William Bald

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William Bald
Born in Burntisland
Pioneering Cartographer, Surveyor and Civil Engineer
 Significant contributor to the infrastructure of Ireland


Map of Ireland

Unveiling of William Bald Commemoration Plaque in Burntisland: 30 August 2008
Please click here for report and photos.

2007: the 150th anniversary of the death of William Bald
Below - William Bald's grave in Highgate Cemetery, London. Photo courtesy of David Orr.


The 150th anniversary in 2007 of the death of William Bald was marked by at least two significant events. In November 2007, David Orr assumed office as President of the Institution of Civil Engineers. In his Presidential Address he spoke of the profession's "unsung heroes" and chose William Bald to illustrate his theme. Please click here to read what David had to say about William Bald. Also in November 2007, Paul Duffy, Chartered Engineer and historian, delivered a lecture in Castlebar, County Mayo, on "William Bald (1789-1857): The Man Who Put Mayo on the Map".

According to Margaret Storrie (quoting J.E. Portlock's 1858 obituary) William Bald was born in "Burnt Island, Fifeshire". He was probably born in 1788 (or 1789) (dates calculated from his age at the 1851 census and at his death in 1857). His place of birth is likely to have been the property owned by the family and located in an area at the west end of the High Street - on the north side, just before the railway viaduct, and now occupied by a landscaped car park (source - Burntisland Town Council Chartulary No. 1, entry dated 1871). The entry in this Chartulary also tells us that, in 1815, William Bald transferred the ownership of the Burntisland property (which he probably inherited from his father) to his mother, Grizel Bell, with the stipulation that, when Grizel died, the property should pass to Grizel's daughter Christian (William's sister).

Christian was born in 1781 (or 1782) (dates calculated from her age on her death registration). She married William McOmish, mason and builder, on 11 January 1802, and she eventually inherited the High Street property. A share in this property passed in due course to Christian and William's granddaughter, Agnes McOmish. Agnes is still remembered in Burntisland as the donor of the Erskine Church clock.

Christian died (of "Fever and Old Age") in 1857 at the age of 75. Her death registration gives her parents as William Bald (occupation - difficult to read, but probably Tanner) and Grace (sic) Bald, maiden surname Bell. So it looks as if William Bald's parents were also William Bald (probably a tanner) and Grace Bell.

As of now (January 2017), this is all that is known of William's own family background. Despite exhaustive searching, no records have been found of the births of William or his sister Christian; nor of the births, marriage or deaths/burials of their parents William and Grizel; nor of a will or inventory for father William. It may be that a search of the Burntisland Sasines in the National Records of Scotland would reveal something, given that we know that there was a property transaction in 1815.

It is quite likely that there was some connection between William Bald's family and that of his contemporary, Robert Bald, who was born in Culross in 1775 and rose to become Mining Engineer for Scotland. Robert's father and Robert's uncle (respectively Alexander Bald and John Bald) and their families also developed significant mining, distilling and timber interests in the Alloa area. There were certainly close links between William Bald and Robert Bald, as Robert proposed William for membership of learned societies in the late 1820s. And Robert Bald had another uncle, also Robert Bald, who was born in Culross in 1750 and was later described as a "Tanner & Baillie in Culross". Tanner is an unusual occupation, so it is striking that both this Robert Bald and William Bald's father (William Bald) were both tanners.

The Shore
This old picture shows The Shore, Burntisland, before the building of the west dock and the railway viaduct. The view is from the west, and the date would be around the middle of the 19th century. In the left centre of the picture are the western entrance to the High Street and the spire of the Burgh Chambers. The sailing ships are moored at what is now Harbour Place. The large gable end (third building from the left) is of the westernmost building on the north side of the High Street. This is probably the building owned by the Bald family, and it (or an earlier building on the same site) is likely to be where William Bald was born.

William Bald: Career

According to Portlock (see above) William Bald left school in Burntisland at the age of 12 and, after a brief period of schooling in Edinburgh, was apprenticed to John Ainslie in 1803. This was an impressive start to his working life, as Ainslie was the leading Scottish map-maker of his generation.

Around this time, there was a strong demand for map-making services from Scottish landowners, who were keen to develop their estates and thereby increase their profitability. It was on such projects that Bald, supervised by Ainslie, worked initially. Bald must have developed his cartographic expertise remarkably quickly, because within two years he was given personal responsibility for mapping the Western Isles of Scotland - at the age of only 17! The maps which he produced were a major factor in transforming the way in which the Western Isles were depicted in the new atlases of the day.

There is an amusing postscript to the mapping of the Western Isles' Clanranald Estate. In July 1809, Ainslie wrote to Robert Brown, the estate factor, about the non-payment of the account for the work: "If you do not settle the whole Account or pay a part of it the consequence will be that he [William Bald] will come over from Ireland and there will be the Divill to pay. ..... I can assure you he is now a very big man and it will not do to triffle with him any longer." One assumes that the bill was paid, and that Bald got the money due to him!

Bald had indeed moved to Ireland by 1809, and at the age of 21 was embarking on his most significant period of work. We know from a property transaction that, in 1815, he described himself as a Land Surveyor, and was living in Castlebar, County Mayo. It was in Ireland that his principal mapping, surveying and civil engineering works were undertaken, and it is in Ireland that he is chiefly remembered today. He was responsible for the construction and improvement of roads, harbours and railways throughout Ireland. And his 25-sheet map of Mayo, completed in 1830, was regarded as a masterpiece. The Mayo County Library in Castlebar holds a full set, which can now be viewed online by clicking here.

Among Bald's many projects in Ireland were improvements to the River Boyne and the harbour at Drogheda. He was also responsible for Ireland's first suspension bridge, at Kenmare in County Kerry. Sadly, it was replaced in 1933, but photographs can be seen on the Kenmare website.

William Bald plaqueHowever, it is the Antrim coast road, in particular the section from Larne to Cushendall, which is recognised as William Bald's greatest achievement. It was built between 1832 and 1842, and gave proper access to the beautiful Antrim Glens region. At the time of its construction, it had the added benefit (for the authorities) of allowing more efficient movement of British troops, following the Irish Rebellion of 1798.

The new road was regarded as a brilliant engineering feat, and has some fine examples of bridge construction along its route. It was the proving ground for innovative techniques, such as the blasting of complete headlands and the use of the resultant rock to create sea defences.

A poll of 5,000 British respondents carried out in 2006 demonstrated the enduring attraction of the road. The respondents were asked to name the "greatest view in the world" and the Antrim coast road took fifth place, preceded only by Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House, sunset in Mauritius, Lake Wakatipu in New Zealand, and the Victoria Falls.

On the Antrim coast road, outside Chaine Park, is a fitting memorial, in simple basalt stone, to engineer William Bald and the other men whose spectacular creation opened up one of the most beautiful regions of Ireland. It was erected by the Larne and District Historical Association in 1978. The memorial is pictured left. (Many thanks to David Orr for supplying the photo.)

In 2014, Donnell O'Loan wrote to me with details of another, much less well known, memorial to William Bald. It is on the Coretavy Bridge on the section of the Antrim Coast Road between Glendun viaduct and Ballyvoy village. Please click here or on the thumbnail (right) to see Donnell's notes and photos.

William Bald has of course also been commemorated in Burntisland, Fife, where he was born. Please click here for information about the commemoration plaque, which was a joint venture by the Institution of Civil Engineers and Burntisland Heritage Trust.

Apart from a spell in France from 1826 to 1830, William Bald remained in Ireland, latterly in Dublin, until 1839. He then returned to Scotland as Engineer to the Clyde River Trust, charged with "deepening, widening and improving" the river. He carried out a significant amount of work (assisted at times by his sons Charles and William), but his innovative ideas and forceful and at times impetuous personality did not please some of the Trustees. The deep divisions came to a head in 1845, when the Trustees decided by 15 votes to 14 to dismiss him. His other work in Scotland included significant improvements to the harbour at Troon and a major report on the River Tay.

From 1845 to about 1850 he continued to be based in Scotland, probably at his Glasgow city centre house in Robertson Street. He also spent some further time in France in that period. Around 1850 he moved to London. In 1851 he was appointed by the Admiralty to prepare a comprehensive report on the River Tees. He continued working from his London base until his death in 1857.

William Bald was elected a Fellow of the Geological Society of London in 1816; a Member of the Royal Irish Academy in 1822; an Honorary Member of the Wernerian Natural History Society of Edinburgh in 1827; a Member of the Société de Géographie de Paris in 1827; and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1829. In his daughter Mary's obituary, William is described as "a corresponding member to the French Academy". I also have a note that William received a gold medal from the Government of France in recognition of his work on the River Seine, but I have been unable to confirm this.

Despite his achievements, William Bald had until recently been largely forgotten. A notable exception was a paper written for the Institute of British Geographers in 1968 by Dr Margaret Storrie, then a Lecturer in Geography at Queen Mary College, University of London. I am very grateful to David Orr for sending me a copy of this paper, which has been a most useful source of information. In her paper, Margaret Storrie asked why Bald was not remembered in the way his contemporaries such as Telford and Brunel were, and she suggested that a principal reason was that Bald had been at his most productive in Ireland, rather than in Great Britain where the works of cartographers, surveyors and civil engineers were better documented.

William Bald: Wives and Children

Peter Bald of New Zealand, great great grandson of William Bald (via William's son, Charles, and Charles's son Frank), was the person who alerted us to his distinguished ancestor's achievements. Peter and his daughter Andrea are trying to piece together the details of William Bald's complicated family life.

William Bald's 14 known children are:

Margaret Storrie discovered a letter dated 10 June 1807 from William Bald to Robert Brown, in which William referred to his "imminent" marriage - although we do not know whom he was to marry. William would have been about 19 at the time, and it is likely that such a marriage would have taken place in Scotland. (Although there is no record of it in the usual Scottish sources, that in itself is of no great significance.)

That apparent marriage is something of a mystery, because Andrea Bald has discovered evidence of William Bald marrying Anne Griffin in 1810 (see below). As for the marriage planned for 1807, we can only speculate. Perhaps it did not actually take place; or, if it did, it may have have been short lived. Or William may have intended to marry Anne Griffin in 1807, but the marriage was postponed for three years.

In contrast, Andrea Bald's discovery of William's marriage to Anne Griffin in 1810 in Ireland is backed up by firm evidence - namely an entry in a list of marriage licences granted in the Diocese of Tuam in the west of Ireland. So Anne Griffin is William Bald's first known wife.

Thanks to Joseph Yeomans of Ballyvary, County Mayo, we know what happened to Anne. Joseph emailed us: "I have been reading your web site about William Bald. I was interested in the site because I work in Straide, Co Mayo. Next to the Michael Davitt museum there is the grave of Anne Bald, wife of William Bald. The details on the grave are not easy to read and the stone is gradually deteriorating. ..... The grave, being the wife of a leading Scottish Cartographer, should be preserved and perhaps something should be done to make the fact of the grave better known. Nothing can be done without the agreement of relations."

Joseph was also kind enough to take some photos of Anne Bald's grave for us, and two of them are reproduced here with his permission:

Anne Bald's grave   Anne Bald's grave
Inscription on the stone: "Sacred to the Memory of Anne Bald wife of William Bald Esq Civil Engineer
who Departed this life on the 5 of April 182* [date unclear - looks like 1820 or 1826; but see below]."

Marriage noticeAnne would have been the mother of Mary (probably), Charles and William. Although the date on Anne's memorial stone could be 1826, the facts indicate that it is likely to be 1823 or earlier. The reason for this is the more recent (April 2009) discovery in a local newspaper, the Ballina Impartial of 17 November 1823, of the marriage notice displayed left. This was found by Ivor Hamrock and sent to us by Joseph Yeomans, and many thanks to them. It shows the marriage in 1823 of William Bald to his second wife, Matilda Barrett. As William married his third wife, Margaret (see below), in 1842, Matilda would have been the mother of Edward, Joseph, Thomas, Margaret, Grisilda, Matilda and Catherine.

We found William Bald and his family in Glasgow in the 1841 census. William and his children (from Robert to Catherine inclusive, except for Grisilda) are listed, but there is no sign of a wife - so William's second wife Matilda may well have died in Scotland about 1840 (perhaps in childbirth when Catherine was born) or in 1841 prior to the census in June.

If we now move forward to the 1851 census, we find William living in London with his third wife, 28 year old Margaret. We know from a notice in the Freeman's Journal that William married Margaret (daughter of the late Francis McGreevy of Castlebar) on 29 March 1842 in Castlebar. So Margaret would have been the mother of Alexander, Jane and Alicia.

In both the 1841 and 1851 censuses, William Bald's household includes Catherine Barrett. In 1841 her age is given as in the range 60 to 64, and ten years later it is given as 86. In 1851 she is described as William Bald's sister-in-law and born in Ireland. She was probably an older and unmarried sister of William Bald's second wife, Matilda Barrett.

William Bald's will, made shortly before he died, mentioned his wife Margaret and the following children - Mary, Charles, Margaret, Matilda, Catherine, Alexander, Jane and Alicia.

William Bald died aged 68 on 26 March 1857 at his home in Werrington Street, near Euston Station in London. The cause of death was "abscess in lungs", from which he had been suffering for four months. The death was registered by Catherine Barrett, who had been present in the house when he died.


Extract from David Orr's Presidential address to the Institution Of Civil Engineers, 6 November 2007

(You can also find out more about the Antrim coast road in David Orr's 2003 Chairman's Address to the Institution of Civil Engineers, Northern Ireland Region; please click here for the illustrated text (PDF file, 468Kb, opens in a new tab or window). David (who himself lives in County Antrim) is still keen to trace a portrait or photo of William Bald. If anyone can help, please let us know and we will pass on the information.)

In the early 1800s, in the reign of William IV, the Commissioners of Public Works in Ireland described the Glens of Antrim as ‘a barren waste, asylum of a miserable and lawless peasantry’. Some say not much has changed! It was, they said, ‘cut off from any reasonable communication by the badness of roads over mountains and slopes’.

And so the Commissioners conceived the idea of building a great road to give better access for the military, open up the Glens for trade, and give work to the unemployed.

The Antrim Coast Road was promoted by the Commissioners, but it was their civil engineer, William Bald, who rose to the challenge and completed the route between 1832 and 1842. His road runs along the coast for 38 kilometres - from the Black Arch at Larne to the Red Arch near Cushendall. .....

It was a superb achievement for its day and made a great difference to the people of the Glens. Before the road was built, they sailed across the North Channel to Scotland to trade their goods, because the short sea crossing was easier than travel by land to the nearest market town. So you can see it was a superb civil engineering work.

William Bald was born in Burntisland in Fife in 1789. He was a civil engineer and surveyor who came to Ireland aged 20 to complete the trigonometrical survey of County Mayo. In 1825, he moved to Paris, but five years later returned to Ireland to build the Antrim Coast Road, and the Port of Drogheda.

Bald had the vision of building the road along the foot of the cliffs, some of them over 100 metres high. For many, it was an incredible idea. Previous plans had been to build the road some distance inland, but this would have meant steep gradients as the road traversed the valleys of the Glens.

There is a copy of the 1834 Commissioners’ report here in our library, presented to us by William Bald himself – who was a member of the Institution. It illustrates how the cliff face was blasted and fell down onto the foreshore to form the base for the new road.

His report is full of the most exquisite drawings .....

In his report Bald writes:

‘30,000 cubic yards of rock have been hurled down on the shore almost entirely by blasting, which has been executed by care and judgement.’

The Antrim Coast Road was completed in 1842 at a cost of £37,140 - some £12,000 over budget - much to the displeasure of the Commissioners. So it seems optimism bias was necessary even in those days.

From then, the road remained largely unchanged until May 1967 when there was a major rock fall, which completely blocked it south of Glenarm.

Antrim County Council started to build a new road on the seaward side of the old one, over a length of about two kilometres. But in October 1968, there was a great storm that washed away the causeway where the sea defences had not been completed. Work restarted and altogether 97,000 tons of rock armouring were placed before the scheme was completed in November 1970 - over three years after the road was closed. And even today there are still rock falls, which simply serve to remind us of the challenges that Bald overcame.

So relatively recently, it took three years to replace two kilometres of the road – whereas Bald built 40 kilometres in only 10 years.

After his work in Antrim was completed in 1842, William Bald left to practice in Scotland and France. He died in 1857 and is buried in Highgate Cemetery in London. This year sees the 150th anniversary of his death.

Ladies and gentlemen, William Bald was a civil engineer who left an immeasurable legacy to the people of the Glens of Antrim, and created one of the finest tourist routes in the world. But despite extensive research, no portrait of him can be found. His finest memorial is the Coast Road itself, marked only by [a] small plaque. And that is why, to my mind, William Bald is a true unsung hero.

Today, our civil engineering profession is formed not of Brunels and Telfords, but largely of unsung heroes like William Bald.


William Bald Recognised by the Northern Ireland Government

In November 2009, the Government of Northern Ireland announced  the launch of the 'William Bald Scholarships'. These are scholarships to recognise post graduate work of the next generation of civil engineers in Northern Ireland. Two students will benefit each year for a period of five years.


BBC TV Series about William Bald and the Antrim Coast Road; and a Bald Family Visit to Ireland and Scotland

In October 2016, BBC Northern Ireland screened a three part series on William Bald and the Antrim Coast Road. Entitled "Shaping the Coast", it brought William Bald and his greatest engineering work to a wide audience for the first time. In May 2016 William's great great great granddaughter, Andrea Bald, and her son Levi travelled from their home in New Zealand to County Antrim to participate in the series. They also took the opportunity to visit those areas of Northern Ireland, Ireland and Scotland with which William Bald was associated. We were delighted to welcome them to Burntisland in early June 2016, towards the end of their tour, when we were able to show them a large number of places and buildings with Bald and McOmish/McComish family connections - as well as some of the town's best known visitor attractions, such as the Parish Church. Andrea wrote an entertaining blog describing her experiences, including her visit to Burntisland.

Above (left) - Andea Bald and Levi under the William Bald memorial plaque close to the site of William Bald's original family home in Burntisland.
Above (right) - beside the headstone of William Bald's niece, Margaret McComish, in Burntisland Parish Churchyard.

Our thanks to David Orr, Peter and Andrea Bald, Joseph Yeomans, Ivor Hamrock, Donnell O'Loan and John Burnett for their help with this page. I also acknowledge my debt to Margaret Storrie for her invaluable 1968 paper on William Bald (reprinted by the Institute of British Geographers, 1969).

© Iain Sommerville and David Orr: 2003-2009

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