The Far North Line is a unique railway line. It is one of two to survive the Beeching cuts (which originally were to cut all railways north of Inverness) and extends its tentacles all the way up to Thurso, passing through some seriously good scenery from the passing Highlands to the coastal stretches to the rolling hills beyond the Highlands. It is a line that every rail enthusiast wants (or should want) to tick off. I originally did it for the first time in July 2017, staying overnight in Wick. This journey was to be different: I was to actually get off at one of the many tiny halts that scatter themselves along the entire line. The Far North line has the most number of "ghost" stations in the entire country, with 7 stations with an annual patronage of under 1000 dotted around. And, because of the way they are spread out, and the way walking is very hard across the harsh terrain and conditions of the Highlands, visiting more than 1 at a time is very hard. There is an exception, but this is for another time. Scotscalder is the most northerly station in the series proper. At some point, I will be visiting Georgemas Junction (1 stop north), as it only has about 1,500 annual users (most continue to either Thurso or Wick). But, Scotscalder, with only 294 people using it last year, is the most northerly of the proper ghost stations. Why Scotscalder first? Well, it was the station that the randomiser picked out. I don't like choosing things like this myself, so I let a randomiser select the station I would visit first.
Because I am a student, money isn't really a thing. So, these trips really have to be done in a day because my budget and timetable can't include a night in a hotel and travel back the next day. With my location being in Southern Scotland, this is fine for journeys to places like Breich and Chathill, or even places further afield like Nethertown where I can use express services for the bulk of the journey. It is less good for journeys up very long rural lines, because trains are infrequent and journey times are long, for understandable reasons. The journey to Scotscalder and back can be done in a day, but it is a very long one. My first train up to connect with the Highland Main Line service left at half-past six, leaving me with a 4am alarm. I didn't return back until well after midnight, having got the last service of the day south to Stirling from Inverness. It also gave me very tight connections. I had a maximum 13 minute change time, with a 5 minute change at Inverness on the way back. This is both brilliant and bad, for reasons that can be imagined.
Having slept for parts of the journey, I enjoyed the snow-speckled Highlands being whisked passed as I sped north to Inverness. I changed, made sure that the guard knew I wanted to get off at Scotscalder (which is a request stop), and then settled down to the lovely scenery of the Far North line (as I mentioned before) and the clickety-clack of the jointed track as the train trundled deep into the Highlands. The person sitting opposite me had a reservation to Altnabreac, which is another least used station I will visit, but didn't realise how request stops worked, running down the train in panicked dismay to find the guard when the driver predictably didn't stop because nobody was there. 10 minutes later, Scotscalder came into view, and the driver stopped (because I did know how request stops worked) and I jumped down to the platform.
As I got off, one chap got on. That was the last I saw of people until I left the station grounds and walked to Loch Calder.
The station itself is a rather typical halt in a tiny settlement. The platforms are low, the station well kept, a grass-covered ex-platform can be seen opposite and there are some relics from previous railway eras around the platform. The example are these two clocks, which brings Scotscalder's platform to clock ratio to one of the highest in the country.
I actually had quite a short time at the station, as I wanted to walk to Loch Calder (which is 3 miles away) between trains. I had from 14:03 to 16:50, which is more than enough time to explore the station as well as do the walk, but the walk was to happen first.
Scotscalder is located just off a very straight B-road, which has a smattering of rural traffic. As I trotted along, I spent time admiring the scenery. I didn't actually get to Loch Calder proper in the end because of time, but I did spend time speaking to weird-looking sheep, so life isn't too bad.
Having spent just under an hour walking to a stream by a road, I sat down, ate some of my pasta which I had brought with me, got weird looks from the two cars which passed me, and returned to Scotscalder. On the way back, I was given the evils by a farmer who was standing outside his farmhouse. He probably hadn't seen a stranger since he accidentally took a wrong turning and ventured into the international hub of Thurso by mistake. Slightly phased by the growl of an oncoming tractor (a real one not a class 37), I increased my pace and returned to the safety of Scotscalder station to explore it properly.
The Journey Home
It was the same but in the dark, so I tried to sleep most of the way. The tight changes were managed without difficulty, and I even saw a very late running Highland Chieften at Carrbridge, where we had to wait for 15 minutes to let it pass (we were running 9 minutes early because of a not-required 8 minute layover at the Tomatin loops). At Altnabreac, the person who had failed to get off the first time managed, a mere 3 hours late. I arrived back where I had started at 00:23, nearly 18 hours after I had started. It had been long, tiring but certainly worth it.
Scotscalder is one of those stations that are so useful for a small number of people. Having a request stop on your doorstep (quite literally) must be utterly wonderful, and something that was lost for ever in the 60s and 70s for so many people. The Far North line keeps this going, and I really love this. It also links quite a few quite large settlements, especially in the southern end, which have had their service increased. The final success of the line is the number of rail enthusiasts. My train had at least 2 or 3 groups of people taking in the full journey to Thurso or Wick. The variation of it makes it a brilliant line: the commuter traffic on the one end; the linking of all these piddling little settlements that are used by one lady on a Tuesday to go to Inverness to get her shopping done and by about 3 nutters like me who just want to visit them to say that they have; and the enthusiasts who just want to travel the full length of the railway. Scotscalder is not the most remote, nor is it the most interesting station I have visited, but it is a good little place which I'm glad kept its station.
Friends of the Far North Line
I was approached by one of the editors of the Friends of the Far North line shortly after the visit enquiring about publishing my image of 158707 arriving into Scotscalder. He did this (with permission) and also allowed me to plug this blog. Because of the work and effort that the Friends of the Far North Line put into maintaining and improving the service, here is a link to their website: http://fofnl.org.uk/ . Do have a look around.
Author - Felix