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Stop the Train! A curious history of Scotland’s most remote stations.

Posted by True Highlands in Kit and Caboodle | 11 comments

Wave your hand and command the approaching train to stop at the tiny private platform where you wait alone, miles from the nearest settlement. Sounds like a scene from the Wild West, but in fact you can do exactly this at a handful of so called request stops that serve some of the most inaccessible parts of the Highlands.

Usually trains will just hurtle past these unassuming and most basic of dots on the map, but for the curious there is a lot to see.

Some of these stations have an odd history, others are little more than a tiny concrete platform but for those connoisseurs of the remote and out of the way bits of our country, they are like a portal to the past.

There is often little information available about these stations and even less when you actually arrive there, so do plan your journey in advance. If you wish to alight at a request stop, you should notify the conductor as early as possible and he will signal the driver to stop. If boarding at a request stop, the train will slow down and sound its horn – if you wish to board the train then raise your arm so that the driver can see you. Sounds quite empowering doesn’t it?

Perpetually teetering on the edge of closure, many of these stations survive for reasons that have little to do with logic and certainly nothing to do with finance: political expediency, labyrinthine bureaucracy and sheer whimsy are often involved or, in the case of Duncraig, an outright rebellion in which local train drivers simply refused to accept that the station had been closed and stopped there anyway. After 11 years of this, the station officially reopened in 1976 and has been in constant service since.

Altnabreac Railway Station

Altnabreac is possibly the most inaccessible station on the whole of Britain’s rail network. Situated about 40 miles west of Wick and 12 miles from the nearest road there is actually nothing here and nothing for miles in any direction, apart from the platform and a very rough dirt track. That alone just makes me want to visit. What is curious about Altnabreac is that there seems to be no actual reason for its being there and nobody seems to be able to conjure up a reason as to why it was built in the first place. If you are a hiker or mountain biker it’s just too good an opportunity to miss, the wilderness experience without the effort. There are only a few trains a day that pass here, if you miss one there is a phone at the station, as the chances of mobile reception are slim. You may have a long wait.

Dunrobin Castle is one of Scotland’s oldest inhabited castles, the stop here was once the private station of the Dukes of Sutherland, where you could step off the train directly through the gates into one of stateliest homes in Scotland. The station was built by the third Duke in 1870 who was by all accounts a bit of a train spotter. He even had his own private locomotive and train kept here.

Reopened in 1988 The Falls of Cruachan station on the Oban branch of the West Highland Line is another example of a perfect jumping off point for hillwalkers. There is also a recently installed path to the Ben Cruachan Visitor Centre, but due to there being no station lighting, trains can only stop here during daylight hours.

Duncraig Station

Duncraig station, just a few miles east of Plockton is another formally private station, now free for all to use. Sir Alexander Matheson, co-founder of the mighty Jardine Matheson Group made his staggering fortune selling opium to the Chinese before returning home to his native Scotland to build himself a Castle, enter parliament and gain a knighthood. When the line from Inverness to the Kyle of Lochalsh opened in 1897 Matheson had Duncraig station built as his own private stop, adding an octagonal waiting room constructed in the style of his castle. The waiting room is a listed building and is incredibly well preserved (the castle somewhat less so).

Once a village with no roads Lochailort now has two roads but sadly no village. It is a stunning place to visit though, right in the middle of The Road to the Isles, and has featured in numerous films including Breaking the Waves and Local Hero. The once grand Inverailort House which was requisitioned to train spies during the war is sadly in a terrible state but fundraising is ongoing to turn it into a military rehabilitation centre.

Lochailort

Although not technically a request stop, we should include Corrour on our list of out of the way stations. Sir John Stirling Maxwell gave access to the West Highland Railway Company to build across his land on condition that they build a railway station for guests visiting his estate here. It opened in 1894 with estate guests being taken from the station to the head of Loch Ossian by horse-drawn carriage before journeying down the loch by steamer. These days it is still 10 miles from the nearest road but there is a restaurant and a youth hostel. It is a scenic jumping off point for exploring the nearby hills and benefits from having a direct connection with London, being on the Fort William sleeper service. The station featured briefly in the film Trainspotting.

So you see, who knew train stations could be so fascinating!

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Comments (11)
  1. Claire says:

    Fabulous topic at this time when railways (steam and diesel) are being extended and reintroduced in our Scottish Highlands. We have used 2 of these ‘request stops’ over the years; one to access a bothy, a Munro and another for a cheeky weekend for 2 away from the maddening crowds of life under the stars!
    To all adventurers make the most of all means of transport and remember your OSMap, compass and sense of adventure.
    Thanks for sharing..

  2. karen says:

    altnabreac station was opened to serve loch dhu lodge bringing game shooters and other visitors who would be taken to the lodge on horse and cart or if they were energetic by walking

    • Michael Redfern says:

      About Altnabreac station – it was set up merely for operational reasons, specifically as a passing loop for trains to pass one another and for steam engines to take on water; the remains of an old water tower and a second platform still stand there. (I have visited this station three times now – twice on a mountain-biking trip to the area in 2012, and on a hike in 2014.) Lochdhu lodge was built 21 years after the station – the station served as a convenient drop-off for builders and materials during the lodge’s construction, and for guests during its operation. The hotel closed in 1975; the passing loop was taken out roughly 10 years earlier. However, the school for the children of the railway workers stationed there in the days of steam engines and there being a passing loop (so needing signallers to operate it) continued to operate until 1986 – and the station was never closed. The school is now a private residence, as is the cottage on the station platform and the former Lochdhu hotel.

  3. Kate Aspin says:

    We love staying at Rogart! Tiny station….

  4. Pingback: LEJoG by Bus & Train 2017 | thetykester

  5. Peter Caton says:

    I visited Altnabreac four years ago when writing The Next Station Stop. Then the station house was empty. Is it lived in now? I’ll be going back later this year as I’m writing a book on remote stations. I was at Duncraig last week and started the book at Corrour. All wonderful places.

    • True Highlands says:

      Hi Peter. I’m not sure – perhaps you could update us when you visit?!

    • Joshua CR says:

      Station Cottage at Altnabreac is indeed now occupied. I was there last month and had a little chat with the guy who lives there, they’ve been there a while now!

      • True Highlands says:

        Thanks for the update!

  6. Barrie Papworth says:

    Fantastic to see that the trains are being used by tourists instead of cars. We need more of these sort of railway stations in the rest of the country and should re-open some of the branch lines closed by Beeching. Great blog post thank you.

  7. Peter Caton says:

    I visited Breich on the Shotts line yesterday. Not the most remote but no houses nearby. Sadly up for closure now. Only two trains a day call – which goes some way to explaining why it’s Scotland’s second least used station.

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