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 travel 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 haun there’s a braw new electric service breengin atween Embra an Glasgae. On the ither haun ye hae twa-carriage vintage trains rattlin aroon an aboot the hielands, gangin nae place fast. No ainly 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. Hail sections o Scotland are economically uninhabitable.
Ane o the worst effected airts is the Buchan. The Broch. Peterheid. Buckie. MacDuff. Big touns thrang wi culture, business an potential, cut aff fae mercats an cities by an infrastructure that’s oot o date by decades.
A solution is chuggin reekily owre the horizon: the Buchan railway line. There aince wis a line linkin aa the North-East tae the rest o Scotland, but it wis torn oot by Beeching in his cuts. Nou the clash is a reinstatement is possible. The SNP are getting ahint the idea. It has grassroots support.
Whether it’d be a full relaying 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 haun 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 arnae likely tae finn new posts ony time soon. The unemployed are mair nor likely tae be hail, hearty men atween the ages o aboot forty an saxty, an skilled warkers intae their sectors. Ae muckle barrier tae wark wis that thay juist coudnae gang intae Aiberdeen for tae finn wark or mak contacts; it wis juist owre far. Nou, ye’re mibbie ainly spikkin 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 fower hours an twenty quid return on the bus.
So aa these gey talented lads, richt in the middle o their warkin lives, are bein left tae rot in the fields like unhowkit tatties, their skills deid tae the economy o Scotland.
An exaimple fae near at haun shaws us clearly the benefits o a train line.
Ballatar an Braemar are baith Cairngorm conurbations. Baith were on ane o the vital routes through the Cairngorms an therefore hud every reason 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 then intae this natural development cam big Queen Vicky. She bocht Balmoral Castle, an a guid skelp o the laun thereaboot. She soon 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 marked. The population o Ballater is double that o Braemar, its tourism infrastructure is weel-developed 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 travel 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 of the railway were aa fantastically positive; a 27% increase in visitors steyin at hotels an B&Bs. 20% mair spent by visitors on bevvy an scran. Aa across the board nummers are heized up.
There’s naebody doun there scratchin their heids speirin whaur aa this new money cam fae. thay 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 19th century infrastructure needs lowsed aff the thrapple o the North-East.
The Transport Minister, an indeed aabody in the SNP leadership maun pit their shooder 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 toom airt, anither Ross, anither Cairgorms, anither bleak wasteland that aince supported life but nou ainly 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 culture o the North-East. Gie him yer chat @historic_ally on Twitter.
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