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Issue 14 - The rail thing

Scotland Magazine Issue 14
May 2004


This article is 14 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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The rail thing

Scotland's disused Victorian railways have reinvented themselves as venues for shopping, eating, sleeping and guarding our cultural heritage. Kate Patrick knows her station.

There are railway stations with bland ticket machines, draughty, grey platforms and empty cardboard coffee cups - they're the ones still in working order. Then there are those which are restored, attractive buildings, decorated with hanging baskets of flowers, and which have atmospheric tearooms and museum shops crammed with memorabilia, and crafts and souvenirs for sale.

These are the ones which were put out of active service in the 1960s or earlier, but which have reinvented themselves.

Today they have not only become popular and welcoming venues for shopping, eating, staying or days out, but they also provide a valuable insight into our cultural heritage – how life was once lived, based on the movement of people, food and goods around the country by rail.

The Deeside Railway reached Aboyne from Banchory in 1859, and Aboyne station was rebuilt on a grand scale in 1888.

The line ceased to be used, with so many others, in 1966; but the station survives, and has recently been sympathetically converted to an attractive collection of shops.

In the former waiting room you will now find Aboyne Flowers, which sells fruit, fresh flowers and healthy foods; and there is also a boutique, gift shop, shoe shop, art gallery, grocery and butcher.

Up the line from Aboyne, and just eight miles from Balmoral Castle, Ballater became the railway stop for Queen Victoria and other distinguished visitors for 100 years, between the 1860s and 1960s (the Czar of Russia passed through in 1896). The station building itself was remodelled in the 1880s, and has again been nicely restored in recent years, to become a local landmark and home to the tourist information centre which has a shop selling maps, books, food and Scottish souvenirs.

There is a museum on the old platform, and an old royal carriage is expected to be in situ this summer.

Further north in Aberdeenshire, there is a railway museum at Maud, located within the old office on the Peterhead platform of Maud’s former station, opened in 1865.

Amongst the exhibits is a model recalling Maud Junction in its heyday, when thousands of head of cattle and sheep were transported by rail to and from the livestock markets there, and when passenger trains ran regular services to all stops on the Buchan line, and when fully laden fish trains ran daily from Peterhead and Fraserburgh during the busy herring season.

Also in the museum are photographs and displays of railway memorabilia of all sorts, and the shop sells books, all sorts of souvenirs and other collectables.

Meanwhile, it’s worth arriving a couple of hours early for your train at the unmanned Plockton station on the west coast Kyle line, as there’s a divine restaurant and café in which to while away the hours.

Off the Rails does everything from fresh local seafood or Aberdeen Angus steak to home baking, served up in the restored 19th century building complete with old wooden tables, wind-up telephones and open fires.

Not a million miles away, down at Kyle of Lochalsh station, you’ll find the Seafood Restaurant, run by Jann and Neil Macrae in what was once a boring British Rail buffet. They converted the station building for their venture – and it’s a real discovery.

You’ll find the freshest fish here, as it’s Neil who catches some of it (he also provides some of the fish used aboard the Royal Scotsman and the Hebridean Princess), and they also do a lot of home baking and chutneys, which you can buy at the Haybarn Deli in nearby Balmacara.

Kyle of Lochalsh station is the terminus of the Kyle line – one of the most scenic in the world – and the restaurant has views over Skye and the Cuillins.

During the summer, Neil also runs seafood cruises around the waters of Loch Alsh. Should you decide to take the train from Lochalsh right through the Highlands almost to the other end of the line by the Cromarty Firth, there is an excellent pub on the main platform of Dingwall’s attractive railway station, the green-painted Mallard.

If the pub doesn’t appeal, there’s a good bowl of soup to be had at The Station tearoom, and there’s also a craft shop here selling locally made products – quirky chopping boards and wood-handled knives, knitwear, pottery, cards and paintings.

A short distance north of Dingwall is the picturesque and rather un-Scottish village of Strathpeffer, which became popular with early 19th Century visitors after sulphurous springs, believed to have health-giving properties, were discovered. Trains no longer run here, but the Victorian railway station still stands and has been restored to house a wood carver and his shop, a tearoom and the Highland Museum of Childhood, which covers subjects as diverse as toys, play and child labour.

Nairn Station, which is still in use, is lucky enough to benefit from floral decoration provided by year-round by Stephen Seedhouse, who runs the eponymous flower shop there. He says a platform is the ideal place from which to do business.

“There’s so much space,” he explains, “and we need it when we’re putting together the flowers for a wedding. We look after a lot of American brides, and others who come to Skibo, and we do the flowers for the National Trust locally, and for various oil companies.”

Eating and sleeping aboard a train were once, of course, vital parts of the railway experience in the days before cars, motorways and planes became viable alternatives.

Those who are lucky enough to travel aboard the Royal Scotsman or the Orient Express today do so partly in order to see the world at a slower pace – preferably accompanied by something delicious to eat and drink.

So it’s no surprise to find that some old stations have part-recreated the original experience – Glenfinnan Station being one of them. Here there is not only a restaurant in an old dining car, but also accommodation for 10 people in four compartments – self-catering but with central heating.

It’s a good stop for families, and there’s a museum with a souvenir shop that is well stocked with items associated with the West Highlands, its heritage and its railways. Glenfinnan is also a stop for the Jacobite steam train during the summer.

Other places to stay that have made a virtue out of knowing their station in life include the Old Station Country House at Stravithie Bridge, two miles from St Andrews – a b&b with six rooms, two of which are in old carriages; Station Lodge Hostel at Tulloch, Invernessshire – for 24 people, bunkhouse style, on an old West Highland line station; the Mackintosh Wing at Invermoy House, Moy – originally the private waiting room of Alfred Donald, 28th Mackintosh of Mackintosh, and now a luxurious apartment; and the Station House Hotel, Annan – once the substantial, red sandstone station building on a small branch line from Annan that is now closed.

If nothing else, Scotland’s restored railway stations provide unreconstructed trainspotters – and there are many of you out there – with an ideal opportunity to pass the time reminiscing about the good auld days.