf of the village.

She said: “I was only eight and I recall being very nervous and repeating my little speech in my head a million times for fear I’d forget what to say.

“I remember even now what I had to say: ‘These are for you Your Majesty, from all of us.’ It wasn’t a lot to say but to a very nervous young girl, it was. I remember having massive butterflies in my tummy in case I messed up my curtsy. Thankfully, I didn’t fall over.”

Another person with a particular interest that day was Invernessian Don Fraser, now of Evanton, who not only was assistant resident engineer on the north side, but also was an engineer on other major Highland bridges – the Cromarty, Dornoch and Kylesku crossings, plus Friars Bridge in Inverness.

He joined many others who have paid tribute to three men no longer with us who had the vision to push for the crossing of the Beauly, Cromarty and Dornoch Firths – farmer Reay Clark, of Edderton, John Smith, an Aberdeen University lecturer, and Pat Hunter-Gordon, head of AI Welders in Inverness.

He said: “If it wasn’t for them there wouldn’t be the three firth crossings, and myself and others wouldn’t have had the chance to work on these ambitious and extensive structures.”

Mr Wilson and Mr Fraser have helped organise events to mark the anniversary and today a reunion of Kessock Bridge people will visit an exhibition at the Highland Archive Centre in Inverness, before lunching in North Kessock. This evening, Highland Council hosts a civic buffet at Inverness Town House.

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