It was a dark and stormy night in Scotland on December 28, 1879, when an iron railway bridge buckled and sent a train careening into the wintry waters below. Almost 60 passengers died, and the disaster prompted an inquiry that placed most of the blame on the bridge's designer, Sir Thomas Bouch.
A little less than 2 miles long, the Tay Bridge connected Dundee to Wormit over an estuary of the River Tay along Scotland’s eastern coast. It opened to trains in June 1878, and even Queen Victoria traveled across it during a trip to Balmoral Castle. Bouch had actually been knighted for his admirable feat of Victorian industrial ingenuity.
But the bridge’s collapse after just over 18 months in operation proved that it hadn’t been constructed to withstand fierce winds. Investigators also found that certain pressure and speed limits had been disregarded, which may have contributed to the gradual weakening of the structure. Bouch died in disgrace within a year of the accident.
Meanwhile, William Topaz McGonagall was penning a poem that would ensure the tragedy would live on in the hearts and minds of readers worldwide for decades to come—and not because it was a good poem.
McGonagall, born in Scotland to Irish parents, was well into his career as a handloom weaver when the Industrial Revolution arrived, bringing with it machines that rendered his manual skills obsolete. So he pivoted to acting instead. Then, in 1877, McGonagall suddenly realized his true destiny lay in poetry.
“I may say Dame Fortune has been very kind to me by endowing me with the genius of poetry,” he wrote in his autobiography.
We can only assume that after bestowing her gift, Dame Fortune watched McGonagall’s new trajectory unfold with diabolical glee and also maybe a large bucket of popcorn. He was, to put it unpoetically, an absolutely dreadful poet. So dreadful, in fact, that audience members routinely pelted him with eggs and rotten fruit; and authorities in his hometown of Dundee went so far as to forbid him from performing there. McGonagall’s response? A poem titled “Lines in Protest to the Dundee Magistrates” that begins as follows:
“Fellow citizens of Bonnie Dundee Are ye aware how the magistrates have treated me? Nay, do not stare or make a fuss When I tell ye they have boycotted me from appearing in Royal Circus, Which in my opinion is a great shame, And a dishonour to the city’s name.”
McGonagall continued to write his juvenile, arrhythmic poems, mainly for college-aged supporters who liked him ironically. And when it came to memorializing the Tay Bridge epic in verse, the misguided rhymester fancied himself up to the task. His poem, “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” is sort of a disaster in its own right.
You can read the whole thing below.
“Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay! Alas! I am very sorry to say That ninety lives have been taken away On the last Sabbath day of 1879, Which will be remember’d for a very long time. ’Twas about seven o’clock at night, And the wind it blew with all its might, And the rain came pouring down, And the dark clouds seem’d to frown, And the Demon of the air seem'd to say- 'I’ll blow down the Bridge of Tay.' When the train left Edinburgh The passengers’ hearts were light and felt no sorrow, But Boreas blew a terrific gale, Which made their hearts for to quail, And many of the passengers with fear did say- 'I hope God will send us safe across the Bridge of Tay.' But when the train came near to Wormit Bay, Boreas he did loud and angry bray, And shook the central girders of the Bridge of Tay On the last Sabbath day of 1879, Which will be remember’d for a very long time. So the train sped on with all its might, And Bonnie Dundee soon hove in sight, And the passengers’ hearts felt light, Thinking they would enjoy themselves on the New Year, With their friends at home they lov'd most dear, And wish them all a happy New Year. So the train mov’d slowly along the Bridge of Tay, Until it was about midway, Then the central girders with a crash gave way, And down went the train and passengers into the Tay! The Storm Fiend did loudly bray, Because ninety lives had been taken away, On the last Sabbath day of 1879, Which will be remember’d for a very long time. As soon as the catastrophe came to be known The alarm from mouth to mouth was blown, And the cry rang out all o'er the town, Good Heavens! the Tay Bridge is blown down, And a passenger train from Edinburgh, Which fill’d all the peoples hearts with sorrow, And made them for to turn pale, Because none of the passengers were sav’d to tell the tale How the disaster happen’d on the last Sabbath day of 1879, Which will be remember’d for a very long time. It must have been an awful sight, To witness in the dusky moonlight, While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray, Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay, Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay, I must now conclude my lay By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay, That your central girders would not have given way, At least many sensible men do say, Had they been supported on each side with buttresses, At least many sensible men confesses, For the stronger we our houses do build, The less chance we have of being killed.”