Thomas Telford was born in August 1757 in Westerkirk, Dumfries, the son of a shepherd. He too worked as a shepherd until, at the age of 14, he was apprenticed to a stonemason at Langholm. He worked for a while on construction of Edinburgh New Town before moving to London in 1782 and in 1787 he was appointed as Surveyor of Public Works for Shropshire.
He returned to Scotland in 1790 on behalf of the British Fisheries Society, for whom he had designed Ullapool in 1788, to survey piers and harbours throughout Scotland but by 1793 he was back in Shropshire. This time for his most famous project: the design and construction of the Ellesmere Canal linking the collieries and steelworks of Wrexham to the Mersey via Ellesmere and Chester. This canal incorporates the impressive Pontcysyllte Aqueduct which carries the canal for 307 metres over the river Dee on 18 stone pillars 37 metres in height.
In 1801, he was asked by the government of the day to return to Scotland to continue his work on the harbours and piers and to survey roads across Scotland. From 1804 to 1824 his was responsible for the construction of 920 miles of roads and 120 bridges throughout the Scottish Highlands. He also built a number of harbours and jetties as well as designing and constructing the Calledonian Canal, which links Loch Lochy, Loch Oich and Loch Ness, running through the Great Glen from Corpach, near Fort William, to Inverness: a distance of 60 miles.
Between 1823 and 1830 he was involved in the building of 32 “Parliamentary Churches” – 19 in the Highlands and 13 in the Western Isles – most of which are still standing. These were built to a standard designed, T-shaped with an accompanying manse. He went on to build Dean Bridge in Edinburgh and Glasgow Bridge at Broomielaw.
Thomas Telford died in September 1834 at the age of 77. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.