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.
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.
At Helmsdale, the line heads once more inland to pick up increasingly remote stops such as Kinbrace (448 passengers in 2010/11), Scotscalder (246 passengers in 2010/11) and Altnabreac (172 passengers in 2010/11).
With such low passenger numbers spread so thinly across a remote part of Highland Scotland, why was the Far North Railway built? And how is it still running?
Part of the reason comes from another name for a section of the line that is even more evocative than the Far North: the Duke of Sutherland’s Railway. The section between Golspie and Helmsdale was built by the Duke of Sutherland, mainly to link his ancestral seat, Dunrobin Castle, with the mainline railway network.
As a peer sitting in the House of Lords, one can assume that the Duke of Sutherland’s Railway Act 1870 didn’t have too much trouble passing through Parliament. The Duke was clearly confident: construction started before the Bill had passed into law and was complete on 1 November 1870. The Duke had his own railway engine and two carriages, a day carriage and a night carriage to ensure he was conveyed to London in maximum comfort.
As befitted a ducal railway, the line was graced with royal visitors. In 1872, Queen Victoria stayed at Dunrobin Castle and the Duke of Sutherland drove the railway engine himself. The Queen was followed in 1876 by the Prince and Princess of Wales, who, whilst also staying at Dunrobin, used the line to visit Thurso.
The railway’s extension further north owed much to financial support and political backing by the Earl of Caithness. In so remote an area, aristocratic patronage still held sway over industrial development.