Most Railscot viewers will be aware that efforts were made to build a railway from Garve to Ullapool in the Victorian era, but I suspect very few of us (certainly not me) knew that no fewer than five valiant attempts were made between 1890 and as late as 1945.
Andrew Drummond’s A Quite Impossible Proposal: How not to Build a Railway delves deep into the archives to reveal an astonishing story of establishment incompetence and indifference - and some west coast skulduggery - contriving to thwart the energy and enthusiasm of locals keen to share in the benefits which railways had brought to other Highland communities.
Most railway histories tend to treat their subject in a vacuum, with little discussion of the economic, political and social forces which spurred - or blocked, as in this case - railway development. Drummond makes no such mistake. He follows up his surrealistic 2004 novel, An Abridged History , on the imagined construction and operation of an Ullapool railway (and much, much more), with this graphic account of how a melting pot of rural poverty and agitation for land reform stirred up repeated attempts to drive a railway over 33 miles of sometimes tough terrain from Garve on the Strome Ferry / Kyle line to the Atlantic shores of Loch Broom.
Digging deep into the archive material was quite a revelation. I was impressed by the persistence and effort that local people put into promoting their own railway schemes; but even more astonished by the amount of effort that the Highland Railway Company put into making sure that none of these schemes succeeded. And finally I was appalled by the total lack of real understanding, interest or encouragement by any of several Secretaries for Scotland - and other government ministers - in Whitehall.
This is a serious subject, but Drummond has a light touch, with amusing anecdotes, colourful asides and wry commentaries – and I romped through the book in just two days. One of the delights of his tale is that ‘since we do not have the benefit of an actual railway carriage in which to sit back and enjoy the passing scenery’ the author treats us to a ‘virtual journey’ by way of Glascarnoch and the line’s 900ft summit near Loch Droma, followed by a ‘while-knuckle ride’ at 1 in 40 by Braemore and the Corrieshalloch Gorge before our train coasts down a gentler stretch of railway to the imagined terminus at Ullapool Pier. This would have been one of the great railway journeys.
A Quite Impossible Proposal: How not to Build a Railway is published by Birlinn on 24th September. A paperback priced at £20, it extends to 308 pages, including comprehensive appendices, and features 33 photographs and maps. It can be purchased from all good bookshops and also direct from Birlinn (with free UK delivery):https