Orkney is a group of about fifty islands, generally low-lying and more fertile than one imagines, lying off the north-east corner of Scotland. The only towns are Stromness and Kirkwall on the Mainland of Orkney, the largest island of the group; both have narrow paved streets, not really suitable for motor traffic. Kirkwall boasts a cathedral of Viking descent, while Stromness is the proud possessor of a museum which, in addition to collecting local relics, is travel minded, though I found no mention of rail-borne systems there at all. The isles generally are so full of historic and prehistoric remains that a trip to study only railways would need a greater enthusiast than I. My wife and I made a trip across the Pentland Firth over Easter 1963 and visited all the places of railway interest to which we had found reference, and some others besides.
This article, by R. A. BOWEN, B. Sc. appeared in The Industrial Railway Record, the magazine of the Industrial Railway Society, in Issue No.10 June 1966 and is reprinted with permission. Photographs are by the author.
The original article also contains a quite extensive reference section listing Orkney rail sites and locomotives. Visit http://www.irsociety.co.uk/ to find this and many other interesting articles.
In all we visited over twenty-five sites where rail had been used, but I must say that our explorations were not as complete as they might have been. Time and transport restricted our search to the Mainland of Orkney and the southern isles, under conditions which became slightly out-of-hand. It snowed, it blew, planes and boats were cancelled and we were eventually five days late back at work some twenty miles away on the neighbouring mainland of Caithness.
Suffice, to railways (or the editor will not print any of this). Whilst there is still a small amount of standard gauge in the islands, the Orcadian railways are essentially narrow gauge and the majority are those laid down by the Forces or their contractors in the two World Wars.
There are, however, two classes of indigenous civilian systems, which I will deal with first. One belongs to the Northern Lighthouse Commissioners and the other is a series of 2ft systems laid with 'Jubilee' track by the Orkney County Council in its quarries. A typical system consists of lines at the quarry face along which tubs are pushed to the foot of an incline, from where cable haulage is used to the top of a crushing plant. One notable feature is the use of wagon tables instead of points. The track is moved from quarry to quarry as required, but at the time of our visit was laid in Cursiter between Kirkwall and Finstown, and also at Lythes on South Walls. In the past it has been used at Chinglebraes, St. Ola, Workwell, Orphir, Springfield and Harray, all on the Mainland of Orkney.
The Northern Lighthouse Commissioners have their service depot in Stromness and use a little standard gauge track for moving buoys on a trolley. They also have a 2ft 6in system which appears to have been laid when the base was installed in the 1890's. This system serves their own pier and includes several oddities in the way of points and loops. When we were present a tame otter patrolled the system! The Commissioners have installed track of the same gauge at some of their lighthouses, where a cable hauled bogie is used to land stores. The only one I have visited is on Sules Skerry, one of a pair of islands about 38 miles west of the Orkney group. A similar system, including a point, exists on the Flannan Isles off the west coast of the Hebrides, and I have heard that there is one on Muckle Flugga, the penultimate northerly rock in Great Britain.
Of the 'military' lines perhaps the most interesting are those installed by Balfour, Beatty & Co. Ltd. (including their associates) for the construction of the Churchill Barriers. These barriers, four in number, replaced in the Second World War the blockships of the First, and were built by Balfour Beatty using prisoner-of-war labour, with the exception of the southern half of the most southerly one which was constructed by William Tawse Ltd. They connected the Mainland of Orkney with South Ronaldsay through the islands of Lambholm, Glimsholm and Burray, making a barrier along the eastern side of Scapa Flow and so forming a defence to the large wartime base there. Today they appear as an unfenced roadway on top of a mound of concrete blocks, spanning bits of the Atlantic Ocean. Balfour Beatty constructed their barriers by lowering rock from a cable suspended across each strait until sea level was reached, sometimes dealing with depths of up to five fathoms. Then the concrete blocks of three sizes (but typically six feet square by eight feet high) were lowered to form the edges and the basis for the roadway. The sites of the triangular fixtures that anchored the cableways and an attendant hut are still clearly visible in all cases.
These cableways were supplied by 3ft gauge systems, which ran from alongside a pier (though not actually confirmed on any) to the cable and then on to the "Blocking Yard" where the concrete blocks were made. The 3ft lines also served the quarries from which the raw materials were obtained and were frequently supported by a standard gauge system in the blocking yards on which steam cranes operated. Balfour Beatty had a service depot for these sites at Scapa on the Mainland (now a depot of the Orkney County Council Water Dept.), where a small quantity of track remains.
From north to south the lines were as follows. The first was on the north side of Lambholm. This island, otherwise uninhabited, housed the Prisoner-of-War camp, of which all that remains now is the 'Italian Chapel', two beautifully converted Nissen huts. The pier lies to the west, while to the east is the P.o.W. camp site, a few lengths of rail and a large Blocking Yard, with traces of the standard gauge system. The remains of another system exist on the south side of the island with the pier to the west, and to the east a large quarry, a few rails and one building, next to which are truck bodies suitable for carrying concrete blocks. The Blocking Yard was smaller and just before the quarry, but here it is not clear whether or not standard gauge track was used.
On the north side of the small island of Glimsholm there are traces of a 2ft system, leading from a small quarry on the west to the cableway, but No.3 Barrier was obviously built mainly from the Burray end. On the north side of the latter are the remains of a mile long system leading from a pier on the west, past a cliff face quarry and through a cutting (60ft long and up to 8ft deep), now affected by the sea, to the locomotive shed. From here the line continues past the cable and the remains, high up, of a camp, behind a farm to a quarry, and further up on to the island to a sandpit by a ruined broch (a Pictish dwelling shaped like a G.W.R. safety valve cover, with hollow walls). Here again confirmation of any standard gauge track is lacking, though it may have been to the west of the cable.
On the south side of Burray lie many traces of the longest system to be described. This leads from an old and still used pier on the west behind the village and thence up a hill to the road and past the cableway. It continues to the Blocking Yard with traces of the standard gauge lines, and then along the sand dunes to a reversing point from where it runs uphill to descend into the now flooded quarry.
In addition Balfour Beatty built a small causeway on top of a reef linking the island of Burray with the privately owned one of Hunda in Scapa Flow to the west. A 2ft gauge Jubilee track system was used to convey the stone from a quarry at the western end of the causeway, and this was probably hand worked; the odd sleeper remains in the quarry. Their most interesting 2ft system, however, was used in the construction of two tunnels on the moor above Lyness-on-Hoy, the only generally upland island. Lyness had a large hospital and naval base in the First World War and in the Second was used for oil storage; it is now an Admiralty Oil Fuel Depot. The tunnels in question issue from Wee Fea about ¾mile apart near the 400ft contour. The line was used to remove spoil and was operated by two diesel locomotives. Though each tunnel was essentially an independent unit, the line did join them and connected with two quarries and an emplacement higher up the hillside. Some of the works were of a substantial nature with proper ballast occurring in places instead of just sand on top of the peat bog. A wagon table remains in one of the quarries since the lifting in 1943, and part of the formation has been adapted to form a single track road.
The hillside in question is full of bunkers and narrow concrete paths, but is otherwise primitive moorland. My exploration was rewarded with sights of grouse and an eagle, as well as a spectacular view at sunset of many of the Orkney islands, the lighthouses twinkling among the dark islets dotted in a turquoise sea.
If we remain at Lyness we can consider the purely Services installations, commencing with the Admiralty. Between the oil tanks set back from the shore and the three huge jetties that form the harbour is the remains of a standard gauge system installed first to serve the floating hospital in 1916 and constructed from bits of the Cromarty & Dingwall Light Railway. It was built by contractors using a steam locomotive (or locomotives) that later worked it. The system lay derelict until the Second World War when it was adapted to the needs of boom laying, acquiring pointwork dated 1937 in the process. In its present state it consists basically of half a square of double track, 150 yards along a limb, which can be used by the two steam cranes that shunt the limited stock (two flat trucks of 1916).
In the same area and serving the same piers is a 2ft system, which in places shares a rail with the standard gauge system. This is an adaptation of the earliest system on the site - one serving quarrying works by Topham, Jones & Railton Ltd. There do not appear to have been any locomotives in use on it in the Second World War, but that serving the pier at Rinnigill on the South side of the same bay, most certainly did have one diesel. One flat car remains on this track which is still present, but the locomotive was cut up not all that long before my visit.
The War Department also left traces, the most interesting being a self-acting incline about 900 yards long to serve a gun battery at Scad Head half way along the totally unpopulated section of the north-east coast of Hoy. The line ran from a camp set on top of a hill to the emplacement on the clifftop below, but it has been removed so effectively that even its gauge is now in doubt.
Two types of short lengths of 2ft track laid by the War Department can be enumerated. One is a straight length joining two or more huts, or more truthfully, the concrete bases where the huts once were. These exist at the north end of the town of Stromness, at Howton (now a seaweed factory) on the Mainland of Orkney and at Muckle Rysa on Hoy. The second is that in a gun emplacement and which is typically semicircular and about 25 yards long; these exist to the south of Stromness on the mainland, on the south side of Glimsholm and probably in the south-east corner of Flotta. Neither of these types appears to have any interest to the locomotive enthusiast.
The Air Ministry laid a circular line on Fara, an island lying off Lyness, and the diesel locomotive used here was cut up at Rinnigill within the last decade. In addition to these systems there are one or two which appear to be of Ministry origin, but of which I have no further knowledge. At Flotta, where once there was a huge camp and where the Services cinema is still used for dances, wedding receptions, etc., the two piers were connected by a 2ft system. Some of the track is still laid in the concrete.
Towards the north end of Hoy, just south of Quoys (a farm near Linkness) and separated from the south by four miles of unpopulated country, is the remains of a system some 900 yards in length that ran from a quarry (now a reservoir) alongside a road to a crossroads. One surmises that it is from systems like these that the various privately owned launching trolleys on rails (found all over the islands) originated.
One more rail system remains to be mentioned. That is the monorail of Alexander Sutherland (Contractors) on Lambholm, not far from the Italian Chapel, which lifts shingle from the beach to the hopper on the clifftop. It is quite standard with a Ford engine, mounted at the highest point, which hauls a car up. There are two cars extant, one lashed to the rail and the other lying beside it. It has one unusual feature in that tidal action is used to ensure a ready supply of shingle to the lower hopper.
It will be apparent that the history of the Orcadian railways and locomotives is far from complete; I should like to express my thanks for information to several people in Orkney including the County Surveyor and, in particular, Norman Sinclair of Burray whose house abutted one of the Balfour Beatty lines, and also to Dr I.D.O. Frew, E.S. Lomay, K.P. Plant, C.H.A. Townley and W.K. Williams.