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Alexander Nimmo’s Inverness Survey and Journal, 1806


news 10 June 20113:12

The RoyaI Irish Academy, in association with the Royal Society of Edinburgh, has just launched Alexander Nimmo’s Inverness Survey and Journal, 1806 in Inverness, Scotland, following a successful launch of the book in NUI Galway. The editor Noel P. Wilkins looks back at the life and times of a nineteenth-century engineer to whom Ireland is greatly indebted.

This year is the 200th anniversary of Alexander Nimmo’s election to the Fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and of his appointment as engineer to the Commission for the Bogs of Ireland. In his subsequent engineering career in Ireland he became the most important and influential person, undertaking famine relief works and engineering development in the western part of the country. His physical legacy to Ireland includes over 500 miles of roads, 30 documented bridges, in excess of 53 piers and harbours and numerous public and private surveys. This contribution arose in an attempt to address the problem of poverty in Ireland using the example of the Scottish Commission for the Highland Roads and Bridges carried out by Telford: what Telford, his mentor, was to the Highlands, Nimmo would strive to be to the highland parts of Ireland Nimmo was the most active of a group of Scottish, or Scottish-trained, engineers—including William Bald, Telford, the Rennies, the Stevensons—who contributed to bringing the industrial revolution to Ireland after the Act of Union in 1801. While the ‘high history’ of that time focuses almost exclusively on attempts to repeal the Union and achieve Catholic Emancipation, these engineers on the ground engaged in public works aimed at improving the real lives of ordinary people. In addition, between 1815 and 1831 the Irish Ordnance survey, the Irish Fisheries Commission and the Office of Public Works were important features of the administrative infrastructure of the country that emerged as a result mainly of their evidence to Select Committees of the House of Commons. Many of them were Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and Members of the Royal Irish Academy, joint recognition of their eminence and influence throughout the United Kingdom at the time. Nimmo, in particular, was held in very high esteem by his contemporaries in England and Scotland.


The momentum of their efforts in the 1820s was cruelly extinguished by the great famine in the 1840s and only later in the century was active contact re-established between Scottish and Irish tenant interests when Michael Davitt brought the spirit of the Irish Land League to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

Today, a new spirit of cooperation suffuses the relations between Ireland and the United Kingdom, as represented by the North-South and the East-West inter-parliamentary bodies set up under the Good Friday agreement and graced by the recent visit of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland.


In 1824, Nimmo was spirited in his defence of Irish people before the House of Lords when he said ‘...I have a far higher opinion of the spirit of independence of the Irish people than perhaps many persons who are immediately concerned with that country’. He would have welcomed, one feels, the emergence of the new relationships across these islands. The future of Ireland and Scotland, for example in the field of sustainable wind and tidal energy, bodes well for both countries and indicates an area in which we can revitalise and continue the engineering vision of those earlier days. The Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Royal Irish Academy have stepped well along the way to re-energising their long-established cooperative approach in the areas of science and technology. Nimmo stands today as a model for such cooperation and it is right and proper that we restore his memory to the place it deserves in the pantheon of great Scottish men of achievement.


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