New book examining building of Mallaig Railway ‘beautifully produced’

The cover of the new book on the construction of the railway line to Mallaig. NO F51 Building the Mllg Rlw cover
The cover of the new book on the construction of the railway line to Mallaig. NO F51 Building the Mllg Rlw cover

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‘Building the Mallaig Railway – a photographer’s story’ is a new book by Hege Hernæs, of Glenfinnan Station. Here, in a special review for the Lochaber Times, Hugh Cheape gives us his impressions.

One of the most compelling features of a feature-rich countryside is still the Mallaig Railway, an extension to the Glasgow to Fort William West Highland line.

Its construction began in January 1897, and it was completed at the end of March 1901. No one with connections to Lochaber and a knowledge of the districts takes it for granted, and no traveller who discovers it, forgets it. Building the Mallaig Railway is the human story of how this came to be.

As we travel the line, we sense the feats of engineering and we wonder at the labour
involved. This beautifully produced book reveals all. It is derived by the author from the
chance-find of a batch of negatives in an auction in Cornwall.

The finder, Michael Holden, instigated its research by contacting the Glenfinnan Station Museum with an old picture of a rough-and-ready wooden building with crinkly-tin roof and sign above the door proclaiming ‘Cooper and Co’s Railway Stores’.

NO F51 rail 03
Cooper & Co. Railway Stores, Lochailort. NO F51 rail 03

 

Given that part of a similar sign is preserved in the museum, the search was on, though the photographer remained anonymous.

About 150 of the high-quality images clearly showed scenes from the building of the Mallaig line; the ensuing ‘enjoyable treasure hunt’ and ‘journey with all its twists and turns’ have transformed this into a fascinating and intriguing book.

In spite of Victorian railway mania, why build a railway here at all? These were Na Garbh- Chrìochan – ‘The Rough Bounds’ – and not the destination of those who followed in the footsteps of Johnson and Boswell.

But the extension beyond Fort William was sanctioned by Act of Parliament to access West Coast fisheries and alleviate the dire situation of a population blighted by poverty and catastrophic economic collapse.

The contractors were the Glasgow-based firms of Simpson and Wilson, civil engineers, and Robert McAlpine and Sons, contractors, a combination which had worked together on the Glasgow Subway in 1892-1894.

They were ‘young’ firms with railway and tunnelling experience and a proven reputation for developing mass-concrete construction. This was a seemingly perfect symbiosis of skills for an extraordinary enterprise.

The book follows all the stages of the building of the Mallaig Railway. Among such
memorable features of this operation were the housing and feeding of a workforce of 2,000 men from Ireland, Lewis, Skye, and the Highlands and a hospital set up in the former school at Polnish which plays a pivotal role in the story.

Mallaig harbour. NO F51 rail 02

 

The 40-mile line presented a major logistical challenge with no adequate road as supply line and goods being brought in by ‘Puffers’ to camps at Lochailort, Loch nan Uamh and Morar.

This allowed construction work to start simultaneously in a series of locations at Corpach, Kinlocheil, Glenfinnan, Kinlochailort, Beasdale, Borrodale and Morar.

Excavating for the line involved hand tools, an early use of compressed-air pneumatic drills, explosives, a hundred cuttings through some of the oldest and hardest rock in the world, and 11 tunnels.

The final engineering episode of the contract was the Mallaig Pier and a breakwater, the extra push requiring government subsidisation. The photographs reveal that, indeed in 1900, Mallaig was no more than a place-name and two or three taighean tughaidh.

A railway is a railway for most of us but what strikes the eye on the Mallaig Railway is how the engineers bridged the gaps. If we have ever wondered how these were achieved,
Building the Mallaig Railway offers vivid testimony to unimaginable hard graft and
enterprise; and how solving the problems created ‘monuments to concrete’.

Under a title of professional understatement – ‘Some Concrete Viaducts on the West Highland Railway’ – the engineer, W S Wilson, addressed colleagues in 1907: ‘Even supposing that the requisite number of men accustomed to work such stone could have been secured, the cost would have been prohibitive.’

The solutions, in the viaducts at Borrodale, Glenfinnan, Loch nan Uamh, Morar and others, are monuments to this judgement.

Near Glenfinnan. NO F51 rail 01

 

A highly informative narrative is carried on the sequence of original photographs, and the photographer’s perspective is a distinctive one. A timeframe of February/March 1900 and the self-evident focus and closeness of detail prompted the questions of ‘who?’ and ‘why?’ and a third of the book engages with scholarly caution in the quest for an identity.

This hinges on the contractor’s younger son, Thomas Malcolm McAlpine, and his otherwise fatal injury in a blasting accident. A humanitarian drama of epic proportions followed which saw the casualty stretchered and accompanied to Glasgow for surgery by a team of eight navvies – who sadly remain anonymous.

But no-one with an interest in 20th century Highland history can afford to be without this very satisfying book.

Hugh Cheape
Sabhal Mòr Ostaig
An Dùbhlachd 2020.

Building the Mallaig Railway – a photographer’s story. Glenfinnan Station
Museum 2020, 130 pages. ISBN 978 1 5272 7341 2 Price £30 from Glenfinnan Station Museum in person, online or by telephone.