The Highland Railway at Pitlochry
This week sees the 150th anniversary of the opening of the railway from Perth to Inverness, on 9 September 1863. My younger son and I happened to be in Pitlochry yesterday and made a little detour to see its beautiful Victorian station, which has been restored for the anniversary.
The mid-nineteenth century was the great age of railway expansion. Coinciding with Queen Victoria’s love affair with the Scottish Highlands and the consequent rise in tourism, it was inevitable that several companies formed to build railways connecting the south to the Highlands. The construction of the line north of Dunkeld was delayed, allegedly, by the Duke of Atholl refusing to give permission for it to cross his land. ‘Thus far and no further’, he is supposed to have declared, moustache bristling (one imagines).
Once permission was cajoled from the various lairds, however, the work proceeded apace. Within two years, the line from Perth to Inverness was completed; an impressive feat of engineering, not least because this section of the railway crosses the Drumochter Pass, at 1484 feet (452m) the highest point of the rail network in Britain. Pitlochry is one of the small towns along the way which benefitted enormously from the tourist traffic brought by the railway. The town today is still largely Victorian, with an assortment of imposing battlemented hotels crowded onto the hillside above the town’s main street.
The station is still housed in the fine stone building of 1863, with a fretted iron bridge over the rails to the little waiting room on the opposite platform. In honour of the anniversary, the buildings have had a fresh coat of paint and are looking very pleasing. Hanging baskets of flowers brighten the walls , while on the platform a little model engine built from an old whisky barrel is pulling a train-load of geraniums.
Exploring further, my son and I discovered an extraordinary Victorian water fountain behind the model train. It has just been restored and repainted: in fact, we effectively got a sneak preview of its restoration, as it was officially unveiled today! It is as vividly painted as ever it must have been in its heyday, with a fierce-eyed heron standing watch over the basin below.
The real treasure of the station, however, is the second-hand charity bookshop housed in the main building. It was begun in 2005 as barely more than windowsill of old books. Since that time, it has expanded into a beautifully presented trove of books on all subjects, raising tens of thousands of pounds for charity. Not normally open on a Sunday, it happened to be open for us on our after-church wander because of the imminent anniversary celebrations.
My wee boy and I each found something irresistible in it: a Harry Potter quiz book for him, and for me a beautiful nature book from the 1920s. I have a weakness for good bookbindings and book illustrations. This book called to me.
It is a bit daft to be buying more old books when you have a house overflowing with them already. But this beautiful tome has resolved a thought I’ve been having for Dancing Beastie. I thought you might be interested to see some of the other beautiful covers of vintage books in the castle. Maybe as an occasional series, along the lines of the Tuesday Tree but perhaps more ‘as and when’. What do you think? I’ll start – soon – with showing you some of the beautiful illustrations inside this ‘new’ Nature book of mine, and we’ll see how we go.
Meanwhile, I gather that the celebrations at Pitlochry station went very well today, and that the heron was much admired. It is definitely worth a visit if you are travelling through the Highlands – and remember to bring a few pounds for the book shop.
You will find more Highland Perthshire history and travelogue in A lonely glen, a loch and and a visit from Rabbie Burns.