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 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.
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.
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.
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 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!
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.