Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Buckie and Portessie Branch (Highland Railway)

Opened: 1884

Closed: 1915

As the railway company with the most northerly operations in the UK, much of The Highland Railway served rather a sparse population. This made much of the network vulnerable to closure in the 20th Century; but the first branch closed served a reasonably large town rather than the villages many of the Highland's branches served.

Buckie was (and still is) one of the larger towns on the Moray Firth, and typical of the area had an economy based on fishing. Despite its importance, it took decades before railways reached the town. To the south, Keith was reached by the Great North of Scotland Railway in 1856, and to the east Portsoy had a terminus station from 1859, built by The Banff, Portsoy and Strathisla Railway. Four years later, this line was authorised to extend to Portgordon along the coast and via Buckie, but despite an 1866 extension this was allowed to lapse. Part of the problem appears to have been with Lord Saltoun of Cullen House, who refused to have the railway cross his land - a common problem for railway companies back then.

It was not until 1884 that the Highland Railway opened its Buckie branch. Geography and the layout of their existing lines were both against the Highland - their line from Elgin to Keith initially headed east before turning almost 90 degrees to head south along the west side of the River Spey, and crossing it as far south as possible via another 90 degree turn and resuming its eastbound course to Keith. A second bridge over the Spey was ruled out as too expensive, and so the Buckie line was built from Keith. Whilst this meant it was convenient for traffic coming from the rival GNSR, any traffic from the Highland's own system would have had to travel south from Elgin, and then head back north from Keith. But as the line held a monopoly on traffic, this was not a great issue at this point.

However, on the same day the act was passed for the Highland line, the GNSR (who had absorbed the BPSR, or the Banffshire Railway as it was later known) also succeeded in having an act passed for a railway similar to the lapsed BPSR plan, but running beyond Portgordon, over a sizable viaduct at the mouth of the Spey and onto Elgin - Saltoun's land at Cullen having been bypassed by means of several large viaducts through the town. Opened as a through route in 1886, a junction was formed with the Highland who extended their line to Portessie, a mile east of Buckie.

However, this new line effectively doomed the Highland route. Westbound journeys were shorter via the GNSR, and although the route to Aberdeen was longer, the Moray Coast Railway had services that were faster, more frequent and more convenient, with through trains running from Elgin, along the coast and to Aberdeen. As a rather straggly branch line, the Highland route struggled to compete, and the population between Buckie and Keith was too sparse to provide much additional traffic.

The catalyst for closure came in the early days of The Great War. In 1915 as an emergency measure, the line was closed to all traffic and the track was lifted between Buckie and Aultmore to be used elsewhere for the war effort. Portessie - Buckie and Aultmore - Keith were kept open for freight traffic, and it would appear the intention was to reopen the line in full once the war had ended. Of course, the war lasted much longer than expected, leaving most British railway companies in poor shape financially, and by the 1923 grouping, the centre section of the line remained closed.

The Highland had become a constituent company of The London, Midland and Scottish Railway, and it was this company that decided to reopen the line to traffic as originally intended. The line was relaid, and work was carried out to the infrastructure, including the renaming of Drybridge Halt to Letterfourie; but after this work was complete, the LMS then decided that the line would most likely be unrenumerative, and dropped the plan.

Track was left in situ for a while, and freight services continued on the two stubs of the line. The Portessie - Buckie section was closed in 1944, having apparently operated in isolation from the rest of the LMS' system, but traffic continued on the Aultmore stub until 1966, due to the presence of a distillery in the village.

Today, much of the line remains recognisable. Most of the route between Portessie and Buckie has become a footpath, and the curve of Mill Crescent was dictated by the railway to the north and west, whilst off Hamilton Path lies the stationmasters house, and the goods shed. The trackbed becomes recognisable again east of Archibald Grove. From here, most of the formation is intact, including a very impressive overbridge at Drybridge, as seen in the Streetview below.

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At Aultmore the extended John Dewar distillery straddles the route, but the line becomes visible again further south, before ending at a small bridge by the Chivas Regal bonded warehouses, and just short of the Aberdeen - Inverness railway - once more see the streetview below.

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Railscot on the Buckie and Portessie Branch

Photo of Rathven railway station from National Museums Scotland.

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