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The Friends of the Far North Line
Cairdean Na Loine Tuath
the campaign group for rail north of Inverness - lobbying for improved services for the local user, tourist and freight operator

Car park provides clue to city's railway heritage

Railway historian Thomas Coombs recalls a chapter in the history of Highland transport that lies a few inches below the feet of busy shoppers in the centre of Inverness.

The thousands of shoppers who regularly use the Safeway carpark in Millburn Road may be completely unaware that they are driving over a piece of the Highland Capital's transport history.

The area, which was redeveloped in the late 1990s, was once the Highland Railway Locomotive Depot and goods yard. When the excavators moved in to clear the site in preparation for building work, workers rediscovered relics of the original Highland Railway Roundhouse and the flamboyantly-arched Water Tower - clues to the area's use as a locomotive servicing and storage facilities.

The first railway development in the Inverness area was the 15½ mile long Inverness to Nairn Railway which opened on 5th November, 1855. To service and maintain the four locomotives purchased to operate traffic on the line, an engine shed was built on the north side of the line as it approached Inverness Station. Little is known of the details of this building except that it was rectangular and located alongside the newly-constructed Loch Gorm Carriage and Locomotive Works in what eventually became known as the Rose Street Triangle.

Expansion of the I&N Railway further eastwards to Forres in 1856, then to Elgin and finally to Keith in 1858 and its merger with these new lines to form the Inverness & Aberdeen Junction Railway (I&AJ Rly) coupled with the clearance to construct the Inverness and Ross-shire Railway northwards to Invergordon in 1860 and the authorisation of the Inverness and Perth Junction Railway to link the Inverness and Aberdeen Junction Railway at Forres to the Perth and Dunkeld Railway at Birnam in 1861, quickly revealed the need for a larger engine shed.

On 4th October, 1862, Joseph Mitchell, Civil Engineer of the Highland Railway, was instructed to design a new running-shed and workshops capable of containing 20 locomotives on land available on the south side of the line into Inverness; bordering Eastgate and Millburn Road. Tenders for the construction of the shed, workshops and turntable were considered and approved on 17th February, 1863. They were: John Hendrie, Inverness, for Mason, Carpentry, Plumbing and Glazier work £4952; Butler & Co., Leeds, for Iron Roof, £1144.14.5d; Omerod & Co. Manchester, for Turntable £320.

What emerged was a roundhouse with an arc of 21 lines radiating from the centre of a 45-foot turntable. Diametrically opposite was an ornate Water Tower in the shape of a triumphal pillared arch. It has been suggested, but without any firm evidence to support it, that it was intended to complete the circle with the arched water tower forming the entrance to the Roundhouse - balancing the workshop building attached to the rear of the Roundhouse. The complex became operational by March 1864.

This remarkable building was one of the five open-type roundhouses to be found on British railways. Two depots were built in the Southern Region at Horsham and Guildford, the one at Horsham being similar to Inverness in that its layout was in the form of a near complete circle, while the facility at Guildford was semi-circular.

The sheds at St. Blazey in Cornwall in the Western Region, and that at Kittybrewster near Aberdeen, the depot for the Great North of Scotland Railway, were also semi-circular.

Continued expansion of the network further north to Bonar Bridge and west to Strome Ferry together with consolidation of the three operational units resulted in their amalgamation into a single entity in June 1865 which was named The Highland Railway.

The Highland Railway eventually took over the Far North line to Wick and Thurso and the extension westwards to Kyle. This, no doubt, increased the pressure on the facilities for servicing the expanded locomotive stock.

The number of roads in the round house was increased to 31 by adding five to either side of the circle, almost completing the full circle to the water tower. This is thought to have occurred around 1875 but the Highland Railway records do not yield any precise details or who carried out the work. (John Hendrie again?).

The Roundhouse and water tower survived in this configuration under the subsequent HR, LMS and BR jurisdictions until their demolition in 1963. The turntable however, was enlarged to 55ft 2in in 1901 and was replaced by a Cowans, Sheldon one of 65ft. 2in in 1914.

It must have been an inspiring sight when occupied with a full complement of steaming locomotives, but a thorn in the flesh on wash days to the housewives living above the site in the Crown Circus area of Inverness! The shed housed essentially all of the different types of HR locomotives up to and beyond the Railway Grouping of 1923 and, thanks to the enlarged turntable, could even service the LMS Stanier Black Fives which became the dominant class in the Inverness area from 1935 to 1942.

There are tales related by retired HR and LMS drivers of many instances of locomotives in steam and left unattended ending up in the bottom of the turntable well!

Even when diesel began to replace steam, the Roundhouse continued to be used and it was not until 1962 that the last steam locomotives stored in the Roundhouse were sent to Perth and diesel maintenance transferred to The Lochgorm Works. The Roundhouse was then left to its fate.

Beyond the Water Tower, the Highland Railway constructed a simple loading bank for coaling the locomotives, but this was quickly superseded by a curious wooden shed where the coal was loaded into small wheeled trolleys that ran on rails on a raised platform at a height above the locomotives. The trolleys were then tipped out through openings in the shed side into the tender of the locomotives drawn up on a line alongside. This plant required an operational crew of 17 men. This arrangement for recoaling the locomotives lasted until 1935 when the LMS replaced the shed with one of their standard concrete mechanical coaling plants.

The Inverness Auction Mart had been established in a small area of the goods yard to the south west of the Roundhouse site in 1904. After demolition of the Roundhouse in 1963, the auction mart expanded and the site was occupied with extensive livestock pens at around 1970. These remained until 1997 when the auction mart closed and moved to Dingwall. The Roundhouse site was then converted to a rough car-parking site.

Part 2 of this history is in the January 2004 newsletter.