The Railway Heritage of Balquhidder, Lochearnhead, St Fillans and Strathyre
Accommodation and hospitality business providers in this area of Perthshire are proud to have an author living amongst them. John Ransom has written extensively about the development of Scotland's railways, including the lines and stations that served the residents and tourists of Strathyre, Balquhidder, Lochearnhead and St Fillans. We are grateful to our friend and neighbour who has written the following summary of a railway heritage that we are proud of. Links to the author, his books and publishers are available for anyone who would like to find out more.
James Walker was appointed Clerk at Balquhidder Station on 14th October 1908. He left to take up a similar position at Loch Tay station in May 1910. He is seen here with 2 porters. Photo supplied by The Caledonian Railway Association.
The Railway Heritage of Balquhidder, Lochearnhead, St Fillans and Strathyre
by P. J. G. Ransom
If you had been planning to visit this district a century ago you might, if you were very wealthy, have been planning to use that new-fangled rich man's toy, the motor car. It is far more likely that, like everyone else, you would have been consulting Bradshaw's Guide for details of train services, or indeed looking at publicity material put out by the railway companies themselves.
From these you would have found a district which, for all its Highland location, was well served by trains. Yet no trains run here now, nor for many years past, even though it is difficult to move far in the district without encountering traces of closed railways. How did all this come about? The causes are to be found in a combination of local factors and wider influences. It is no simple story.
The focal point of railways here was Balquhidder station. There had been a railway here since 1870; originally, for reasons which will become clear in a moment, the station had been named 'Lochearnhead'. The line belonged to the Callander & Oban Railway, but day-to-day operation was in the hands of the Caledonian Railway, one of the big five Scottish railways of the period. The C & O in effect extended the Caledonian's Callander branch. This in turn had diverged at Dunblane from what was then the West Coast main line from Euston to Aberdeen . The C & O was built in stages: even in Victorian times it was not easy to find investors willing to risk their money in building railways through the Highlands , but eventually it was completed to Oban in 1880. In our district there was another station at Strathyre, and soon after opening a halt was added at Kingshouse for the benefit of people in Balquhidder glen. The original 'Lochearnhead' station was placed at a point where the railway crossed over the main road: the village lay down the road a couple of miles north of it and at a lower level but the railway, immediately after the station, started on five miles of continuous uphill at 1 in 60 (steep in railway terms) to gain the pass at Glenoglehead. Maintaining this even gradient meant that it ran on a shelf along the steep hillsides high above the village.
In 1904 'Lochearnhead' station was re-named 'Balquhidder'. A new station had been opened in Lochearnhead itself and bore the name of the village. This new station was situated on the second line to be been built into the district. The line came from Crieff (which already had railways linking it to the main line at Gleneagles (or 'Crieff Junction' as it was then called) and Perth . Like the Callander & Oban, this line had been built in stages. It got to Comrie in 1893, and was extended to St Fillans in 1901, Lochearnhead village in 1904, and finally to the junction with the C & O, at the station now called Balquhidder, in 1905. This line too was a branch of the Caledonian Railway.
Balquhidder was not the first junction to be made on the C & O, for in 1894 the West Highland Railway had been opened from Craigendoran (on the line from Glasgow to Helensburgh) to Fort William, crossing over the C & O by a viaduct at Crianlarich. A spur line was built to link the two railways, but in this case because the West Highland was operated by the North British Railway, which elsewhere was in fierce competition with the Caledonian, the spur saw contentiously little use over many decades.
But generally in the early part of the twentieth century steam trains provided ample train services over this network of railways, which was then at its zenith of activity and prosperity. Trains on the Callander & Oban line included through carriages to and from Stirling, Edinburgh , Glasgow and London . Trains on the line from Crieff connected with them at Balquhidder, and some of these ran through to or from Gleneagles, Perth and Dundee in one direction, and Callander and Stirling in the other. Although local transport, to and from railway stations, was still dependant on the horse (and on people's own efforts, on foot or bicycle), trains carried almost everybody travelling further afield – whether they were tourists from far away or local people visiting nearby villages and towns. Trains carried just about everything else too. The mails came and went by train. The newspapers arrived by train. Passenger trains carried innumerable parcels as well as passengers, and perishables such as fish; goods trains brought coal in and took timber out, and carried livestock – cattle and sheep – as well.
But the jam on the bread-and-butter, so far as the railways were concerned, was summer visitors. Much effort went into catering for them. In those days it was the custom for successful businessmen from the cities to move their families to villas in holiday areas for the summer: one such location was St Fillans, and doubtless it was to meet the needs of fathers returning temporarily to business that the train which left St Fillans at breakfast time for Glasgow, via Comrie, Crieff and Gleneagles, included a Pullman dining car to serve meals on the way. On the Callander & Oban line, coaches with extra large windows were provided, the better for their occupants to admire the views. The view down Loch Earn, gained from Callander & Oban trains as they pursued their elevated course above Lochearnhead, was famous. In 1914 the Caledonian Railway provided a Pullman observation car to run at the tail end of Glasgow-Oban trains. With deep wide windows, pearwood panelling, loose armchairs, silk shaded table lamps and a deep pile carpet, it was one of the most luxurious railway coaches running anywhere in Britain.
So, what happened? In 1923 the Caledonian and Callander & Oban companies were amalgamated into the newly-established, and much larger, London Midland & Scottish Railway. This was done in the interest of economy of working, and may have helped to see the railways through the depression years which followed. Far more serious in the long run was the growth of motor road traffic. By the mid-1920s motor bus services were well established and were generally more convenient than trains for local passengers, calling as they did at successive stops along the main streets of villages and towns, and out in the country as well. Motor lorries appeared, offering direct transport from door to door and – important in an agricultural district – farm to market. By the 1930s, despite the depression, motor cars (which by contrast with trains enabled people to travel where they wanted, when they wanted) were being much used by the middle classes. The return of prosperity in the 1960s brought them within reach of everybody. Traffic by train, throughout Britain , went into corresponding rapid decline and the finances of an old-fashioned railway system –nationalized in 1948 as 'British Railways' – started to disappear into a black hole. The consequence of all this was closure of large parts of the system. The line from Comrie to Balquhidder, including Lochearnhead and St Fillans stations, went early on – in 1951 – although (most unusually) it was used again temporarily a few years later to carry materials for the Breadalbane hydro-electric scheme.
The Callander & Oban line, where it passed through this district, was closed in 1965 under the Beeching Plan. The essence of this national plan was that railways should no longer be used for things they did badly (rural transport), and should be modernised and developed for things they did well (inter-city transport). It was anticipated this would enable them again to pay their way. British Railways was required to do that by law – the concept of subsidising socially necessary train services had not then emerged. The closure process, in rural areas, rapidly accelerated.
One of the principles adopted in closing lines was that where two routes duplicated one another, all the traffic should be concentrated on one of them and the other closed. There were, as we have seen, two routes between the Central Belt and the West Coast, the Callander & Oban and the West Highland , linked by the spur line at Crianlarich. This had been laid out so that trains coming up the West Highland could diverge and run direct to Oban: but trains coming from Callander direction could not run to Fort William without reversing up the spur at Crianlarich and then reversing again, with all the delays, expense and inconvenience that caused. In these circumstances it was almost inevitable that the Callander & Oban line, despite general replacement of steam locomotives by diesels in 1962, would be closed as far as Crianlarich: in any case diverting Glasgow-Oban trains to run as far as Crianlarich over the West Highland meant a much shorter and quicker route for them than via Callander.
In 1964 stations between Callander and Crianlarich were closed for goods traffic: goods trains for Oban were diverted to run over the West Highland as far as Crianlarich. Closure to passengers of the line from Dunblane through Callander to Crianlarich was announced in 1965, to take place on 1 November. Then nature took a hand. On 27 September the 12.30 am train from Stirling , carrying passengers and mails, set out for Oban via Callander and ran normally as far as Balquhidder, reached in the small hours. It could go no further. A landslide in Glen Ogle (always a risk in that locality) had blocked the track. The 6.0am from Stirling ran only to Strathyre. In normal circumstances a bus link between stations either side of the blockage would have been provided until the line could be cleared and re-opened. On this occasion a bus link was provided and maintained until the official closure date, while Glasgow-Oban trains were diverted immediately via the West Highland . Local people, opposed to the closure, felt aggrieved at what appeared to be a fait accompli.
Although the railways of the district were closed quite a long time ago, many traces of them survive. Most conspicuous are some of the viaducts – two in Glen Ogle on the Callander & Oban line, one across the foot of Glen Ogle at Lochearnhead and another across the Kendrum Burn, both of these on the branch. These, and other surviving bridges on the branch, are built of mass concrete, a new technique at the date they were constructed. Exceptionally the central span of the Kendrum viaduct was made of steel, and so scrapped after closure, leaving the approach arches either end standing forlorn and futile. After many decades like this they came back into use a few years ago when national cycle route 7 was made along this part of the trackbed, and a new central span was provided. Further north the cycle route ascends to join the Callander & Oban trackbed, which it follows to Glenoglehead: so the views formerly enjoyed by train passengers are once again readily available, although perhaps with rather more effort! Of the stations, Strathyre station site has been built over, and Balquhidder has been levelled and is a caravan park, although the old entrance subway and adjoining steps are still conspicuous beside the main road. St Fillans station is a caravan park too, but the station buildings survive in use. Lochearnhead station has for many years belonged to Hertfordshire Scouts, who use it as a base for sailing and mountaineering but happily maintain the station largely complete, looking just as a station should.
© The above article, written for the Loch Earn Tourism Initiative group by P J G Ransom, should not be reproduced, republished, posted, broadcast or transmitted in any way for any commercial use or purpose without the prior written permission of the author .
****Science & Society Picture Library
P. J. G. Ransom is author of Iron Road : The railway in Scotland , the only publication which tells the story of railways in Scotland comprehensively in a single volume, and of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs in History and Legend , which says much of travellers in the area and the means by which they travelled, including its railways. He has written many other books on transport and related subjects.
For details of the two books mentioned above, visit the publisher's website: http://www.birlinn.co.uk/
For more about surviving railways in the West Highlands, and about the history of those which have not survived, visit the website of the Friends of the West Highland Lines: http://fowhl.org.uk/
For more about the history of the Caledonian Railway, visit the website of the Caledonian Railway Association, http://www.crassoc.org.uk/
John Ransom and his wife Elisabeth (Libby) have lived in Lochearnhead for nearly forty years, and brought their two sons up here. During that time, and earlier, John has produced a succession of books about transport history, local history and related subjects. These he researched and wrote and in many cases illustrated with his own photographs. Libby too provided some of the illustrations, and helped with the research. John has also contributed chapters to many books of multiple authorship.
Here is a list of books by P J G Ransom
Books in print
These are available from booksellers, from the publishers (whose websites are given) and signed copies of most publications can be purchased from or arranged by SULA Furnishing shop, The Tryst, Balquhidder, Perthshire, FK19 8NY. T. 01877 384700 OPENING TIMES: Mon-Sun / 10am – 5 pm
Published by Birlinn Ltd (www.birlinn.co.uk)
- Iron Road: The Railway in Scotland This is the full story of railways in Scotland: their rise, fall and rise again, from the eighteenth century to the twenty-first, told in a single volume – no other book does this. It covers not only developing technicalities, but also the wider effects of rail transport on Scotland, and of Scotland on the railway network. Iron Road was shortlisted for the Saltire Society Scottish History Book of the Year, 2008.Now in paperback, fully illustrated in colour and black-and-white, 334 pages, rrp £20.
- Loch Lomond and the Trossachs in History and Legend. The region which has become Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park has long been a magnet to visitors. Some came as tourists, from Wordsworth and Mendelssohn to Queen Victoria herself. Others came in the course of duty, such as the Redcoats pursuing Rob Roy. Here are the stories of who came here, what they found and how they got around – particularly by an efficient network of connecting trains, loch steamers and horsedrawn coaches. Paperback, fully illustrated, 245 pages, rrp £9.99. Published by John Donald Publishers, an imprint of Birlinn Ltd
- Scottish Life and Society vol. 8, Transport and Communications An encyclopaedic multi-author work to which P J G Ransom contributed three of the thirty-four chapters: those on Canals and Inland Waterways, Coaching, and Railways to 1914. The chapter on coaching is the only readily-available history of a vital element in development of Scotland's transport. Hardback, fully illustrated, 974 pages, rrp £50.00. Published by John Donald, an imprint of Birlinn Ltd.
Published by Amberley Publishing (www.amberleybooks.com)
Bell’s Comet: How a paddle steamer changed the course of history. When Henry Bell of Helensburgh started to carry passengers down the Clyde in his little steamer Comet in 1812, he established the first viable steamer service – the first mechanised passenger transport – in the Old World. This new study of Bell and the Comet and their place in history was written to mark the bicentenary in 2012. Paperback, 190pp, rrp £16.99
Published by Stenlake Publishing Ltd (www.stenlake.co.uk).
P J G Ransom wrote the text for the following six books of old photographs; the illustrations came from the publisher's collection. All are 48-page paperbacks.
Steamers of Loch Lomond rrp £7.99
Old Lochlomondside rrp £7.99
Old Almondbank, Methven & Glenalmond rrp £7.99
Old Arrochar and Loch Long rrp £9.00
Old Dunkeld and Birnam rrp £9.00
Old Stanley rrp £9.00
Published by Twelveheads Press (www.twelveheads.com)
The Mont Cenis Fell Railway This is the astonishing story of how a group of British entrepreneurs provided the first rail link between France and Italy by building a temporary railway, using untried technology, over an Alpine pass nearly 7,000 ft high in the 1860s. Prominent among them were the Duke of Sutherland, and Lord Abinger who later promoted the West Highland Railway. Hardback, fully illustrated, 92 pages rrp £10.
Copies of some of these may still be found in bookshops, and second-hand copies of all of them can usually be found by a search on Abe Books website: (www.abebooks.co.uk)
Snow, Flood and Tempest: Railways and Natural Disasters How railways and railwaymen have coped
Locomotion: Two Centuries of Train Travel An anthology of the best of railway writing
Scotland's Inland Waterways Concise history of canals, navigable rivers and inland lochs used for transport
Narrow Gauge Steam: Its origins and world-wide development How narrow gauge steam trains originated, and how they spread – the authoritative work on its subject
Loch Earn: A Guide for Visitors, particularly those going afloat Attractions – and hazards – of boating on Loch Earn
The Victorian Railway and How It Evolved Railways in Britain in their formative years, when they were a boom industry
Scottish Steam Today Steam trains, ships, stationary engines and road vehicles – the position in the late 1980s, when the book was published
Transport in Scotland through the Ages Principally for children
The Archaeology of the Transport Revolution 1750-1850 What's left of the most creative period in British transport history –starting when people rode or sailed, through development of canals, coaches and turnpike roads, to the earliest main line railways and steamships
Your Book of Steam Railway Preservation Principally for young people
The Archaeology of Railways What's left of the development of railways
The Archaeology of Canals What's left from the canal era
Your Book of Canals Principally for young people
Waterways Restored Restoring un-navigable canals and rivers, the story to 1974
Railways Revived Keeping branch lines and steam trains alive, the story to 1973
Holiday Cruising in Ireland Published in 1971 and now a period piece – the fee for taking a boat through a lock on the River Shannon was 3s 4½d!
P J G Ransom also contributed to:
New Dictionary of National Biography
Oxford Companion to British Railway History
Biographical Dictionary of the History of Technology
Encyclopaedia of the History of Technology
A Guide to the Steam Railways of Great Britain
Encyclopaedia of Railways
Steam into the Seventies
and he was privileged to write an additional chapter to bring up-to-date John Thomas's standard history The West Highland Railway for its fourth edition in 1998.
One of the advantages of Lochearnhead for an author is the ease of access, for research, to the large libraries and institutions in Edinburgh and Glasgow, as well as the local libraries and archive services in Perth and Stirling. Another is the proximity, when recreation is needed, of hills for walking on and lochs for boating on. John and his family can be seen from time to time setting out down Loch Earn in his steam launch. He has also had a parallel voluntary 'career' in heritage railways – he was one of the earliest people to join the Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society, the first of its kind, in 1951. Latterly he has been for many years a supporter of the work of the Heritage Railway Association: he is currently secretary of its Scottish Committee, which looks after the interests of heritage railways, railway museums and railway preservation groups throughout Scotland.