Dr Beeching’s Unicorns

Glen Ogle. Most of the time a place on the way to somewhere else, somewhere more exciting. Yet, for me also a special, magical place where years ago my inner eye first really glimpsed the beauty of this land.

We just got our first car, a decade old Astra Belmont, and were on a first road trip out of the Central Belt. Up to Loch Ness and Skye, if I recall correctly—truth be said, I no longer recall much of it, a vague memory of the Nessie exhibition, and a boat trip on the loch, zero memories of Skye. But I do remember Glen Ogle. The way it opened up in front of my eyes for the first time as we drove up from Lochearnhead. It cast a spell over me, one that has lasted throughout the years. Looking back, I think this was the moment this land became My Scotland.

We returned to explore the old railway line. Back then there was no path to speak off, the old embankment shrouded in trees. Nature doing its best to erase man’s intrusion. Years later I watched with dismay as so many of those trees were cleared during Route 7 construction—a valuable project for sure, but such chainsaw enthusiasm.

But before that it was like being transported into another, wild, mythical world, half expecting a ghost train to appear at any moment from around the corner underneath the dark canopy.

It didn’t. Instead we run into a giant locked up gate worthy of Alcatraz. A gate clearly meant to keep people, not animals, out. (Not such an uncommon sight in the days before the Land Reform Act; the ‘good old days’ weren’t really.) Undeterred, we climbed over for a wee bit more exploring, till an industrial size manure heap finally stopped us.

‘That would be one of Dr Beeching’s, then’, said my mother-in-law as we discussed our trip over the dinner table.

Dr Beeching, 1913 - 1985. An overpaid political appointee to the chair of the British Railways Board. His lasting legacy the decimation of UK’s railway infrastructure. All in all some 6000 miles of railway track, over a third of the UK total, decommissioned.

The construction of the Callander to Oban railway involved 13,000 workers and took fifteen years; undone by a stroke of a pen. A story repeated over and over across the land. Political expediency masquerading as fiscal prudence. Lack of long term strategic vision, the consequences of which are felt astutely more than half a century later, and will be much longer, perhaps for ever.

Today Linda’s doing her recce for the Glen Ogle race, and I am out for a wander with a camera on the other side of the glen. A blustery autumnal day. The colours are beautiful, the showers frequent, the wind gusts strong enough to knock my tripod over and send my bag of lenses rolling down the steep hill. I spend most of my time ‘waiting for the light’, left to my thoughts.

Another heavy patch of rain has painted a bright rainbow across the top of the glen. Below its arch a steady stream of relentless traffic slowly making its way up the road, the frustration of the drivers almost palpable in the air. Dr Beeching’s unicorns.

My Glen Ogle. A place of internal inter-generational conflict. There on the other side, standing on the old viaduct, the younger me protesting the tree felling, the loss of (perceived) wildness. On this side the present me, wishing the working railway was back. Not a change of values as such, merely of perspective.

Later today when I develop the film I will find out that nothing worthwhile came out of the pictures. But it never is about the pictures.