Strome Ferry 'Great Railway Journey of the World' hits 150

It was hailed by Michael Palin as one of the world’s greatest railway journeys and has survived two closure threats to reach 150 years old today.

A ScotRail train at Achnasheen on a remote moorland section of the line in 2002. Picture: Ken Towner/Evening Standard/Shutterstock.
A ScotRail train at Achnasheen on a remote moorland section of the line in 2002. Picture: Ken Towner/Evening Standard/Shutterstock.

The epic Highland route between Dingwall and Strome Ferry forms the major part of the Inverness-Kyle of Lochalsh line and became the first to reach the west coast in 1870.

A plaque unveiling to commemorate the anniversary at Strome Ferry is planned for after the Covid crisis.

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‘Few were sober’

Strome Ferry station in 1935. Picture: Highland Railway Society collection.

Rail author Ann Glen said of the opening: “A banquet was held in the then protective train shed that has long gone.

“There were pipers and the whisky flowed.

‘Social distancing’ based on class and status was soon forgotten and few were sober when the train left for the return to Dingwall and Inverness.

“At Strome Ferry, there was a riot over fish traffic on Sundays in 1883.

Strathcarron station, east of Strome Ferry.

“Earlier, a grandiose scheme to carry fishing boats from the east coast to the west by rail, thereby avoiding the stormy waters of the Pentland Firth, had been abandoned.”

The final ten miles to Kyle were completed in 1897 after the cost of rock blasting had seen that section shelved.

Author Anne-Mary Paterson, great grand niece of Murdoch Paterson, the engineer who surveyed the line, said: “The original idea was for the railway to go all the way to Kyle, but because of the expense of driving the line through hard rock cuttings involving a large amount of blasting, the directors decided to terminate it at Attadale on Loch Carron.

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Cars being carried by train between Strathcarron and Kyle of Lochalsh in the early 1900s to save drivers a ferry journey and hazardous roads. Picture: Highland Railway Society collection.

“They then decided it was too far up Loch Carron for larger ships, so they terminated the line at Strome Ferry, the narrows where the ferry plied.”

The line - originally the Dingwall & Skye Railway - was conceived to improve access to the island, previously served by steamers from the Clyde.

It would also provide a faster means of carrying cattle and fish to market.

Tourist magnet

Keith Fenwick, editor of the Highland Railway Society Journal, said: “The line opened in time to catch the end of the 1870 tourist season.

“Scotland was particularly popular as the Franco-Prussian war closed Europe for most people.

“In recent years, the line’s importance for local transport has declined but tourists have flocked to it.”

Michael Palin helped popularise it in 1980 in the BBC’s Great Railway Journeys of the World, fulfilling his ambition of travelling to Skye by train.

Twice spared closure

However, that followed the route being spared closure twice, first under the major Beeching cuts in the 1960s, which closed several other significant Scottish lines.

It was again threatened in 1973 when the Stornoway ferry was moved from Kyle to Ullapool.

Campaigners for a reprieve were successful once more, bolstered by plans to use rail to supply a planned oil yard on Loch Kishorn, near Strome Ferry.

But Ms Glen observed: “By 1987, the fabrication yard had closed and Strome relapsed into being a quiet halt on the railway - just a one platform station without buildings or staff.”

‘Symphony in three parts’

Locals researched the line’s heritage in 2010-12, producing leaflets and podcasts for visitors.

ScotRail honorary rail ambassador John Yellowlees said: “Travel writer Alexander Frater recognised it as akin to a symphony in three parts - pastoral, mountain and marine.

”Twice saved from closure a half-century ago, its celebration in a unique community archaeology project showed the regard in which it is today held by communities along the route.”

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