Highland Survivor – a tale of trains, trials and triumphs (Part 2)

I’ve spent my entire working life in and around the rail industry – and it all began on the Far North Line.

I first travelled on the 168-mile railway from Inverness to Caithness at the age of 14, in late 1966, shortly after our family moved home from Edinburgh to Inverness, following the appointment of my father Frank as the Planning & Research Officer of the new Highlands & Islands Development Board (HIDB). The Far North Line had secured a dramatic reprieve from the ‘Beeching Axe’ in 1964 – by far the lengthiest railway in Britain to escape proposed closure – and it has survived to this day, as Britain’s longest rural railway, despite massively increased completion from the bus, the car and the lorry.

The railway attraction
My big attachment to the Far North Line began in the summer of 1973. Following the HIDB’s prolonged promotion of major inward investment, in 1971 the British Aluminium Company opened a new aluminium smelter at Invergordon, convenient for rail access and the deep water of the Cromarty Firth. The smelter had a big impact on the Far North Line, generating an unprecedented freight boom – but its high wages attracted staff away from the railway.

As a youthful rail campaigner (and also a student, inevitably seeking summer work) I heard that the British Rail (BR) Area Manager’s office at Invergordon was on the lookout for temporary staff. I jumped at the opportunity to work on the railway, and spent the summers of both 1973 and 1974 employed by BR at Invergordon and Tain.

In hindsight, I can see that my experience on the Far North Line was life-changing, diverting my interest from a career in town and country planning, and leading within three years to the start of a life on and around the railway. As a BR marketing manager, most of the freight traffics I controlled were well to the south of the Far North Line, but I did find myself playing a key part in two very unusual traffic flows on the line in the 1980s: coal from Invergordon, and peat from Scotscalder. And in a fortuitous turn of events, in late 2015 and early 2016 I was busy as a consultant in efforts to secure timber traffic from the Flow Country to Inverness via a new railhead at Kinbrace.

Unexpectedly an author
Four decades on from the start of my working experience on the railway, I came late – and almost by accident – to a parallel part-time career as an author.

‘Mapping the Railways’ was published in 2011 by Times Books – tracing the history of Britain’s railways through maps – and, to my amazement and delight, it has proved to be a railway best seller, now in its seventh impression. ‘Britain’s Scenic Railways’ – also by Times Books and again co-written with established rail author, Julian Holland – followed in 2012, featuring maps, photos and commentary on outstanding routes across England, Wales and Scotland, including the Far North Line.

I struck out on my own with ‘Waverley Route: the life, death and rebirth of the Borders Railway’, a labour of love reflecting my childhood attachment to the axed railway through the Central Borders and some 20 years as a campaigner for reinstatement of the railway. This took two and a half years of research and writing, exploring the political, social and business history of probably the worst cut of the Beeching Era. Then in 2015 I produced a revised edition, ‘Waverley Route: the battle for the Borders Railway’, to coincide with the completion of the new line, as well as authoring ‘The Railway Atlas of Scotland’. So what would be next?

The genesis of ‘Highland Survivor’
In February 2015, I was contacted by Richard Ardern, long-time activist with Friends of the Far North Line (and a former colleague of my father’s in the HIDB). He in turn had just been approached by BBC Alba, who were planning a documentary about the 150th anniversary of the Highland Railway and wanted to find out more about the 1963-64 MacPuff campaign. As Richard said: ‘It seems to me to be a story which could do with being written up.’

Coincidentally, only the previous day I had re-established contact with Rab MacWilliam, former school chum at Inverness Royal Academy, with whom I briefly shared a house in London in the early 1980s. After a lifetime in London-based publishing and writing, Rab had helped to establish Kessock Books in Inverness: and did I have any railway book ideas? I wasted no time in replying that ‘there’s a great story to be told’ about the Far North Line in general, and MacPuff in particular. So, when research confirmed that a dedicated history of the line had never been written, the ‘Highland Survivor’ project began.

The heart of the story
Over and above its unique fascination as Britain’s longest rural railway, it seemed to me that there were two key reasons for researching and writing the story of the Far North Line.

First, what was the secret of the remarkable success of the 1963-64 campaign, culminating in the biggest reprieve of the Beeching era? One of the key drivers here was the fact that, in the early to mid-1960s, my father was a Scottish Office civil servant advising on the regional development implications of the Beeching proposals, and in his obituary in the ‘Scotsman’ in 2003, he was credited with being ‘instrumental in saving the bulk of the Highland rail network’. Would my own research support this conclusion? Was there some other ‘silver bullet’? Or were there, as I found in my researches for ‘Waverley Route’, a wide range of factors which determined the ultimate Ministerial decision?

My second motivation was to understand how the railway has managed to survive over the subsequent five decades of much more intensive bus, car and lorry competition on vastly improved roads, and what its future prospects might be in an anticipated era of ‘austerity’. The Far North Line’s place in the economic and social life of the North of Scotland has clearly shrunk significantly since 1963. But is there a new enhanced role for it to play?

These are the big questions which I seek to answer in ‘Highland Survivor’, the first book to tell the whole story of this too-often-neglected railway – with a particular slant on its chequered history from the 1950s to the present day.

David Spaven, author of ‘Highland Survivor – The story of the Far North Line’


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