Scottish Archive Network Exhibitions

Over one hundred years ago, two of the most picturesque railways in the world, the Kyle of Lochalsh and the Far North Line were built. The dramatic Highland Mainline links these lines to the rest of the UK rail network. This collaborative exhibition celebrates these lines by looking at the people who live, work and travel along them today.

The Kyle line

Opening with a bang
In 1897, after four years of blasting through rock, The Highland Railway Company finally achieved what some thought to be an impossible task by finishing the Kyle line. In extending the line from Stromeferry the Highland Railway Company and its contractors had completed work started over thirty years earlier in 1860 by The Dingwall and Skye Railway Company. When it opened the line was the most expensive railway to be built in Britain.

The iron road to the isles
The journey along the Kyle line takes the traveller through breath-taking scenery from the rugged beauty of Achnashellach, the clear still water of Loch Luichart onwards through the picture-postcard village of Plockton and finally reaching its destination at the Kyle of Lochalsh. The station site at Kyle was blasted out from solid rock, and is located on the water's edge with a dramatic backdrop of the Isle of Skye. This makes it one of the most stunning locations for a station in Britain.


The Far North Line

As far north as it goes

The Far North Line takes the traveller from Inverness to Thurso – the most northerly town in Britain. It is a meandering exploration that links beaches, firths, sea and freshwater lochs and remote moorland rivers. It passes small harbours, hills and wild moorland. The apparently empty landscape supports a large population, which is scattered throughout the remote towns and villages. The line crosses the dramatic 'flow country' that supports a diversity of flora and fauna and hugs the banks of the Helmsdale River, which is rich in fish and gold. The area around Kildonan was the scene of an unlikely gold rush in 1868 and people still pan the river for the precious metal today.

Stately progress
Two stately homes are in view of the line. Carbisdale Castle, was built in 1914 for the duchess of Sutherland, but now fulfils a very different role as a Youth Hostel. Dunrobin Castle, the home of the dukes of Sutherland once boasted its own station opposite the castle gates. A statue of the 2nd duke who built the line from Golspie to Helmsdale in the late 1860s, stands by the station. The line boasts three unique features on the UK rail network. It has the most remote station (Altnabreac), the most northerly railway junction in the UK (Georgemas Junction), and the shortest distance between two stations on a main line (Culrain and Invershin Halt).


The Highland Mainline

A Feat of Engineering
The route from Perth to Inverness is one of the most exciting mainline journeys in Britain, carving its dramatic way into the Highlands past gentle hills, along wandering rivers, up steep gradients, through mountain passes, and over wild moorland, high summits and immense viaducts. The railway is a living memorial to the engineering skills of Joseph Mitchell who planned much of its route and designed many of its bridges and viaducts.

The Road North
The journey begins in Perth, with its former royal waiting room, where Queen Victoria would take her breakfast on her journey to Balmoral. The line climbs high above the River Tay, where Beatrix Potter wove her children’s tales and through the Pass of Birnam, whose woods were immortalised by William Shakespeare, in the memorable finale to the play Macbeth. Further on, a stone viaduct above the River Garry carries the line through the gorge of Killiecrankie, the site of a famous Jacobite battle. Following the route of the old military road, it ascends to the Druimuachdar pass, at 452 metres the highest on the UK rail network, and past the distillery at Dalwhinnie, the highest in Scotland. Then, bisecting the Cairngorm and Monadliath mountain ranges, the line leaves Speyside, crossing the River Findhorn at Tomatin by a towering viaduct. The River Nairn is crossed by another viaduct, 28 arches wide, at Culloden, near the scene of another famous Jacobite battle. The Moray Firth is sighted and Inverness is reached. Its Italianate style Station Hotel was built before the arrival of the railway: a fine example of speculative forward planning, providing highland hospitality for the tourists on which the line’s fortunes depended.


Lines apart

Agents for change
The introduction of railways to the Highlands accelerated changes to the landscape and society of Inverness-shire, Ross & Cromarty, Caithness and Sutherland in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Railways aided forcible and voluntary depopulation, provided links to sheep and fish markets, and brought tourists and sportsmen into the glens, encouraging the development of hotels, shooting estates, golf courses and angling. For the inhabitants of Highland commuities and the isle of Skye they provided a vital and speedy means of communication, connecting them to the rest of Britain through the postal service and newspapers. In the two world wars they carried provisions, arms and troops to bases along the coast and Kyle became the top-secret base for the British fleet of mine carriers.


Saving the lines
The Kyle line was saved from closure in the 1970s when local communities rallied round their railway line, and both the Kyle and Far North lines saw increased traffic during the oil boom. Today both lines continue to provide a lifeline for local communities and attract tourists to the area through the Highland railways' reputations for comfortable travel through areas of outstanding natural beauty.

This exhibition is the result of collaboration between the Scottish Archive Network (SCAN) and the National Railway Museum (NRM). Contributions to the exhibition have come from the following archives, museums, libraries and private sources:

Highland Council Archives
National Archives of Scotland
National Library of Scotland
National Railway Museum
Scottish Archive Network (SCAN)

We would like to acknowledge the support of the following sponsors, who funded the photographic survey of the Highland Mainline, the Kyle and the Far North lines by the National Railway Museum photographers between 1997 and 2003:

Railtrack, Railtrack-Scotland, ScotRail, EWS, Porterbrook, First Engineering, The Highland Rail Network Development Partnership, The Highland Council, Ross & Cromarty Enterprise, Caithness & Sutherland Enterprise, Safeways, Friends of the National Railway Museum, Perth & Kinross Council, and the Highland Railway Society