The story of the Tay Bridge disaster, on the night of 28 December 1879, is one of the most haunting in the whole 19th century history of Scotland. Opened with great fanfare just 18 months earlier, the bridge preceded the Forth Bridge by more than a decade, and was viewed as one of the wonders of the railway age; but just after 7.15 pm on that winter night, with a freezing force ten gale blowing down the Tay, the bridge collapsed while a train from Burntisland to Dundee was crossing through its high central girders. None of the passengers survived the train’s horrifying plunge into the icy waters of the Tay; and it is thought that 75 people lost their lives.
The playwright Peter Arnott and the actor Tom McGovern had been talking for years about the potential for a play about the disaster; and when Dundee Rep’s artistic director Andrew Panton commissioned Arnott to write a piece for the Rep’s 80th anniversary season of Dundee plays, what eventually emerged was not one play but two. Arnott’s Play, Pie And Pint monologue The Signalman – featuring the railway worker who waved the train through onto the bridge that fateful night, played by McGovern – went on to win multiple categories in the 2020 CATS awards; and also much praised and nominated was Arnott’s brilliant 65-minute piece for the Dundee Rep Ensemble, which, on a brilliant set by Emily James, for Dundee Rep, offered a snapshot of the lives of a dozen 19th century characters who set out to cross the bridge that night.
In this powerful 12-minute sequence – filmed at the south end of today’s Tay Rail Bridge, close to the clearly visible remains of the pillars that supported the old fallen bridge – we see six members of the ensemble offering glimpses of the stories, based on real-life accounts, of some of the people who died that night. Anne Kidd is the servant-woman Annie, remembering her first days in service as she finally leaves behind a lifetime of loyalty to one family, and one mistress. Ewan Donald is the idealistic young schoolteacher, rejoicing in the talent and potential of a bright boy among the desperately poor children in his class.
Emily Winter is the woman of “easy virtue,” travelling from Edinburgh to Dundee at the behest of a cruel lover who has all but sold her to one of his business associates. Irene Macdougall is a minister’s widow whose guilty but joyful sense of freedom, following her husband’s death, has been cut short by revelations about the source of her family’s wealth; and Leah Byrne and Bailey Newsome are the young working-class lovers, divided by her passion for the idea of a new life in America, and his inclination to accept a job offer in Dundee.
None of the characters seems doomed; on the contrary, their lives are rushing forward with a dynamism that makes our knowledge of their fate all the more moving, and the disaster itself, like every great catastrophe, all the more random and inscrutable. The public inquiry into the Tay Bridge disaster laid the blame squarely on the designers and builders of the bridge, who had cut several corners too many. In this remarkable drama, though, Peter Arnott makes us feel the human loss involved, much as we would feel it in relation to a contemporary disaster; the pain of lives interrupted, untidy and unresolved, in a way that is all too human, and all too painfully recognisable.
The texts of Tay Bridge and The Signalman are published in one volume by Salamander Street press, at £10.99 (paperback).
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