Building The West Highland Railway >
This page carries the story of those 37 navvies who died near Arrochar, Tarbet or Ardlui during the construction of the West Highland Railway at the end of the 19th century and the story of how local people campaigned for the erection of a memorial to these brave men now buried near the Ballyhennan Cemetery.
Construction started in 1887 and was completed in 1895.
Here is a list of those who lost their lives in
Arrochar connected with Building
of West Highland Railway 1890-1894: -
Single, Railway Worker - Died: Tarbet,
23 years old
Construction started in 1887 but there were no fatalities in this area until 1890. The railway was opened in August 1894 - the longest stretch of railway opened in a single day at 100 miles.
The main camps for the railway workers were located at Helensburgh, Arrochar, Ardlui, Crianlarich. There was also a place at Creaganardain viaduct called Hunters huts. Each camp had medical facilities for the workers manned by nurses provided by the railway. The ministers of that area also held libraries for the workers. There was one such library at the Manse in Arrochar. Other ministers did the same thing as this helped to keep the men off the drink. The workers didn't mix very much with the local communities. The men were a mix of Highlanders, Irishmen, Poles and men from all over the world. A lot of the Irish navvies didn't stay long due to the remoteness and conditions and went down to England where there was more social life.
Helensburgh was the first camp as it was next to the railway and the sea. Arrochar was the next one as there was a road and railway. On Loch Lomond they could come up the railway to Balloch then onward by steamer. Equipment was brought up by barge to Ardlui. The five camps had around 5,000 men working at them at any one time. their accommodation was primarily wooden huts. Stores were also provided within the caps for the workers to purchase provisions. The ways were 21 shillings for Ardlui and North and 15 shillings for South of Ardlui. The mens' ages ranges from very young to old. Kenneth Munro aged 37 from Alness was murdered up in Ardlui.
Locals wanted a siding at Craggan (Glen Douglas) and raised a petition to this effect. they believed the nearest stations at Arrochar and Whistlefield would provide them with little benefit and thus requested a siding at Craggan.
The Scottish Record Office states that the farming community expected to benefit from the railway. In this case their wish was granted. The siding at Glen Douglas (Craggan) served both Lochlomondside and Lochlongside. Today it serves as an M.O.D. depot. The petition reached the North British General Manager early in 1894, as the West Highland approached completion. The siding was available from May 1895.
The main reasoning for why the railwaymen were buries outside the cemetery walls of Ballyhennan cemetery was possibly due to the fact that the cemetery was full or in some way down to the various persuasions of the men. The church was planning to extend the cemetery walls to incorporate the mass grave but this never happened. The ground belongs to the Colquhouns.
The Arrochar camp was probably located at close proximity to the railway line to minimise the commute to work as is stated such in the LNER railway publication of 1947. There may also have been a camp at Glenmallan. Some of the railwaymen probably went to the village dances at the Arrochar village hall as no women were allowed in the railway camps.
The working conditions were appalling with little or no shelter. There were very few mechanical tools save steam shovels and the men would have been wet to the bone for much of the time. Power blasting was also used - this was carried out by the 'powder monkeys'. Concrete was also used in places. The Creaganardain viaduct has concrete but this may have been put on at a later date. Trees were planted along the way including ashes and silver birches.
It was a massive construction; the longest piece of railway line opened in one day at 100 miles. The first train left Fort William at the back of 6 O'clock. The drivers worked one long shift from Fort William to Craigendoran and then back to Fort William in one 12 hour shift. The railway changed the way of life in many villages and was the first such large construction to have this affect on these small communities.
The line opened in 1894. In 1895 was the worst snow storm of the century and the West Highland line had to be closed. Two engines were once stuck in a snow drift at Glen Douglas as the snow was so deep it went up to the chimney! The late Norrie Campbell's father was a driver in the 1940's.
Rannoch station, like many stations, had a post office. All were swiss chalais built to the same design. all were island stations. Most of the mail then came in via the train and fish was exported South. Arrochar station had a book stall - John Menzies and was extremely important in the second world war. All the Canadian and American troups that were training in Inverary were brought by rail to Arrochar and then on by bus to their designated training grounds at Inverary. There was a train that left Glasgow at 3.15am called 'The Ghost'. It carried all the gallon cans and papers etc. and dropped them off at line side houses which had no access. On the Mallaig road the children would stop the Fort William train and a ladder would be dropped and the children would be taken for a ride.
There was a tour train in the 1930's - The Northern Bell. It was 320 from King's Cross up to Aberdeen, to Balloch, then by steamer to Ardlui. A petition was drawn up by the folk of Morelaggan and Glen Douglas as there originally wasn't planned to have a stop at Glen Douglas. The 'deer stalker express' carried the top wigs from London to go shooting dear at St. James' Hunting Lodge. They were then put back on the train back to London. This is now a back packers place.
A memorial to those men who lost their lives during the construction in this area is in place at the Ballyhennan Cemetery. This was erected in 1994 on the centenary of the opening of the railway.
See also The 1891 Arrochar Census
Here is some of the correspondence and newspaper clippings relating to the construction and opening of the memorial to these men: -
And here is what the grave site looks like today