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A QUITE IMPOSSIBLE PROPOSAL  ... How Not to Build a Railway.

A Quite Impossible Proposal - the cover This book describes the building of railways in north-west Scotland; or - more precisely - the not-building of railways.
But - dear Reader! - you will also traverse more than a hundred years of clearances, evictions and land-wars. You will contemplate the tragedy of the commons of Ireland and gaze upon land-owning hypocrisy, governmental myopia and charitable cruelty. You will stumble across caravans of political gentlemen and their hangers-on, and you will be impressed by the sight of Royal Commissions yachting around the north and west of Scotland. You will be caught up in millions of barrels of fish and salute the herring-eating peoples of the Baltic lands. You will consider forests that were not forests and improvements that failed to improve. You will hear the voices of the dispossessed. You will detect the whiff of revolution on the islands and witness the military occupation of Skye. You will do all of this, because the story of the railways of the north-west cannot be properly understood in isolation from the wider historical background.

So, what's this about?

In the 1890s, the people of north-west Scotland grew tired of Government Commissions sent to consider a railway to Ullapool. Despite rock-solid arguments in favour of such a railway, neither government nor the big railway companies lifted a finger to build one. In 1918, history repeated itself with another Commission and another failure to build the railway.
This book tells the whole sorry tale of the attempt to improve transportation in the north-west Highlands, set against the region’s economic and social problems, civil unrest in the crofting communities and the resulting government enquiries. Drivel is how one local man described the official government enquiry reports. Few disagreed.
Stories, facts and figures have been unearthed from the archives of government departments and railway companies, from local people’s letters and petitions, from contemporary newspapers, and from the plans prepared for the hoped-for railways.
But this story is not just about planned railways that were never built. It is about the frustrations of the people of the Highlands in the face of government incompetence, railway-company obstructionism, local rivalries and the struggle against the historical injustice of land-ownership.

Haven't we been here before?

Ah, yes, quite right: we have. My 2004 novel An Abridged History develops the plan for the Ullapool Railway - but with a happier outcome. But this time I have gone for the facts. And there are just as many people to hiss and boo at - or cheer for.

Here's a map...

...put out by the 1890 Western Highlands and Islands Commission, showing - with one glaring error - the proposed railways for the islands and the west coast.
Click the map to view it full-size.

Where were all these railways going to run?

There were plans for railways ...
  • from Lairg to Laxford
  • from Culrain to Lochinver
  • from Garve to Ullapool
  • on the island of Skye
  • on the Isle of Lewis
    and that's not even mentioning the extensions of
  • the Dingwall/Strome Ferry line to Kyle of Lochalsh and
  • of the Glasgow/Fort William line to Mallaig.

For an indication of where these railways were all to run, consult the map over here to the right...

West Highlands & Islands Commission map, 1890

And what's all that on the cover of the book?

(Click the cover-image at the top to peer more closely at it.)
The two gents are Dr Wallace and Mr D.S. Ross of the 'Lochbroom Executive Committee', which was formed in 1918 to try to convince civil servants of the case for a railway to Ullapool.
The steam locomotive bursting out of the cover after a steep ascent from the loch is No.74 ('Durn') of the Highland Railway's ‘Snaigow’ class engines (designed and built by Hawthorn Leslie in 1916). The original photo shows it at a platform at Inverness station (image supplied by Mike Morant - for more of the same, click here).
The map dimly visible in the background is the 1-inch Ordnance Survey map used to show the route of the Ullapool railway in 1890. A fuller view of this - and other - maps can be found by clicking here.