When your editor suggested I write an article about my recollections as a police officer, and thoughts of the Far North Line, it took me a while to realise that only five years of my police service had not been at a station on the FNL: postings to Wick, Thurso, Inverness, back to Thurso and finally Wick were only interrupted by postings to Aviemore with a main line station and Benbecula where as far as I am aware no trains exist but a rocket range does.
Northern Constabulary was one of the eight Scottish Forces prior to the formation of Police Scotland. We had 800-odd officers to cover an area larger than Belgium, 24/7, 365 days a year. We also had a practical "hands-on" approach with a decidedly non-risk-averse approach. As is often the way, the remoter the community the greater the ingenuity and resilience of the public and the police who serve them. A (probably) healthy disregard for the letter of the law existed in the far north public and, I would like to think, most of the police officers lived up to the Force motto "Protect and Serve".
And this approach extended to British Transport Police whose tiny complement based at Inverness did its best to cover its vast kingdom. The "thin blue line" also applies to the FNL in many ways. Over the years the threat of closure has never fully disappeared and landslips, flooding and snow are regular challenges. Latterly in my role as the Area Commander for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross I was always aware that the railway just south of Helmsdale is just feet from a sea that has overcome part of the village's harbour, whilst on the inland side a landslip closed the vital A9 Inverness to Thurso road last winter. The theoretical diversion along the Glen Loth unclassified road is not for the faint-hearted or sports car.
Some years ago, an inaptly named "Sprinter" train became stranded in deep snow near Kinbrace. I recollect 18 folk were rescued by the local estate workers using an ex-military snowcat, backed up by Northern Police vehicles - politicians are fond of extolling "partnership working" - this was just one example of police and public working together. The fact that BTP were not present simply wasn't an issue for any of us.
The Highland public had a positive and robust attitude to Health and Safety. When trees fell on roads and railways, Police Officers were regularly told not to worry about waiting hours for an official council team to attend. Out of the gloom cars, pick-ups, trucks and tractors would emerge, chainsaws would fire up, the trees were cleared and the route promptly re-opened. At such times, rural police officers do well to follow Admiral Nelson's example of putting his telescope to his blind eye. I go back in time but did you know a humble Ford Escort could pull a large fallen tree off a road...the Fleet Manager didn't either.
On a much more serious note I personally attended three accidents on level crossings at Halkirk in Caithness. In the worst of these, three pensioners tragically lost their lives. After this appalling incident, full barriers were installed.
Walking in the world-famous Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland the thin dark line of the FNL at Altnabreac comes as a gentle reminder that even this most remote part of our island has been subdued by humankind. The vast forestry plantings of Sitka Spruce and Lodgepole Pine accompany the railway and make the need for snow fences a little less compelling. Ironically these plantations which were controversial when planted due to their perceived negative effects on our unspoilt wild brown trout, largely comprise low grade timber and serious efforts are now being undertaken to ascertain whether the FNL could be used to remove timber from this area instead of using the narrow single-track roads.
Not so far away the A897 Strath Halladale (Helmsdale to Melvich) road meets the FNL at Forsinard where the RSPB is restoring the blanket peat bogs and so far, the views from the viewing tower, are unaffected by wind turbines.
The old song goes "A policeman's lot is not a happy one" and that is true when dealing with fatalities but fortunately that is not the whole story. The long and winding railway that leads to the door of the most northerly railway station in the UK at the frontier-feeling town of Thurso has so much to offer and can tell many tales: read Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island to hear his more neutral impression of the FNL and the unique hospitality he experienced in Thurso, land of the Vikings.
As an Independent (non-political) Highland Councillor I suggest that the onward march of centralisation seriously threatens our remotest areas. The closure of the Highland Police and Fire control rooms, downgrading of NHS services, inability to attract newcomers to the remotest areas combine to threaten a subtler form of the Clearances. The A9 North of Dornoch exacts a regular toil of casualties and the FNL represents the only realistic alternative. It may not be profitable but the railway should represent an attractive and safer alternative to the notorious A9 (which does not fully deserve its reputation) - frankly this is not the case for many local folk.
Government money spent on the development of the line could revitalise the railway's appeal. Readers may doubt this but, in conclusion, I respectfully suggest doubters google 'North Coast 500'. This represents the power of the internet at its best; a simple marketing strategy that is reaping substantial financial rewards by publicising an existing road route as something to be enjoyed by visitors driving the route.
The FNL can be re-energised and I wish FoFNL every success in its endeavours.