Alexander Nimmo FRSE MRIA

Alexander Nimmo FRSE MRIA

The RSE was delighted recently to work with the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) in celebrating the achievements of an early joint Fellow, Alexander Nimmo. His Inverness Survey and Journal of 1806, has just been edited by Professor Noel Wilkins, the leading authority on Nimmo, and published by the Royal Irish Academy. This fascinating account of Highland Towns and Villages was launched in Inverness on Wednesday 8 June 2011, at the University of Highlands and Islands, at a ceremony involving Lord Wilson, Professor Wilkins and the Senior Vice- President of the RIA, Professor Attracta Ingram.

2011 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 Thomas 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, and the 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. IIn 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 reestablished 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 UK, 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 Her Majesty The Queen to Ireland.

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. The future of Ireland and Scotland, for example in the field of sustainable wind and tidal energy, bodes well for both countries, representing an area in which they can revitalise and continue the engineering vision of those earlier days. Alexander Nimmo stands today as a model for such cooperation. From text by Professor Noel P. Wilkins


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