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Television: documentary reveals new photographs of 1890s Highlands railway construction

A new BBC ALBA documentary to be transmitted on New Year’s Eve reveals newly discovered photos taken during the construction of the railway line between Fort William and Mallaig from the late 1890s. Arguably one of the most spectacular railway lines in the world, this collection of over one hundred plates were unearthed in a sale in Cornwall in 2019. 

Local musician Ingrid Henderson follows the story of these photographs, what they reveal about lives and people in Lochaber, and attempts to discover the artist behind the lens.  At the same time she creates new music to pay tribute to the railway and the people who built it. For Ingrid, born in Mallaig, brought up in Fort William and now living and working in Glenfinnan, the railway has always been present in her life. 

In this programme, which is called Song of the Track/Ceol na Loidhne, Ingrid travels the line stopping at stations along the route to find the places in the photographs, and looks for inspiration to compose a new album. Producer Annie Cheape, said: “This previously unpublished original source material features over 100 images of the build project led by contractors Robert McAlpine and Sons, and includes the renowned Glenfinnan Viaduct.  Along with construction they document the people working on the railway, and the dangerous conditions they encountered.

“These images reveal the faces of the nurses who tended the injured in the make-shift field hospitals. Hundreds of men died to drive this section of the railway through one of the roughest terrains in Britain.  Many hundreds were injured while blasting through the rocks, most of them navies from Ireland or the Scottish islands.

“Many men were injured during the rock blasting, but alcohol was a huge problem too.  Men died of hypothermia after drinking too much, or had accidents on Monday morning while still under the influence.  As a result, McAlpine set up an innovative scheme of licensed drinking huts with safe whisky.    

“These images also reveal the faces of the nurses who tended the injured in the make-shift field hospitals. They are smiling, look relaxed, happy and enjoying themselves.  It’s unusual to see women of this period photographed in this informal way.
”  

With the help of the Lochaber Archive Centre, Ingrid attempts to find the names of some of these women. She also visits Hege Hernes who lives at Glenfinnan Station, who reveals evidence to suggest that the photos were taken by Tom Malcolm McAlpine, one of Robert MacAlpine’s sons. He was a manager of a section of the line where one of the men was badly injured during concrete blasting, and some of the photographs document his recuperation.  

Sgeul Media made Song of the Track/Ceol na Loidhne for BBC ALBA and it airs on Thursday, December 31 at 9pm. It will also be available on the BBC iPlayer for 30 days afterwards.

BBC ALBA is available on the following platforms: Sky 141 (Scotland) / Sky 169 (rest of UK)· Freeview / You View 7 (Scotland only)· Virgin Media 161· Freesat 109 · BBC iPlayer.

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Comment by Wilson Laidlaw on Monday

The program is well worth watching. 

Wilson

Comment by Michael Pritchard on January 7, 2021 at 17:53

I have heard good reports on this programme and would encourage anyone to check it on BBC catch up. 

Comment by Michael Holden on January 7, 2021 at 17:42

I should first declare an interest in this TV documentary as I played a very small part in the making of it. I watched it on New Year's Eve and found it very interesting and enjoyable.

Members may like to know that a book about this subject was published last year by the Glenfinnan Station Museum, written by the museum curator, Hege Hernæs, it is lavishly illustrated with many photographs printed from the original negatives 'unearthed in a sale in Cornwall' albeit in 2017, not 2019 as mentioned. Most, if not all, of these wonderful images are published for the first time and help to illustrate perfectly the conditions under which the railway was constructed through the magnificent scenery that is the West Highlands of Scotland.

Much of the narrative is presented in the form of a 'whodunnit' and is dedicated to discovering the identity of the  photographer, and at the end, whilst the author cannot say with absolute certainty who the 'snapper' was, and the reader is invited to draw their own conclusions, her finger is pointed firmly in the direction of Thomas Malcolm McAlpine, son of the construction magnate Robert 'Concrete Bob' McAlpine. I would be most interested to hear from members if there are any records of this particular scion of the McAlpine clan being a keen photographer of any note.

The book is a thoroughly good read - I have no financial interest in it - and would heartily recommend it to lovers of railways, photography, Scotland in general, and the West Highlands in particular.

Michael Holden

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