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Issue 66 - Cathedrals of the Rails

Scotland Magazine Issue 66
December 2012


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Cathedrals of the Rails

David McVey visits some of Scotland's surprising stations

Scotland’s railways are there for business and leisure, for day trips and visiting the family as well as for touring the country. Most people pass through their starting and finishing stations without noticing them, yet these buildings are often objects of great beauty and interest in themselves. Many of Scotland’s older railway station buildings have been sensitively restored in recent years and its worth hopping on a train just to go and see some of them. Don’t believe me?

Collect your ticket and let’s see.

In 1875 The Builder claimed that ‘railway termini and hotels are to the 19th century what monasteries and cathedrals were to the 13th century’. Scotland had its fair share of those glittering glass cathedrals, none more impressive than Glasgow Central; completed in 1879 and extended in the early 1900s, it’s more spectacular now than ever; the soaring glass roof stays much cleaner in the days of diesel and electric trains than in the steam era. Nearly 30 million passengers each year use the UK’s busiest station outside London.

Like many of Scotland’s showpiece stations, Glasgow Central had an accompanying hotel, The Central, designed by Robert Rowand Anderson. It has now been restored to its former glory as the Glasgow Grand Central. In 1927, the Central Hotel was the first place ever to receive long distance television pictures, transmitted in a demonstration by John Logie Baird, Scotland’s TV pioneer.

Other notable Victorian railway cathedrals include the sprawling station at Perth and, of course, Edinburgh Waverley. Waverley is currently in the throes of major refurbishment but should emerge from this lighter and brighter than ever before. Edinburgh’s other city centre station, Haymarket, is much smaller and has suffered some insensitive modernisation, but its fine original building survives, dating from the railway’s opening in 1842. Big plans are afoot for a new, larger concourse to serve the station, which is a little cramped for the passenger numbers it serves. But the original building will definitely remain.

Stirling Station is a railway cathedral on a more intimate scale. The present buildings were only completed in 1916, to the designs of the renowned railway architect James Miller. They reflect Scottish vernacular style with features such as crow-stepped gables. There’s also plenty of glass, especially over the semi-circular concourse.

But it’s not just about the railway cathedrals of the cities. Scotland has many smaller railway stations, parish churches, if you like, that serve towns and busy junctions and are both attractive and appealing. The most celebrated is Wemyss (pronounced Weemz) Bay on the Firth of Clyde, the ferry port for Rothesay on Bute. The current buildings were completed in 1903 (James Miller on design duties again) and the highlight is the curving, soaring crown of iron and glass above the concourse. The platform canopies seem to gleam and sparkle and there’s an elegant, curving walkway that leads from the concourse to the ferry terminal.

Sadly, the growth of road transport now means that two of the station’s four platforms are out of use and now serve, ignominiously, as a car park.

Only a person with little soul would ever travel to Wemyss Bay (or Bute) by anything other than rail.

On the northern bank of the firth, Helensburgh Central resembles one of the great city rail cathedrals in miniature with its extensive platform canopies and glazed concourse roof. The dinky termini at Thurso and Wick in the far north are almost but not quite identical. With their tiny overall roofs and sleepy air they resemble railway stations from a 1950s Ealing comedy. Another Highland terminus, Kyle of Lochalsh, was once the ferry port for Stornoway and Kyleakin on Skye. Its platforms, with their elegant cottage-style station buildings, sit end-on to the sea with the hills of Skye beyond.

It might have been set up for a 1970s comedian; ‘Does this train stop at Kyle of Lochalsh? I hope so, sir, or there’s going to be a heckuva splash...’ Inevitably in a cost-cutting age, many Scottish station buildings have been replaced by bus shelter-type structures. Others have been put to different uses. Bunkhouses function in the station buildings at Bridge of Orchy and Tulloch, while there’s a florist in a redundant building at Nairn and a tearoom at Rannoch on the West Highland Line. Yet there are still local stations with picturesque station buildings where you can buy tickets in an old-school manner. Cardross, on the Helensburgh Central line, has a charming brick building with a central glazed screen. Aberdour in Fife not only has pleasing buildings but resembles a luxuriant botanical garden; there are two greenhouses on the Edinburgh platform to service its flora. Stationmaster/gardener Trevor Francis was awarded an MBE for his work at the station in 2012. Travel by train to Aberdour from Edinburgh and en route you’ll cross the Forth Bridge, Scotland’s Eiffel Tower.

Cost-cutting means that most recently-built stations are drab and functional, but there are exceptions. Gourock, the ferry port for Kilcreggan and Dunoon, long had a station of decaying grandeur but its brand-new replacement features a bright main building, a glazed concourse roof and extensive new platform canopies. Partick Station in Glasgow has a vast new building with a concourse that resembles an airport terminal. Paisley Gilmour Street still has its 19th century buildings but in 2011 acquired a gleaming new glass roof. Scotland’s glass industry must be very grateful to the railways.

You’ll find some strange objects within Scotland’s railway stations. Rannoch has a curious sculpted head at its north end that often puzzles rail passengers. The subject is James Renton, one of the original directors of the West Highland Railway. During construction, the railway encountered cash flow problems and only an injection of funds from Renton enabled the work to continue. Grateful to still have their jobs, a team of navvies carved a tribute to Renton.

A more recent statue enhances the new concourse at Partick, a figure of a wee fat cartoon woman with a baby. The GI Bride was an occasional character in Bud Neill’s much-loved cartoon strip Lobey Dosserwhose action took place in Calton Creek, a Wild West town populated entirely by Glaswegians. She popped up from time to time, carrying the baby and hitching a lift back to Scotland or, more specifically, ‘Pertick?’ Bud Neill enjoys legendary status in Glasgow and a statue of Lobey Dosser himself can be found in the city’s Woodland’s Road. It’s claimed to be the world’s only two-legged equestrian statue; Neill’s world was like that.

What’s my favourite among Scotland’s railway stations? If I had to plump, I’d plump for Milngavie. Milngavie was a rural village that was propelled towards town, burgh and commuterland status by the arrival of the railway in 1863. The original station building survives, carefully refurbished, with spacious canopies to keep off the East Dunbartonshire rain. A smaller, charming building also survives on Platform 2, looking like a summerhouse escaped from one of Milngavie’s prosperous gardens. Travellers often alight from trains at this station bearing enormous rucksacks, for it is the starting point of the West Highland Way. If you intend to go there, note that the pronunciation is ‘Millguy’.

Use Scotland’s railways to get around, that’s what they’re for, after all, but pause now and again and try to notice our historic railway stations.

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