Wednesday, May 09, 2018

The trains to the loch

Back in 2012, Andrew Wood, who knew of my interest both in curling and railways, contacted me with the information that volunteers at the Keith and Dufftown heritage railway had uncovered the remains of a 'curlers' platform' on the line, near to Loch Park. The volunteers had been clearing vegetation lineside and uncovered the remains. My interest was immediately aroused, as I had never considered such places before, where a temporary halt was made on a railway line near to a curling venue.

The importance of railway travel generally to curling in the nineteenth century cannot be overestimated. Travelling to meet the curlers of another club, for example to play for a district medal awarded by the Royal Caledonian Curling Club, was only possible because of the railways. It was either that or travelling great distances by horse-drawn coach. Railway stations covered the country, and rail travel took curlers close to where they wished to play.

Often there was a station near to where the curlers wanted to play. But there were special places too. For example Carsebreck, where many Grand Matches were played, had its very own railway station, and Carsebreck was chosen to be the Royal Club's pond because of the closeness of a railway line, see here.

Here's the Royal Club station in 1929, with curlers awaiting transport home after a Grand Match. The up and down main lines are in the middle of the picture, and there are two loops alongside substantial platforms. Although only one is shown I am assuming that the photographer is on the other where different images seem to show that there was a small building. The building in the distance is the Royal Club's headquarters hut, with the loch behind.

But there were other bonspiels on outside ice which were also served by the railway. These may not have been as large as a Grand Match, but they often involved hundreds of curlers. There were the International Matches. The first at Talkin Tarn, near Brampton, saw many hundreds of curlers arrive at Brampton Station, and it transpired that the arrangements for the transport of stones from the station to the lakeside relied on carts being pulled by horses, about which we might know little had it not been for the demise of the station master's horse, which was reported in newspapers of the time (the story is in this article).

Other International Matches and the Waterloo Cup bonspiels in the early 1900s required the construction of a special platform alongside the Castle Loch in Lochmaben. I have walked part of the old railway line and have a good idea where this platform might have been, but no trace of it remains as far as I can see, and the railway that ran from Lockerbie to Lochmaben is long gone.

There was a curlers' platform on the Great Northern Railway line at the Loch of Aboyne, and the Aberdeen Free Press advertised a special train from Aberdeen to the loch on February 9, 1891, for a bonspiel the following day between curlers from the north and south of the River Don.

The following year, the same bonspiel was held at Pitfour, the Banffshire Journal and General Advertiser of Tuesday, January 26, 1892, recording, "A special train was run from Aberdeen, conveying the Deeside and north curlers, and arriving at a special platform erected by the Pitfour Club at Cartlehaugh, exactly opposite the lake." The local curlers had constructed at platform at Cartlehaugh in 1888, for a match that never took place owing to a thaw, but it is good to see that their efforts were rewarded some years later.

The RAILSCOT website suggests that there was a 'curler's platform' beside Loch Leven (see here). This makes great sense, as the railway runs close to the loch just south of Kinross. Initially I could find no evidence of this ever being used, nor could I find any evidence of exactly where it might have been.

Local clubs curled on the loch, and there is lots of evidence for this. Large bonspiels were held too, these relying on the railway to bring in competitors and their stones.

An inter-county bonspiel that matched up teams from Perthshire against those from Fife and Kinross was held on Loch Leven in 1912. The Dundee Courier of February 7, 1912, contains a report of the match, 82 teams representing each side. There was no mention of how the curlers travelled to the match. Apparently the ice conditions weren't the best. The report states, "No sooner had play started than snow began, and, the weather freshening, the ice became druggy, and those with dull, 'sooking' stones could not get near the parish. Something like a record was established Mr Thomas Buchanan, of Dunkeld No 2 (D) rink, defeating Mr John Wallace, Lundin Links, by 51 shots to 0. Mr Wallace and his men were hopelessly at sea among the slush, and none them could get their stones in the inner circles." That decisive victory no doubt contributed to Perthshire winning by 305 shots!

Early in 1929, the match had been played indoors at Edinburgh Ice Rink, Haymarket, over a number of days, there having been insufficient ice on Loch Leven to hold the bonspiel on natural ice. On November 30, 1929, the Scotsman newspaper reported that the draw for this inter-county match had again been made.

The bonspiel did go ahead in February 20, 1930. Here's a few words from the Dundee Evening Telegraph on the evening of the match. "Loch Leven was in her winter garb, and followers of the roaring game entered with vigour into the popular winter pastime. The trek to the loch began in the early forenoon, and the players arrived by bus, motor car, motor cycle, and special train. They came bedecked gaily-coloured berets, glengarries, balmorals and kilts, and as they trekked merrily over the ice to their respective rinks, greetings and good humoured banter were exchanged. Fully ninety rinks were engaged and the players numbered fully 800."

I was especially interested in the mention of how the curlers got to the match. No, not the mention of getting there by motor cycle, although just how a pair of curling stones could be accommodated on a bike deserves some thought, but the mention of 'special train'!

Recently, a very rare item of curling 'paper ephemera' came up for auction. I may have been the only bidder who really appreciated its significance, and as luck would have it, I won the auction.

The document is just three pages, and is a private communication issued from the Superintendent's Office of the London and North Eastern Railway (Southern Scottish Area). It provides the details of the railway's arrangements for the upcoming inter-county match two days ahead. One special would run from Elie in Fife, bringing that county's curlers to Loch Leven. One special would run from Dundee, and another from Perth, bringing curlers from the north. Additional capacity would be available on connecting lines. For example, a third class carriage and a 'brake compo' was to be attached at Stirling to a train from Glasgow.

A spare engine and guard was to be provided at Kinross Junction from 10.00 to work 'as required'.

And of course, the leaflet contained details of the trains returning from the loch.

The above shows the special from Fife, and return. Departure was from Elie, at 8.30 am. The left column shows the number of curlers expected at each station. The train's arrival point on the loch is shown as No 3 Level Crossing. The curling stones were to be carried on two 'trucks' attached to this train, and the document states that 'low-sided' or 'fish trucks' should be used for conveying the curling stones.

The arrival and departure point for the trains coming from the north were at a different place from that of the train from Fife. This was to facilitate handling of curling stones, particularly on departure from the loch. The care of curling stones was important. An assistant guard was to be provided on each special train 'to assist with the loading and unloading of the Curling Stones'!

There was no extra cost to each curler for transporting their pair of stones. The cost of the rail travel was discounted too, as "Curlers and Spectators will be conveyed to Loch Leven and back at a Single Journey Fare (plus fractional parts of a penny, minimum 2s, First Class, and 1s Third Class)" on the special trains. And if, like me, you happened to wonder if there were special tickets, the document states that "The Station-masters at the various stations will issue 'Pleasure Party' or 'Blank Card' return tickets to Loch Leven."

The LNER document was signed by C H Stemp, Superintendent. He was Major Charles Hubert Stemp CBE, who was to retire five years later after a railway career of more than 50 years. I suspect that all his experience was needed when, just after his instructions had been issued to his staff for dealing with everything involved in the rail transport of the bonspiel, nature played a wild card. The ice near the railway line was found not to be strong enough, and the rinks for the bonspiel were prepared in the vicinity of the Factor's Pier, further to the north.

The Dundee Courier reported on the day of the match, "The grand match between Perthshire and Fife and Kinross-shire is usually played at a point in the vicinity of the railway, but it is deemed advisable to transfer the venue because the ice at that point is none too secure. The change will cause much inconvenience, because at the original venue the curlers were able to remove their paraphernalia from the train immediately adjoining the loch. Today, however, arrangements have been made for motor lorries being placed at the disposal of the competitors, and they will be conveyed from Kinross Junction the Factors Pier in vehicles."

So, the travel hub for the special trains was now Kinross Junction Station (to the west of Kinross where the M90 exit for the town now is). One wonders how arrangements there worked out. Interesting too, that motorised transport was to play a part in the arrangements for this big bonspiel, already anticipating the decline of the railway in transporting curlers around the country.

As it turned out, the competition went ahead and was well reported. The Dundee Courier on Friday, February 21, even had a photo of play on the Loch, above, captioned, "CURLERS INVADE ANGLERS' HAUNT - Loch Leven, whereon in season anglers move 'with bated breath and whispering humbleness', was yesterday invaded by devotees of the roarin' game from Perthshire, Fife, and Kinross for the inter-county bonspiel, played for the first time since 1912. A view of some of the rinks during play."

This photo was in the Dundee Evening Telegraph and was captioned, "A general view on the ice on Loch Leven yesterday during the bonspiel between curlers Perthshire, Fifeshire and Kinross-shire, which Perthshire won by 72 shots. There were 88 rinks, over 700 curlers taking part."

Here is the match report, published in the Dundee Courier of February 21, 1930:

Fife and Kinross Beaten by 72 Shots

Yesterday Loch Leven was the Mecca of the followers of the roarin' game in Perthshire, Fifeshire, and Kinross-shire, when representatives the Big County engaged in friendly rivalry with their brother curlers of Fife and Kinross.

After a splendid three hours' curling, Perthshire emerged victors by 72 shots; their total being 1361, compared with their opponents' 1289.

The last meeting of the sides on Loch Leven was in 1912, when Perthshire were 305 shots up.

The conditions yesterday were ideal for the sport, and play was engaged in at 88 rinks, over 700 curlers taking part.

It was the opinion of many of the older curlers, who had taken part in the 1912 bonspiel, that the ice was the finest they had seen on the loch.

Those who have admired Loch Leven in her summer serenity, the rowing craft drifted to and fro on her gentry rippling surface while Waltonians deftly plied their rods, would have been just exultant in their praise if they had seen her in her winter splendour as she was robed yesterday.

In the early forenoon the contestants began to wend their way to the loch, and arrived by bus, motor car, motor cycle, and special train.

Braw lads from the Highlands of Perthshire contributed to the picturesque scene as they arrived arrayed in their glengarries and balmorals, their kilts, red-cuffed jackets, and tartan trousers. the curlers trekked over the ice to their various rinks greetings and good-humoured banter were exchanged.

It took some time before everyone had got to his place; but when the gun was fired announcing the commencement of play, a thunderous cheer rang out, and brooms were waved vigorously in the air.

While play was progress an animated scene was presented, but the great gathering seemed a mere handful in a shallow corner of the loch when one glanced over the great stretch of ice, which was so strong that skaters were permitted to skim over the deep waters and approach the historic castle on the island.

Babble of Sound

In moments of stress pipes were puffed furiously. Skips, Napoleons for the moment, directed play with commands as terse and to the point as those of a sergeant-major. "Soop it up" resounded keenly in the crisp air as the players flashed their brooms front of the sullen stone.

"Dra' a wee bit, Tam," would be the advice proffered by a skip, while, as the stone sped its way, he would further ejaculate, "Watch him, boys; canny though!"

Veterans played with the accuracy acquired through many winters, while young lads, and not few ladies, took part in their first eventful match. So play proceeded, and the strip wood which came down to the edge of the loch echoed to the babble sounds peculiar to curlers."

The news article then went on to record the results of all the games.

The Dundee Courier had this triptych of photos of competitors. From left, these are captioned, 'Mr Smith, Pitlochry, makes his way to his rink at the Loch Leven bonspiel. He is carrying his lunch bag with him'; 'Captain Angus Buchanan, the Sahara explorer, about to play a shot on Loch Leven yesterday'; 'The oldest curler. Mr A Jack, Dunkeld, (on left), the oldest curler playing in the Loch Leven bonspiel. He is 75 years of age. With him is Major Murray Stewart, hon secretary of the Perthshire Curling Association.'

So, the possible 'curlers' platform' at Loch Leven was not used in 1930. Was there ever such a construction? I'll continue to hunt for evidence!


The Perthshire versus Fife and Kinross bonspiel took place on Loch Leven again in January 1933. The National Library of Scotland's Moving Image Archive has a short newsreel clip from this match, see here.  It cannot be viewed remotely, but it is well worth the visit to the Kelvin Hall facility to watch the eighty-five seconds of footage. It's a rare treasure. The catalogue describes the item, "The Newsreel item from US newsreel re-issued with Dutch intertitles on curling at Loch Leven c1932. Copied from surviving nitrate pos in Netherlands Audiovisual Archive."

The Royal Caledonian Curling Club's Grand Match was held on Loch Leven in 1959, for the first, and only, time.

Thanks to Andrew Wood for stimulating my interest in 'curlers' platforms', and to Lynne Longmore, a curling historian from Lochmaben, for discussions on where the Castle Loch platform might have been. The photo of the Royal Club station comes from an old Scottish Curler magazine. Unfortunately there is no credit for the original photograph. Other photos were sourced from old newspapers as indicated, thanks to the British Newspaper Archive. The 1938 map clipping is from the National Library of Scotland's maps website, here. Thanks to the staff at the Kinross (Marshall) Museum for showing me their files and photos of curling on Loch Leven. I am grateful to the staff of Historic Environment Scotland at Loch Leven who pointed me in the direction of the 'Factor's Pier' and to where the 1930 bonspiel had been played. By following the Loch Leven Heritage Trail north from the boathouse area, I was able to find the spot where one of the newspaper photographs (above) had been taken, and took the photo, below. It was easy to imagine the winter scene with all the games in progress!

Loch Leven, April, 2018


Unknown said...

Yet another interesting article, Bob.
Trains were also used in the south west to transport curlers. On Thursday 9th December 1875 a "special train" transported some 400 Galloway Curlers and supporters to Loch Skerrow situated in the Galloway Hills, to play the County Match. 30 rinks a side, final score Galloway Province 865 shots to Rhins o,Gallowa Province 558 shots. The train whistle was blown to start and finish the Bonspiel.
A couple of years ago i walked in from the Big Water of Fleet Viaduct along the old Permanant Way,the Loch sits at some 500ft above sea level and is quiet shallow and peppered with rock outcrops.At the Loch there appears to have been a section of double track where steam trains would have taken on water.

Bob Cowan said...

Thanks Hugh. Great to learn about the Loch Skerrow bonspiel. Bob