Pat McConnell – The Bridge on the River Tay – Web Exclusive

The Bridge on the River Tay

The alarm clock went off at 4 am. Jim Lawrence hated that alarm; he hated this dark, wet, miserable country and most of all he hated the Scots.

As he boarded the early morning bus with the other guest workers, Jim was handed his clean overalls for the day. He hated the red cross of St. George on the back, symbol of an Englishman or ‘Georgie’, but at least he wasn’t Welsh with their anaemic pink dragons. On the three hour trip to Dundee, he tried to catch some sleep, but kept getting woken up to the dreadful droning of The Proclaimers on the radio and the bus driver chanting, ‘Only 500 miles more, you slobs’.

As the bus approached Dundee, Jim could see the massive new houses that had been built by the locals, huge palaces made possible by the enormous wealth flowing into a town what had once only been famous for its sodding cakes and the Tay Bridge Disaster. Scottish kids, on the way to private schools with their nannies, pointed and giggled at the strange looking foreigners on the bus. Just before Dundee, the bus turned left and, after a few miles, Jim could see the North Sea, the Firth of Tay and the largest construction site in Europe.

This was the headquarters of the Scottish government authority responsible for building the New Tay River Bridge. This engineering marvel was to carry the Very High Speed Train line that was to link all Scottish cities and towns. The line also extended into some of the cities of Northern England, like Newcastle and Carlisle, to carry tens of thousands of guest workers each day to and from the new factories in Scotland. Only those ‘UKies’ working on the Bridge were given visas to reside temporarily in the country, for the duration of the construction.

It had all been very different in 2014, when the Scots voted narrowly to leave the UK. Jim could understand why the Scots were so bitter and why they wanted to take revenge. For the first five years of independence, Scotland suffered a Great Depression, millions were thrown out of work, services crumbled and diseases such as rickets returned to Glasgow tenements.

2018 was, however, an ‘annus mirabilis’ for the Scots and the beginning of many ‘anni horribilis’ for the rest of the UK, especially England. A number of pieces of good luck or lucky geography dramatically transformed the Sottish economy.

First, UK oil companies admitted that they had deliberately underestimated the reserves of North Sea Oil in the run up to the independence referendum. This treachery allowed the new Scottish Parliament, with a nod from the European Court of Justice, to nationalise the oil fields in compensation. Second, the same oil companies, suitably chastised, discovered a huge Coal Seam Gas (CSG) field on the Northwest coast of Scotland which stretched all the way from Skye to the Grampians.

But even more riches were to come. For over a century, it had been known that there were trace deposits of the rare earth Terbium Boride in the Torridon Mountains in the Highlands, but in drilling for CSG, a huge new deposit, the world’s largest, was discovered. This would not have been terribly important except for the fact that in 2018 scientists, working at the University of Edinburgh, had invented a new type of very high capacity battery based on TbB6 and Seaweed which would revolutionise the distances that could be covered on a single charge by electric vehicles. With Chinese investment, a whole new high-tech industry blossomed across Scotland and expatriate Scots flocked back to enjoy the benefits.

But in RumpUK, as it became known, the reverse was happening. After the Faragists gained power in 2016 and immediately left the European Union, the predictable happened and large companies fled the UK, quicker than you could say, ‘Another Pint, Old Boy’. The economy didn’t just tank, it sank. Not even the election of PM Boris (Brick) Johnson could turn the tide and the slide into abject penury accelerated. The Scots happily took their revenge, withdrawing their funds from the London banks, torpedoing the Square Mile, and demanding visas for Ukies to enter their country. If that was not enough, ever since the disastrous North Sea floods of 2019, which inundated the Sizewell and Dungeness nuclear power stations, the English were completely dependent on energy supplies from the Scots. The Jocks had the Old Enemy by the sweetbreads and were gleefully squeezing out the dough. The centuries-old flow of workers reversed and Pukies (Passing Ukies) started to stream into Scotland on guest worker visas, to the delight of the locals, who just loved revenge.

Jim Lawrence had graduated as a Civil Engineer and was working on the now-abandoned fourth London airport in the Thames Estuary, often referred to as ‘Boris’s Gravesend’, when he was thrown out of job. With not so much negative equity as positive bankruptcy facing him, Jim applied for and got a job on the new Tay Bridge. Flushed with money and determined to complete the new bridge by the tenth anniversary of Independence in 2024, the Scots were ruthless on the Pukies. Treating them like a defeated enemy, they paid even the most senior Puky minimum wages, for long hard days’ work in the freezing cold of the Firth of Tay. Many cracked. Jim rose to be the Senior Puky Engineer (SPE) only because his predecessor, Roger Nicholson, had ‘fallen’ while taking theodolite measurements at the top of the new Bridge – some whispered that he could take no more humiliation and had jumped.

Jim’s working day was appalling. From dark, through a miserable short winter’s day, Jim, soaked to the bone, was forced to cycle around the huge site urging his fellow workers to keep going. Some didn’t, disappearing into the dark waters or making a break for Hadrian’s Wall, now a 20 metre high electrified fence, nominally to keep Pukies out (but also to keep them in). Few escapers returned alive.

Many Pukies wanted to sabotage the Bridge, but Jim felt, as a professional engineer, that the Bridge and the safety of trains must come first. For that he was appreciated by Hamish (Big Nuts) McTavis, the Chief Bridge Engineer. And McTavis sometimes threw additional work Jim’s way. ‘Laddie, Want to Caddy for Daddy?” he would joke as he set off for another round of golf at St Andrews with overseas investors. After the game, Jim was forced to wait outside of the clubhouse in the rain for his fee as the recently revoked ban on women at the Royal and Ancient had been replaced by a ban on Ukies.

And often, Jim was forced to spend his miserly caddy’s fee on a taxi back to Culloden. Though almost 200 kilometres from Dundee, the Scots billeted the Pukies working on the Bridge in barracks at Culloden, reversing the humiliation of their defeat there at the hands of the English in 1746 – long memories these Picts.

As SPE, Jim not only had engineering duties but was also the spokesman for Pukies’ grievances. All week, men and women had been coming to him, complaining, ‘It’s past Christmas and we have not had any Red Cross parcels yet’. Here, of course, Red Cross did not mean the Swiss charity but the mail for the St Georgies, which was shovelled out the back of a truck normally used for carrying Arbroath Smokies. Obviously this was yet another humiliation visited on the Sassanknackered by the Scots, as if beating England 9-0 in the 2022 World Cup qualifiers was not enough. Jim had not expected a parcel, as the little money he earned was sent back to his wife and kids for food not fancies. However, as the workers lined up for the buses back to Culloden, Jim decided to speak to the Chief Engineer.

‘Mr McTavis, sir, I must inquire on behalf of the men, where are our Christmas hampers? We are fed up with Irn Bru and Deep Fried Mars Bars, we want our own foods, such as Chicken Vindaloo’.

‘Bah Humbug’, said McTavis, ‘You Puky Pikies are nothing but lazy, good-for-nothing moochers, and you have missed your targets once again. If it were not for our Polish pals we would be months behind schedule. No plum pudding or mince pies for you lot this year, I fear’.

‘Oh Dearie me’, he sighed ‘Looks like you have missed another schedule. Because it is the 31st December I gave the bus drivers the evening off. Looks like you have missed the last bus to Culloden, and since everywhere is closed you will have to stand here in the yard until the morning shift’.

As leader, Jim felt that he had to show the hated Jocks he was made of solid English Oak (or at least MDF). He laid down his duffel bag and stood stock still in the cold. All of the other Georgies did the same, facing a fierce winter’s night, with admirable phlegm, which often brought on a coughing fit. How many would be there in the morning?

‘However, I am a kind man’ added the Chief Engineer, ‘because tomorrow is the glorious Scots’ National Day, you are all allowed to start work 15 minutes later. Have a long sleep in’.

As he left, he chuckled ‘Happy Hogmanay, Mr Lawrence’.