Railways in the South Loch Ness area
Heritage & History – Railways of South Loch Ness
Although the south (or, more accurately, south east) side of Loch Ness is regarded as the “quieter” side of the loch and neither side of the loch now has any operating railways, South Loch Ness once not only had three short railway lines, one at each of its loch-side villages, but was also proposed as part of the route of a major Highland trunk railway, and was also surveyed for a Light Railway at the end of the 19th century.
The Glasgow and North Western Railway was to follow the east side of Loch Lomond and then use much the same route as today’s West Highland line as far as the Moor of Rannoch, but then it would dive down Glen Coe and reach Fort William by the shore of Loch Linnhe. It would then use the Great Glen to reach Inverness, with the South Loch Ness shoreline being largely negotiated by a causeway built out into the loch – not a feature which would have enhanced the outlook from Foyers, Inverfarigaig or Dores! However, interchange with canal steamers at the loch-side piers would certainly have been easy. A 19-mile stretch of dead level railway was proposed for much of Loch Ness-side. From Dores, the line would have followed Strath Dores to Scaniport and Inverness, where a station was planned in South Inverness, before the line curved round eastwards and northwards to join the Highland Railway from Forres and Perth, giving the Glasgow and North Western access to the Highland Railway’s Inverness Station.
The G&NWR’s bill was presented in Parliament in November 1882, and wranglings in committee continued until May 1883. The Highland Railway was determined to protect its monopoly of Inverness, the Caledonian Railway was worried about losing traffic from its Callander and Oban line, and steamer operators on Loch Lomond, the Caledonian Canal Commissioners and David MacBrayne all opposed the railway.
Extracts from the committee’s deliberations are fascinating. The lawyer appearing for the Caledonian Canal Commissioners pointed out that the railway would serve only communities on the south side of Loch Ness, and that if the railway drove the loch steamers out of business, settlements on the north side would be left bereft of any transport. The spokesman for the railway explained that ferries were to be provided to link places like Invermoriston, Drumnadrochit and Abriachan to the railway on the opposite shore. However, the canal’s lawyer was of the opinion that the storminess of Loch Ness would prevent this plan – “the steamers go up and down the loch easily, but going across they would meet a very stormy sea”.
The plan of those opposing the railway was to poke fun at the West Highlands and to ridicule the naivety of the line’s supporters. A particularly smug London lawyer appearing for the opposition was asked if he’d ever been in the area – “Oh, yes, I have shot all over it”, was his airy reply. Talking of Dores, he asked, “Is that simply a public house?” He was told it was a small village. Despite spirited support of the line from those who saw that access to good transport was, more than anything, what the depopulated, poverty-stricken Highlands needed, the railway’s bill was lost on the grounds that there was insufficient traffic to justify it.
Ultimately, the G&NWR was reborn in 1894 as the West Highland Railway, truncated to Fort William to avoid the wrath of the Highland Railway and the Caledonian Canal Commissioners, but, by 1895, with a branch to the top of Neptune’s Staircase at Banavie to connect with the canal steamers. In 1901 the extension to Mallaig was opened. But the straight, almost level Great Glen, linking the east and west Highlands, still attracted railway entrepreneurs. An 1893 proposal by the North British Railway (who ran the West Highland Railway) to build a line from Fort William to Inverness had been immediately countered by a proposal by the Highland Railway for a railway from Inverness to Fort William! Eventually in 1895 the two companies met, and agreed to promote no further railways over this territory within the next ten years.
It was therefore left to a purely local enterprise, the Invergarry and Fort Augustus Railway, to push a line from Spean Bridge on the West Highland to Fort Augustus at the south end of Loch Ness. It was opposed, but unsuccessfully, by the Highland Railway, and eventually opened in 1903, largely funded by Lord Burton. It was an expensive line, built to main-line standards, so convinced were its promoters that it would ultimately become part of a Great Glen trunk route. There was a station in the centre of Fort Augustus, but the line extended to a pier on Loch Ness to allow connection with steamers.
Meanwhile, in 1897, a light railway had been proposed from Inverness via Dunain to Lochend, where a pier would allow connection with the loch steamers. Although this line was not actually a Highland Railway proposal (they having agreed not to promote any railways in the Great Glen), the Invergarry and Fort Augustus Railway smelt a rat, and opposed the Lochend line, believing it to be a “block line” which would prevent their ever extending their line to Inverness. The opposition was successful, and the Lochend line did not proceed.
A much more fascinating scheme has just (March 2020) been discovered in the archives of the Inverness Courier by Alister Chisholm of the Heritage Group. The Light Railways Act was passed in 1896, and quite a few light railways, like the Lochend one, were soon proposed for the Highlands, though only two, to Dornoch and Lybster, were built. A short article in the Inverness Courier of 9th August 1898, announced a proposal for a light railway connecting to the Highland Railway’s new Inverness-Aviemore main line (opened November 1898) at Culloden Moor station. It would proceed via Daviot and Farr up Strathnairn, through Errogie and Gorthleck in Stratherrick as far as Whitebridge, also serving Foyers and its new aluminium smelter – the gradients approaching Foyers would have been daunting. The scheme had widespread support from local proprietors, some of whom were on its committee and the survey for the line was carried out by Mr Gordon C.E. The article went on to mention a likely future extension from Whitebridge to Fort Augustus – involving more fearsome gradients. However, for the Highland Railway to be involved in a scheme which would complete rail connection between Inverness and Fort William (they would certainly have been asked to operate the line) would have been counter to their agreement of 1895 not to promote any Great Glen railways within ten years. The Invergarry and Fort Augustus company would almost certainly have opposed the Stratherrick line too, having objected to the Lochend one. It is therefore likely that railway politics, as well as challenging terrain and unpromising economics were the reasons that nothing more was heard of this most scenic railway proposal.
The Invergarry and Fort Augustus Railway had a sad history. The company could not afford to run its own trains, so the Highland, North British, and London and North Eastern companies all had spells of operating the line – all at a loss! The section of line from Fort Augustus Town station to the pier on Loch Ness, incorporating a swing bridge on the canal, a major viaduct over the River Lochy (whose castellated piers can still be seen), a bridge over the main road, a terminal station and pier, was closed in 1906 after only three years’ use. Between 1911 and 1913 there was no service at all on the line, as the North British was not prepared to lose any more money, and were prepared to restore a service only when the line was sold outright to them. Their successors, the LNER, closed the passenger service in 1933, and a once-weekly coal train then ran until the line’s complete closure in 1946. Thus ended the dream of a Great Glen trunk railway.
Fortunately part of the old line on the SE shore of Loch Oich is now a cycling and walking route, including a short tunnel, and a dedicated band of volunteers are busy renovating Invergarry station, which is well worth a visit. www.invergarrystation.org.uk
So what railways did actually run on the south side of Loch Ness? The most significant one was at the British Aluminium works at Foyers, opened in 1896. This was Britain’s first aluminium smelter, its location having been chosen to use the hydro-electric potential of the Foyers River at the Falls, together with the benefits of cheap water transport via the Caledonian Canal and Loch Ness. Here, almost a kilometre of 3 foot gauge railway connected the smelter to the pier. The purpose was to carry alumina delivered by ship from the pier to the factory, and to transport finished aluminium ingots in the opposite direction. Horses provided the motive power for the first couple of years, but then operation was by an 1899 steam ‘pug’, the FAIR MAID OF FOYERS, an 0-4-0 tank engine built by Andrew Barclay of Kilmarnock. The Foyers works and its associated railway were closed in 1967, with the same steam pug still in operation. This locomotive was fitted with a new boiler shortly before being withdrawn from service and is still in existence in sound condition at the Scottish Railway Preservation Society’s site at Bo’ness, having been donated by British Aluminium. All the cab fittings etc. are in store. There are now plans to return her to steam as some interest has recently been shown from the Irish Fintown Railway line. The engine was completely dismantled and restoration is now underway.
Any further details of the railway and its operation would be much appreciated.
At Inverfarigaig there was a bobbin mill somewhere close to Island Cottage, about 100 yards from the river mouth, established in 1869 or possibly earlier. The bobbins were made from local birch and were for the textile trade; Clark & Co. of the Paisley thread mills, and later a succession of other operators, worked the mill until about 1891, when records show it as vacant.
After that, a sawmill was built on the site of the bobbin mill by the British Aluminium Company who bought the Foyers Estate in 1895 to develop the Foyers smelter. The tree trunks were sent down from a lay-by on the road above on a chute. Once sawn, the cords of timber were sent by rail – narrow gauge – possibly horse drawn – to the pier, about 400 yards away, for loading on to boats to go down to Inverness and maybe beyond. The original Telford pier, built around 1810, was extended at about this time, using railway lines as piles. The terraced trackbed of the railway is still visible in some places. The sawmill was water powered using water from the river being diverted through the mill to a man-made channel, still visible in places, discharging into the loch. The B.A. sawmill burned down in 1926, and the company decided to move their sawmill operation to a site beside the smelter at Foyers. At Inverfarigaig, some cables and railway track still exist in the woods, left over from this period, slowly being buried in time. Any further details of this railway would be welcome.
Dores also had its railway, this time in association with a sawmill which stood on the site now occupied by a house named The Old Mill, on the loch shore quite close to the Inn. The line came down steeply from the wooded slopes above the village, to deliver timber to the sawmill, and loaded wagons were probably lowered by cable, which could have been powered by steam to take empty wagons back uphill. The railway continued through the mill on to a pier on the loch, some of whose wooden piles are still visible. It may be that wagons on the pier section were simply manhandled, or moved by horse. The sawmill and its railway had ceased to operate by the Second World War. Gauge would appear to have been about 3 feet. Once again, most of these details need confirming, and further information would be gladly received.
These three railways were all built to connect with water transport on Loch Ness, and help to emphasise the importance of the loch and its connecting canal for all heavy transport in the South Loch Ness area until the modern road network was developed.
Other short railways existed for timber movement, though not linking with water transport. There was a railway track for moving timber from the Loch Bran area behind Foyers down to a sawmill at Loch Bran. The propulsion method is unknown. In the early 1940s there were also rail tracks in nearby Mussady wood to a slipway that came out at a corner below Trinloist, from which point transport was by lorry down to a British Aluminium Company sawmill at Foyers. At Mussady loaded bogies were propelled down a slight incline by gravity then manually pushed back when empty.
– The West Highland Railway, by John Thomas, published by David & Charles/MacDonald.
– The Highland Railway, by H A Vallance, published by Davis & Charles/MacDonald.
– The West Highland Railway – Plans, Politics and People by John McGregor, published by John Donald, Birlinn Ltd
– to fellow committee members of the South Loch Ness Heritage Group: Alister Chisholm & Frank Ellam.
– to Rosemary Holt, Island Cottage, Inverfarigaig.
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