Meeting Report: Dumfries and the Railway from the Beginning until 1923

6 November 2015
David Ross (Author and Historian)

Seventy-eight members and guests of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society packed the Cumberland Street Centre on 6 November to hear David Ross speak on the subject of Dumfries and the Railway from the Beginning until 1923. Far from being an esoteric lecture of interest only to railway buffs, it was an enthralling yet masterly tale of high endeavour and low skulduggery, of exuberant public celebration and despondent defeat, of visionary heroes and venal villains, and all delivered throughout with engaging enthusiasm interspersed with dry humour.

Mr Ross, biographer of George and Robert Stephenson, the pioneering railway engineers, and author of five books on the railways of Scotland, began with allusion to Literature set on the railway lines passing through Dumfries, such as Dorothy L. Sayers' The Five Red Herrings, John Buchan's The Thirty-nine Steps, S.R. Crockett's The Heather Lintie and T.S. Elliot's Skimbleshanks, The Railway Cat:

You were fast asleep at Crewe and so you never knew
That he was walking up and down the station;
You were sleeping all the while he was busy at Carlisle,
Where he greets the stationmaster with elation.
But you saw him at Dumfries, where he speaks to the police.


The first serious plan for a railway through Dumfries was in pre-steam-locomotive 1809 when James Hollingworth surveyed a route south from Sanquhar with the intention of building a horse-drawn wagonway to ship coal out from a proposed new port at Kelton. It was estimated that iron rails would allow a horse to haul 9–10 tons rather than the half-ton maximum by normal road. The proposal was revived by the Buchanan Report in 1825, which promised a return of 17.5% to investors. Again, nothing came of it, the economic case against it made clear by the 1841 Statistical Accounts showing that it was cheaper to import Cumbrian coal by sea from Whitehaven.

Although there had been earlier attempts at railways for steam locomotive, it was the opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825 and the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830 that began Railway Mania with a frenzy of railway building throughout Britain, every city and town determined on a rail link and fearful of the economic consequences of failure to obtain one. Dumfries was no exception, and a Glasgow to Carlisle railway passing through Dumfries was proposed in 1835. Predominantly English entrepreneurs (despite the proposed and perhaps deliberately misleading name, The Caledonian Railway) favoured a more direct route through Annandale, however, and a worried Dumfries sought support from the Glasgow, Paisley, Kilmarnock and Ayr Railway (The Ayrshire). Through a combination of adverse economic factors, the 1840s was not a good financial era but nevertheless the Glasgow to Ayr link had opened in 1840 and by 1843 the Ayrshire had reached Kilmarnock. Dumfries wanted a link between Kilmarnock to the north and Carlisle to the south. The Caledonian sought to undermine this proposal with a promised spur from Annandale to Dumfries but an end-of-the-line status was unacceptable to the town. There was also at this time a short-lived proposal to build a railway from Ayr via Castle Douglas to Auchencairn, later cross-linking Castle Douglas to Port Patrick in the west and Gretna in the east, where the line would join the proposed Caledonian line, but this came to nothing. In the end, when the rival Ayrshire and Caledonian routes were presented to Parliament, the Caledonian triumphed, to great dismay in Dumfries. A Parliamentary Report had already favoured the Caledonian route but it was also supported by the Dumfriesshire MP, J.J. Hope Johnstone who, purely coincidentally, was a big landowner along the Annandale route and became the Caledonian's first Chairman in 1847.

Undaunted by this initial setback, the Dumfries line investors formed the Glasgow, Dumfries and Carlisle Railway and in 1846 presented a new proposal for a link between Dalmellington, which the Ayrshire had reached by the this time, and the Caledonian at Gretna. Parliamentary approval was greeted with celebratory bonfires in the town (and the burning in effigy of Hope Johnstone, who would lose his parliamentary seat the next year). Raising the full estimated cost of £1.3 million at this time proved difficult but, to great celebrations in the town, the foundation stone of the Nith Viaduct at Martinton was laid on 16th July 1847. Thereafter, progress was slow, with only a temporary station built at Dumfries. Nevertheless, from 1 September 1848, five trains ran daily to Gretna. Northwards, the Cumnock connection had still not yet been laid. The Drumlanrig Tunnel, unnecessary but forced on the Company by the Duke of Buccleuch to minimise disturbance to His Grace's tranquillity, proved a formidable engineering problem but was completed in October 1850 and, with the entire line now fully open, the Glasgow, Dumfries and Carlisle Railway merged with the Ayrshire to form the Glasgow & South Western Railway (G&SWR). Oddly, the last run of the Mail Coach drew greater note than the completion of the railway line.

The intent was now for a railway across the Region, and in 1859 the Castle Douglas and Dumfries Railway began running three trains daily each way. With John Viscount Dalrymple, Earl of Stair, as principal driving force, the Port Patrick Railway Company (PPR) was established in 1857 to link Castle Douglas to a proposed new harbour at Port Patrick. The line was completed in 1862, but the proposed harbour never materialised, Port Patrick being supplanted by Stranraer. The Earl had initially planned to run his own trains but this proved financially non-viable and negotiations began in 1863 with the G&SWR to take over. In that same year, the Dumfries, Lochmaben and Lockerbie Railway opened and was being operated, to the intense annoyance of the G&SWR, by its bitter rival, the Caledonian which, at the insistence of Parliament, ran its trains out of G&SWR's Dumfries Station. G&SWR's approach to the PPR was an attempt to head off further westward expansion by the Caledonian but in the end the Caledonian triumphed over the G&SWR, albeit with an expensive agreement that lost it money throughout the period of the contract. In 1885, after a protracted power struggle between the two traditional rivals, both Companies together with their respective English partners, the London & North Western Railway and the Midland Railway took over the line.

In Dumfries itself, now with a permanent Railway Station (after two earlier temporary versions had been demolished or burnt down), the Station Hotel opened on 16 July 1897, the smallest of G&SWR's four great Railway Hotels. Earlier in the 1880s, a Glenkens Railway out of Dumfries had been proposed but came to nothing. In 1905, however, the Cairn Valley line to Moniaive was opened and Dumfries's railway network had reached its geographical zenith. At this time, more than 100 scheduled trains passed through daily, supported by 81 staff serving passengers, 104 dealing with Goods, 142 servicing the locomotives and an additional 350 Surfacemen maintaining the tracks. Two bitter rivals operating out of the one station was not, however, a harmonious arrangement and there were dark tales of parcel labels being switched and other attempts to steal each other's trade.

The rivalry between the G&SWR and the Caledonian finally came to an end with the Railways Act of 1921 which took effect in 1923, merging the 120 railway companies throughout Britain into what was dubbed 'The Big Four' — the Great Western Railway (GWR), London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS), London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) and Southern Railway (SR). In time, too, Dumfries would lose the Cairn Valley railway (1949), the Lochmaben/Lockerbie line to passengers in 1952 and final closure as part of the Beeching cuts in 1965–6 along with the much loved 'Paddy Line'.