By Alistair Heather
Puir infrastructure is a belt aboot Scotland’s thrapple. Oor roads are pithailed anachronisms. Boats tae the isles are auld an dear. Fleein tae ony airt ither than London gars ye traivel tae the ane o the central belt aeroports, doublin the cost an time o ilka journey. Scotrail is a mixter-maxter o the sorry an the sublime. On ae haund there’s a braw new electric service breengin atween Embra an Glesca. On the ither haund ye hae twa-cairiage vintage trains rattlin aroon an aboot the hielands, gangin nae place fast. No anely is infrastructure puir, but infrastructure inequality is severe an growin worse ilka year. Gin ye want tae gang onywhaur in Scotland north o the Forth, by car, sea or rail, it’ll be slaw an it’ll be dear.
The effects o this are extreme. Hale sections o Scotland are economically uninhabitable.
Ane o the worst effectit airts is the Buchan. The Broch. Peterheid. Buckie. MacDuff. Big touns thrang wi cultur, business an potential, cut aff fae mercats an ceeties by an infrastructure that’s oot o date by decades.
A solution is chuggin reekily owre the horizon: the Buchan railway line. There ance wis a line linkin aa the North-East tae the rest o Scotland, but it wis torn oot by Beeching in his cuts. Nou a reinstatement is possible. The SNP are gettin ahint the idea. It has grassroots support.
Whether it’d be a full relayin o the auld 57-mile track that linked Peterheid an the Broch wi Dyce, or some new configuration, isnae yet set in stane. But whit is gey clear tae the maist blindit o een is the sair need in the area for a train line.
The fowk o the Buchan are haein tae thole gey sair times the nou, in the wake o the oil crash an the decline o fishin. Unemployment is a huge issue. The nummer o fowk needin a haund fae the state rose by 97.5% in 2016. The lack o ony ither employment opportunities in that airt means that thae fowk wha are dumped oot on their dowp efter years o guid wark in the oil an gas industry arenae likely tae finn new posts ony time suin. The unemployed are mair nor likely tae be hale, hearty men atween the ages o aboot fowrety an saxty, an skilled warkers intae their sectors. Ae muckle barrier tae wark wis that they juist coudnae gang intae Aiberdeen for tae finn wark or mak contacts; it wis juist owre far. Nou, ye’re mibbie anely speakin aboot forty mile or so, but on thae totty wee roads, wi their ferm clart an tractors blockin yer run, it micht weel be twa hours tae drive. It’s fowre hours an twenty quid return on the bus.
So aa these gey talentit lads, richt in the middle o their warkin lifes, are bein left tae rot in the fields like unhowkit tatties, their skills deid tae the economy o Scotland.
An exemple fae near at haund shaws us clearly the benefits o a train line.
Ballatar an Braemar are baith Cairngorm conurbations. Baith war on ane o the vital routes through the Cairngorms an syne had ivery raison tae be a vibrant economic hubs. In the nineteen-hunners a trainline wis planned, tae link Braemar tae Aiberdeen. Construction got sae far as tae big a railway station at Braemar, a biggin that stauns there yet.
But than intae this naitural development cam big Queen Vicky. She bocht Balmoral Castle, an a guid skelp o the laund thereaboot. She suin cam tae ken that the new railroad wad gang richt by her new front door. So the train wis stapped at Ballater, saxteen mile doun the road. Braemar was left tae stew in parochialism.
The difference atween the twa touns — ane wi a train station durin a century, the ither withoot — coudnae be mair merkit. The population o Ballater is double that o Braemar, its tourism infrastructure is weel-developit an it has a relatively diverse economy.
The tearin up o the North o Scotland railroads pit a stap tae Ballater’s development, but the tale o the twa touns is a usefu fable for unnerstaunin the importance o infrastructure in rural areas.
There is a braw modren test-case for rebiggin the Buchan railway line: The Borders Railway. The Borders line rins fae Embra doun tae Tweedbank, juist ayont Galashiels. The area wis ane o the maist disconnectit in Scotland, wi a hirplin tourism industry an prohibitive traivel costs. Busses tae Embra took owre twa hours, but this train taks unner ane. This situation is mirrored by the Broch an Aiberdeen.
The economic impact o the Border Railway has been staggerin. Owre a million passengers in the first year — 350,000 mair than expectit — an a huge shot in the airm o local businesses. The Scottish Tourism Economic Assessment Monitor (STEAM) figures for the Borders efter the biggin o the railway war aa fantastically positive; a 27% increase in vísitors steyin at hotels an B&Bs. 20% mair spent by vísitors on bevvy an scran. Aa across the buird nummers are heized up.
There’s naebody doun there scratchin their heids speirin whaur aa this new money cam fae. They ken fine. “The introduction of the railway has undoubtedly contributed” tae aa this growth, says Stuart Bell fae the Borders Cooncil.
The Buchan needs this railway like it needs its neist breath o air. The belt o 19t century infrastructure needs lowsed aff the thrapple o the North-East.
The Transport Mínister, an indeed aabody in the SNP leadership maun pit their shouder tae the wark an mak absolute certain that this project comes tae fruition. A new trainline will be the artery, pumpin the lifebluid o cash an fowk tae the Buchan hertlands that’s sae sairly needit. Wi’oot it? It’ll be yet anither tuim airt, anither Ross, anither Cairgorms, anither bleak wasteland that ance supportit life but nou anely exists for grouse shoots an postcairds.
Alistair Heather is the Scots Editor at Bella Caledonia. He studies History an French at Aiberdeen University, an warks wi the Elphinstone Institute promotin the cultur o the North-East. Gie him yer chat @historic_ally on Twitter.