My overnight stay in an old railway carriage at a fairytale Scotland setting

The railway carriage has been one of the more unusual stopovers on Hay’s Way

Like minerals blown from the sea and caught in vegetation on Ayrshire’s leafy coastline on a windy day, I was taken in by a hospitable couple who provided shelter while I walked on Scotland’s wild west coast this week.

I initially met Whirly and Gregorie Marshall to talk all things salt on a spontaneous visit to their business in Ayr where they have the only salt making structure of its kind in use in the world - the blackthorn tower.

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Gregorie and Whirly Marshall, of Blackthorn Salt Gregorie and Whirly Marshall, of Blackthorn Salt
Gregorie and Whirly Marshall, of Blackthorn Salt | Katharine Hay

The impressive piece is made from thickets of blackthorn held together using beams made from larch and Douglas Fir. It’s shaped like a triangular prism reaching the height of about two double decker buses, with a walkway along the top.

The blackthorn salt tower on the Ayr coast, the only one of its kind in use today The blackthorn salt tower on the Ayr coast, the only one of its kind in use today
The blackthorn salt tower on the Ayr coast, the only one of its kind in use today | Katharine Hay

Sat in a Victorian railway carriage parked next to the spikey tower - just because - I learned all about how sea water is trickled through the thorny sculpture while evaporated by the wind to make Blackthorn Salt.

Each batch involves 26,000 litres of sea water, which is dribbled through 54 wooden taps and a series of channels which are checked and adjusted daily according to the weather. The wind and the sun dries it up by 24,000 litres, so the process ends up with just 2,000 litres, which is turned into crunchy flakes and crystals using a little heat in separate baths.  

“Gregorie says the tower acts like a giant washing line,” Whirly said.

During a tour of the tower, which is only open by arrangement for media, trade and education, Gregorie beamed as the sun shone and the wind picked up, tousling his hair.

“These are perfect conditions for the evaporation process,” he said.

The setting is like something out of a fairytale - atop a thorny black tower with a view of Arran’s mountains across the sea in the distance.

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Back on the ground, reality hit, and despite admiring the wind for its skill in making high-end salt, I was preoccupied with how my tent was going to hold up in the night. But my fears evaporated quickly after Gregorie suggested I camp out in the railway carriage we were sat in just minutes before.

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Fitted with a wood burning stove and views out to sea, I happily boarded.

The wood burning stove inside the Victorian carriage The wood burning stove inside the Victorian carriage
The wood burning stove inside the Victorian carriage | Katharine Hay

The carriage, one of 642 identical GER carriages, built by James Holden, for main line use around 1885-1887, had been withdrawn from service sometime between 1925 and 1935. What happened after remains a mystery, until it was discovered by Hendricks in 2009. The carriage was then repurposed as ‘The Horseless Carriage of Curiosity’ and filled with curious objects said to have been donated by members of the public in return for a free tipple. It travelled up and down the country running as “a quirky bar by day and an eccentric dining room by night”.

One of 642 identical GER carriages, built by James Holden, for main line use around 1885-1887 in the South East of England One of 642 identical GER carriages, built by James Holden, for main line use around 1885-1887 in the South East of England
One of 642 identical GER carriages, built by James Holden, for main line use around 1885-1887 in the South East of England | Katharine Hay

In 2010, the carriage retired to the Girvan coast before it was rehomed by the Marshalls and is now Blackthorn Salt HQ.

I lay tucked into my sleeping bag by the fire, the wind whistling through the Victorian wooden craftsmanship around me, tummy full with oven-roasted corn on the cob and a dram of Lochlea left for me by Whirly on the carriage tables.

The Marshalls said I was the first person to sleep in the carriage, which is not open to the public. I thought about that as I lay there, feeling like a curious object in its antique frame, a nod to its carriage of curiosity days, while also thanking the salt-of-the-earth couple for providing shelter.

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