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"The Mull & West Highland Narrow Gauge Railway" by Graham Ellis
Scottish Region Meeting of 6 November 2007

The Mull and West Highland Railway is one of Scotland's more unusual railways in that it is the only steam narrow gauge railway on a Scottish Island. Graham Ellis who addressed the meeting has been closely involved with the railway since it's inception. It all began in 1975 when the owners of Torosay Castle on the Island of Mull decided to open it to the public. This however presented a problem in that most visitors to Mull arrive on the ferry and are usually travelling on foot. The road leading to the castle is unsuitable for buses, so the only way to reach the castle was to walk.

The Lady of the Isles makes it's way along the Mull & West Highland Narrow Gauge Railway.d

The Lady of the Isles makes it's way along the Mull & West Highland Narrow Gauge Railway.

© The Mull & West Highland Narrow Gauge Railway

So the idea of building a narrow gauge railway came about, being suggested by Graham Ellis and the owners of the castle could see the attractions as it would enable visitors to get to the castle easily and the railway would also be a visitor attraction in it's own right. Having decided the idea was sound, a plan had to be drawn up and the proposed alignment had to be decided. It was soon found that an old track that had been build in the 1850's and still existed could be used, but the only problem was that in places it was overgrown with rhododendron buses and surrounded by dense forest. If this was not enough, another part of the proposed line would be crossing over a bog. Judging from the photographs shown by Graham Ellis, much hard work would have to be undertaken to overcome these obstacles.

However, an application for planning consent was made and this at once drew objections from neighbouring landowners. It seems that building a railway in the late 20th century was no more easy than in the previous century. The result of the objections was that a period of long drawn out negotiations ensued during which no construction work could be undertaken. This did not mean to say that nothing could be done as funding was raised, achieved with the assistance of the then Highlands and Islands Development Board.

Nothing much happened for the next three years until one day Graham Ellis visited the main objector and finally won him over. The result was that 3 months later, the last objection was overcome and work could start on building the railway. Construction equipment was acquired. This consisted of an old dumper truck and a mini digger. During the three year delay, the overgrown track was cleared, but the bushes were by now trying to take over again. However, construction work got underway in April 1982 with preparation work on the old drive and reinstating the drainage.

At the same time 23 tons of rail was ordered along with 3,000 sleepers and 12,000 spikes. Also purchased were the fishplates,nuts and bolts and many other necessary bits and pieces. Being on a Scottish Island presented some logistical problems in that everything had to be delivered by ferry and the transport costs were quite high. One problems that was encountered was that there was no ballast. Mull does not have a quarry, despite consisting of some of the oldest rock in Scotland. The cost of bringing ballast from the mainland was to high but it was fortunate that there was a road building programme nearing completion on the island. The contractor had brought a rock crusher to the island and it was relatively easy to get the contractor to agree to provide ballast.

The Lady of the Isles makes it's way along the Mull & West Highland Narrow Gauge Railway.d

The Lady of the Isles and Victoria at the depot of the Mull & West Highland Narrow Gauge Railway.

© The Mull & West Highland Narrow Gauge Railway

This resulted in 1500 tons of ballast being produced, the only problem being that the screen size was too small. The other option was to have ballast that was too big. If that was not enough a place to store the 1500 tons of ballast had to be found and eventually it was dumped at the site that is today's campsite. Track was assembled into sections 15 feet long. These were then taken to where the track laying was taking place and laid in their final positions.

As the line progressed an outcrop of rock caused the alignment to be diverted and the level of this area had to be lowered by about 6 feet, so explosives were used. This is the area known as Beattock on the line. An embankment also had to be constructed so that the gradients were not to steep. Much of this work was one by hand as no power tools were available.

By mid 1982, the line had progressed through the woodland area and the next problem was crossing the bog. Scottish bogs are notorious for being bottomless. Whilst work was underway, the tracked digger being used broke a track and began to sink slowly into the ooze. It took a few days to recover it and it was decided to seek an alternative route across the bog. This route still required a lot of work but was successfully negotiated. The station at Craignure was also under construction at this time and on May 22nd 1983 the first steam locomotive to operate on Mull, the Lady of the Isles, slowly traversed the line to check the clearances. This locomotive was specially built for the railway and on this journey Graham Ellis was one of the drivers.

Rolling stock was also acquired and three open vehicles bought from a railway in Loughborough were converted to closed coaches fitted with new bogies and vacuum brakes. However, when the coaches arrived it was found that the gauge that their bogies had been build to was wrong, necessitating alterations. Despite these difficulties the railway was officially opened on 22nd June 1984 by Chris Green, the Chief Executive of Virgin rail who was then General Manager of Scotrail.

Since 1984, the Mull & West Highland Narrow Gauge Railway has operated successfully and carries around 25,000 - 40,000 passengers a year. There have been improvements to the line, for example, most of the trees in wooded area have been cut down and possible extentions to the line are being considered. Full details of the line can be found at the railway's website www.mullrail.co.uk

The Scottish Region would like to thank Graham Ellis for his presentation and the City of Edinburgh Council for their hospitality.

Report by John Fender.

 

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