A book that gets to the heart of The Flying Scotsman

Is it a locomotive? Is it a train? Alastair Dalton is on board with an exploration of iconic something The Flying Scotsman

Trainspotters gather to see the Flying Scotsman when she leaves Waverley station in Edinburgh for Aberdeen
Trainspotters gather to see the Flying Scotsman when she leaves Waverley station in Edinburgh for Aberdeen

The Flying Scotsman: Speed, Style, Service by Andrew McLean | Scala/National Railway Museum, 176pp, £30

Books about railways are too often highly erudite and technical tomes, or sloppily researched compendiums rushed out to cash in on an anniversary or new opening. Andrew McLean’s handsome celebration of the Flying Scotsman locomotive and train is neither. The National Railway Museum’s head curator has produced an authoritative yet accessible-to-all celebration of the railway phenomenon, to coincide with the completion of the locomotive’s ten-year restoration. It offers a fascinating yet concise exploration of the most famous locomotive in the world – and the most famous train.

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Disentangling the popular confusion between them is at the heart of McLean’s book, but intriguingly, he highlights that the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) in fact played on it to further promote the Flying Scotsman brand.

The Flying Scotsman train service between Edinburgh and London King’s Cross has its roots in “The Special Scotch Express” which started in 1862, with a new locomotive being named after it in 1924.

However, that locomotive also hauled other trains, and other locomotives also hauled the Flying Scotsman, while bearing its headboard. As McLean points out, over its one and a half centuries of operation, which continues to this day, the service has been operated by hundreds of different engines. And the train was reinvented six times in the last century, with new carriages and extraordinary innovations for their time, some of which have yet to feature in current trains. In its heyday of the 1920s and 1930s, the Flying Scotsman boasted a cocktail bar, hairdressing salon and cinema coach – along with showers for first-class passengers aboard its nocturnal sister, The Night Scotsman, a train immortalised by a series of marketing posters reproduced in the book. Caledonian Sleeper customers won’t get showers until new carriages arrive in 2018.

Aboard the Flying Scotsman, seating compartments were arranged to face east for the best views, while the service’s popularity spawned “Junior Scotsman” relief trains to meet demand. McLean describes how both train and locomotive were technological marvels. It was as if every new gizmo and promotional opportunity was exploited, from early television sets in 1932 to races against planes and boats.

Everything was done to emphasise the speed and glamour of the service, such as an association with “Flying Scotsman” Eric Liddell after he won gold at the Paris Olympics in 1924, and with wireless – in the original sense of the word – broadcasts from the Derby four years later. Business travellers could even use an early version of a Dictaphone to compose letters, which were typed up by an adjacent secretary.

The Flying Scotsman’s fame was further enhanced by it starring in Hitchcock’s version of The 39 Steps. Ironically, while the director may have played fast and loose with Buchan’s story, McLean explains that Hitchcock seems to have gone to great lengths to faithfully represent the train, both by using actual footage and recreating its restaurant car interior on a set for a chase sequence.

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With such lavish material, the great delights of the book are the 200 illustrations chosen by McLean. While some will be readily recognised by railway fans, there are many less familiar images that are highly evocative of their era, like the top-hatted stationmasters personally dispatching the train, as was tradition, and a 1950 British Railways poster with its lettering and the sleek shape of the train picked out in purple against a monochrome backdrop of the Scott Monument.

McLean also makes the interesting point that when steam was being replaced by diesel and British Rail was keen to quickly shunt the Flying Scotsman locomotive out of the picture, the transition was not an easy one. When the first diesel engines hauled the train in 1958, their early unreliability meant steam had to come to the rescue.

I would like to have seen a far fuller section on the locomotive’s fate after being retired in 1963. There is only a brief passage, together with illustrations of the engine’s US and Australian tours, covering the four decades and the engine’s many ups and downs under a variety of owners until the National Railway Museum acquired it in 2004.

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That said, this is still an illuminating read.