Company History, Great North of Scotland Railway.
Green 4-4-0s running all the trains, a main line and several straggling branch lines, the rich agricultural land of the north east of Scotland, a cold wind from the north sea; these are some of the images which people conjure up when the Great North of Scotland Railway is mentioned. To others, it is just that small line which ran north from Aberdeen and did not even get to its intended destination of Inverness. All these images have some truth in them, but to many the Great North was a fascinating line which is well worth a second glance.
The Company was set up in the railway mania of 1845/46 to build a line from Aberdeen to Inverness. The original plans envisaged a double track line which would have cost £1.5 million quite a tidy sum in those days and way beyond the means of the people of the area to raise. Several branches were planned at the same time to bring the advantages of railway transport to the whole area. What happened in fact was that the GNS eventually built its line as far as Keith and the rest of the route to Inverness was built by a separate company, later part of the Highland Railway, promoted by the people of Inverness and the surrounding area who would have nothing to do with the Aberdeen folk who promoted the GNSR.
Once the main line was open,
interest turned to building branches to bring the advantages of rail
travel to the other parts of the north east. Separate companies were set
up to build these lines. The GNSR hoped that the capital needed to build
these lines would be raised in the areas to be served, but it undertook to
operate them on favourable terms. By
1866, branches had been built to Fraserburgh and Peterhead, Alford,
Macduff, Banff and Portsoy and Dufftown. From Dufftown, a line had also
been built down Speyside linking with the Morayshire Railway at
Craigellachie and eventually with the Highland Railway at Boat of Garten.
The Morayshire Railway was the
first line in the north east, originally running just the short distance
from Elgin to Lossiemouth. It later extended south to serve the Rothes
area. When the Speyside line was opened in 1863, the Great North took over
the working of this line.
Another early company operating
in the area was the Deeside Railway, which opened to Banchory in 1853 and
was later extended on to Aboyne and then Ballater. It had originally been
intended to go all the way to Braemar, but the development of Balmoral as
the summer home of Queen Victoria kept the terminus at Ballater.
In 1866, a major amalgamation
scheme was effected, whereby all the branch line companies, with the
exception of the Morayshire and Deeside Railways, disappeared. Many of
these branch line companies were financially in difficulty. The
amalgamation coincided with a major financial crisis in the banking
industry; the resulting high interest rates almost bankrupted the GNS
itself, but it survived. Creditors were gradually paid off, but the
railway had no money for new investment for several years.
Prosperity gradually returned.
The arrival of a new Chairman, William Ferguson, and a new Manager,
William Moffatt, brought renewed vigour to the company in the 1880s.
Sections of the main line were doubled, new locomotives and rolling stock
was built and the Coast line from Portsoy to Elgin was built. This gave
the company a second route to Elgin in addition to the one via
Craigellachie. Trains from Aberdeen often carried three separate portions
for Elgin, via Craigellachie, the Coast line and the Highland line from
Further developments in the 1890s
finally saw train speeds on the main line increased with the introduction
of express trains for the through traffic to Inverness. The Westinghouse
brake and interlocked signalling were gradually introduced after much
pressure from the Board of Trade. Apparatus for automatically changing
single line tablets was introduced by James Manson, then the locomotive
engineer. Bogie coaches were introduced, although 4 and 6 wheeled stock
remained in general use until the 1920s.
The Company undertook all its
maintenance and some construction at Kittybrewster, but the site here
became more and more congested, so in the early 1900s a new works was
constructed at Inverurie, complete with staff housing. Locomotives and
rolling stock were then constructed there until the grouping. This works
survived until 1969 and was well known for the high standard
The Company eventually owned three hotels, two in Aberdeen and one on the coast with a golf course at Cruden Bay. It originally built and repaired locomotives and carriages at Kittybrewster on the north side of Aberdeen but this was very cramped so a new lavish works was set up at Inverurie, 16 miles to the north.
The GNS was one of the earliest users of buses as feeder services to the railway lines. Traffic in the summer months was increased by the number of tourists in the area and several tours were run specially for them.
The early management of the
company achieved a very poor reputation and almost bankrupted the company in 1866 but
gradually it recovered to be one of the most efficient lines. It had to be due to the low
level of traffic there was little industry and the farming communities spent as
little as possible on transport. But it was also an innovator, inventing the first
automatic tablet changing apparatus for instance. Most of the lines were single with
frequent passing places but some quite creditable speeds were recorded.
Throughout its existence, the company had to exist on a comparatively low level of traffic there was little industry and the farming communities spent as little as possible on transport. But its management was ever conscious of costs and kept them under control. It was also innovative and, from the 1880s onwards, produced a respectable if not sparkling dividend for its shareholders.
In 1923, the Great North became the Northern Scottish Area of the LNER. Fairly soon, most management functions were moved south to Edinburgh, but there was little investment so the atmosphere of the old company lingered. Even in BR days, strong GNS traditions survived. Gradually road competition took its toll. Two of the branches lost their passenger services in the 1930s and a further in 1950, but it was the Beaching era which saw everything else, except the main line, close.
Today, the main line as busy as it ever has been. The timetable was completely reorganised in the 1960s to offer only through trains between Aberdeen and Inverness and this service has increased over the ensuring years as demand has been spurred by oil prosperity and congestion on the parallel roads. There is even talk of re-opening a suburban service between Aberdeen and Inverurie.
Not much else remains of the Great North. One of the last 4-4-0s, Gordon Highlander was preserved by British Railways in the late 1950s. It worked specials until 1965 and has since been in the Glasgow Museum of Transport. One coach, a saloon, and a wagon are preserved at the Scottish Railway Museum at Boness. A few other coaches survive, but the most interesting collection is to be found in the farmyards of Aberdeenshire. Inverurie sold off many coach and wagon bodies from the 1920s to the 1960s and a few survive, including several built over 100 years ago.