Strathard Heritage Archive

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Last Train to Aberfoyle: Myth & Mystery

by Don Martin

Reproduced from Scottish Local History, Issue 90, 2014-15, pp.16-19 with kind permission from the Scottish Local History Forum

Recording Railway History

All things considered, the steam-powered public railway was the most significant innovation of the nineteenth century. Industrial advancement was clearly of prime importance as well, but railways pervaded every walk of life, bringing with them a degree of inland mobility hitherto only dreamed of. The role of the railway should therefore form a key element of social and economic studies of localities during the middle/late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but unfortunately this is not always so and there is often a reluctance to handle the railway elements of local history in a confident way. Large numbers of people study railways for their own sake, but these specialists tend to populate a separate world, often quite remote from that of people engaged in mainstream historical studies, including local history. Railway history is not always accorded its appropriate stature in community studies. Unfortunately, this can result in basic errors and even a tendency to diminish the otherwise high standard of quality local history.

Fig.1: Aberfoyle Station, 19 June 1960. Eight months after closure the station was still intact and in good condition. Author.

A Coincidence of Error

When reviewing two excellent Stirlingshire books for Scottish Local History [1] the writer was struck by the fact that both contained errors relating to the last trains on the Aberfoyle branch railway, also that the errors were not identical, suggesting that the authors had obtained their information from different sources. With a little investigation he found that these books were not the only ones to err in this respect. Very quickly two more were identified, again exhibiting differences in the way the errors were presented, suggesting different sources [2]. In chronological order of publication the errors are as follows:

  • A six-coach passenger train, shown passing through Killearn, is described as the ‘last train through the parish’. However, the train is readily identifiable as an enthusiasts’ excursion that ran on 3 May 1958, long before the Aberfoyle Branch through Killearn finally closed in October 1959 with the termination of goods traffic. The antediluvian locomotive is a former North British Railway goods engine built in 1899, British Railways No.65315.[3]
  • A photograph of the same train at Balfron is described as a ‘special excursion’ photographed c.1960. This is the least of the four errors, because the description ‘c.1960’ could be considered to embrace the correct year of 1958, but unfortunately it tends to fortify the other errors, by implying that the train ran on a date after the closure of the line in October 1959.[4]
  • The same photograph as described in the context of the first of the four errors, quoted above, is published again, but here claimed as showing ‘one of the last [trains] to run in 1951’. It is certainly true that the last regular passenger trains ran in 1951, but as we have established, this was a special train of May 1958.[5]
  • Yet another photograph of the May 1958 train shows it this time at Blanefield. It is described as an enthusiasts’ train which ran ‘After the line had closed for both passenger and freight…’, but as has been established this train ran in May 1958 and freight trains continued to operate until October 1959.[6]
Fig.2: Stephenson Locomotive Society special train leaving Abefoyle on its return journey, 3 May 1958. On the way back the locomotive travelled ‘tender first’. C Lawson Kerr.

As mentioned, the enthusiasts’ train that was illustrated in all four contexts ran on 3 May 1958.[7] It is easily identified from other available evidence because there were many photographers on board, with others following the train by car, and some of their work has been published.[8]  The locomotive is recognisable by its antiquated appearance and by the special train number 189 it carried on a circular plate on the middle of its buffer beam. The train length of six coaches is also important for identification purposes (see below). As regards the Aberfoyle Branch, this event had no ‘last train’ attributes whatsoever, the last regular passenger trains having been removed from the branch seven years earlier. It was not even the last ‘special’ passenger train, for another ran on 16 May 1959, organised by Glasgow University Extra-Mural Education Committee.[9] Again, this train had a distinctive appearance, with a much larger locomotive, No.61788 Loch Rannoch, of a type usually employed on the West Highland line, but with only three coaches including an observation car. It carried the special train number 157.[10] After the passage of Loch Rannoch and its special passenger train, goods trains continued to run on the line for almost another five months.

Fig.3: Glasgow University Extra-Mural excursion at Aberfoyle, 16 May 1959. Author.

History at First Hand

The author had first-hand experience of some of the ‘last trains’ on the Aberfoyle line. He was not present on the enthusiasts’ excursion of 3 May 1958 but has spoken to several people who were, and he has seen many carefully-annotated photographs of it. To assist with a school project when at Lenzie Academy he booked onto a Glasgow University Extra-Mural course on ‘Early Canals and Railways’ which included the Aberfoyle Excursion of 16 May 1959, mentioned above. In September that year he spotted a notice in the Glasgow Herald to the effect that the ‘Aberfoyle Freight Branch Line’ would be closed beyond Lennoxtown with effect from Monday 5 October 1959.[11] Optimistically, he wrote off to British Railways for a permit to travel on the last goods train to Aberfoyle, which was scheduled to operate on Friday 2 October.

Fig.4: Press notice of the closure of the Aberfoyle Freight Branch Line, 1959.
Fig.5: Author’s permit to travel on the last scheduled freight train to Aberfoyle, 2 October 1959.

Last Scheduled Train to Aberfoyle

Time was short, and the permit did not come through in time, but the stationmaster at Kirkintilloch confirmed that it was indeed in the pipeline and made arrangements for the author to join the train[12] at Lennoxtown. Before clambering into the brake-van he noted that the steam locomotive was of a fairly modern type for the time, 2-6-0 No.43137. The train that then set off from Lennoxtown consisted of locomotive, brake-van and one wagon of coal from Blairhall Colliery in Fife. Intriguingly, the latter was addressed to Aberfoyle. The train crew were aware that this was supposed to be the ‘last train’ to Aberfoyle, but had been told to seek the advice of the station agent at Balfron as to whether or not the wagon of coal could proceed to Aberfoyle.

Fig.6: Locomotive of last scheduled freight train at Aberfoyle, 2 October 1959. Author.

Beyond Lennoxtown the first stop on the outward journey was at Dumgoyne to give the crossing-keeper his last wage packet. Apart from opening and closing gates his main duty had been to weigh and label whisky from Dumgoyne Distillery. At Balfron the agent decreed that the wagon of coal must go to Aberfoyle, last train or no last train. At Gartmore there was a short delay while sheep cleared off the line. Aberfoyle was reached at 11.52am. Our wagon was added to four more at the terminus, all still requiring to be emptied, so it was clear that another ‘last train’ would be needed in due course, to remove the wagons when they were empty. On the return journey only one wagon, from Gartmore, was cleared out, although twenty-nine had apparently been removed from the branch the previous day. Together with the five at Aberfoyle, another three wagons, all at Balfron, remained to be cleared from the branch at the end of the day.[13]

The Very Last Trains

The following day, Saturday 3 October, a Kirkintilloch friend of the author’s talked his way onto the branch goods train, which that day was scheduled to run only as far as Balfron, and indeed should have formed the very last train to that place. His hope was that it would be extended to Aberfoyle to remove the five wagons remaining there, together with the three remaining at Balfron. In the event the train did indeed continue to Aberfoyle, but did not remove the wagons there and instead added a further wagon of coal! At Balfron a wagon of lime was added to the three vehicles remaining there; so this left a total of six wagons at Aberfoyle and four at Balfron for removal on or after the official closure date. Sadly, despite his best efforts at the time and during subsequent years, the author was never able to establish the true date of the ‘last train to Aberfoyle’. It would probably have run sometime during the week beginning Monday 5 October 1959.[14]

Last Trains to Other Places

Returning to the photographs of the special train of 3 May 1958 that began this investigation, it is appropriate to mention that there is another confusing factor. The nineteenth century locomotive No.65315 that hauled this train later operated a genuine ‘last train’ in the same area. This was on a nearby part of the Forth & Clyde Junction line (Balloch-Stirling), between Balloch and Drymen. A special was operated to Drymen on this line by the Branch Line Society, on Saturday 17 October 1959. As this section of line was officially closed on the same date as the Aberfoyle line, 5 October 1959, this was the last train of any kind to Drymen; there were no subsequent goods trains, other than those on a short surviving spur to Jamestown at the Balloch end. Although operated by No.65315 the train comprised only three coaches, so there is no possibility of confusing it with the earlier special operated by the same locomotive.[15] Another local line that closed to goods on 5 October 1959 was a section of the former Kelvin Valley Line, between Maryhill and Torrance. This also had an enthusiasts’ special for its last train, but much later, on 30 April 1960. It was operated by Glen Douglas, a locomotive now on view at Riverside Museum, Glasgow.[16]

Fig.7: Last train at Drymen, 17 October 1959. Author.

Conclusion

The public steam railway was a monument to the Victorian period. Those of us who took an interest in its history during the middle years of the twentieth century were gratified to find it largely intact, although changes were clearly coming. Nearly all lines were still operational, even if some of them had lost their passenger services, and most trains were still steam hauled. For the most part the locomotives of the Victorian era had been superseded by early twentieth century equivalents, but quite a few period examples still survived. It seemed important to find ways of recognising the significance of the era that was coming to an end. By the same token, it is still appropriate for local historians to appreciate that the watershed symbolised in Britain by the Beeching Report was the last echo of an important episode in human history, and to accord it due care and attention.

Acknowledgement

The author’s thanks go to Kenneth Martin for preparing the map for this article. In fact he has prepared several maps for recent issues of Scottish Local History, facilitating a degree of consistency in this respect. Another of his maps appears on page … of this issue.

Map.1

Notes & References

[1] F Glass (ed), The Parish of Killearn, 3rd ed (Killearn Trust, 2009), reviewed in Scottish Local History, Issue 84, Autumn 2012, p.54; and A Dryden, Strathblane 1870-1970: a century of change (Strathblane Heritage Society, 2012), reviewed in Scottish Local History, Issue 87, Winter 2013-14, p.51.

[2] J Thomson, The Balfron Heritage (Balfron Heritage Group, 1991); and J Hood, Old Killearn, Balfron & Fintry (Stenlake Publishing, 2000).

[3] Glass, op cit, p.36. This error is listed first in chronological order because it was carried forward from a previous edition of 1988.

[4] Thomson, op cit, p.31.

[5] Hood, op cit, p.14.

[6] Dryden, op cit, p.54.

[7] Stephenson Locomotive Society (Scottish Area), Rail Tour to Kilsyth and Aberfoyle, Saturday, 3rd May, 1958 (1958),typescript itinerary.

[8] For example, a photograph taken at Blanefield by W S Sellar, published with an article by David Anderson on ‘The Aberfoyle Line’ in Steam Days, November 1997, pp.647-54. The careful accuracy of the photo captions in the railway enthusiast press, as compared with local history books in this context, is worth noting.

[9] Glasgow University Extra-Mural Education Committee in collaboration with the Education Authority of Glasgow, A Course of Lectures and Excursions: Early Canals and Railways (1959). Duplicated typescript, copy in author’s collection.

[10] A well-annotated photograph of this train at Lennoxtown, again by W S Sellar, was published with David Anderson’s Steam Days article (November 1997 issue), mentioned above.

[11] Glasgow Herald, 21 September 1959. British Railways practice at the time was to give ‘closure date’ as the first scheduled service date on which no scheduled services would run.

[12] The train service was the N120 ‘trip working’ duty, operated by Eastfield Locomotive Depot, Springburn, Glasgow. It worked from Cadder Yard, Bishopbriggs, to Aberfoyle on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, but only as far as Balfron on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

[13] Author’s contemporary notebooks, entry dated 2 October 1959.

[14] Ibid, entry dated 3 October 1959; Robert S Weir, personal communication.

[15] Author’s contemporary notebooks, entry dated 17 October 1959; Branch Line Society, The Forth & Clyde Junction Railway 1853-1959: a descriptive note of the railway for the occasion of its last train on Saturday, 17th October, 1959 (1959), typescript itinerary; R D Campbell, ‘The Forth & Clyde Junction Railway’, Part 2, Backtrack, May 2010, p.299.

[16] Stephenson Locomotive Society (Scottish Area), Glasgow City & District Tour, Saturday 30th April 1960 (1960), typescript itinerary; author’s contemporary notebooks, entry dated 30 April 1960.