Feature

A bridge to the past – an engineering graduate story

Published on 17 March 2021

As part of his Civil Engineering degree, Kevin built a bridge in the beautiful Highlands landscape which he has revisited to discover it still in use today

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Four men in their twenties lean against the handrail on a freshly built, unpainted, wooden bridge. The bridge crosses a small rocky gorge surrounded by foliage and further rock formations.

Kevin (second from left) and his classmates on their completed bridge, 1997

In a conversation with Craig Reoch, Alumni Engagement Coordinator, alumnus Kevin Smith reminisced about his time as a student at the University of Dundee and recalled his account of a class project which turned into a reality.

While Scotland is well known for its beautiful scenery and picturesque walks, Kevin had no idea that he would be contributing to a piece of that with a class project he undertook while a Civil Engineering student at the University of Dundee in 1997. Now, over 20 years on, Kevin has revisited the bridge he helped build in the Scottish Highlands to find out it is still standing strong and has provided safe passage to thousands of hillwalkers throughout the years. 

A man's hand, a silver wedding band on the ring finger, rests on the bridge handrail. Next to it, a faintly weathered metal plaque is screwed down. It reads "This bridge was constructed by students from the Dept of Civil Engineering University of Dundee April 1997" in block capitals.

A formal plaque screwed to the handrail to commemorate the building

Kevin was delighted to see that the bridge he had originally worked on with his classmates was still there. The timber bridge is located on a mountain path up Beinn Eighe (from the Scots Gaelic meaning ‘File Mountain’) near the village of Kinlochewe. They did not realise at the time that the University of Dundee had already been commissioned by Scottish National Heritage to build the bridge – they thought they were simply working on a class project and did not realise the working drawings would turn into a reality.   

“When we first saw the bridge again, I felt a sense of pride and relief mixed together! When we climbed the hill and we were approaching where I knew the bridge was from memory, I was wondering whether it was still going to be there or not… and it was!” 

The structure itself was built to allow hillwalkers to traverse over a rocky gorge that was originally quite treacherous and therefore made for an easier crossing. Originally walkers had to step down off the rocks into the gorge and climb two more shelves of rock to reach the other side. The most difficult part, Kevin explained, was not the actual building of the bridge but the fact it was in such a remote location. 

“The hardest part is that it was 900 feet up a mountain! It involved carrying all the timbers and kit needed up the mountain path - not an easy task - and then the subsequent build itself.  This included breaking out rock and boring holes for the foundations and all the timber work - nailing, fixing, screwing etc.  

A very enjoyable week was had with my classmates and our lecturer - with many skills in teamwork and construction gained along the way.” 

It certainly helped ease the pain that the location was in such a beautiful part of Scotland. Thankfully, Kevin documented his various trips to the site through photographs and it’s easy to see why he wanted to return 20 years on. 

A photo taken from Beinn Eighe showing the wooden bridge nestled in a slight gorge that cuts through an otherwise tree lined area. The trees, which become greener as they move away from the gorge, eventually reach Loch Maree, a still deep blue lake. Behind this, at the other side of the lake, are mountains of average height for the Scottish Highlands, the greenery fading to brown the higher you go.

“Because we were up there for a week and the whole thing was a bit of an experience for us, I did have an old-fashioned camera with me, and I took a lot of pictures. I didn’t really think about it at the time. We also carved our initials into the underside of the handrail – which are still there to this day!” 

A close up of KPS carved in chunky letters on the wooden handrail of the bridge, other initials, less clear, are to the left, a tree and a sunny sky are the background

A less formal commemoration from 1997, still clearly visible today

Kevin has had a successful career in the engineering field since his undergraduate days at the University of Dundee building bridges in the Highlands. After graduating, he gained a job locally in traditional civil engineering construction. This was partly due to the job itself but also suited his personal life. Kevin explained: 

“Let’s romanticise it! In between graduating and getting a job I met a girl who was going to study at the University of Dundee herself. We met through amateur dramatics which we are both interested in. So, the job itself and the relationship kept me here – we’ve been together 20 years and are now married!” 

Kevin’s links to the University stretch ever further as he was even involved in construction of some of the buildings around campus that are recognisable today. Some of the residences (Seabraes, The Hub, and Campus apartments), The Wellcome Trust Building (the large, white building in the Life Sciences complex) and even some upgrades to Dundee University Students’ Association (DUSA) are all projects that Kevin can lay claim to having helped build or having worked with colleagues on. 

“If I walk around campus with my wife she goes crazy as I point out everything that we walk past. I built that, I helped with this, I worked on that!” 

Following on from his role in local construction, Kevin moved into working in roads engineering for the local authority in Fife Council which is, fittingly, a short drive over another bridge from Dundee – the Tay Road Bridge this time. After progressing up into management, Kevin has now moved into another post in roads engineering for Angus Council, where he also lives. Not only that, he is the Chair of the local Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) for Tayside and Fife. He owes a lot of his success to his experiences at the University of Dundee.  

A view from the path leading to the bridge, its gently weathered appearance making it melt into the landscape of ferns and rocks

“Dundee has a reputation for excellence. The whole package, the facilities, the location – it’s well situated in Scotland as a transport hub. The degree was attractive in the first instance as it was well regarded in the UK, not just Scotland. What I took away from it was that the prestige of my degree being from Dundee put it above others for prospective employment. Having the degree from Dundee was that extra tick in the box”. 

Whatever Kevin goes on to achieve in the future, it’s for certain that his memories of his time building this bridge as a Civil Engineering student at the University of Dundee are still fresh in his mind. 

Do you have a story from your time as a student you would like to share with us?

Email alumni@dundee.ac.uk and let us know
Enquiries

Craig Reoch

Alumni Engagement Coordinator

+44 (0)1382 384741

creoch001@dundee.ac.uk

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Alumni