Morvern Lines with Iain Thornber week 05

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Memories of the West Highland Line

The dramatic images showing a train derailed by a landslip between Glenfinnan and Lochailort last week must have brought back many memories to an older generation who used the line with the nonchalance of London commuters boarding a coach at Victoria.

Doubtless the locals enjoyed the scenery just as much as the visitors, but for them it was often the wit and bonhomie of the characters who worked on this famous route which was its enduring attraction.

When a Bill was introduced in parliament in 1894 by the West Highland Railway Company to build a line from Fort William to Mallaig, it met with stiff opposition from Inverailort estate owner, Mrs James Head, who maintained that it would cut her deer forest in half and disturb the fish and the spawning beds in Loch Eilt.

Mrs Head raised a petition in the House of Commons against the course, which included a bridge over Loch Eilt at its narrowest point between Easan and Ranachan. She failed but when the railway company entered her property at the Glenfinnan end she managed to halt the work for 12 weeks, maintaining that the noise made by the navvies blasting the rock embankments would disturb a high-value deer-stalking lease. For this and the loss of land, she settled out of court.

Some of the compensation went into building a large stone jetty at Camus Driseach on Loch Ailort for the benefit of those travelling by boat to and from Roshven, Ardnish and Glenuig. More importantly, perhaps, it preserved her privacy. The jetty is still there but little used nowadays.

One of the concessions, granted in perpetuity to the proprietors of Inverailort, which her lawyers stuck out for, was the right, with prior notice, to stop the train at a private halt near the most easterly boundary of the property between the Muidhie and Glenfinnan.  This was very useful for stalking parties going to and from the deer forest when the public road was little better than a river-bed.

The concrete halt was removed in the 1970s when larger diesel locomotives were introduced, but the right to stop the train, apparently, still exists although it has not been exercised for some time and probably never will be again given its close proximity to the fine A830.

In the 1930s, the driver of the regular steam train was a keen violinist. He had a friend, also a musician, who was one of Mrs Head’s shepherds and lived at Easan.

One day, when the train was carrying cattle from Mallaig and the Isles to Corpach for a forthcoming sale, the driver found he was running ahead of schedule, so decided to stop at Easan for half an hour or so. Soon a fiddle and a dram were produced and the time flew by.

After a few hours, he thought he had better continue on his way but, on re-boarding the engine, he discovered that the boiler fire had gone out. As there was no dry wood to rekindle it, he and his friend stripped some of the heather thatch off the roof of a nearby byre. That wasn’t a success so they let the cattle out of the wagons and onto the croft to graze, and retired to the house for another tune and a dram.

Meanwhile, the Fort William stationmaster, assuming that the now long overdue train and been derailed, set off in another engine only to discover the happy pair still swapping tunes. The driver was sacked on the spot and Mrs Head, who disapproved strongly of her employees drinking, dismissed the shepherd.

The outcome resulted in both moving into Fort William where one of them opened a tobacconist’s shop and the other began selling meat. They were such good businessmen that it wasn’t long before they had a chain of successful shops and hotels scattered throughout Lochaber, which are still owned by their respective families.

Long before the railway came to Lochaber, local landowners and big farmers used to send their sheep away for wintering, accompanied by a shepherd.

Returning home after one such excursion, Alistair MacAlister, another of Mrs Head’s shepherds had an awful tale to tell. On the way he was driving his flock over an area of open country at a place where the hills were gradually getting lower and the glens widening out into grassy straths.

In the gloaming, Alistair found himself near a rounded hill. There he became aware of a terrible underground rumbling, so great that he maintained the earth shook. Then, suddenly: ‘Out of a hole in the hill’, announced Alistair, ‘burst forth the ancient enemy of mankind, roaring and breathing smoke and fire and a clanking of chains. And he had a green eye and a red eye; and he was roaring and raging right upon me. And in the hour of fear I knelt in the road and minded to make the sign of the cross over me; and hardly was I finished with the making of it than he gave an awful damned screech and a wail and ran away with his chains and his big roaring, into another great hole in the hillside.’

Such was the effect of a railway engine coming out of one tunnel and going into another with a warning whistle on an old Highlander who had never seen a train before!

Before the arrival of the box-ticking brigade and at a time when everyone helped one another, life was a lot more fun.

Twenty or so years ago, I met a lady, whose father had been in charge of the railway between Perth and Aberdeen, who told me that often during the autumn, he allowed his train drivers to stop their engines on the moors to let the tourists out to pick heather.

On Inverailort estate, up until about 1960, stalkers, coming off the hills with a stag or a hind, and arriving at the railway line on the shores of Loch Eilt, would often flag down the Mallaig train. The carcases would then be loaded aboard with the help of the guardsman and put off at the Lochailort
station, thus sparing someone having to walk several miles round the loch to the opposite shore to fetch a boat.

Of course every Christmas, Mrs Cameron-Head, made sure the railway staff had a haunch of venison each. It suited everyone until some awestruck visitor, not being in the way of seeing a yeld hind, still in its fur coat, lying in the corridor, complained.

The porter at Morar station seems to have been a great character and was often described as being worth ‘a guinea a minute’. As he loaded his barrow, he would usually give a running commentary for the benefit of the villagers who had gathered to see who was coming off the evening train.

His best always came about Christmas when friends and old customers sent presents. ‘A case of whisky for the doctor, a case of whisky for the schoolmaster’, and then, with a great flourish, ‘a case of books
for the minister – leaking’.

Iain Thornber