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19 August 1870

This day, 150 years ago, was a significant one for the highlands and the western isles. It marked the opening of the first railway to reach the Atlantic north of Helensburgh. To understand how significant this was, take a look at a map and and see what proportion of the country this represents – its almost a third of the country.

The line at the time was called the Dingwall and Skye Railway but nowadays we know it a little better as the line to Kyle of Lochalsh. Given it is the primary inspiration for my layouts, I think this anniversary needs to be marked with a blog post!

The classic scene from the 1990s, class 37s in large logo livery passing on a winters day at Achnasheen. I really must get myself a large logo 37 for Portchullin, I have plenty of memories of them!

The original name of the line gives away the objective of the promoters – to bring communication to the western side of Scotland, in particular the islands such as the Isle of Skye. Given that even in the 19th century the centre of the country was very sparsely inhabited, the population was concentrated on the coastal fringes and on the islands. Prior to the arrival of the railway, to ship goods or travel to the islands from the lowlands would take days. These poor communications inhibited the development of these parts and the arrive of the railway was a major spur to the prosperity of the region.

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The original terminus at Strome Ferry on Loch Carron; salt water at last even if the open sea was still some distance away. Believed to be a George Washington Wilson photograph, probably dating from the 1870s.

Despite the value to the region, the line was not constructed with the support of the government, instead it come about entirely with private finance. Given the sparseness of population, this was a brave venture and the promoters did not have sufficient money to reach their ultimate destination – the Atlantic seaboard. Instead they only just managed to reach a long finger of a sea-loch, Loch Carron. This was only intended to be a temporary solution to allow some income to be generated before the final push for the eventual terminus to be made. As with the best of plans, it too a long time for this ambition to be realised as the line to the present terminus at Kyle of Lochalsh did not come to be for a further 27 years.

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A Skye Bogie resting at Dingwall shed; a colourised print by Stephen Arrandale. These locomotives were specifically built from 1882 to serve this line.

The line started from the route up the east cost of the northern part of Scotland from Ross & Cromarty’s county town, Dingwall. It was intended to run through a fairly significant spa town, Strathpeffer, but this plan was foiled by an obstinate landowner. Perversely, therefore, the line bypassed the most significant town on the route, which hardly helped its finances! Whilst the line then travelled through sparse countryside with few centres of population, there were a series of roadheads where glens branch off. A feature of the line until the 1980s were buses coming to meet each train to provide links to the other parts of the west.

Classic 1950s in the Highlands – a stanier black five (known as hikers on the ex HR system) and a neat train of blood & custard coaches paused at Achnasheen. Note the bus that has come to meet the train, as referred to in the text, this will be bound for Gairloch, Poolewe and Aultbea

The line is a remarkable survivor as it was chalked up for closure on several occasions. Its most significant saviour was the oil industry in the mid 1970s, when the country’s biggest dry dock was built not far away at Loch Kishorn and the prospect of increased traffic persuaded the government to refuse a closure request. This prompted the railway to make efficiency savings; for example the line was the first example to use a radio signalling system 40 years ago.

The line in the 1970s, with a class 26 passing Achnalt viaduct heading east.

The line survives to today in its extended form to Kyle of Lochalsh and (touch wood) seems to be safe for a long term future. Ok, it has a lot less charm as a railway than it used to but the scenery is still second to none and you still have the romance of heading to the wild west of Scotland – it justifies being seen as one of the worlds great railway journeys! If you have never done it, then it really needs to make your bucket list!

I couldn’t bring myself to include a photograph of a diesel multiple unit – hence lets have something a lot more attractive. An eastbound train paused at Achnasheen hauled by a superheated goods. These took over from the Skye bogies from the late 1920s. Judging by the livery and the use of corridor stock (of very mixed parentage) this looks to have been taken in the mid-1930s.

If you want to enjoy the charm of the line in the era that Porthcullin is set, this is a link to a fabulous video created by Ross & Cromarty council in 1972. This was deliberately rose tinted as it was a promotional tool to seek to convince the then government not to allow its closure – indeed, it was shown to parliament at the time and may even have had a hand in the saving of the line. After all, you don’t just arrive at magic, it has to be conjured…….

As an alternative, if you do want to find out more about the line there are a number of good books on the line; including one by my father I mentioned here.

Alnabreac Water Tower – the Prototype

The smaller of the two water towers I am building is a model of the tower that the Highland Railway built at Altnabreac.  Altnabreac is around 12 miles from the nearest paved road so even though it has not been used for approaching 60 years, it has proved too expensive to realise its scrap vale.

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What is possibly even more remarkable, you can see the paint – including the detailing at the corners – which probably dates from the LMS era; how much original pre-1948 paint is still out there?

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Being able to get up close to the tank, it can be seen that it is made out of sections; there are quarter segments for the corners and then straight panels for the sides.  They obviously came as a kit of parts and could be built to a size to suit the requirement.  Thus, I note that the Altnabreac is the same width wide as the Kyle tank was deep – so I can determine how many panels were used to make the Kyle version.  Whilst the lines are fient, they are there and I will replicate them with a hint of a score on the plasticard.

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A float inside the tank was used to transmit the water level to this gauge on the exterior.

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The tank as a whole is remarkably intact – the only elements I can positively identify is missing is the delivery bag which will have been of hessian and the wooden windows. However, I suspect there are two other elements that have now been removed.  There was probably an access ladder at one end to reach the interior of the tank but leaving it in situ would to be dangerous, hence its removal. Furthermore, there is no sign of any heating to the tank. Whilst the largish body of water will have taken a while to freeze, the region around Altnabreac is well-known for its cold temperatures so I suspect there is a boiler inside with a flue through the tank.  The outlet valve is controlled by a wheel at low level connected with a rod with a thread at its head. This connects to one end of a lever that has a threaded nut in order to transfer the movement into the interior of the tank where the valve is located.

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A drawing of the water tank can be found at this link: Altnabreac Water Tower  or if you are a member of the Highland Railway Society it will be in the next Journal and subsequently from their drawing service.

The other water tank I am building is a model of Kyle of Lochalsh’s water tank.  Eddie Bellis drew this and his drawing is in the November 1975 edition of the Railway Modeller.  There are couple of pictures of in LMS Engine Sheds: Volume 6 by the Oxford Publishing Co.  The only other Highland Railway water tower that has been drawn that I know of is Garves, which Henry Orbach drew – it is in a 1950s Model Railway Constructor or was reprinted in my fathers The Dingwall & Skye Railway.

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