Once again methodically checking over the non-fiction section of Tain library; believe it or not, in my time I have got through quite a large number of the books there, my eyes alighted on a title that I hadn't noticed before. A Brush With Steam by David Shepherd the well-known elephant and lions artist. (Remember him? Prints of his oil paintings were hugely popular during the seventies.) Should I give the book a spin or not? Hmm, I pondered, and then took it up to the desk to be stamped. I am really glad that I made that decision. Early in the morning, late at night, even after tea, before I head out for some meeting or another, I have been totally, but totally, absorbed. Not since The Jewel and the Crown burst into my life has a book so gripped me. And it's all to do with something that I had nearly forgotten about myself, I was and still remain a unreconstructed lover of steam engines.
All about how Shepherd bought a huge Standard Class 9F from British Rail in the late sixties, and how he restored it, and all the different adventures he had with it. Yes of course, that's what I would do with all the lottery money, buy myself a ruddy great steam engine and spend the rest of my days driving it up and down my private length of track. A Highland estate? A penthouse in New York? No no, give me an old BR black engine any day.
I have said before in this column how I find it hard to pass the window of any shop selling model trains, all to do with being brought up in a farmhouse that had a railway line at the bottom of the field in front of it. What I had forgotten, until this wonderful book came along, was the memory of what it was actually like in the cabs of these old engines. Going up to Beauly, or is it 'down' from Tain, with my grandfather to visit Campbell's excellent emporium where he was having a new suit made, my earliest memory is of him taking me up to talk to the engine driver and fireman before the train pulled out of Tain. What a heat, kind hands had pulled me up onto the foot-plate, that bright yellow and orange fire, I marvelled that people could work in such conditions. 'Puff puff', or perhaps I should say 'roar roar', such was the explosion of smoke and steam as the engine took the strain and slowly cajoled the heavy-laden carriages out of the station. I remember leaning out of the front carriage window and watching enthralled as the train slowly speeded up and slipped past the old signal box and engine shed (sadly all gone now).
And the engine coming back from Beauly was different, quite different. Smaller with a taller chimney (or do I mean funnel?) and not quite such a hot cab. Yes, we talked to the driver of that one too. I suspect that secretly grandfather was also a bit of a train-lover.
Certainly as I sat on the end of his bed while he drank his early morning tea, had to be Ceylon and blisteringly hot, we talked trains. Imaginary trains in point of fact. His was called the "Ho Har Hi!" while mine was called the "Fee Fo Fum" and we used to tell each other stories in which, invariably, the other's engine would 'fall in the water'. Oh, we had great crack, the old man (in his mid-nineties) and I. As soon as I heard him rattling his cup first thing, I would hop out of bed and nip through.
Sadly there was only one other time I actually got onto the footplate of a steam engine. This was a few years later in Waverley Station in Edinburgh; it must have been during the very last days of steam. My mother and I were going somewhere, can't remember where, and while we were waiting for our train I suddenly noticed a large 2-6-4 passenger tank engine far up the platform reversing towards us. Please, please, could we go and see it! (A tank engine was a real treat because you never saw one on the north line out of Inverness.) I ran ahead up the platform and gazed in ecstasy. Back she came slowly, the driver's cheerful face looking backwards towards me. "Aye, you like engines do you?" Next thing I knew, I was up beside him and this time we were actually moving. To my mother's feigned disapproval, off we went for a wee trip. Down the platform and under the footbridge to the first set of points, and then we stopped and reversed again to where we had started. Perhaps only three or four minutes, but it remains the most vivid and thrilling memory. Such power, and the way the engine glided forward under its canopy of dark smoke. I expect that all he was doing was a bit of shunting, but as far as I was concerned it was the Flying Scotsman itself.
Goodness me such a long time ago, thirty years or more. And this book has brought it all back to me. Only three times in the cab, it's time I went back to my childhood and did it again. To this end I know what I'll be saying to James Shuttleworth, the man who runs the Fort William to Mallaig steam trains, the next time he comes to one of our Highland Council railways meetings. After all he provided the train for the steam run to mark the Kyle Line centenary. Perhaps next year he'd like to turn right at Dingwall and come on up our way. It would gladden my heart to see smoke at the bottom of the gasworks field, now Tain's industrial estate.
Who knows, enough silver tongued Glenmorangie boosted persuasion and I might persuade him to let me drive it for a minute or two. The length of Tain platform would be enough. If it were ever to happen I know one old man who will be smiling down on me.