The axe that robbed us of our railway heritage

A GENERATION ago, Scotland could boast some of the most scenic railways in the world. An iron cobweb not only linked the sprawling urban conurbations of the Central Belt, but also extended northward across the southern and western highlands.

The lines ran east-west, from Crieff through beautiful Strathearn to the little towns of Comrie, St Fillans and Lochearnhead; and south-north, from Buchanan Street Station in Glasgow through the gentle Teith valley to Callander and up through pretty Strathyre, Lochearnhead and the awesome Glen Ogle to Killin, Crianlarich and on to Oban.

Through forest and glen, and by river and loch, Scotland's railways traversed some of the most beautiful scenery on earth. And of all the evocative pictures of Scotland, the most haunting for me are those of a loch and glen and a steam train puffing in the distance. It is a scene that unites activity and repose, beauty and beautiful beast, in gripping harmony.

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The trains carried children to school; took cattle, timber, wool and fish from Highland and coastal towns to town and city markets; and, in the summer months, bore thousands of visitors with a view no car journey can hope to replicate. If there had been an award for the most scenic railway in the world, the Callander to Oban line would have stood an excellent chance of winning it.

But this is a Scotland that abruptly and shockingly disappeared. In a few short years, the lines were closed, the pretty stations abandoned and some of the greatest feats of transport engineering allowed to disappear through an insidious reclamation of nature. Here and there, the routes of the tracks have been preserved as cycle runs. But, more often, they have been abandoned to bush and gorse, lines once carefully tended left to disappear into a tangled growth of thorn bush and elder and convoluted beech.

How did we allow this to happen? Economics plays the cruellest tricks. The calculus on energy, resource and failing revenue that seemed unarguable 50 years ago now looks altogether less compelling in a world where environment and resource conservation are rated far more highly. The doubts are made all the more forceful by the spoliation that roads have wrought - and oil at $90 a barrel. The decline and fall of railway travel struck rural Scotland with brutal force. In the mid 1960s, the infamous axe had come to fall, the one we grew to know as Beeching. But the arm that wielded it was the growing mass preference for the motor car. This change could not be halted.

But what many have come to regret was the indiscriminate scrapping of a railway system in a "winner take all" sweep. It deprived us not just of a way of travelling, but of a way of seeing Scotland: a unique opening-up that was to make the Highlands a tourist destination for travellers the world over. The railway quickly became part not just of our economy, but of our heritage. And that is the worst of losses.

The Callander & Oban was the pioneer railway of the West Highlands. Its gentle run through the Teith Valley into Callander gave away nothing about the spectacular climbs ahead. The steep glens squeezed the railway into narrow passes and alongside countless lochs to reach the west coast of Scotland.

Rare footage of the steam and diesel trains that plied their way along the line has been gathered in a recently released DVD*. It is one of the most enchanting films made in Scotland. The mesmerising commentary by Stuart Sellar - how Crianlarich came to have the mind-numbing complexity of Crewe junction - combines to make a winning double of information and spectacle. Shot mostly in the 1960s, it shows trains winding their way to Callander, then the spectacular climb through the Pass of Leny, up through the rugged shoulder of Glen Ogle into Killin, then through Glen Dochart to Crianlarich and Oban.

The film is spectacularly beautiful. Watching it is to see being brought alive a Scotland that has vanished, an era when Highland tourism seemed so much more romantic and the Trossachs towns more lively and purposeful. Railway tourism, with the wonderful Maid of Morvan observation car, and the steam engines puffing past the most stunning lochs and glens, was one of the best ways to see the finest of Scotland. How criminal were those Beeching cuts, and how unforgivable, even after the passage of 40 years.

Jon Ransom, the Highlands historian whose book Iron Road** is being published this month by Birlinn, lives in Lochearnhead - ironically, midway between two railway lines that came to converge just south of the village. "When you consider the Victorians did not have anything like the technology we now enjoy," he says, "these railways were built at an incredible speed. The pace of construction was astonishing.

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"The station activity at Callander, Strathyre and Lochearnhead were deeply interwoven with village life. Like many businesses, they had to make their money in the summer months - in the tourist season. Dur-ing the winter, they were just not economic.

"Sadly, I don't think there's much chance of reopening any of the lines around here. What I would like to see is more made of the lines that are in still in use, from Glasgow to Crianlarich and Oban and Fort William. The trains in and around Fort William have been around for more than 20 years. Yet this was a line that had superb carriages and fine windows to allow for the spectacular views."

Pensioner Mary Mathieson, of Lochearnhead, recalls: "My father worked for 40 years on the railway as a lengthman, checking for rock falls, particularly in Glen Ogle. We lived in a croft in the glen and he had to work in all weathers. But then men were well clad, with good coats and boots.

"The railway was gorgeous, looking out over Lochearnhead as we went up Glen Ogle. It was just beautiful.

"We went for outings to the Bridge of Orchy and our family used to travel in the observation cars. The dining car was called the Maid of Morvan. It was a wonderful experience.

"My children went to Callander High School by train, catching the 8:15am from Lochearnhead/Balquhidder station every morning, and in the late afternoon they would come back on the Killin Pug."

Christine Batham, a former nurse who worked in Perth and is now retired in Lochearnhead, remembers her railway journeys. "I went to school in Callander and used to travel up and down regularly," she says. "It was so scenic. And it was a particularly beautiful journey up to Oban.

"I remember the observation cars and I think it's a great pity they closed. They were a real tourist attraction."

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The Crieff to Comrie railway ran for only five miles and seven furlongs. But the promoters had an 1880 come-on line that VisitScotland could hardly have bettered. It read: "The village of Comrie possesses very great attractions to tourists... The scenery along the route between Crieff and Comrie is of the most enchanting description. From the fertile valley of the Earn rise numberless ragged hills and gigantic mountains, and new beauties in loch, river, mountain, glen and valley open up at every turn..."

This railway was opened in 1893 and was later extended to St Fillans (1901) and Lochearnhead, before meeting up with the Callander to Oban line at Balquhidder station (1904). The most handsome feature of the line west of Comrie was the graceful curved viaduct spanning the entrance to Glen Ogle. Still standing today, it comprises nine arches of 40ft spans, bearing the railway from Lochearnhead station to the north side of Loch Earn, where it travelled about 100ft above the level of the water and the lochside road for some seven miles.

Here was how the Strathearn Herald reported it in 1904: "The railway track is sufficiently exalted to ensure - even in summer when foliage is thickest - delightful glimpses of the bosom of the loch, while on the south side, the lofty summit of Ben Vorlich is seen cut in majestic outline against the horizon..."

The Comrie-Balquhidder line and Lochearnhead station closed in 1951. Today, there is just a weed-choked path on the viaduct and a graceful curve to nowhere. But the station, lovingly refurbished by Hertfordshire Scouts and tended by Maurice Baker, looks as if it has never closed. You can sit on the platform bench by the line, and, if you close your eyes and listen, you can hear through the riotous colour of trees in autumn, the train puffing over that viaduct towards the station. Open them again and look the other way, into a tunnel of woods and tangled undergrowth, and the train has gone, and with it a Scotland we loved. This is no disappearing trick, but a loss that is deep, grievous and permanent.

*Caledonian Routes Volume 3. Callander & Oban lines - Stirling to Crianlarich and the Killin Branch. Oakwood Video Library, PO Box 13, Usk, Monmouthshire, NP15 1YS. Sales: 01291 650444.

** Iron Road, by PJG Ransom (Birlinn), 30. ISBN 978184158 3662.