Gareth Huw Davies

Travel / Travel Blog

Borders line benefits for Scotland’s great Scott country

Heading soiuth to Walter Scott country - the new Borders Railway

Heading south to Walter Scott country – the new Borders Railway

The budget for the new 35 miles long Borders Railway in Scotland did not run to a celebratory golden spike to secure the last sections of rail, the traditionally flamboyant final touch on the transcontinental railroads in North America, when track-laying work was completed this month (February 2015).

But if the Scottish tourist authorities do their job, there will be a lustrous legacy for the area from this, the biggest programme of domestic railway building in the UK for 100 years. Or more strictly speaking, rebuilding. The new railway will replace about a third of the epic 98-mile Waverley Route from Edinburgh to Carlisle, closed in 1969.

Unlike most of the great railway expansion programmes of the Victorian era, driven by commerce and the faster transmission of goods, the new railway from central Edinburgh to Galashiels and Tweedbank, deep in the Scottish Borders, is about people.

Primarily, it’s about about local people, who will have an alternative to the car (slow), or the bus (very slow) to reach Edinburgh. And it’s about tourists, who, it is hoped, will arrive in this green, placid and rolling land in seriously big numbers, riding down into the heart of Sir Walter Scott country in steam-hauled heritage trains.

(That’s a hard business prospect, not some cosy Thomas the Tank engine fantasy. The Jacobite service is a big success on the north west coast of Scotland; daily steam trains operate on the scenic 41 miles long line from Fort William to Mallaig in the summer.)

The Borders line will offer other significant visitor attractions, including the Great Tapestry of Scotland, to be based at the terminus at Tweedbank, and the Mining Museum at Newtongrange.

It’s easy to say that this transport revival would have been quite beyond the hopes, or even dreams, of the villagers of Newcastleton, when they blockaded the line at midnight on January 6, 1969, in a futile gesture to halt the last train on the Waverley Route, the sleeper from Edinburgh to London. The local vicar was arrested and locked up in the police cells, and it took an intervention from the then Liberal MP David Steel, a passenger on the train, to secure his release and the dispersal of the crowd.

But it would not have been true. Within a year two farsighted entrepreneurs were proposing reopening the line as a steam train service through the Borders, serving tourists. It took another 45 years for part of that dream to be realised, with the reopening of the largest section of railway axed in the brutally destructive 1960s, following the Beeching Report. The new railway will cost £294m.

As it happens, Newcastleton, well south of the new  terminus at Galashiels, will still have to wait for its connection. Although if, as seems likely, this line attract more passengers than projected – and there are many examples of that happening in recent re-openings – the case to restore the line all the way to Carlisle may become irresistible.

Railway writer John Thomas believed the original Waverley Route was doomed once farmers found they could send their Cheviot sheep straight to market by lorry, and merchants could carry coal from pit to boiler house without resorting to rail. The route was expensive to operate, and “the lordly, but poorly patronised passenger trains were a veneer obscuring the parlous state of the line’s economy.”

At the public enquiry looking into closure in 1966, the big increase in car ownership among people in the Borders was a key factor leading to closure. Today one of the justifications for reopening the route is that roads are congested and driving is too slow. Google Maps gives the driving time from Edinburgh Waverley to the terminus at Tweedbank at one hour 12 minutes (57 minutes in the fantasy world of “without traffic”).

The fastest direct bus, the X95 takes 1 h 26 minutes, considerably longer than a steam train took when the line closed. The new trains are likely to make the trip in under 50 minutes, even with stops at ten stations.

The case for remaking the line was based on strict business arguments, reconnecting communities which are the furthest in Britain from a railway station. (There is an alternative view, that it is an SNP vanity project.) It should deliver a projected £33 million of benefits to the wider Scottish economy, through commercial development and new housing, inward investment and public sector job relocation. It will provide improved links to education and social activities. The railway will also lead to reduced carbon emissions and congestion, by cutting car use. There is a precise projection of six fewer road accidents on the A7 and A68 in every 12 months.

Then there is tourism. Studies by the Campaign for Borders Rail and the Waverley Route Trust concluded that £500,000 of extra income could flow into the Borders economy every year, from charter train traffic.

This has the potential to be one of the world’s great railway journeys, opening up the still little-known Borders. An unnamed visitor wrote this in the Times in 1887: “Wonderfully attractive as the border country is, its great charm to the visitor is its loneliness. On the east and the west travellers are daily whirled past it by the flying expresses; it is skirted and partly penetrated by the romantic Waverley Route. Its wide valleys are seldom trodden by any but shepherds and the sportsman, and few are the explorers who trace its formidable hills or care to lose themselves in the labyrinths of the solitary recesses.”

It is this region’s additional good fortune to be associated with the nation’s most illustrious literary figure, Sir Walter Scott, 1771 – 1832, poet, novelist, ballad-collector, critic and man of letters. His literary legacy will be a powerful selling point for the line.

Scott is credited with founding the genre of the historical novel, weaving together themes of gallantry, romance and chivalry, in his first novel, Waverley, in 1814. If you doubt that this was one of the most important books of the nineteenth-century, call at the new line’s starting point, Edinburgh Waverley, possibly the only station in the world to be named after a book. Just above his namesake station is the enormous statue to the celebrated author, said to be the biggest to a literary figure in the world.

The stretch from Edinburgh to Hawick opened in 1849; the remainder to Carlisle was completed in 1862. The line heads due south out of Edinburgh, and soon reaches the Borders, whose landscape, culture, history and views inspired Waverley and its successor books, including Rob Roy and Red Gauntlet. They were known collectively as the “Waverley Novels”.

Trains will follow this potent literary thread, through commanding scenery, up into the Moorfoot Hills, past medieval castles, crossing and re-crossing the Gala Water, a tributary of the Tweed, on bridges and viaducts built for the original railway in the 1900s, until it reaches Galashiels, once one of the principal seats of the Scottish wool industry, famous for high quality quality tweeds.

This is the heart of Walter Scott Country. The writer built his home, Abbotsford House, on the banks of the Tweed. Although born in Edinburgh, he was intimate with the Borders. He served as their literary discoverer, initially in his ballad collection The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders, 1802-3.

Scott was a contemporary of Jane Austin. They were towering figures in their own literary scenes. The year after Waverley came out, selling more copies in its first twelve months than all the other novels published in the UK in the same year, Austen’s Emma was published. Fittingly it was reviewed by Scott.

Tourism will be facilitated by a relatively small, inexpensive but crucial tweak to the railway plans. It was to extend the platforms at the Tweedbank terminus, south of Galashiels, so they can take long steam excursion trains. It is now up to the tourism agencies to market Sir Walter Scott. That shouldn’t be too difficult.

Scott designed Abbotsford himself. We might think of it as a concrete expression of the romantic literary world he was creating. The writer was a great collector and the house holds an impressive collection of relics. There are weapons, and pieces of armour, including Rob Roy’s gun, dirk, sword and sporran.

Close by are various points of inspiration for Scott in his lifetime, such as Smailholm Tower and Sandyknowe Farm. From Scotts’ View there is a splendid aspect over to his favourite Eildon Hills. The writer’s life story concluded at Dryburgh Abbey, where he was interred in 1832.
There is more to see close to the re-opened route. The Great Tapestry of Scotland is to be be installed at the Tweedbank terminus. It tells the 420 million year history of Scotland, in a national collaboration stitched together by people from all over Scotland.

Further north a new footpath will run from Newtongrange station, 9 miles south of Edinburgh, to the Scottish Mining Museum. The museum is based around the preserved Lady Victoria Colliery, one of the finest surviving examples of a 19th century colliery in Europe.

And, as a thoroughly modern service to passengers, there will be wifi at all stations on the route.

The new railway is expensive. In 2013 opponents questioned the cost benefit analysis, and warned that the line would fail to meet its promise targets. Transport Scotland insisted it remained on course to generate benefits of up to 30% greater than overall costs

A member of the Scottish Parliament, John Lamont, said the project for diverting funds from other, better-value public transport schemes in the region, such as new roads and bus links.

And yet it’s hard to see how even £300 million could have done much to ease traffic congestion in and around the city. Once the line opens, both sides will have ample chance to test their case. Will Scotland’s great Scott be an effective talisman?

He certainly offers an excuse for including a bar on the heritage trains, for the refreshment, and comfort, of travellers. I especially like this encouragement from the bard: “A glass of good wine is a gracious creature, and reconciles poor mortality to itself, and that is what few things can do.”