Following on from FoFNL's meeting on Friday 17 June was the event at Timespan in Helmsdale organised by Mike Willmot to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the opening of the Duke of Sutherland's Railway.
This was a most enjoyable occasion and gave the author a chance to establish or renew several acquaintances. The talks on the Saturday were most entertaining - I'd never imagined how interesting concrete construction could be!
Mike issued this press release describing the event:
Some 50 people converged on Timespan in Helmsdale last Friday and Saturday to mark the anniversary of one of the most extraordinary chapters in the history of railway construction.
When the Sutherland Railway Company ran out of money as the line from the south reached Golspie, the third Duke of Sutherland agreed to finance from his personal resources the line through the northern part of his estate. Employment was offered to estate inhabitants to construct the 17 miles of track through to Helmsdale. When it was officially opened on September 17th 1870 by Princess Christian, the Duke himself was on the footplate driving his personal locomotive, Dunrobin. At this stage the line was not connected to the rest of the network and the engine and carriage had to be hauled by traction engine across a mile of muddy track - the gap which remained at Golspie.
The line was fully opened when the connection at Golspie was established on 16th May 1871. The 150th anniversary (a year late because of Covid) was marked by a performance of local folk and railway-related songs in Timespan on Friday evening, with talks about various aspects of the construction and associated developments along the line on the Saturday morning. Speakers included the railway author and Highland Railway expert, Keith Fenwick; Brora historian, Dr Nick Lindsay; and nineteenth century concrete buildings authority, David Scott-Cowan. The session was chaired by ScotRail Honorary Rail Ambassador, John Yellowlees.
On Saturday afternoon some 25 people made a trip along the line to Dunrobin Castle where there was an opportunity to see photographs and memorabilia relating to the construction in the Castle. An eight page line guide to the Duke's Railway was published to mark the anniversary event. Electronic and printed copies are available from email@example.com
On return to Helmsdale an afternoon tea was provided in the station building at Helmsdale. Those attending included several retired railway employees who were able to recall a time when every station was staffed. Included in this number was Donald Stuart, the last stationmaster at Kildonan and Anne Sinclair who worked in the station office at Helmsdale administering the payroll for almost 100 railway workers.
The anniversary event not only recalled the line's construction and past operation but looked to the future. David Watson, Trust Manager, Kyle of Sutherland Development Trust and Chair of the Far North Line Community Rail Partnership (its application for CRP status is currently being considered by Transport Scotland) spoke of the importance of involving local volunteers and local communities in promoting the line jointly with all the attractions and amenities it led to, in order to boost tourism, secure the viability of the route and contribute to the local economy. Ian Budd, Convener of the Friends of the Far North Line spoke of the work of the Friends in campaigning on behalf of the line to ensure this attractive route serving many remote communities, an environmentally friendly form of transport, survives and is improved for the years to come.