Monday, September 21, 2015

The Mallaig Line/The Kyle Line

These two railway guides are from 1971 or thereabouts. Because that’s in my lifetime, it seems to me contemporary: but it’s over forty years ago and I have to recognise that to others it is history, just as the Thirties would have seemed to me then.

They describe two of the most remote railway lines in Britain, in the far North of Scotland, giving a short history of their construction, then evoking each landmark and station. The author, Tom Weir, also took the trouble to talk to people who worked or travelled on the lines, and records their memories. They are a delight for the armchair traveller.

Some landowners only permitted the railways to go over their land if a private station was built for their own estate, and some of these wayside halts continue to exist, far from any significant settlement, bare platforms in the middle of nowhere. Quite a few supernatural stories start with a character alighting at a lonely station like these.

By the time Tom Weir is writing, increased motor car ownership and travel is beginning to threaten the existence of the railways (it was less than ten years since the major Beeching programme of closures). So he also takes care to explain their importance to local communities.

One of the charming aspects of the guides is that they were evidently funded in part by advertisements from local tradespeople: hotels, cafes, shops. The design and wording of these has a quaint air even to me today: they are notable for simplicity and civility.

But I particularly like the one for ‘The Record Rendezvous and Musicassette Centre”, Inverness. This could actually be of a shop today, except that now it would be tongue-in-cheek and be for a retro or vintage emporium.

Meanwhile, the “Loch Ness” Butter Shortbread has a faintly macabre offer:

Fingers and Petticoat Tails
in attractively wrapped tins
posted to all parts.


  1. In a vote by a travel magazine a few years ago the Mallaig Line was voted best railway line in the world beating - among others - the Trans-Siberian Railway.

  2. In June I took the Jacobite steam train from Fort William to Mallaig and was endlessly spellbound by the variety of spectacular and evocative vistas along the route. At Arisaig, there was a silvery mist above Loch nan Ceall which reminded me of one of your Connoisseur stories, "The Mist on the Mere." The tea wasn't bad either.

  3. Thank you both for those interesting contributions. They are indeed remarkable lines, as is the Settle-Carlisle, not far from me. Mark

  4. Mark, did you ever read John Hadfield's delightful, almost Wodehousean Love on a Branch Line? I thought of it at the mention of private railway stations. As I recall, there was a BBC television production, which I haven't seen. Chris Roden recommended the book to me long ago. --michael dirca

  5. I was just thinking recently about how things that seem contemporary to me are history to others. When I was a kid in the 1960s, I loved reading about and watching old horror movies. Still do. I remember telling my parents things like, "that was an old classic from 1942." Now I realize how they must have felt, when a kid talks about the old Batman movie with Michael Keaton, or something along those lines.

  6. Michael, yes I have read John Hadfield's delightful book, and I also recommend A Peacock on the Lawn (1965) by his wife Phyllis, about how they rescued some peacocks from a country house sale and kept them. Bill, yes I've started to see the sort of things I once bought new appearing in vintage shops and even museums! Mark

  7. Thank you for sharing, Mark; and yes, Time moves in mysterious ways.