It has been almost 140 years since Dundee witnessed the unthinkable disaster that levelled the first Tay Bridge.
The catastrophe in December 1879 inspired a similarly catastrophic work by William McGonagall – remembered for similarly unfortunate reasons.
However, the disaster has also prompted playwright Peter Arnott to create a new drama for Dundee Rep, which premieres next month.
Tay Bridge runs from August 27 to September 21 and has been inspired by the victims who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Uniquely the play, based on an idea by actor Tom McGovern, will not focus on the disaster itself.
Instead Rep ensemble actors Leah Byrne, Ewan Donald, Barrie Hunter, Anne Kidd, Irene MacDougall, Bailey Newsome and Emily Winter will play the passengers – some real, some fictional – who made the fateful choice to board the train.
Andrew Panton, director of the play, said: “Tay Bridge is not about the disaster per se, but it is set that night, and it is based on the people who were on that train and official research and documentation on them.
“We’re definitely not putting a disaster movie on stage. The disaster is really a framing device for the play.
“It will piece together characters, where they may have been going and how their lives might have progressed had the disaster not happened.
“The audience will obviously know what the end point is going to be, but it’s really the individual characters that they gradually find out about and how their lives intertwine.”
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The Tay Bridge disaster took place on December 28, 1879, amid stormy weather which has since been blamed for the catastophe, along with flaws in the bridge’s design.
The train had been travelling through Fife and had just passed through Wormit when it joined the bridge.
Distraught eyewitnesses from across the West End described to the Tele the next day how they had seen “the greatest calamity that has occurred in our time”.
One man, corresponding in Monday’s paper, said: “To the eye it seems as if . . . a comet-like burst of fiery sparks sprang out as if forcibly ejected into the darkness from the engine. In a long visible trail the streak of fire was seen til quenched in the storm water below. Then there was absolute darkness on the bridge.”
The death toll in the disaster was believed to be about 75, but has since been revised to about 60 (McGonagall put the total at 90 without explanation).
The “true” total was established following meticulous research by the now-dissolved Tay Rail Bridge Disaster Memorial Trust, which raised £30,000 to install memorials to the victims on both sides of the Tay.
After the disaster, £1,980 was set aside for the bereaved families (£234,000 today) and, even as an inquiry began, there were calls immediately for the bridge to be replaced – which it was, in 1887.
Debate still continues over the true cause of the collapse – with theories suggesting that either the train derailed or the stormy weather took the bridge down, either could be correct.
However, with the Rep set to return the disaster to the fore of everyone’s minds, there’s still plenty to debate 140 years on.