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Railway track walks revealed in new guide

By Features Reporter

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Heading east from Gordon station.
Heading east from Gordon station.

They are the tracks of our past – and now – present and future years.

Scotland's old abandoned train lines once carried thousands of passengers each year but some old railway routes are today better used as footpaths, bridleways and cycle paths.

Now a new guide to the old lines for hikers has been published by a Caithness publisher.

Walking Scotland's Lost Railways, Track Beds Rediscovered by Robin Howie and John McGregor, is an invaluable tool for walkers to discover more than 375 miles of Scotland's track beds that range from easy to adventurous walking.

And they have to thank the infamous massive cuts to Britain's railway system more than 50 years ago by Dr Richard Beeching.

"Although walkers may be unaware of the tangled history of the development of the railway system during the Victorian era, they will have heard of, or experienced, the drastic 1960s Beeching axe," say the authors.

"However, in more recent times Scotland has experienced a railway revival – principally in the Greater Glasgow area but with new stations and station re-openings elsewhere.

"Nevertheless, Scotland still has hundreds of miles of 'dismantled railways', the term used by the Ordnance Survey, and the track beds give scope for many a walk.

"Some track beds have been 'saved' as tar macadam walkway/cycleway routes; some have become well-trodden local walks. The remainder (the majority) range in walking quality from good to overgrown, to well-nigh impassable.

The old station platform at Killin Junction.
The old station platform at Killin Junction.

"In every project the railway engineer strove to balance 'cut' and 'fill' and set a 'ruling gradient'. This has left a general legacy of often impressive cuttings and embankments – and steady, sometimes imperceptible, ascents and descents from the walker’s perspective.

"For railway passengers (and crew), this was only noticed to the extent that distant views came and went. For today's trackbed walker, cuttings and embankments take on a different aspect.

"Cuttings frequently tend to be wet and overgrown. Trees and scrub have flourished. Where farmers have recovered railway ground, agricultural equipment or stores of fodder may bar the way.

"A dry and clear cutting is a thing to be welcomed! Embankments on the other hand are invariably dry and, on the whole, less overgrown, giving views of the surrounding landscape.

"A study of the Ordnance Survey map before setting out will give a flavour of what to expect.

"Conditions under foot and time-of-year may dictate detours (all described). However, the intrepid trackbed explorer can ignore some of these. For example, by the edge of Loch Lubnaig, the track bed in parts has been lost or washed away, yet persistence is rewarded in reaching later sections that offer secluded and easy strolls. This is what trackbed exploration can be like!"

A general background history of the ‘Railway Age’ is provided along with detailed information, maps, and numerous old railway photographs to recall these past times.

An old carriage at Stravithie.
An old carriage at Stravithie.

The integral hand-crafted maps identify the old railway lines and the sites of stations, most of which are now unrecognisable.

For over 15 years Mr Howie had a popular hillwalking column in the Scotsman and is the author of the acclaimed 100 Scotsman Walks. Dr McGregor is a historian, trustee of Glenfinnan Station Museum and author of several books including The West Highland Railway: Plans, Politics and People.

While some new lines are minor, the long-awaited 30-mile Borders Railway from Edinburgh to Tweedbank, the longest domestic railway to be built in Britain for more than a century, is something on a very different scale. Early passenger numbers have exceeded expectations and towns served by the line have seen significant economic benefits.

Many railway enthusiasts cling to the hope that more lines will be reinstated.

But for tens of thousands of hikers, the old lines have taken on a new and healthy re-birth.

There may be no more rolling stock on the line – but a strolling flock!

  • Walking Scotland's Lost Railways, Track Beds Rediscovered by Robin Howie and John McGregor from Whittles Publishing, Dunbeath, Caithness, price £18.99. More info www.whittlespublishing.com
Tay Viaduct, Logierait.
Tay Viaduct, Logierait.

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