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  • You are here:ICE

Walking in Telford's footsteps

Sara Thiam

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” goes Santayana’s famous quotation. The ICE’s values have their roots in the 19th century but are they still relevant today?

In a drive to ensure that the ICE presents a forward-looking, relevant face to the world, I have occasionally been less than enthusiastic about initiatives which dwelt too much on “past greatness”.

It reinforced a somewhat dry and dusty image of the Institution and the perception of us as an “old boys club”. As the ICE prepares to celebrate its bicentenary, I have been won over by the ICE’s founding father, Thomas Telford, thanks to a fantastic new biography by Julian Glover.

Physical legacy

Telford’s physical legacy is all around us in roads, bridges, harbours, tunnels and canals. Not for nothing is he known as the “Colossus of Roads”. Even more extraordinary though is the lasting relevance of the values he embodied, which live on in the professionalism of our members and the ICE’s strategic vision 200 years on. We call them different things now and we have our own corporate jargon, but everything he did demonstrated their worth.

As someone who started as an apprentice stonemason, this was a man who understood the importance of materials and practical on site experience.

At a time when loss of life was a common occurrence, he strove to ensure the safety of his workers.

Beautiful and functional

He wanted to create beautiful and functional structures, which frame and enhance the natural environment – the art and science of civil engineering. His legacy lives on in our efforts to inspire the next generation.

The most extraordinary thing about Telford was the extent of his involvement in every stage of the project, even persuading politicians and giving evidence to parliamentary committees – what we now call “thought leadership”.

He knew how to negotiate with and charm objectors too – no easy feat when you’re faced with a recalcitrant and eccentric Highland Laird whose land you will have to cross.


Telford was a true polymath and his commitment to lifelong learning and knowledge-sharing knew no bounds. He would study chemistry, read and write poetry, contribute to the Edinburgh Encylopaedia and collaborate with manufacturers to develop and test new technologies.

Much like the industry today, work-life balance was not his strong suit. He lived in temporary accommodation, only buying a house when he retired to London.

Sixteen-hour days were commonplace, particularly as he wandered the Highlands to survey for new roads. He roamed restlessly around the UK, barely completing one project before moving to the next, often having several projects ongoing simultaneously.

Telford’s achievements are all the more remarkable when you consider his humble beginnings as a shepherd’s son from Eskdale in Dumfries and Galloway. We now understand that a diverse workforce delivers better and more creative solutions, better reflects the society we serve, and is better for business.

The ICE is actively taking steps to help diversify our industry but one is left wondering if a young person from a similarly modest background could reach the heights of Telford in today’s society.

Sara Thiam is ICE Scotland regional director


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