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June 1994 Index

Bulletin Index Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin
June 1994


The earliest serious Highland thoughts of railways began to formulate in the minds of Invernesians by about 1840 after the astounding success of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in the 1830s. Soon after that, the first formal proposal was originated by Aberdonians; it was time to construct a line to Inverness to link up with the impending arrival (in about a decade's time) of the Aberdeen line from Carlisle planned by the Grand Junction Railway. Invernesians, always a stoutly independent lot, firmly rejected the idea as they considered that Inverness would become subservient to Aberdeen, an intolerable situation, so they soundly rejected the idea. They then invited strong and influential railway promoters to plan a direct route to the south via Perth. The Great North of Scotland Railway immediately promoted its Aberdeen to Inverness Railway with an application to Parliament in March 1845, and in the following month the Invernesian's own Perth and Inverness Railway, via Nairn and Aviemore, was promoted. Unlike many local railway plans it was well thought out and coordinated to meet up with the line from Perth to Carlisle. Joseph Mitchell, perhaps Inverness's most famous engineer, was called in to survey the route, and he had the backing of another well-known railway name, Joseph Locke. The Great North of Scotland fought the bill tooth and nail every inch of the way with every ploy imaginable, including the claim that "steam locomotives would be quite unable to climb such inclines throughout the year" - not a bad idea in 1845 to put before parliamentarians in London, many of whom knew of the fearsome Scottish topography and climate only by hearsay. Perhaps not surprisingly, in the absence of a similarly vehement campaign from the Invemesians, in 1846 Parliament threw out the direct line and authorised the Aberdonian one.

Invernesians gradually became more and more incensed as the Aberdonians took six years before the first sod was cut! By that time patience had run out and technology had come on apace, so Invernesians shrewdly obtained their own Act of Parliament in 1853 to construct a separate line, initially only as far as Nairn; presumably this was in the hope that a short line would not arouse hostility from the Great North of Scotland. The first sod was cut on 12th September 1854, and a public holiday was called in Inverness. There was a procession led by "8 stalwart navvies clad in moleskins". Lady Seafield "placed a silver spade under an [already cut] turf and tossed it lightly into a mahogany wheelbarrow by her side; the handsome Chief of the MacPhersons wheeled it away to a long and prolonged applause". Celebrations nearly became a riot when the merry crowd swept away the barriers as though they were matchwood. The fact that Thomas Brassey, a railway builder of national fame, was among the largest shareholders showed that this was not an isolated small-town project. The line was opened on 6 November 1855 after all the equipment had been brought in by sea; the total cost of all the locomotives and rolling stock was 9,200.

At this point the Aberdeen faction, stung into action at last by the Invemesians, planned to cock a snook at them and extend its line, which was still only partly constructed, to Nairn, and then on to Inverness by a separate line by-passing the new and already operational one. This really got the backs up of the lnvemesians who, seeing the threat to the profits of their infant line, immediately floated the Inverness & Perth Junction Railway, a ploy which received Parliamentary approval on July 1861, turning the tables on those dreadful Aberdonians and achieving a resounding victory. The word "Junction" in the title was because, such were the effects of the Railway Mania, it was already unnecessary to run all the way to Perth itself as by then there was in existence the branch railway from Dunkeld to Stanley Junction (half of the 15 miles to Perth) on the Scottish North East Railway Company's line from Perth to Aberdeen. The Inverness & Perth Junction Company, to save itself the expense of building its own route, obtained running rights over the Dunkeld to Perth stretch, but discovered too late that they would cost the crippling sum of 10,000 per annum; however, soon afterwards it managed to have this reduced to 5,000 pa in perpetuity. Immediately on receipt of parliamentary approval, work started from both Nairn and Dunkeld. Incredibly, by 1 June 1863, less than two years after the Act of Parliament, the line was opened from Dunkeld to Pitlochry; on 3 August the Nairn gang moving southwards reached Boat of Garten and Aviemore, and on 9 September 1863, on completion of the Pitlochry to Aviemore stretch, the first train steamed triumphantly out of Inverness en route for Perth. The journey times of the two up trains each day were 5 hours 55 minutes, whilst the two down trains to Inverness took six hours. By 1885 there were four trains each day, and the journey took four hours; by 1898 the Carrbridge route had enabled the time to be reduced to 3 hr. 15 min. Today, almost a century later, the journey time is just over two hours.

On June 1865 the Highland Railway was born by amalgamation of several railways including the Inverness and Nairn and the Inverness & Perth Junction. The Boards of the Great North of Scotland and the Highland were permanently at loggerheads, but occasionally they met to iron out their difficulties. However, the cordiality was said to last about ten minutes before acrimony again set in. One wag was moved to break into verse:

Then McTavish of Cromarty raised a point of order when
A chunk of Scottish granite hit him in the abdomen
He gave a sickly sort of smile, and curled up on the floor
And subsequently proceedings interested him no more!

The next two decades were the heyday of Boat of Garten and its main line through to Forres and Inverness, and it was not until 1884 that a shadow began to be cast on it by the Act of Parliament which authorised the construction of the direct line from Aviemore to Inverness. In marked contrast with the euphoria which completed the line all the way from Dunkeld to Forres in two years, it was 14 years before the present shorter line was completed. One must not, however, underestimate the engineering problems which had to be solved; the new line was finally opened throughout on 1 November 1898.

In this Summer's issue of the Strathspey Express, journal of the Strathspey Railway, is a delightful article written by two ladies, Miss Margaret A Ross and her sister Mrs. Jessie A Simpson, who resided for nineteen years from 1925 at Station House, Broomhill, the next station north of Boat, where their father was Stationmaster. Life, even for two young ladies, was an excitement, as coal, fertilisers, horseboxes and cattle were handled, not to mention the comings and goings of the passengers. There was a thriving taxi (or hiring, as it was called) service to Nethy Bridge, Dulnain Bridge and Grantown-on-Spey. On the first Saturdays of both the Edinburgh and Glasgow Trades holidays, direct trains arrived, often with a duplicate being put on, such was the number of passengers travelling. In winter snowstorms, two heavy engines with the largest available plough up front plied between Aviemore and Forres. "They could be heard swishing through, in the silence of the night, although the next morning the [platform staff's] step down from the platform would be found a considerable distance away!"

Boat of Garten was closed to goods on 2 November 1964 and finally on 18 October 1965. However, in about 1970, a group of people who resented the disappearance of steam locomotives formed a company to revive the line from Aviemore to Boat and use them on a public service. Such was the response that enthusiasts from all over the country rallied to buy shares (planned to pay dividends!) in the newly formed Strathspey Railway Company. It was partly financed by the Highlands and Islands Development Board and other bodies. The first steam train to run over the metals again did so in 1978, and services have continued every year since that time. Right from the start the Company published its plans to extend the line to Boat via Broomhill to Grantown, and the Highland Regional Council undertook to replace the bridge (demolished in a road improvement scheme) just north of Boat whenever the Company was ready to proceed. Much of the material is now stockpiled at Boat, but because of a totally unexpected spanner in the works, the extension is held up for the time being. An 1899 Caledonian 0-6-0 in its beautiful blue is well on its way to becoming operational again. On a recent visit, an 81-year old was finishing a week's holiday rebuilding a coach and a porters barrow, and a 6-year old was enquiring whether he could come and help when he gets to 16!

If you want to take part in a holiday activity which is both worthwhile and exciting, with congenial companions and magnificent scenery, contact Lawrence Grant at Aviemore (Strathspey) Station, Inverness-shire, PH22 1PY, telephone (0479) 810725; you won't regret it.