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The Dornoch Light Railway

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The story of the construction of the Dornoch Light Railway.


The 28th July 1874 saw the completion of the Highland Railway’s new main line to Wick and Thurso. A full fourteen years since the passing by Parliament of the Inverness and Ross-shire Railway Act which opened the door for a railway to the far north.
Over 161 miles of railway wound its way north through Inverness-shire, Ross-shire and Sutherland to Caithness. One of the two wide sweeps that the line made inland was to Lairg, ensuring that the county town of Sutherland, The Royal Burgh of Dornoch, was passed by some 12 miles at Bonar Bridge and 7 miles at the Mound.
It was not long before the good people of Dornoch realised just what they had missed. The railway was bringing increased prosperity to the whole of the east coast of Sutherland, but Dornoch was feeling the pinch. Local businessmen mooted the idea of a branch line from the new station at the Mound via Embo to Dornoch. However little progress was made, railways were expensive to construct and there was no relaxation of the mainline’s high standards for branch lines.
Then in 1896 came the Light Railways Act. It was at last possible to build a small local railway to less stringent standards and in particular with regard to the proposed Dornoch line it would be permissible for the railway to share the Mound embankment with the road. Telford had constructed the embankment in 1815/16 at a cost of £12.000, but if a second embankment had been required for the railway it is unlikely Dornoch would have ever seen the iron horse.
Things started to move apace and by early 1897 the Dornoch Light Railway Company under the chairmanship of His Grace The Duke and Earl of Sutherland was in name, at least, a reality. The 3rd Duke had been the driving force for the construction of the main line through Sutherland, building a private railway for some 17 miles to Helmsdale when the original company ran short of funds upon reaching Golspie. As we shall see, his successor was not to let down the people of Dornoch in their efforts to be connected to the railway network.
The Dornoch Light Railway Order was confirmed on 13th August 1898. The company was empowered to construct a railway between the Mound and the fishing village of Embo and Dornoch. The County Council of Sutherland was to provide £1,000 towards the cost, with the Town Council of the Royal Burgh of Dornoch providing a further £500 and the Treasury a grant of £9,000.
The Duke himself was to contribute £5,000 and have the right to appoint one director of the company, in addition to himself, a right he maintained as long as he held at least 5000 £1 shares. Likewise the County Council and the Corporation could also appoint one director each, who must be a member of their respective bodies.
The light railway order gave the company wide powers of compulsory purchase for a period of two years, although the Duke of Sutherland had gifted most of the land so these would not be required. Parts of the order make fascinating reading and give an insight to attitudes of the time, section 20 states:
The Company shall not under the powers of this order purchase or acquire in any district within the meaning of the Public Health (Scotland) Act 1897 ten or more houses which on the fifteenth day of December last were occupied either wholly or partly by persons belonging to the labouring classes as tenants or lodgers except with consent of the Secretary for Scotland ten or more houses which were not so occupied on the said fifteenth day of December but have been or shall be subsequently so occupied.
For the purpose of this section the expression “labouring class” means mechanics artisans labourers and others working for wage hawkers costermongers persons not working for wages but working at some trade or handicraft without employing others except members of their own family and persons other than domestic servants who’s income does not exceed an average of thirty shillings a week and the families of any such persons who may be residing with them.
The order also prohibited the speed of any train to exceed twenty five miles per hour, though by all reports and published timetables this was never to hinder the operation of the railway in any way!
With the legal niceties behind them the directors were able to get on with the business of building a railway. In November 1898 they felt warranted to issue a prospectus and invite applications for shares – 9.501 were taken up. The line was to be constructed and operated by the Highland Railway Company. It was the opinion of the Dornoch company that the widening of the road bridge at the Mound and provision of additional sidings would benefit the Highland Railway more than the Dornoch line and as such the Highland Company should defray the engineering costs. The Highland Company would have none of this and offered only to put in the junction at an estimated cost of £1,000.
At a directors meeting in the Sutherland Estates Office in Golspie on 6th June 1899 plans were submitted and instructions given to advertise for tenders. However by August all was at a stop. The Treasury had intimated that as a condition of their grant the Highland Company should work the line for a period of 99 years. This the Highland Company refused to do unless they were guaranteed against loss in working the railway for the said 99 years. After considerable negotiation Sir Francis Mowatt of the Treasury agreed that in special circumstances it would accept a working period of 50 years. Various meetings took place in order to devise a plan to surmount the difficulty faced by the directors, even on the reduced working period. Ultimately the chairman, The Duke of Sutherland offered to give the necessary guarantee for the first 15 years. However the Treasury would not agree to a reduction in the working period of 50 years. Once again the Duke stepped in and this time offered to place £3,000 with trustees as a guarantee fund for 35 years if the Highland Company would agree to work the railway for the required 50 year period. This on 4th October 1899 the Highland Company agreed to do.
At last progress could be made. On 26th of the same month advertisements appeared seeking tenders for the construction work. By December all tenders of which there were a great many, were to hand. Not only that but representations to the Treasury had resulted in an increase of the grant to some £14,000 which was estimated to be half the cost of construction. Only £3,000 of the authorised share capital of £31,000 had yet to be taken up.
Messrs. Chisholm & Co. of Inverness won the contract for £11,573 which did not include the cost of permanent way or buildings. The work consisted of excavating 13.155 cubic yards of earth, of which only 30 cubic yards were rock, and the forming of 15,484 cubic yards of embankment, laying over 2,900 yards of drain, fencing each side of the line, altering the public road in a number of locations, forming sheep creeps, building platforms and laying rails. By February 1900 the engineer was able to report to the directors that work was in progress at the Mound. An enterprising person had erected a wooden hut there and opened a shop for the new squad of workers. Severe weather was to hold up work during March but by the middle of June the track was made all along the southern margin of Loch Fleet and a large gang of men were at work between Coul and Embo. July saw the formation reach Achinchanter.
However on 13th November 1900 The Northern Times Newspaper reported that work had been at a standstill for some time and large numbers of men could be seen wandering around Dornoch and the Mound aimlessly in expectation of the work being restarted. Poor old Mr. Chisholm was in financial difficulties. The directors formally asked him to complete the contract and meetings were held with Mr. Richie, Chisholm’s solicitor. No progress was made and they then asked the Highland Railway Company to complete the turnpike road at the Mound and other works necessary for public safety. It was decided to advertise for tenders to complete the railway which was by this time three-quarters finished. Mr Chisholm was later to be taken to the Court of Session by the company who made a claim of £2,088.8s.9d against him, this being the difference between his contract price and the lowest tender for completion of the works together with a further sum of £1,820 as penalty for breach of contract.
It was to be July 1901 before the new contractor, Roderick Fraser, was to commence work, slowly at first but by September good progress was being made. Two hundred tons of rail had arrived by steamer and 7,000 sleepers from the Duke of Sutherland’s saw mill at Golspie were lying along the line waiting to be put into place. The directors asked the contractor to put more men on the job as they were keen to see the line open for the following season.
After the Annual General Meeting on 10th October 1901 the directors of the Highland and Dornoch Companies met in private. It was widely speculated that they were considering building a new hotel in the town which was confirmed on 17th October. The directors were expecting the railway to result in a doubling of the influx of visitors each year.
Tenders for construction of the station buildings, gate houses and the station master’s house at Dornoch were accepted, at a total cost of £2,570.10s.0d. A house at Skelbo was to be bought from the Duke of Sutherland for £200 to accommodate either a gate keeper or station master. Mr. C.M.Gillespie, newsagent of Dornoch, had requested the provision of a bookstall on the station, which was agreed to and James Robertson, the carpenter building Dornoch Station was instructed to construct same.
January 1902 was to see much of the rail laid as well as an inspection by Major Druitt of the Board of Trade, with a view to seeing that the conditions of the Treasury grant has been complied with. All was well and an interim payment of £7,000 was to follow.
On 17th May a ura or cyst was found at Cambusmore. Upon lifting stone slabs some 4 feet below the ground, it appeared to contain a cremated body. This was taken by Mr. Fraser to Cambusavie.
As opening day grew nearer a draft timetable was published. This showed three trains in each direction each day, commencing with the 6.10 a.m. from Dornoch to the Mound and finishing with the 6.02 p.m. from Mound to Dornoch. This timetable was criticised as the busiest day in Dornoch was Tuesday, court day, and no consideration had been given to people travelling from the north. The first connection with a southbound train at the Mound was at 1.02 p.m. arriving in Dornoch at 1.32 p.m. yet the court started at 12 noon.
On 29th May 1902 Major Druitt returned to the railway for its final inspection and was well pleased with what he saw. The week before opening, station staff were appointed. Douglas MacKenzie ex Georgemas Junction, was to be station master at Dornoch, James Craig, ex Dalcross, agent at Embo, and James Farquhar ex Nairn, agent at Skelbo.
Opening day, 2nd June 1902 dawned dull and wet yet it was still to be described as a red letter day in the history of Dornoch and the Empire. Not that the railway coming to Dornoch made much impression on the Empire, but the South Africa War had finished on the same day. Still every house in Dornoch was decorated with flags and bunting. A large crowd, reported to number 1,000, gathered at the station to see the first train arrive from the Mound with the directors of the Dornoch and Highland Companies. They were greeted by the town council and local band. Mr. MacLean the factor for the Duke of Sutherland performed the opening ceremony, in the Duke’s unavoidable absence. The official photograph was taken and all then marched to the Sutherland Arms Hotel where 60 invited guests were entertained to lunch.
Later all shareholders were treated to a free return ride to the Mound and back. The takings for the first day amounted to £35 in total, £16 from Dornoch, £10 from Embo, £4 from Skelbo and £5 from the Mound.
The railway was well patronised from the start. In July there was a meeting of the Dornoch shopkeepers as the Great North of Scotland Railway Company, which operated in North East Scotland, was refusing to provide a through rate for goods to the Dornoch Light Railway. It was resolved that if the company did not provide a through rate by 9th August 1902 then all shopkeepers would cease to deal with suppliers in towns served by the G.N.of S. Railway Company. In the first three months, gross earnings of the railway were £561.19s.9d. less working expenses of £379.19s.5d. giving a net profit of £182.0s.4d. A total of 15,930 passengers had used the railway and train mileage stood at 4,115. The working expenses did not include any allowance for permanent way work as the contractor was responsible for this for the first six months.
Messrs. Cameron & Burnett, architects of Inverness, had submitted plans for the new Highland Hotel to the Highland Company. It was expected to cost £30,000, as much as the whole railway, this to include furnishings and landscaping of the grounds. The building was not to have a very ornate exterior, Mr Alexander, builder and Mr Robertson, carpenter, both of Inverness, were awarded the contract and work started in early 1903.
The Highland Railway published its timetable each week in the Northern Times but for some unknown reason it was not until February 1904 that the timetable for the Dornoch line was included:
Dornoch D 6.05 8.46 11.00 12.40 5.07
Embo D 6.16 8.56 11.12 12.48 5.16
Skelbo D 6.27 9.07 11.20 12.56 5.26
Cambusavie D
Mound A 6.28 9.18 11.31 1.06 5.38

Mound D 9.26 11.42 1.15 6.00
Cambusavie D
Skelbo D 9.40 11.53 1.26 6.14
Embo D 9.50 12.00 1.33 6.24
Dornoch A 9.58 12.08 1.41 6.32
As can be seen, a Tuesdays only train now arrived in Dornoch at 12.08 p.m. no doubt as a result of earlier criticism regarding court times. One wonders just how many people appeared in court each week! On 16th June 1904 a graphic description of the new hotel which was to open at the end of that month appears: “The hotel will consist of 65 bedrooms, a large coffee room capable of seating 150 persons, Lounge, Ladies writing room, Smoking room, Billiard room, Lavatories, Golfers corner, Hairdressing room, Drawing room and several private sitting rooms and ample kitchen and staff quarters. The hotel will be lit by a 16 horse power generator engine supplied by Hornsbys of Granton. All bedrooms will look either East, South or West and the hotel will be provided with a large produce garden, croquet lawns, tennis court and bowling green.”
Back on the railway, consideration was being given to providing a shelter at Cambusavie Halt. The engineer suggested placing an old coach body on the platform which would cost £10 The company rejected this idea and investigated the cost of a wooden shelter but at £28.3s.0d. it was thought to be too expensive. At this stage the Duke stepped in and offered to supply the timber free of charge and it was resolved to ask residents in the neighbourhood to subscribe to the cost of erection. Just what the residents thought to this suggestion is not recorded!


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