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The Ardnacraish Light Railway

John Roach

The Story...

Late in the 19th Century, Donald Macdougall, the young Laird of Ardnacraish returned to Scotland from America, where his father, the Old Laird, had encouraged him to go "tae get some experience o' life - an' tae stop him spendin ma money". Having worked for a time in the mining industry in Colorado, he was familiar with the narrow-gauge railways of the Rockies.
At that time, Ardnacraish was a thriving fishing port on the west coast of Scotland, with a successful distillery (home to "The Ardnacraish" - a particularly fine malt). The major railways had bypassed the town; the Young Laird saw an opportunity to grow the town's trade by linking it to the national rail system. His Colorado experience, plus the passing of the Light Railway Act in 1896, led to the construction of a 3 foot gauge line from Ardnacraish, through Bankfoot and on to the line's major engineering work at Bankhead Tunnel. The line then dropped down to Lochend, and on to an exchange with the Caledonian Railway. Thanks to the Colorado connection, some initial stock, including the ALR's first locos, was of American manufacture.

The line opened with speeches, toasts to the prosperity of the enterprise, and much skirlin' o' the pipes in April 1902.

The Young Laird and his wife take the train 

The Caledonian Railway, still smarting from it's Races to the North with the North British, saw an opportunity and took a large stake in the ALR a few years later. (It helped that there was some fine huntin' and fishin' for the CR directors in the hills above Ardnacraish..... ) The line prospered during the next 20 years - the limited road access over the wild moorland restricting competition. (Although the wagons carrying whisky seemed to suffer a lot of "shunting accidents" and damaged products which had to be disposed of by the train crew......). The Grouping of 1923 saw the CR stake pass to the London, Midland, and Scottish, but in truth the high heidyins in Glasgow and Euston paid little attention to this far-flung outpost of the empire.

An early colour picture of loco number 1, "The Wee Yank", descending from Bankfoot Halt.

Motive power from British manufacturers was being acquired, following trials of potential locos:

Climbing towards Bankfoot Halt

Bursting out of Bankhead Tunnel

Re-gauged Baldwin on trials

The heyday of the line was the 1920's; the great Depression of the the 1930's started to take it's toll. Traffic declined, and services were reduced. However, an unlikely saviour of the line emerged in the form of a small Austrian ex-corporal with a toothbrush moustache and a penchant for world domination. As war clouds gathered, the Royal Navy selected Ardnacraish as the  training base for convoy escorts. Under the energetic command of Vice-Admiral Sir Vincent Murray-Forbes KCB DSO, the base put corvettes, destroyers and frigates destined for the Battle of the Atlantic through their working-up programme. This continual flow of men and material was a godsend to the line, which saw traffic rise to unprecedented levels.

Post-war the decline gradually set in again. A harbour branch installed  to serve the Naval base was lifted, and the fishing catch began to be transported over the gradually improving road network. On Nationalisation , the ALR passed into the hands of British Railways, who, frankly, were not sure what to do with it, and anyway had bigger fish to fry. During the late 1950's, however, the line again came under influence of the Clan Macdougall.  The railway preservation movement was getting underway with the Talyllyn and Bluebell railways "south of the Border". James, grandson of old Donald, was an energetic champion of the local community; the British Railways Board was prevailed upon to sell the line to a local syndicate headed by James. Thus began the preservation era; a diesel was bought to augment the steam fleet, some of which were life-expired, and some steam locos were acquired on loan. James  persuaded the  MacBrayne ferry company to use the old Navy pier for services to the Isles. With some foresight, the ALR began to be advertised as a "Scenic route to the Isles" , and train timetables were adjusted to link with the ferries. 

To be continued...

Early preservation days at Lochend, with a visiting loco from the Evensford and Midland Railway

"Captain Brandy" on trials near Ardnacraish...

..and leaving Ardnacraish past the Post Office and General Stores

Returning to Ardnacraish, cresting the summit just outside Bankhead tunnel:

"Captain Brandy" grinds up to Bankhead tunnel on a short freight :

The Reality...

The above is, sadly, the product of an overheated imagination fueled by Adnams Broadside and Scapa malt (not in the same glass, I hasten to add...). Fans of "The Cruel Sea" will recognise the fictional Ardnacraish and the Admiral - HMS Compass Rose and HMS Saltash were put through their paces at the base in Nicholas Monsarrat's book.
In reality, my wee bit of Western Scotland lives in a standard modern small suburban garden. The railway originally started in 2002 with Bachmann American stock. The infrastructure was substantially complete in 2005; at which point the line was ignored for 3 years in favour of sailing. We'd just bought a sailing cruiser on the East Coast, so all our available time and money went on the boat. The boat was credit-crunched out of our lives in early 2008, owing to changes in my employment. 
The line not only suffered from neglect - in late 2007 I'd had to lift about 40% of the track to allow access for a fence replacement. So I was faced with a major rebuilding project. The line is basically a squeezed loop, or dog-bone, folded round 2 sides of the garden, with a terminus station off one end. 2008 saw some re-alignment of the trackbed  required to give The Authorities some extra border, and a leg of the American-era wye removed. Progress continued in 2009, with the main station board shortened by 4 feet (no need for the extra length of US tender engines and bogie stock). The pond was removed and replaced with a water feature, and Bankfoot halt was established. Finally the continuous run was re-established at the end of August, and we had a working railway once again. 

Lots more to do in 2010...
Lifting, cleaning and relaying the track around the scree garden

The other end of the "dog-bone" in early 2008, before renovation started

Pond replaced with a water feature, and more flower bed created:

Realigning the track to give more flower bed to the Domestic Authorities (Original alignment curving round the upper left of the picture):

Trackbed in place, with slates replacing the old plastic lawn edging:

Construction work started on Bankfoot Halt:

Continuous run finally re-established:

Remodelling the main station:

(Board shortened by 4 feet, new platform and loading dock under construction)

Tunnel area overhauled, with new rocks, plantings, and edging:

Loco Fleet

Princess Louise

The line's first live steam loco, an Accucraft Caradoc ex-Pwll Dylluan Railway. Nameplates waiting to be fitted, and lining to be applied. 

Captain Brandy

The line's first UK-outline loco. An Accucraft Baguley-Drewry, with r/c and sound added by Brandbright. It is, as the Reverend would say, A Really Useful Engine.


An Andel Models Orestein & Koppel, fitted with radio control. The rather pokey original exhaust stack has been replaced, and the bright red chassis toned down with some grimy black.

The three locos lined up at Ardnacraish:


My first G-Scale loco, this Bachmann 0-4-0 is now working hard on the Wetton Gooey Light Railway

A Lehmann Porter (seen on permanent way duties). This is awaiting Anglicisation; change the chimney, remove the cab and replace with - errr - I dunno yet. Watch this space.


Why the change to British outline?

Well, it was the convergence of a number of things, big and small.

Firstly, apart from the early OO days following the arrival of our son's first train set., I'd always modeled overseas prototypes. Maybe it's a sign of aging, but there came a desire to "come home", so to speak. I actually acquired some 4mm stock and started fitting 3-link couplings for an East Anglian based shunting layout, set in the late 1960's/early 1970's. Who knows, one day "Fleam Dyke" may see the light of day.

Secondly, I'd begun to feel that US-prototype modelling demanded more space than our garden has available (or at least has available without risk of divorce...). Yes, I know all about short lines and 4 freight cars behind a first generation diesel, but somehow that didn't work for me in the garden setting. N gauge had obviously spoiled me - a pair of GP40s and a string of double-stack container wagons were the norm.

Finally, I'd been left a bit of money by my late uncle; despite him living in South Africa, I was close to him, and was very fond of the old boy. Naming a loco after him seemed to be a way of honouring him (being ex-RN Engineering I hoped he would be happy having machinery named after him). This is where I stray onto dangerous ground - sticking a nameplate on a US diesel or steamie did not "feel" right - US locos were very rarely named. In UK narrow gauge, however, this was the norm. So an apparently minor item  (a pair of nameplates ) was the tipping point. 

Why a Scottish line? 

Again, a number of factors. We've holidayed there on a number of occasions, and find it a beautiful place. Also, we now have family connections - our daughter graduated from Edinburgh University, and is doing her doctorate there. Her longstanding boyfriend comes from the wild northwest, near Ullapool.

Finally, I didn't want a Welsh slate-hauler. Now I know this is heresy, and I will be excommunicated from the Church of Saint Talyllyn, but elfin locos teetering along Welsh hillsides with a train of dainty little slate wagons just doesn't move my needle. Sure I've visited some of the lines, and thoroughly enjoyed the trips, but.....   I guess I prefer my Narrow Gauge a bit more "beefy". Somehow the  Isle of Man, Cambletown & Macrahanish, and the Welshpool &Llanfair railways have more appeal. Oh for the time/space/ability/budget to model South African railways - great big grunty Garratts - yeah!  Ooops - calm down, lad.

So I've headed north, to the West coast of Scotland.