In its brave days, Glasgow's giant North British Locomotive Works would photograph its biggest engines, with a stadium-load of dour mechanics stacked on the boilers of great beasts built for Africa or India. There was light relief from 'wee tottie puffers' built for places as disparate as Dalmarnock Gasworks and the Darjeeling Railway in the far Himalayas: terriers perched on elephants. Uddingston-born Liberal and grand political pundit James, Viscount Bryce, 1838-1922, whose Boswell I was for the New Dictionary of National Biography
, enjoyed hurtling down Andean, Himalayan and Rocky Mountain lines on ganger's trolleys. Then, on the heel of Beeching, the photos stopped and the works closed down.
Few London actions in Scotland were as poisonous as the rail closures of the 1960s, inflicted by that strange duo Macmillan and Marples, just when grand, sad Tony Hancock, at the top of his game, moved to 13 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam. 'Like the destruction of the monasteries!', he might have said, resembling a not-quite sober Supermac, in his Homburg hat and moulting Astrakhan coat – with Sid James playing dodgy Transport Minister Ernie Marples (who, indeed, shortly fled for good to the south of France).
So I thought when, in 1961, I bought a fortnight's BR pass and got round as many of the doomed lines as I could: Banff, Saint Combs, Castle Douglas, Fraserburgh, Aberfeldy, Ballater, Kelso, Killin – a third of the system. 'Beeching' became a slimming cure turned Endlosung. Some lines had a momentary revival with railbuses filling out timetable gaps, others steamed to the end: a big black engine towing a single carriage into the hills. With them, too, went the resilient Glasgow trams, replaced by new two-voltage Blue Trains, which turned out an innovation too far. Linwood works made the latter – not totally A1 – only to turn to the Hillman Imp, who instantly fell off his toadstool. Grandpa Harvie's plate mill at Colville's Dalzell still supplies the sheet steel, as in the First World War, but for how much longer? Even Kerrs' Miniature Railway, Arbroath, will chuff no more...
Keep this in mind, when thinking of Talgo Railcars at Longannet. 1960s closures, plus high-rise flats and concrete roads, lasted three decades. Elsewhere in Europe, a shift-back to rail was happening, but not here. Vandals soon wrecked signal boxes and stations, British Rail 'recovered metal', pulling up sections where there might have been a cycleway, even a chance of reopening.
Other grandpa Robert Russell, a mining engineer, was unsentimental, believing the railway had had its day – but then his specialism was conveyor belts, replacing the pit ponies, 'tubs' and cages bringing coal to the surface. His Anderson Boyes didn't last – in Motherwell, Deborah Orr's dad would work there, not very happily, while Wales-style tourism could have restored other improbables for tourists, from Peterhead's convict line from quarry to harbour, to the Loch Treig railway. Running halfway round Ben Nevis, following the hydro pipes, it lasted to the mid-1970s like the little gasworks steam locos whose 'everso-umble' role was to pull coke from the giant retorts of Granton or Dalmarnock. Working miniature mainliners, these were devised by the great Dugald Drummond himself, and maybe on a preserved line near you...
The Scottish Railway Preservation Society struggled, partly because the shipyards as well as the N B Loco closed and apprentices dried up. We fouled up what we were good at – like the peerless QE2 contrasted with the demented wrecking of the Glasgow trams – instead of rethinking them as clean and stylish – and we hadn't Wales' 'Great Little Trains' (though Nuffield College's Professor Iain McLean has been stalwart of the Welshpool and Llanfair line).
Just before the war, the Italian aristo Giuseppi Lampedusa, author of that great tribute to Walter Scott, The Leopard
(1957), looked down from his Welsh relatives' Powis Castle to the terraces dropping to the Severn, calling this a paradise, in contrast to the arid conflict of Risorgimento Sicily that Luchino Visconti captured in his wonderful film of 1964. In 1965, old Lord Powis was still there on the platform to reopen the Welshpool to Llanfair line. The BBC reports that chez nous the Mafia's principles do as well as you might expect... But without Damon Runyon, the ships, the girls and the fun.
By the late 1970s, the downsides of car-based tourism were showing, with an annual crumblefest on the 'Rest and be Thankful'. Great Telford himself warned against the dodgy geology of that dour glen, so we might think big – about an Orkney-type jetfoil from Ardrossan to Ardrishaig? We now have to recover the whole technology to project and frame what we loaded between Telford and MacAlpine. Instead, alas, councillors have let Holiday Inns inflict a hideous klotz of a hotel on Tweedbank, while the old Abbotsford Inn next to Gala station rots, and Tweedbank's Waverley Hydro, reinforced-concrete grandpa of all those thousands of strand-side Monaco-mouth-organ towers, has just closed. John Henry Newman, the Cardinal-Saint whose earthly paradise was Abbotsford, Walter Scott's fiction factory, would not have liked that. Modern Scots try to be romantic, but we can't magic Lord Melville and pillar into The Happy Prince
Think. In 1962, the Swiss Railways wanted to scrap their five elegant paddle steamers on the Lakes of Lucerne. But folk held a referendum and voted to keep the lot – sure, because they enhanced the whole area. If you've ever gone by paddler, you'll realise why. It's like a Duchess doing the Rumba with Matelots Galore and lovin' every minute!
On the PS Waverley a couple of years back, off to Tarbert Loch Fyne, a swarm of big ladies boarded at Largs, downed their Tennents, and cheerily screeched away, keepin' time. I only worried that they'd all suddenly shift from starboard to port. Would we capsize in minutes? Naw. Rothesay can be tomb-like but cheers up with the paddler's return – as if it brought my ma's dear friendly ghost back as a 24-year old Miss at the Academy in 1942, with the submariners and the Polish officers: the uniforms, the courtliness, the style, and 'They all danced like Fred Astaire'.
Tell Trump and his Senators at Turncoat or wherever. Pay for honest resorts. Hypertax 4x4s: shift glamour from Holyrood and God-forsaken Balmoral Clydeward. Put trams on Rothesay's promenade from Craigmore to Port Bannatyne. Rebuild Glasgow's sad shuttered transport museum there. Let there be raffles for masked balls at Mount Stuart and dancing in the streets!