scotland (4K)
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

Book Review

Lost Stations on the Far North Line - Keith Fenwick, Neil T Sinclair and Richard J Ardern, 60pp, 270x210mm, 7 colour photos, 76 b&w photos, paperback, Highland Railway Society, 2010, ISBN 978 0 9545485 4 4, £9.95

There is only one thing wrong with this book: its title. The title is accurate enough so far as it goes, but fails to reveal the riches conveyed in the text and illustrations. To tell the truth, I bought it more out of duty than great desire to own it, but it's a gem, and I've quoted it extensively (with due acknowledgement) in the railway book I'm currently writing. Not just that, but it reminded me of much of what I'd seen on a journey to Wick and back from Thurso several years before the stations were lost. The sub-title printed under the cover photograph of a crowded Mound with the final train about to depart explains it better (The Impact of the Railway Closures North of Inverness in 1960) but still hides the fact that here is one of the best examples I know of a book rich in social and economic facts behind the story of a single route (plus the Dornoch branch).

So often I feel that railway authors give the impression that God built lines so that enthusiasts could enjoy the steam engines travelling on them. First and foremost railways were businesses, driven by local needs and conditions, and how they served their communities has too frequently been ignored.

Not by this trio of authors led by Keith Fenwick, for whose work, its detailed accuracy and broad perspective, we all respect. What comes across is a real railway serving people not so much by actually carrying them, as by bringing in their needs and carrying away their raw materials and products.

While an earlier switch to Diesel cars might have saved money on most short routes, this didn't apply to the like of the Far North Line. For while there might be only a score of passengers, mail and parcels business flourished. Business was transacted almost everywhere, though at the remotest locations that might be primarily caring for the needs of staff with no hamlet, school or anything. Such remote places and the crossing loops they served were needed to keep the wheels moving when even an overnight goods train ran from north to south, and specials as for fish might be hurriedly arranged.

There is a delightful account of the variety of parcels carried on a typical train, while the traffics of all stations that were axed is discussed, and photographs show goods trucks almost everywhere.

With 450 employees, the railway was a major business, with loco depots at Tain and Helmsdale as well as at the ends. Little is said about World War I Jelico specials, but by implication one realises why the line was able to carry such demands. It wasn't so much a branch as a trunk line, zig-zagging its way indirectly north, the importance of Lairg as railhead being demonstrated by the motley bunch of vehicles from the north and west that waited for the arrival of the Sunday newspaper train which went no further. Highly recommended, and it makes an excellent present even for Sassenach enthusiasts.

David St John Thomas