Book review: A Quite Impossible Proposal, by Andrew Drummond

Truth is stranger than fiction when it comes to Highland railway plans, finds Alastair Dalton

Friday, 25th September 2020, 2:23 pm
Updated Friday, 25th September 2020, 5:59 pm
A Quite Impossible Proposal
A Quite Impossible Proposal

Andrew Drummond has pulled off a rare feat – telling a fictional tale and then writing about it again as fact.

In 2004, the author wrote An Abridged History, an imaginary comic account of the building of a railway between Garve and Ullapool in the north-west Highlands.

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When he considered re-issuing the novel two years ago, Drummond said he looked more closely at the facts.

Andrew Drummond's 2004 fictional account of the building of the Ullapool railway

He found he’d been “slightly less than attentive” and was surprised to find that what really happened was “as convoluted and unexpected as the fiction.”

Multiple attempts

The resulting book, A Quite Impossible Proposal: How Not to Build a Railway, is as much of a surprise to me as discovering the facts were to him, and adds an entirely new dimension to an area of Scotland I thought I knew well.

Every time I’ve taken the A835 road to Ullapool, which hugs the rail line into Garve from the south, I’ve mourned the fact they part company there and the line heads west to Kyle of Lochalsh instead of continuing to the more northerly port.

The factual account of the project

I’d always thought that mountainous terrain had precluded further progress to the north west.

In fact, as Drummond’s book sets out, there were both multiple attempts to bring trains to Ullapool and a whole host of other schemes that could have brought them to remoter coastal settlements such as Aultbea, Lochinver, Laxford and even Achiltibuie.

Recalcitrant navvies

Furthermore, Drummond relates how the proposed railways went as far as routes on Skye and Lewis.

The book is necessarily a more sober account than its fictional predecessor, voiced by the Ullapool line’s put-upon engineer Alexander Kininmonth, who was entertainingly caught between recalcitrant navvies and equally unsupportive company directors.

However, some of the scheme’s extraordinary real-life proposals still provoke wide-eyed wonder, such as a steep “helter skelter” descent from Braemore to Loch Broom on the coast involving a sharply-curved tunnel to contend with the 200ft high Corrieshalloch Gorge.

Most fascinating of all is the inclusion of an Ordnance Survey map showing the proposed route, as if it existed, that Drummond unearthed from the National Records of Scotland.

Dismissive

The struggles of campaigners across the region to be added to the rail network to transform their dreadful transport links – appalling roads or slow and expensive steamers – is also vividly conveyed by Drummond quoting contemporary reports from newspapers including The Scotsman, on whose letters page the competing claims of different communities played out.

The title of the book is taken from a Scottish Office minister’s dismissive reaction to an 1889 proposal for the line.

The problem for Ullapool, and everywhere else that wanted to get in on the railway boom, was that by then lines which would eventually reach Mallaig and Kyle of Lochalsh were already underway.

The others never attracted either the support of the Government or the railway companies, or attracted the necessary private capital required.

Incompetence

Ironically, the 33-mile Ullapool scheme appears to have received somewhat equivocal backing from local landowner and eminent railway engineer Sir John Fowler, of Forth Bridge fame, although his son Arthur was a much keener proponent.

Drummond also highlights the incompetence of Government commissions over basic geographic facts, such as Ullapool’s location, which put it in an unfavourable light compared to nearby rivals Aultbea.

As for the Aultbea campaigners, their plans strayed into fiction by producing a map that showed Ullapool miles down Loch Broom to give the impression it involved a longer sea crossing to Stornoway.

A Quite Impossible Proposal is a detailed examination of an overlooked chapter in Scotland’s transport history that is as welcome as the fictional foray that preceded it.

A Quite Impossible Proposal, by Andrew Drummond, Birlinn, 308pp, £20

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