Our railways were built as speculative ventures - no public funding or EEC development grants in those days - but they were built to last. For the most part local materials were used, in the manner of the day, and skilled craftsmanship was everywhere apparent.
On the first section of our Far North line the engineer, Mitchell, built two splendid masonry viaducts, one across the Ness and the other over the Conon river. The first was of course very sadly swept away by a severe flood a few years ago, to be replaced with commendable speed by a fine modern reinforced concrete structure; the other is still very much with us. Later came the superb viaduct at Invershin, with its deep lattice span and flanking masonry arches.
The line was built in stages, and the stations on each were often built to standard designs, variety showing in the use of the local stone and some of the detailing. You can easily pick out the sites of long-closed stations, mostly now private houses, from their distinctive designs. (Why some have been left unsold and unoccupied for so long, inevitably deteriorating internally in the process, is a mystery locked in the old BR Property Division files.) But there are other incidental features worth more than a passing glance: the little overbridges which abound on the line, as on the Highland mainline north from Stanley junction, may seem just simple arched masonry affairs, but look at the workmanship - they would cost an absolute fortune if built that way today.
It should surprise no one if our interest in the Far North Line extends beyond the running services to the structures it embodies. They are part of the legacy of the original owners, shareholders and builders, handed down to our and succeeding generations; we, as well as Railtrack and ScotRail, have a concern for their welfare. To take one example, the station footbridges are of a pattern, and we greatly welcome the fact these are being overhauled as part of station refurbishments and retained, preserving the 'family' look of these, rather than being replaced with a modern utilitarian design. To take another, the overall roofs at Wick and Thurso, once a common feature of rural termini, are now relatively rare, and are likely to be repaired and retained.
Sometimes of course the need for facilities deemed essential these days can involve fairly extensive conversion and even extension. Inverness has a very pleasant station - small enough to find everything and with visible staffing, pretty unusual in Scotland now, and with a cheerfully spacious concourse. An attractive feature is the arched openings between sections of the trainshed, echoing in highland scale the similar openings in London Kings Cross. It is in the right place, has much going for it, and will presently need to be capable of handling steadily increasing traffic. It needs to be ready, and it should be a highlight.
In the course of remodelling in 1966-68 the main front was rebuilt, encroaching somewhat onto Station Square. Built in the manner of its day to a design by Inverness architects, it looked very smart when new, but 30 years of weathering and changing perceptions have done it few favours. There is much to be said for reticence, but in such a sturdy, thriving centre ScotRail and Railtrack have a good deal to be honestly proud of, and if they wish to project this `Gateway to The Railway' - Edinburgh / Glasgow / Aberdeen / London (even Paris, Vienna and Rome), to say nothing of Perth and Orkney - with a degree of panache, this facade might benefit from renewed upgrading - nothing structural, but a modest and effective `lift'.
Yes, I do know all too well how very easy it is to comment airily from the sidelines - and do nothing. One's views are rather more persuasive if accompanied by serious practical input, a willingness to do something, and go on doing it. A six figure enabling cheque now and again can be even more persuasive, but this is obviously, to say the very least, utterly beyond our slender resources! But, that said and coming swiftly down to earth, is there anything we might try to do in support of our ideas? Ought we to be seeking ways of building up some FOFNL resources, so that we can at least make some sort of positive gesture when a scheme deserves it?
Have we reached the point where we should be looking into means of raising funds? I would be glad to know what members think about this. It would need new people. The Friends is run, like so many voluntary bodies, by a very few devotees; we value all our members (their numbers alone and remaining with us is a great source of encouragement), yet we cannot but think that amongst them there will surely be a few who would welcome some way of becoming rather more closely involved in our activities, indirectly furthering our aims in whatever way best suits them. Your ideas are welcome.
For a start we have the 125th Anniversary this year - FNL.125 . . Spring will soon be here, as good a time as any to plant this sort of seed. Mind you - members of your Committee may be just a shade surprised, as I haven't put this item on their Agenda yet!! So at least we all start out on a level footing.