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Significant Scots
Alexander Nimmo

NIMMO, ALEXANDER, F.R.S.E., M.R.I.A --Among the members of a profession so congenial to the intellectual character of Scotland as that of a civil engineer, Alexander Nimmo deservedly holds an honoured place. He was born at Kirkcaldy, Fifeshire, in 1783. His father, who was distinguished in his own sphere by remarkable talents and acquirements, had originally been a watchmaker, but afterwards kept a hardware store. Alexander’s education was commenced at the grammar-school of his native town, afterwards continued for two years at the university of St. Andrews, and completed at the university of Edinburgh. The result was, that besides being an accomplished scholar in Latin and Greek, he was distinguished for his proficiency in algebra and the higher branches of mathematics. The latter departments, however, by which he was ultimately to be brought into notice, employed the greater part of his attention.

As early occupation was necessary for his limited means, Alexander Nimmo, at the age of nineteen, was obliged to commence the business of life as a schoolmaster. This commencement was honourable to his talents, as well as predictive of his future distinction; for it was as rector of the academy of Inverness, a situation laid open to public competition, which he won by a unanimous vote of the trustees, after an examination of three days, where he had several candidates of high talent for competitors. In this situation his scientific attainments were so highly estimated by Mr. Telford, that the latter recommended him to the parliamentary commission appointed for fixing and determining the boundaries of the Scottish counties. On being employed on this arduous scientific duty, Mr. Nimmo accomplished it during the vacations, in a manner that gave complete satisfaction. This was attested by a further recommendation of Mr. Telford in his behalf, to the commissioners for reclaiming the bogs of Ireland, by whom he was appointed to the survey. Mr. Nimmo accordingly repaired thither, and not only constructed an admirable series of maps and reports upon the subject, but thoroughly acquainted himself with the character, manners, and necessities of the Irish peasantry, and the best modes of alleviating their poverty. After this survey was finished he made a tour through France, Germany, and Holland, to inspect public works, especially those connected with his new profession.

In consequence of the able manner in which Mr. Nimmo had discharged these public duties, fresh occupations were poured upon him, by which his whole life became one of continual action. The first of these, upon his return from the continental tour, was the construction of Dunmore harbour, a work of immense difficulty, in consequence of the great depth of water, and the heavy roll of the Atlantic to which that coast is exposed. After this followed a commission, in which he was employed by the Fishery Board to make surveys of the harbours of Ireland, and construct harbours and piers all round the coast. Another office connected with this duty, and in which he was employed by the Ballast Board, was to make a chart of the whole cost, which he executed with his usual ability and accuracy. He also compiled a book of sailing directions of St. George’s Channel and the Irish coast—a work of high utility in a navigation at that time so imperfectly known, and so full of danger. His services in behalf of Ireland did not here terminate; for, during the great distress of that country in 1822, he was appointed engineer of the western district. The experience which he had formerly acquired while surveying the Irish bogs with a view to their cultivation, was now brought into active practical use; and between the year already mentioned, and 1830, he caused £167 000 to be expended in reclaiming waste land, improving what was as yet but partially cultivated, and establishing new settlements, upon which the destitute peasantry were located and employed. The increase of the revenue of that district to the amount of £106,000 per annum, was the result of these labours and provident outlay, independently of the industry and comfort which they created, and the moral improvement of the population.

The labours of Mr. Nimmo as a civil engineer, extending to the year 1832, are thus briefly enumerated in the notices of his professional career. Besides his surveys in Scotland and Ireland, above thirty piers or harbours were built upon the Irish coast under his direction. He also designed the Wellesley bridge and docks at Limerick. He superintended the construction of the harbour at Perth Cawl in South Wales. Latterly, he was engaged in Lancashire, in projecting a railway from Liverpool to Leeds, and also employed upon the Manchester, Bolton, and Bury railway.

These tasks, which occupied a life of no long continuance, left Mr. Nimmo little time to distinguish himself in authorship, notwithstanding his numerous attainments, and ardent love of science in general; and, therefore, his productions in this way were miscellaneous treatises rather than formal volumes. He wrote an occasional paper for the various periodicals, in which he unbent his mind from the more severe studies of his profession. He also published an article in the Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy, showing how the science of geology might be made available in navigation. He was author of the article in Brewster’s Cyclopedia on "Inland Navigation." He wrote, jointly with Mr. Telford, the article on "Bridges;" and with Mr. Nicholson, that on "Carpentry." The evidence he delivered on the trial between the Corporation of Liverpool and the Medway Company, which has been published, was also greatly admired by mathematicians and engineers, as containing a sound and practical elucidation of the scientific principles of their profession.

As Mr. Nimmo’s first success in life was owing to his accomplishments as a scholar, his early love of literature continued with him to the close. His acquirements therefore were extensive, so that besides being well acquainted with the classical languages, he was master of French, German, Dutch, and Italian; he was also thoroughly skilled in the sciences of practical astronomy, chemistry, and geology. He died at Dublin, on the 20th of January, 1832, in the forty-ninth year of his age.

Electric Scotland Note:  We got in an email giving corrections to the above...

This 19th century biography of Alexander Nimmo contains several inaccuracies concerning his early years. He was almost certainly born in Cupar, Fife, and not in Kirkcaldy, although he must have moved there when his father opened the hardware shop in that town. It cannot be confirmed that he attended the local grammar school, but this is possible. He started attending university at St Andrews at age 13 (a common age to start university at that time), with the help of a bursary paid out from a trust fund by the magistrates of Cupar.

After four years at University, he was employed for some months as a tutor in Edinburgh. His first teaching post was at Fortrose, in the Black Isle, a short distance north of Inverness. This started in early 1802 when he was aged 18 or 19. Following the unexpected death of the mathematics teacher and Rector (headmaster) of Inverness Academy in 1805, Nimmo applied for this job. He was interviewed in Edinburgh, by four of the university professors. Four candidates applied, but only one, Nimmo, attended for interview. A surviving copy of a letter from the professors to the Directors of the Academy stated that he was interviewed for one day only, and not three as various early biographies state, but the professors were well satisfied with his abilities in mathematics, science and languages.

His survey of the county boundaries only took place in the Highlands, and not throughout Scotland as this biography suggests. It was carried out in the summer of 1806, and the results were used in a map by Aaron Arrowsmith, printed in London in 1807. In a later summer, 1808 or 1809, he surveyed the possible route for a road across Rannoch Moor, but this was never built. Other scientific work he carried out in Inverness included examining the water temperatures in Loch Ness and reporting on the movement of sediment along the coast of the Moray Firth.

The report of his work in Ireland, to be found in this biography, is reasonably accurate. His visit to France, Germany and Holland took place in 1814.

For a modern accurate biography of Nimmo see: NoŽl P. Wilkins: Alexander Nimmo, Master Engineer, 1783–1832, Irish Academic Press, 2009.

For a transcript of his journal whilst surveying the county boundaries, with accompanying essays, see: NoŽl P. Wilkins (ed.): Alexander Nimmo's Inverness Survey and Journal 1806, Royal Irish Academy, 2011.

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