Morvern Lines – week 6

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Building railways, especially in remote places, has always been a tricky and dangerous occupation resulting in numerous deaths and accidents.

The Burma Railway, known also as the Death Railway, was a 258-mile railway between Ban Pong, Thailand, and Thanbyuzayat, Burma, built by the Empire of Japan in 1943 to support its forces in the Burma campaign of the Second World War. Between 180,000 and 250,000 Southeast Asian civilian labourers and about 61,000 Allied prisoners of war were subjected to forced labour during its construction. As many as 90,000 civilian labourers and more than 12,000 Allied prisoners died.

Many men were killed or maimed for life in the making of the West Highland Railway Line, sometimes called in Gaelic, Rathad Iarainn nan Eilean – Iron Road to the Isles, which links the ports of Mallaig and Oban with Glasgow. The Mallaig extension, completed in 1901, was notable for the extensive use of mass concrete in making viaducts and other structures for the line. It was this, the weather, and a lack of a health and safety regime, which proved fatal to so many of its construction workers which were mainly Irish navvies. The Oban Times and other Scottish newspapers in period style, reported numerous fatalities and accidents of which the following are a few.

‘A shocking accident occurred on the Banavie branch of the West Highland Railway late on Saturday night (March 1897). As the night passenger train was returning to Fort-William, and when in the neighbourhood of Old Inverlochy Castle, the driver felt a jerk, as if the train had passed over something.
On reaching Fort-William the incident was reported and a search party returned to the spot and discovered the mutilated body of a man lying close to the side of the rails. On being removed to the Belford Hospital, Fort-William, it was found that the unfortunate man still lived, but that both legs had been amputated. He died about midnight and was identified as John Connelly, belonging to West Calder, a workman employed at the construction of the new Mallaig line.

‘Deaths from exposure among the navvies are becoming so frequent on the Mallaig and Invergarry railways as to give cause for much alarm (1898). On Sunday night three more workmen succumbed. One, named McLeod, was found by the public road near Kinlochailort, between Fort William and Mallaig. He had a cut on his head and is thought to have fallen where he was found, and died from exposure in the snow.
‘February 1898: The local sanitary inspector reported that since the commencement of the Mallaig and Fort Augustus Railways as many as 15 navvies were found dead on the road-sides or drowned in the locks of the Caledonian Canal at Banavie and Gairlochy. Being destitute and without friends, they had to be buried at the expense the of district. The rate per burial, including the cost of coffin, etc, came to an average of £2 per head.

‘February 1898: A third explosion, attended by the loss of two lives, occurred on Saturday at the Mallaig Railway Works, near Glenfinnan.
‘March 1898: Information has reached Fort-William of another blasting accident on the Mallaig railway works at Polnish, near Kinlochailort. It appears that, immediately prior to a blast going off, Thomas M’Alpine, one of the partners of the firm who are constructing the new line, was standing on the slope of a cutting 150 yards distant, and on the charge exploding he was struck on the groin with a stray boulder from the blast. He was knocked over and received a serious flesh wound. The resident medical officer, being of opinion that the injury was of a dangerous nature, telegraphed to Glasgow for a professor, who arrived by special train early yesterday morning accompanied by trained nurses and Mr Robert M’Alpine, the senior partner of the firm [known as ‘Concrete Bob’] The injured man’s wounds were carefully dressed, and he is now believed to be out of danger, although in a critical state.

‘October 1898: A melancholy fatality occurred yesterday at Polnish, near Arisaig, on the new Mallaig railway works. From particulars which have just come to hand, it appears that a squad of workmen were engaged in deep rock cutting when a heavy portion of rock was dislodged from above and fell among the workmen, killing instantaneously one of their number, named Frank Docherty, a navvy 20 years of age. The remains of the deceased were conveyed to a house nearby and the men who sustained injuries were taken to the contractors’ hospital at Polnish. December 1898: A shocking accident occurred on the Mallaig Railway works on Saturday, whereby Walter Craw, navvy, aged 20, belonging to Limerick, was seriously injured. It seems that while dressing the slope of the cutting with an iron crowbar he slipped and fell a distance of 25 feet. As he fell the crowbar entered the lower part of body and emerged at the shoulder blade. His recovery is despaired of.

March 1899: A stream which had been dammed up at Leacavuie near Glenfinnan to provide water power for a drilling machine, burst early on Saturday morning. The rush of water carried off a store in the immediate neighbourhood, washing most of its contents into Loch Eilt.
The storekeeper, Alexander MacTavish, a young man who slept on the premises, was drowned. His body was found in the evening in a reservoir, situated on a lower level, which had partly checked the torrent from the higher dam.

‘November 1899: On Monday, while a number of workmen on the Mallaig railway were engaged on the line near Kinlochailort, one of their number was struck by flash of lightning and rendered semi-unconscious. He was conveyed to the contractor’s hospital at Polnish, where restoratives were applied. Several of the other men suffered slightly from shock. The water-pipe to Kinlochailort Hotel and air compressor pipes used by Messrs R. MacAlpine and Sons, were also torn up by the lightning.

‘An extraordinary accident happened on Friday night to the train which works on the completed portion of the Mallaig Railway between Banavie and Glenfinnan. The train, consisting of an engine, a carriage occupied by a number of men and two wagons, was proceeding at a rapid rate in the direction of Glenfinnan. It was pitch dark. When opposite Kinlocheil a violent shock was experienced, and the train came to a sudden standstill, though fortunately it stayed on the rails.

Examination showed that it had run into a huge bull, the animal being killed by the force of the concussion. Both the wagons were thrown off the rails. The workmen were all badly shaken, but no one was injured. The carcase of the bull, which took 20 men to lift into a truck, was taken to Corpach. The railway is properly fenced, but a cross-over gate had been left open and the bull wandered onto the line.

Iain Thornber