History of the Line

In 1896 Government passed the Light Railways Act. The intention of this was to promote the construction of light railways in areas where the construction of a standard gauge or higher maintenance line could not be justified. Before the Act many schemes were seen as unviable due to cost, with light railways the construction and maintenance was significantly cheaper so many lines were put forward. In September 1898 the Light Railway commissioner arrived in Scotland with 35 applications in his files! The construction of these lines was supposed to improve the communications between remote highland communities, and in turn this would lead to ‘improvement’ of the Highlands by making them more connected with the rest of the mainland.

The Isle of Skye is a rugged and beautiful place located off the Western coast of Scotland within the inner Hebrides. It covers an area of 639 square miles, and is the largest and most Northerly of the Inner Hebrides.

At the time of the promotion of the Light Railways Act the Highland Railway was approached by Inverness County Council to see how amenable they would be to constructing a line on the Isle of Skye. This matter fell on the desk of Andrew Steel, General Manager of the HR. Steel knew that the HR had no real desire to extend it’s empire Westward, other than it’s line to Kyle of Lochalsh which he was currently overseeing the construction of, however for him to admit this would not have been in the company’s best interests.

The Council wanted to see a line constructed from Isle Ornsay to Broaford. Steel suggested that if Kyleakin was chosen as the terminus, rather than Isle Ornsay, that he would make recommendations to his board of directors to approve the provision of a ferry to convey wagons across Loch Alsh to the HR station at Kyle of Lochalsh. This would also have required the line being built to standard gauge rather than the narrow gauge the council had anticipated to keep costs down.

The Council later enquired of Steel how much the HR would be willing to commit to the scheme financially. Steel gave an evasive reply stating that he was unsure of the cost, but that a survey would be conducted for a line from Kyleakin to Torrin.

Steel reported back to the Council on 3rd March 1897 stating that the survey had been conducted, but failed to provide any estimates for the cost of the scheme and didn’t take the proposal any further.

After a lengthy debate over whether to proceed the directors of the Highland Railway decided against taking the scheme any further. Andrew Steel was to prove key in this decision stating:

“I cannot recommend a definite attitude towards the scheme”

For a while the residents of Skye and Inverness County Council thought their hopes of having a railway on the island had been dashed. However, in August 1897 a syndicate of wealthy London entrepreneurs visited the area to investigate the possibility of reviving the idea of a line on the island. Tourism was increasing in the Scottish Highlands and Islands, and the links with the mainline rail network were good; the Highland Railway had reached Kyle of Lochalsh, and the North British Railway was making steady progress on their extension of the West Highland line to Mallaig.

The line was required to be operated by an already existing railway company by Act of Parliament, and as the Highland Railway Co. had been approached to construct the line beforehand and declined, the consortium approached the North British Railway to see if they would be interested in a joint venture. Seeing the potential traffic from the fishing grounds, tourist trade, local passengers and produce made them snap the chance up, it was also a good opportunity to gain some mileage into ‘Highland Territory’. The ‘pre-grouping’ companies were very territorial and any way to gain some distance and cut the others off was taken, Skye was one such location.

The NBR duly helped the Syndicate conduct surveys of the line during February 1898. The drawings of these surveys were lodged with the board of trade in May 1898 by the engineers who had been appointed to the project, Sir Douglas Fox and W. Barrington.

Fox had previously worked on some rather impressive feats of engineering including; The Snowdon Mountain Railway, Crystal Palace, and the railway bridge across Victoria Falls. He was well known for the use of steel framed structures, and it was this experience he put into use on the designs for the HLR.

The surveyed route extended from Isle Ornsay through Broadford, Sligachan and Portree, then divided in two, with branches to both Uig and Dunvegan. New piers were to be constructed at Isle Ornsay, Waternish, Kilmuir and Uig to enable steamers to call directly at the railway station, as well as allowing for the offloading of fish.

Although all the documents referred to the gauge of the railway as “beneath 3’6”” this was a somewhat hot topic amongst the directors. Some wanted to build it to 3’ gauge, some 2’. It was fortuitous that just before the route surveys were conducted that E.R. Calthrop had been doing work on the 2’6” gauge and a paper written by him extolling it’s virtues had been published in Engineering Magazine. He claimed that 2’6” was the ideal compromise between loading capacity for both passengers and goods stock, and construction costs. It would also allow reasonably large stock, which in the case of the HLR would be essential to gain the necessary power to negotiate the route. The final decider was that the military were, at the time, pushing the choice of 2’6” gauge as a standard to ensure sufficient reserves of stock were available should they need to call on them during a period of war.

The chosen route reached all the main ports of call for coastal steamers and ferries around Skye in order to tie in with their services and maximise revenue from the tourist trade. This didn’t go down well with the ferry companies as it was seen as a massive blow to their services around Skye. There were fears that the shipping services would have to be withdrawn due to loss of revenue, and therefore areas that were not served by the railway would be completely cut off, albeit for access via tracks across the island.

What the companies failed to appreciate at the time was that it would bring more tourists to the island and therefore they would still be able to operate a good service between the island and the mainland. As an appeasement the NBR agreed to not operate the ferries on the route between Mallaig and Isle Ornsay with it’s own steamers, but to allow MacBrayne’s and McCallum Orme to operate the route.

The Highland Clearances had been taking place on the Isle of Skye for some considerable time before the notion of steam powered rail travel was even dreamt of. The clearances began because landowners promoted larger families which in turn made their crofts unable to provide enough income to support them. This was intended to drive the crofters to the coast to help support the booming kelp farming industry. Unfortunately the kelp industry collapsed when cheaper imports became available from Spain in 1822 – this left the crofters with no work and increasingly squalid conditions to live in. Sheep farming was seen by landowners as the new way to make greater profits from their land, so many of the old crofting families were evicted from their homes forcibly to release fertile and grazeable areas. The Crofter’s Act of 1886 was instigated by the rebellious actions of some crofters on Skye who had been evicted from their land, so some of the Lairds had a long way to go in regaining the trust of the local population. The anticipated ‘improvements’ the railway was supposed to bring were a relic of rebuilding the Highlands after the clearances took place.

Two Clans reside on the Isle of Skye; the Macdonalds at Armdale Castle, and the MacLeods at Dunvegan Castle, both opposing ends of the island separated some 60 miles by road. They both agreed with the construction of the railway but for very different reasons.

The Clan MacLeod of Dunvegan were a widely respected local family. The MacLeods were happy to see the railway constructed as they were keen for the locals to have an alternative form of work to keep them on Skye and make the running of their estate easier. Norman Magnus MacLeod of MacLeod was the clan chief at the time of the HLR proposal being put forward, he was also a member of the Skye Council and was very influential with local landowners to see that the railway gained approval. He was heard to remark at meetings that he a railway between Dunvegan and Portree at the very least would be the “most wished for in Skye”.

Historically the Macdonald family had looked into large redevelopment schemes of towns in Southern Skye, therefore the railway appealed to them as a means to establish such schemes. One such proposal was to redevelop Kyleakin as ‘New Liverpool’ with two and three storey town houses and large industrial plants to service the fishing industry. Fortunately the Railway didn’t generate enough capital and traffic to sustain such schemes as they could have seriously detracted from the area’s beauty. Both Somerled Macdonald and Colnel Macdonald acted on behalf of the HLR Syndicate when meetings on Skye were held to discuss the proposals.

On April 23rd, 1898, the Syndicate gave notice in the Northern Weekly that they intended to construct the lines as surveyed on Skye under the powers of the Light Railways Act. The gauge still listed as “not exceeding 3’6”” as one director remained adamant that the gauge should be larger than 2’6”, however he changed his mind once he had witnessed E.R. Calthrop’s Barsi Railway stock on display at the Newlay Exhibition test track where locos were hauling loads of 180 tons up a gradient of 1 in 57 whilst negotiating reverse curves as tight as 175’ radius!

The proposals were presented to the local council members by Lumley & Lumley, solicitors to the Hebridean Light Railway Consortium. When the route was unveiled not all of the residents were happy, those in Kyleakin, Hecate, Torrin and Lower Breakish spoke in opposition to the scheme as they were being asked to contribute to the levy that would help fund the railway, despite not being served by it. The thought of connecting with the NBR extension to Mallaig via ferry was a deciding factor in the decision of the council to back the scheme. Due to it’s rapid progress towards the Mallaig, the NBR’s involvement with the HLR was to prove key in winning over any opposition to the proposals, apart from that of the Highland Railway, obviously. The Highland lodged an appeal against the proposals stating that it would have detracted from their service to Kyle of Lochalsh in favour of the NBR line from Fort William to Mallaig. This appeal was over-ruled as it was felt that the two lines were able to survive for the first few years of their existence with the projected traffic volumes, and that the construction of the HLR would aid the government’s idea of ‘improvement’ of the Hebrides.

The total cost of constructing the line was estimated as £459,735 3s 8d. The sourcing of this sum was the subject of great debate, and even made it in to the Houses of Parliament. Both the Syndicate and the North British Railway contributed the majority of the money. In a meeting on the 27th April 1898 (with MacLeod of MacLeod in attendance) it was agreed that Inverness County Council provide the sum of sixpence per pound to aid in the construction of the line. MacLeod of MacLeod and Somerled Macdonald rallied around some of the wealthiest men in Skye, and there must have been some very wealthy men, as they put a £45,000 investment in the scheme! The crofters of Skye had a levy placed on them for 1 ½d per pound, and finally the Skye Council put in a bid for Government funding to the tune of £60,000. It was hotly contested in Parliament, but approval was given for £40,000 towards the scheme due to the then policy of ‘improving’ the Highlands and Islands through improved communications with the mainland and major cities.

On mention of the HLR proposal, and the grant being sought by the Inverness County Council Light Railways Committee, in Parliament, one gentleman was heard to remark in that it would be a good idea “to make a light railway in Skye and also in Lewis, so that the fish, instead of going to waste, should be carried fresh to the London market, and also to the markets in the South of Scotland”. Somerled MacDonald suggested that given this comment it might be wise to enquire if a friend of his would be interested in investing in the scheme.

This friend was an entrepreneur named William Hesketh Lever (later Lord Leverhulme). Lever was the founder of a large soap company named Lever Bros. He had a love for the Highlands and on one visit he realised that the fishing grounds off the West coast of Scotland were a great source of business that, as yet, remained relatively untapped. He soon began founding the brand ‘Mac Fisheries’. This became a household name during the 20th Century with stores in most large towns across the country, but few people realise that it first began on the Isle of Skye. Somrled Macdonald suggested to the Syndicate and the NBR that Lever might be interested in marketing the fish produce landed at quays the HLR served, and that because of this he may be a potential investor in the scheme. Lever agreed to make up the £20,000 shortfall in funding left by the lower sum offered by Government.

Lord William Hesketh Leverhulme

Lever was sold a plot of land on the coast immediately next to Isle Ornsay station goods yard, here he founded his first cannery. The fish landed at the quay could easily be transported there, and ice brought in from sea lochs that had frozen over during the winter was stored in an ice house that had been cut into the cliffs behind the yard. The cannery couldn’t keep up with the volumes of fish being brought to Isle Ornsay by the railway, so Lever built another plant at Uig to capture the northern parts of the fishing grounds. It was here that he realised the vast tonnes of fish in this area, and began to consider founding more plants on the Isle of Lewis where he founded Leverburgh and began to carry out his own schemes.

Construction of the HLR began in 1899, with the first sod being cut by Lady Margaret Cameron of Locheil at Broadford on the 18th September. For construction of the line the contractors employed a large workforce of navvies who came from all over the highlands and islands, Ireland, and even Scandinavia. The main loco and carriage works were to be located in a little hamlet outside of Broadford called Waterloo, both here and at Portree sheds were where the navvies were to call home for the three years it took to construct the line. The works at Waterloo were built to be able to cope with all but the most severe of repairs as costs of shipping the items of stock to the NBR’s Cowlairs Works in Glasgow would be extremely high, therefore this was to be avoided if at all possible. There was also to be provision for stabling locos at Armadale, Uig and Portree.

The contractors used three locos during the construction of the line, two Kerr Stuart Skylark class 0-4-2Ts, and the other an Andrew Barclay 0-6-0T.

The line was completed in 1903 and on the 15th July the first train ran the length of the island from Isle Ornsay to Dunvegan carrying both clans who resided on Skye, the Macdonalds of Armadale and the MacLeods of Dunvegan, hence the route not taking in the line to Uig, which was to prove the main operational route in the future. The loco for the job was ‘Portree’ a 4-4-0 tender loco named after the main settlement on Skye, it was highly polished and wore a heather wreath on the front. It made a sterling job of hauling the 5 coach train the length of the island.

On the return journey the train terminated at Waterloo Works where the Syndicate and the NBR had laid on a banquet in one of the carriage sheds. Details of this event are sparse, but one report states:

“a healthy sized banquet was laid on for us in the carriage sheds at Waterloo. Directors of the North British Railway, members of the Syndicate who first devised the plans for the line, and the two resident families of Skye were in good spirits. Generous measures of whisky, claret and port flowed and left few sober. By the close of the evening the pipers were rendered useless, being unable to blow, stand up or all play the same tune!”

The Syndicate and the NBR were constantly trying to find the best design of locomotive to cope with the heavy traffic, long distances between coaling and watering facilities, and the weather conditions. This lead to a variety of large tank locos and tender locos operating over the system. Smaller tank locos were occasionally used on short trains or as station pilots. On light services steam railmotors were used, these were ultimately replaced by petrol railcars.

Passenger stock was entirely supplied by R.Y. Pickering of Wishaw, Glasgow, and was painted in North British deep red. Brake coaches had vermillion end panels, and all carried white roofs which gradually dulled in colour with age. Goods stock was also supplied by Pickering, and both this and the passenger stock saw some alterations during their life time, all of which were carried out at Waterloo Works under the management of Calum McRae the line’s chief engineer.

The line ran very prosperously during the pre-war years, however, during WW1 the tourist trade all but died off and the majority of the crofters were called up to fight. The line remained open as the Royal Navy used it to move munitions between sea lochs located around Skye which they were using as anchorages for their fleet, and to Kyleakin for the US Navy base at Kyle of Lochalsh. These locations were vital as German U boats were spotted in the area from lookout posts on the tops of mountains on Skye on several occasions.

During the post WW1 economic decline of the 1920s normal services resumed where they had left off before the war. Fortunately the fishing industry was little effected by the depression, so the line was supported through the lean years of 1920/21, but had it been reliant on tourist income alone things may have been different. The marble industry struggled through this time balancing on the brink of bankruptcy on more than one occasion, but when the economy recovered they were able to expand into a new quarry immediately next to the old one. They took advantage of some of the stock left behind by the War Department. This included a ‘tin turtle’ petrol loco for shunting the yard at Kilchrist, later they inherited an ex War Department Hunslet 4-6-0, but this had already seen use on the Lochaber Railway near Fort William and was regauged from 3’ to 2’6”.

On the 1st January 1923 the NBR became part of the LNER, and they took over operation of the HLR system. Under LNER ownership little changed, the locos looked equally handsome in Apple Green as they had done in NBR bronze green.

Some of the carriage stock for the tourist rake was looking a little tired by 1923, so the LNER commissioned a rake of teak coaches to match their mainline stock.

The LNER also began to provide more modern motive power for the line, it purchased an Armstrong Whitworth diesel locomotive to trial on Skye. This was of the wheel arrangement 2-C-2 and had been penned by the ace designer at A-W, Bernard Taylor. It carried the LNER’s black livery with red lining and looked rather striking. It proved popular with crews, despite some initial reluctance to leave their beloved steam locos, being able to haul large loads and provided it’s crew with relative comfort to work in.

Armstrong Whitworth A-W350 diesel loco works photo.

Another order was placed with Armstrong Whitworth for some Park Royal bodied ‘Skye’ railcars. The railcars had limited haulage capacity, when operated alone, but could then be coupled to other units to operate in multiple with a driving compartment at either end. They could also be linked to other stock and one of the A-W diesels. This flexibility helped improve efficiency of the services on the line. The railcars mainly resided on the Dunvegan branch, being coupled to loco hauled trains at Portree to form the ‘boat train’. They also operated lighter services over the rest of the system. After their purchase the steam locos were used for heavier passenger trains and the various goods stock movements.

Due to the high overheads, and increased levels of debt, the Skye Marble company switched from rail to road traffic in the late 1930s. The trucks ran from the quarry at Kilchrist to the pier at Broadford. Their line to Broadford shut in 1936.

The roads on Skye had seen continual improvements since the construction of the railway, but hadn’t been able to replace it until the arrival of the bus on Skye. In the 1930s travel by bus was becoming more popular on the island due to the growth of Skye Transport Ltd. This company gradually started to take passengers away from the railway as it could reach closer inland than the railway had been able to due to the rugged terrain. Roads were able to pass much steeper slopes than the railway, and therefore cut journey times by taking short-cuts that the railway couldn’t.

By the beginning of World War 2 the finances of the HLR were starting to look dire, fortunately the Navy used the line again to service the fleet that moored up at various sea lochs. This enabled a much slimmed down service to be run, however, after the war road transport had moved forward so much due to improvements to the roads on Skye that the railway was no longer able to compete. The flexible operation of the railcars and diesel locos had helped prolong the decline, operating a service much like that of the Irish narrow gauge, but from the late 1940s the LNER gradually decreased services in a bid to save money. On the 3rd October 1949 the final train hauled by ‘Skye’ and ‘Lewis’ left Uig station bound for Isle Ornsay.

The track was left in place over the winter of 1949/50, and lifted during 1950. The locos were all sold to foreign companies or scrapped. Rumour has it that no. 14 ‘Clach Glas’ still exists somewhere in Java but several parties of preservationists have returned empty handed when setting out to try to find it.

Little of the line remains today, all the stations have either been flattened and replaced by newer piers that are now used by Caledonian Macbrayne for their ferry services, or covered by new housing developments. The most easily identifiable remnants of the line are to be found around Broadford, the rails on the quay survived until the quay was re-surfaced with tarmac in the 1980s and the abutments of bridge 26 over the Broadford River can still be seen to this day

If you look carefully between Broadford and Torrin you can see the trackbed of the marble branch winding it’s way along the southern side of the B8083. On the Western side of Glen Varragill, between Sligachan and Portree, you can see remnants of an embankment which once carried the line at the foot of Meall an Fhuarain, and the abutments of bridge 48 which carried the line over a small burn. Many of the sections of line in the Northern half of Skye have now become roads, the section of line from Carbost to Uig has now become the A87.

Had the road network on Skye not advanced as much as it did in the inter-war years then the line may well still be here today. If it had lasted past the 1940s it may have become preserved, and the tourist numbers that visit Skye now are easily enough to justify it’s existence as an attraction. One can only hope that one day it will be re-opened in part, if not in full.