I Fleet fire-horses
The Scotsman newspaper celebrates its bicentenary just as, worldwide, a new railway age is taking off. From London's Crossrail to the mighty Chinese expansion, Swiss-Italian high-speed tunnels, even talk of a one-hour Dublin-Cork express. Make with the hanky, Clarkson, Henry Ford has run out of road.
And we're back to two 'historical things': first, the Scotsman's founding editor Charles Maclaren, who – in the new paper in 1825 as well as in the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia – successfully 'trailed' with his friend Robert 'Lighthouse' Stevenson the likely world impact of George Stephenson's 'New Machine' – when all the info they had to go on was a mineral line being built from Darlington to Stockton quay. And second – a future the Scots could see: Thomas Carlyle's 1829 essay 'Signs of the Times' had rail's 'fleet fire-horses' displacing Clydesdale and cabhorse in the Edinburgh Review...
and in miniature, matchbox-sized, the world's first toy train.
II Toy what? And where?
Montrose. As part of a diorama made in 1831 for the large, rakish, Whig Earl of Panmure, while on a Grand Tour. Still going strong in the impeccably early-Victorian Montrose museum's three-dimensional panorama of the town, locomotive 'Wat' ('Watt'?) pulls and pushes its carriages along the earl's notion of a new bridge between Montrose and Ferryden. The Aberdeen railway would not be opened until 1848. The tiny model seems to be a version of Stephenson's 'Patentee' engine from the revolutionary Liverpool and Manchester (1830) and is actually pulled back and forth by a continuous band, originally clockwork, as are the coaches on the road-bridge below.
Was it the first? Some railway-builders certainly liked to send a miniature train in advance: recently the Bavarians found one in the cellars of their parliament, a present from the great George Stephenson himself when he got the contract in 1835 for the Nuremberg-Furth line. But Montrose's does seem the precursor. The Swiss – builders of Panmure's engine – wouldn't actually see a proper train for 17 years. In Germany, the poet-statesman Goethe may have received in 1831 a bigger version of Stephenson's 'Rocket' – according to the museum in his house in Weimar. But this looks like a commercial toy dating at the earliest from the 1860s. Were the East German communists 'fixing history' so that the sage of Weimar would anticipate/endorse Karl Marx? You may well ask.
But there is a real Montrose connection. After Stephenson's first wife died and his father was injured in 1805 Stephenson had walked north from the Tyne to Montrose, where he mastered the Boulton and Watt engines in the Ford family's new flax-mill: becoming something of a 'local hero.' This would register on Lord Panmure. Wayward he may have been, but he still talked to the town's radical MP Joseph Hume, who 'emptied the Commons but saw the future,' and shared his hopes.
III Missing by inches
The Scots and Geordies were technically hyperactive but they didn't get everything right. This would have world consequences. Track gauges marked the limit of a system, and the gauge of our first steam line, the Garnkirk and Glasgow of 1834, was Robert Stevenson's recommended four feet six inches – two-and-a-half inches less than the English 'Stephenson gauge'. This was much narrower than Isambard Kingdom Brunel's seven-foot gauge, which he forced on the Great Western in 1835: technically remarkable but difficult to extend. It lasted in the London-Cornwall-Liverpool triangle until 1892, and then vanished completely.
The 'Scotch Gauge' was 'standardised' in 1846. But the 'battle of the gauges' then spread worldwide. In Ireland the Scottish permanent secretary, Captain Thomas Drummond, planned an ambitious network in 1837. After shots at different gauges, William Dargan, Irish genius and Thomas Telford's greatest pupil, chose five foot three inches in 1842. It's still there, and his pupils exported it to Australia and South America.
The Irish-American Colonel George Washington Whistler (Scots wife: who else but 'Whistler's Mother'?) working in Russia from 1844 on the Moscow-St Petersburg, chose five feet, following his boss General Melnikov (who believed Russia would never be connected with anywhere else). On the other slope of the Great Game the Marquess of Dalhousie, governor-general of India, in a famous council minute of 1853, chose five foot six. This had been adopted by Spaniards in 1848 to deter a possible French invasion – rather than the US/UK standard gauge used in 1837 for their prosperous, sugar-growing Cuban colony.
War and commerce fought things out, and gauge difficulties plague the world's railways, even today. And as Scots, we made most of the mistakes, early on.
IV Train Delayed
In 1842 at Haymarket Station travellers goggled at a waggon moving by itself along the rails of the new Edinburgh and Glasgow line. This was the world's first electric locomotive, Aberdonian Robert Davidson's 'Galvani'. Progress? It could only just work – no competition for steam (though conventional railwaymen were said to have wrecked it) – but within 40 years an electric loco would pull prime minister Gladstone into the Edinburgh International Exhibition of 1886: a Scots statesman confronted by an uncertain world, made by trains.
As for Montrose, the railway over the bridge is still single-track to Scotland's third city. Everyone else may be moving on from cars, tarmac, and wildly-overpriced 'joabs oan ra tarr' but Transport Scotland remains a true believer.