Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Stromeferry - Part 2

Picking up the story from Stromeferry - Part 1 , in the early 1860s, railways were snaking their way across the north of Scotland.

In 1858, Inverness was connected by rail to Edinburgh and Glasgow (linked to London since 1849) albeit by a circuitous route via Aberdeen. In 1863, a more direct route via the Drumochter Pass was opened by which time railways also now extended north from Inverness up the east coast as far as Invergordon. But so far there was no railway to the west coast of Scotland north of the Firth of Clyde.

That began to change in 1865 when an Act of Parliament was passed incorporating the Dingwall and Skye Railway Company with power to build a line from the existing railway up the east coast at Dingwall to what is now the village of Kyle of Lochalsh. The promoters of the new railway were mainly influential landowners along the route and in Skye and the Outer Hebrides. In a speech to a meeting in 1864 appealing for subscriptions, the chairman, MacLeod of Dunvegan on Skye, made a telling point about travel in the north west Highlands:-

"You are all aware of the very little communication which exists betwixt the west coast and the town of Inverness. This town is undoubtedly the county town, but, at present, I call Glasgow my county town because I go there for everything I want by means of the steamers"

In other words, it was as easy to get from Dunvegan to Glasgow by MacBrayne's steamer (a distance of 150 miles as the crow flies which took the steam ship more a little over 24 hours) as it was to get to Inverness half the distance away overland.

One of the most graphic accounts of journeying from Inverness to Skye in the early 1860s before the railway is given by Alexander Smith in his book A Summer in Skye. He first had to catch a coach at 4.00am for the two hour drive to Dingwall. His record of this experience is worth repeating in full.

"There is nothing so delightful as travelling on a stage coach, when you start in good condition, and at a reasonable hour. ... On the other hand, there is nothing more horrible than starting at four A.M., half-awake, breakfastless, the chill of the morning playing on your face as the dewy machine spins along. Your eyes close in spite of every effort, your blood thick with sleep, your brain stuffed with dreams; you wake and sleep, and wake again; and the Vale of Tempe itself, with a Grecian sunrise burning into day ahead, could not rouse you into interest, or blunt the keen edge of your misery. I recollect nothing of this portion of our journey save its disagreeableness; and alit at Dingwall, cold, wretched, and stiff, with a cataract of needles and pins pouring down my right leg, and making locomotion anything but a pleasant matter.

Finding that all space on the mail coach from Dingwall to Skye had been booked by a visiting aristocrat for his servants, Smith was forced to hire a dog-cart (open horse drawn carriage) and driver. The horse supplied was not a good one, however, and to add to his misery, it started to pour with rain half an hour from Dingwall. At the first staging post (place to change horses), probably Achnasheen although he doesn't name the place, Smith was appalled to discover that travellers passing earlier had taken the only horse the inn possessed. Forced to stick with the same horse, and still raining, Smith decided walking directly across a stretch of moor and letting the carriage catch up with him round by the road would be preferable.

He reached Lochcarron in the late afternoon where the landlord of the "primeval inn" procured him a small sailing boat and crew. Dark and with the weather now alternating between calm and squalls, the crew gave up hope of reaching Skye and, past midnight and soaked to the skin, they put in at Plockton where he had to wake the inn-keeper. The boatmen promised to take Smith on to Skye the next morning but despite having been paid the full fare and money for accommodation in Plockton, they did not appear the following day. Fortunately, it emerged that the minister of Plockton was an old university friend of Smith's and he lent him his dog-cart to get to the ferry at Kyle, a drive of less than two hours.

The whole journey had taken more than 24 hours. Although MacLeod of Dunvegan doubtless made sure of a place on the mail coach if travelling to Inverness (about 12 hours from Kyle), it's easy to understand why he found it just as convenient to go to Glasgow by steamer (24 hours, overnighting in a cabin on board) and why he was vocal for a railway from Kyle to Inverness which would cover the distance in about 4.5 hours!

To be continued ...

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