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Photos: Gairnshiel Bridge replacement on track for completion by February

From left, Aberdeenshire Council bridges manager Donald Macpherson and council technician Simon Robertson at the construction site for the new Gairnshiel Bridge. Image: Kath Flannery, September 2, 2022.
From left, Aberdeenshire Council bridges manager Donald Macpherson and council technician Simon Robertson at the construction site for the new Gairnshiel Bridge. Image: Kath Flannery, September 2, 2022.

Decades of diversion misery could soon be over as the new £3.8 million Gairnshiel Bridge replacement is on schedule to be finished by February.

Aberdeenshire Council recently invited us to see how work is progressing on the new crossing over the River Gairn on the A939 Ballater to Tomintoul road.

Work is well underway on the new bridge. The humpbacked, 18th-century bridge can be seen in the background.

Contractors Wills Bros Civil Engineering are currently hard at work on either side of the river finishing the bridge abutments, and huge beams will be lowered into place by crane across the water next month.

The council says that, with a milder winter, there’s “no reason” to expect the project won’t be finished by February 2023.

Why is a new Gairnshiel Bridge being built?

The 18th-century Gairnshiel Bridge is a key part of the A939, also known as the Old Military Road, and is crucial for travel between Deeside and Donside.

Lonach Highlanders pass across the historic Gairnshiel Bridge. Photo: Colin Rennie.

It was originally built to allow for two horses to cross side by side.

But after years of heavy vehicular traffic, it has been slowly crumbling into disrepair.

The poor state of the bridge has resulted in frustratingly frequent closures due to concerns over stability and damage to the A-listed structure.

The 18th century structure has closed frequently due to damage from vehicles. This photo was taken in 2018 when it was shut for repairs.

And whenever it gets shut, those wanting to travel from the Ballater area to Donside, and on to Moray further north, are forced to deal with extremely lengthy diversions via Dinnet.

Earlier this year, motorists wanting to go between Ballater and Cock Bridge had to endure a 25-mile diversion while preparation work was done for the replacement project.

The recent closure in January took drivers on a very lengthy diversion.

But once the new bridge is opened, it is hoped such diversions will finally be a thing of the past.

Good news in the long term, but five weeks of closures start today

An initial artist’s impression of how the new bridge will look once finished.

However, Deeside and Donside residents will have to put up with five more weeks of closures from today as part of work on the project.

The A939 will be closed from today, September 5, to October 10 at the north side of the old bridge to allow for road realignment, leaving residents and visitors with a 30-minute diversion.

Aberdeenshire Council’s bridges manager Donald Macpherson said he wanted to “thank the public with their patience” in getting the new bridge built, “particularly for the next five weeks while we have the closure in place”.

But he explained all the frustration will be worth it in the long-term.

The old bridge has had an 18-tonne weight limit on it for years, which Donald said “restricts tourism and can restrict service delivery”

And if a new bridge wasn’t being built, that weight restriction would only get tighter and tighter over time.

The bridge is frequently used by large vehicles far heavier than the soldiers and horses it was originally built for, like this tourist bus.

“It would have been progressively reduced, we would have ended up not being able to drive across it at all, so the route would become redundant and that would impact the economy of Deeside and Donside.

“So from an economic perspective the new bridge is absolutely necessary.

“It’s a vital link.”

Why the new Gairnshiel Bridge is the ‘most complex’ project Donald has ever worked on

Aberdeenshire Council technician Simon Robertson, left, shows the authority’s bridges manager Donald Macpherson both sides of the new bridge which is currently being built.

Donald gave us a tour of the construction site alongside council technician Simon Robertson.

Many workers could be seen busying themselves with tasks around the site, and around 20 people are working on it on any given day.

Bridges manager Donald said “it’s nice to see it taking shape”, and noted how much progress has been made since construction officially started in April this year.

A great deal of effort has gone into the planning of the new structure.

He said of all the major projects he’s worked on over the years, building the new Gairnshiel Bridge has been “the most complex I’ve worked on”.

As well as designing it to be architecturally complementary with the old 18th Century crossing, there have been all sorts of challenges with road alignments, planning requirements and structural factors.

Simon said due to the size of the crane required to lift the bridge beams into place next month, work has had to be carried out on the bumpy, single-track A939 road between Ballater and Gairnshiel to prepare it for the crane’s arrival.

Work started on the extensive project in April 2022.

“The crane is an eight-axle vehicle with a rigid chassis, and a survey of the road indicated we’d have difficulty getting it to the site, so we’ve done some planing and a little bit of reprofiling of the road,” said Simon.

Once finished, the new crossing will feature reclaimed local granite, including, it is understood, some granite recovered during the Haudagain Improvement Project in Aberdeen.

The council intends to restrict the old crossing to non-motorised users when the new one opens to preserve its heritage and protect it from further wear and tear.

The long and winding road to the new bridge

Donald said he’s seen sketches from back in the 1980s of designs for a new bridge at the River Gairn, so the idea of a replacement has been in consideration for a very long time indeed.

Councillor Geva Blackett at the closed-off Gairnshiel bridge in 2018.

Aboyne, Upper Deeside and Donside councillor Geva Blackett has been calling for a new bridge for years, and has frequently highlighted the major headaches caused by diversions from closures during her time as an elected member.

She said she finds it “so exciting” to watch the new bridge “come together”, and is looking forward to the day it finally opens.

“The contractors are doing such a good job, and are very aware of the fragile natural environment they are working in,” said Geva.

She added: “I am just sorry that the long-term benefits of the new bridge means short-term pain for people as the roads are closed here for up to five weeks as vital work is carried out.”

A view of the River Gairn passing under the old bridge.

Plans for an opening ceremony

Donald said that finishing such a project demands a fitting ceremony to mark its completion, and said details of just what that ceremony will entail will be announced in due course.

He also explained that there are plans for an official name for the new Gairnshiel Bridge, and the public can expect to hear about that soon as well.

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