The Duke of Sutherland’s Railway

Few things were more powerful than a Victorian-era duke. They shaped empires, armies, estates and cities and had a particular interest in the development of the railway network. For some, this was manifested in vehement opposition. For others, it was a promise of further riches and easier access to pleasures in both the capital and countryside. Few peers have influenced the development of a railway quite as definitively as the Duke of Sutherland, for whom we have largely to thank the northern most reaches of the British network. 

After reaching the epic grandeur of the Scottish highlands, Scotland’s north-east peters away gently towards the coast. Tain, Dornoch, Golspie, Brora, Helmsdale and Wick are sandwiched between the sea to the east and desolate mountains to the west. Vital communications are provided by the A9 and the evocatively named Far North Railway.

Sutherland is wildly, stunningly beautiful but hardly profitable terrain for the railways Donald Bain [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The Far North Railway links Inverness with Thurso and Wick at the very northerly tip of Britain. The leisurely journey covers over 120 miles in 3 hours 45 minutes (to Thurso) or 4 hours 15 minutes (to Wick).  The route is at first coastal before diving into the highlands to stop at Culrain and Lairg and then turning sharply westward to head back towards the sea.

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Training the troops

The railways were the defining invention of the industrial revolutions, transforming the countries in which they were established. They found plenty of peaceful uses as conduits for commerce, passenger transportation and the emergence of travel, but were also used as weapons of war. In fact, they would be used by the British Army almost as soon as the first UK railways were open to the public.

Many inventions have their origins in military technology or have their peaceful uses subverted to serve warfare. Modern examples of the former include the Internet, which began life as the ARPANET and the Global Positioning System (GPS), both projects funded by the U.S. Department of Defence. The latter is demonstrated by telephone and radio, which revolutionised the global dissemination of information thereby benefitting commerce and bringing the world a little closer together but also massively improving military signalling and communications.

It is therefore no surprise that the armed forces of several European nations seized on the possibilities offered by the nascent railways of the mid-nineteenth century. In fact, the army had started to use trains almost as soon as they were made available for passengers.

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