Engineering Lanarkshire: Motherwell Bridge

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The Motherwell Bridge & Engineering Company is one of the most famous names in Scottish engineering. Founded by a consortium in 1898 as the Motherwell Bridge Building Company the firm took on its familiar name in 1924.

The Hielanman's Umbrella, Glasgow (photo: Stephen Sweeney, under a Creative Commons licence).

The Hielanman’s Umbrella, Glasgow (photo: Stephen Sweeney, under a Creative Commons licence).

Well-known structures built by Motherwell Bridge include much of Glasgow Central Station (including the bridge over Arygle Street known as the ‘Hielan’ Man’s Umbrella’), the road bridge over the Clyde between Hamilton and Motherwell and the iconic Dounreay Sphere.

 

Cantilever Crane by the Motherwell Bridge and Engineering Co

This crane was built in Motherwell for a shipyard in Nagasaki, Japan. It is still working today.

The founders of the company were Alexander Ronald Miller, ironmaster of the Globe Iron Works, John Marshall, boilermaker of the Clyde Boiler Works,  Robert Park, builder, James Campbell Clark, draughtsman, John Motherwell Alston, lawyer and John Orr and James Binner, both bridge-builders.

The firm’s works were at the north end of Motherwell, just off the Bellshill Road and close to . Less than a decade after building the factory the firm found that the buildings were being damaged by mining subsidence from the nearby Motherwell Colliery. They had to buy the mineral rights to their site from the Duke of Hamilton to halt further mining.

Structures built for clients were usually first test-erected in Motherwell before being transported to their destination so local people would see bridges, cranes and other structures regularly appear and disappear. The works was next to Caledonian Railway line between Glasgow and London and was joined to the line by sidings. The company had its own shunting locomotive, first a steam loco which was later replaced with Diesel. The Diesel locomotive is preserved at the Museum of Scottish Railways in Bo’ness.

The truncated remains of the Motherwell Bridge crane gantry, Europe's largest welded steel structure when it was completed in 1939.

The truncated remains of the Motherwell Bridge crane gantry, said to have been Europe’s largest static welded steel structure when it was completed in 1939.

Into a New Era

After the Second World War, the company found new business from the newly-oil rich states such as Kuwait and Iraq. Indeed, the Motherwell Bridge Contracting and Trading Co built the Royal Palace, now known as the Republican Palace, in Baghdad. Soon, the petrochemical and nuclear industries would replace bridge-building as the company’s main focus.

The remarkable modernist arch built at the Motherwell end of the Clyde Bridge to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.

The remarkable modernist arch built at the Motherwell end of the Clyde Bridge to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.

In the 1950s Motherwell Bridge won the competition (against four other firms) to build a giant steel protectivce sphere to surround the Fast Breeder Reactor at the Dounreay Experimental Reactor Establishment on the coast of Caithness.

The sphere, which had to be strong enough to resist a reactor explosion and sealed to prevent a leak of radioactive particles has become an iconic part of the Caithness landscape.

The firm became involved in a very different side of the new nuclear industry in 1957 following the Windscale disaster in Cumbria. They designed and built an access tower to the damaged nuclear reactor.

In the 1980s Motherwell Bridge employed around 3,000 people around the globe but still ran the business from Motherwell. By that time, the main business was constructing oil storage tanks but the firm continued to do work for many different industries. Bridge-building, however was in the past.

The early 2000s saw the Motherwell site reduced to about a third of its size with most of the site sold for housing. The modernist headquarters building was demolished but the sleek water tower that dominated the site remains, a landmark for those entering the town from the North. Business continues, albeit on a smaller scale and in 2016 it was reported that Motherwell Bridge Industries had installed the 200th port crane for Finnish firm Kone Cranes.

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