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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

Fort Augustus Line

Martin MacDonald

Spean Bridge, Gairlochy, Invergloy, Invergarry, Aberchalder, Fort Augustus - a list of names that almost reads like poetry, isn't it?

But what else links these places together? Well once upon a time the Invergarry and Fort Augustus railway did. It snaked for 24 miles through the southern end of the great Glen, passed lochs Lochy and Oich, and hit Loch Ness at Fort Augustus pier.

"The railway will cause quite a revolution along the banks of the canal between Fort Augustus and Fort William, and the district along the banks of Loch Ness from Glenurquhart south will benefit greatly," an excited local pressman wrote in April 1900. "Swift steamers will run in conjunction with all principal trains. With such facilities the tourist traffic is bound to increase considerably."

His excitement was understandable. After a celebratory lunch at Spean, Lord Burton, chairman of the company, had just taken his directors and some other railway moguls on an informal inaugural trip followed by weekend hospitality at his shooting lodge in Glen Quoich.

The line would be in public service in a matter of weeks, he predicted confidently.

But all the wining and dining was premature. Having spent £344,000 constructing the railway the company had no cash left to buy locomotives and rolling stock! So it was a further three years - July 1903 - before Mrs. Ellice of Glengarry launched the service with a blast on a gold whistle.

But even gold whistles don't guarantee success. The line shunted from one financial crisis to another with frequent breaks in service before the last lonely freight train marked its demise on the last day of December 1946.

The Fort Augustus line was essentially part of an attempt to link Glasgow with Inverness via the Great Glen. As long ago as 1884 the North British Railway Company and its subsidiaries had suggested this, since it would be 47 miles shorter than Highland Railway's existing link via Perth. Not unnaturally, HR took umbrage at this assault on its profits and fought tooth and nail through Parliament to derail its rival's plans.

So the Glasgow line had to end at Fort William, though it was subsequently allowed a westward spur to Mallaig. But then up popped up a local consortium - the Invergarry and Fort Augustus Company - seeking a link from Spean Bridge on the Glasgow line to Inverness.

Again HR fought a costly battle to protect its interests, and parliament dictated the new line should end at Fort Augustus, and that the link to Inverness should be completed by David MacBrayne's Loch Ness steamers. Ironically, when the local company ran out of cash to run a service on the line they had built at such immense cost, it was HR who finally came to the rescue by agreeing to run four trains each way for a sum of £4,000 a year.

Why were the construction costs so high? Well, the steep mountain terrain, with numerous streams and gullies tumbling down to Loch Lochy, meant the line had a high proportion of bridges and viaducts despite its short length.

And then there was the costly 60 yard tunnel near Invergarry, though it was dictated, not by the terrain, but by the local landlord's diktat that his guests' sensibilities should not be assaulted by the sight of a dirty, smoky steam train passing in front of the big house!

But the real curb on financial viability was that the area the line served was so sparsely populated.

By 1907 HR were quite happy to hand over its running to their erstwhile rivals at North British. They ran it until 1911, when the service lapsed completely for two years, to be revived again only when NB bought out the local company for £27,500 - around a twelfth of the original construction costs.

Faced with the new challenge of road transport, the passenger service was withdrawn completely in 1933, leaving only a token once-weekly freight train.

The Second World War - with commandos training at nearby Achnacarry, a naval ammunition dump at Fort Augustus and Canadian lumberjacks felling acres of local timber that had to be hauled out by rail - brought a revival and gave the line its most useful years.

Little remains now but sections of overgrown trackbed, weathered concrete arches and rusting iron bridges.

The above article was written by Martin Macdonald for his "Time Span" article which appeared in the Press and Journal April 22nd, 2000.

We are grateful for the permission to reproduce the article.