Imaginary Highland rail routes create lockdown escape

A fantasy rail network across the Highlands has been conjured up by an author whose forthcoming book chronicles a failed Victorian scheme to build a line to Ullapool.

The imagined Highland rail network. Picture: Andrew Drummond.
The imagined Highland rail network. Picture: Andrew Drummond.

Andrew Drummond said it would enable would-be travellers to break out of the Covid-19 lockdown for imaginary journeys across the north west.

He has created a ScotRail-style map on his website which includes other fictional rail routes to the north west coast settlements of Lochinver, Laxford and Aultbea, with ferry connections to Stornoway.

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Virtual passengers are also able to travel over lines extending across Harris and Lewis, and to Dunvegan on Skye.

The book on the Ullapool scheme is due to be published by Birlinn in October. Picture: Birlinn.

There is a new link from the existing West Highland Line along the Great Glen to Inverness via Fort Augustus.

On the north coast, an extension from Thurso links the ferry port of Scrabster.

The site features timetables and bookable fares, such as “Prudent Servant” season tickets, while “toffs, swells & nobs” are charged double.It even provides links to the ScotRail and CalMac websites for connecting trains and ferries in the real world.

Drummond’s book, A Quite Impossible Proposal - How Not to Build a Railway, which is due to be published in October, takes its title from the Scottish Office’s dismissal of the Ullapool scheme in the 1890s against the recommendation of its advisers.

Andrew Drummond's fictional account of the building of the Ullapool railway. Picture: Birlinn/Polygon.

It also features other unbuilt lines on Drummond’s map.

The book follows the author’s 2004 comic fictional account of the construction of the Ullapool line, An Abridged History.

Drummond said of his website: “Should it all be getting too much for you, why not try a gentle - if virtual - railway trip to the north-west coast of Scotland? Or even a railway journey on Skye or Lewis?

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“Anything is possible under this Quite Impossible scheme.

“Buy yourself a summer travel pass to use under the sunshine and Atlantic breezes (yes, we can only dream).”

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David Spaven, author of The Railway Atlas of Scotland, said: “Andy Drummond’s ingenious flight of fantasy is a reminder no fewer than eight schemes were proposed to branch off the Far North Line, and two from the Kyle line.

“None came to fruition – unsurprisingly in most cases due to sparse population and largely unproductive terrain for railways – but Andy’s forthcoming book demonstrates there was a realistic chance of trains reaching Ullapool.”

Spaven, who is completing his latest book, Lost Branch Lines of Scotland, said: “Another failed scheme which can be viewed as a regrettable omission was a link from Thurso to Scrabster.

“At less than three miles, it was by far the shortest of all the failed schemes, and hence would have been the cheapest - and if built would surely have survived until the present day.

“While not enough to overcome the disadvantages of the circuitous overall route of the Far North Line in the era of the car and the lorry, a Scrabster extension would have given the railway an important additional direct market.

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“And perhaps in the era of climate emergency, a railway running direct to the Orkney ferry berth might just become a realistic proposition?"

Ian Budd, convener of the Friends of the Far North Line, said: “At this time of lockdown, these journeys seem no more fanciful than travelling by train from Inverness to Wick.

“Food for thought here for MSPs and Transport Scotland staff holed up at home - it’s never too late.”

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