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The North British – Musings on a Scottish Railway Company


Author David Ross explores the history of the North British Railway, Edinburgh’s own railway company.

When I first visited Edinburgh from the far-off Highlands, in the early 1950s, I found the dream location for a ten-year-old boy who liked trains. In Princes Street Gardens a lattice bridge spanned the railway tracks into Waverley Station, just below the Scott monument. Both sides were lined by youthful figures armed with notebooks and pencils, their eyes only for the engines moving almost constantly in both directions beneath them.

I had never seen so many, or such a variety. And many had names – under my sandalled feet ran Jingling Geordie (clanking suitably), Wandering Willie, and Black Duncan. Others were named sonorously after Glens – all fine names for engines, I thought.

I knew they were quite old. Beneath their black British Railways paintwork lay the green livery of the London & North Eastern Railway, and under that was the different green of the North British Railway – Edinburgh's own railway company, and the biggest in Scotland. The North British ceased to exist in 1923, merged into the L&NER by government diktat, but thirty years later its engines were still puffing their smoke into the still soot-begrimed city.


It opened in 1846 as a line from Edinburgh to Berwick, intended to join up with railways to the south, and make the Edinburgh-London journey possible within 24 hours rather than a week. Under two strong chairmen, John Learmonth and Richard Hodgson, almost piratical figures in their competitive zeal, it grew and grew, absorbing smaller companies, spreading as far as Carlisle, establishing itself in Glasgow, Perth, Dundee, with branches running right into the north of England.

More than once its directors over-reached themselves and the company nearly went under, but somehow, though often teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, it kept on getting bigger.

Forty miles away in Glasgow was the headquarters of its great rival, the almost-as-big Caledonian Railway. They were by far the largest businesses in the country: in the mid-1860s their combined capital amounted to over £30,000,000 (multiply by at least 40 for current value), and each jealously watched the other's every move. Growth of the railway network owed almost as much to their attempts to outflank each other as it did to any real commercial necessity or logic.

Towns, whether new mushroom growths like Coatbridge or older places like Hamilton, were sliced through by cuttings and embankments.
A hamlet like Dolphinton, on the frontier between the two giants, might have two railway stations. For a long time, neither gave ground, though eventually competition subsided, gradually replaced by combination – mutually agreed fares and services, heartily disliked by users of the railways who quickly raised the cry of monopoly.


Passengers preferred the days when the North British and Caledonian, fighting for the Edinburgh-Glasgow traffic, reduced the fare between the cities to sixpence.


Scotland's astonishing industrial growth in the nineteenth century was underpinned and indeed made possible by the railways. From the Fife collieries alone, the North British carried over seven million tons of coal in 1878; in 1911 it was over nine million tons.

Apart from the main lines and branches, networks of industrial tramways spread across  the countryside, linking coal-mines, ore pits, quarries, petroleum plants, distilleries, and chemical works to the cities, towns and ports, in a range of activity hard now to imagine.

Frequently, as in the countryside behind Edinburgh, traces of these lines can still be found. But the imprint of the North British, builder of both Tay bridges, and a vital member of the Anglo-Scottish railway consortium that built the Forth Bridge, will remain vivid as long as these great structures stand.

David Ross is engaged on writing the history of each of the five old Scottish railway companies. His new book The North British Railway: A History is published by Stenlake Publishing. This definitive new history is based on original sources and includes 164 photographs, a timeline and seventeen maps.

Published: The Highland Railway (2010), The Caledonian: Scotland's Imperial Railway (2012), The North British Railway: A History (August 2014), The Glasgow & South Western Railway: A History (October 2014).

Coming in 2015: The Great North of Scotland Railway: A New History.

(Railway line image copyright Kim Traynor)


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