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Helmsdale 150th anniversary railway celebrations will include official launch of Far North Line Community Rail Partnership

By Caroline McMorran

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The newly formed Far North Line Community Rail Partnership (CRP) is to be officially launched next weekend at an event in Helmsdale.

The launch will take place during celebrations of the 150th anniversary of a historic local rail milestone – the completion of the Duke of Sutherland’s Railway. Events will be held on Friday and Saturday, June 17-18.

The anniversary event will look to the future as well as the past.
The anniversary event will look to the future as well as the past.

The CRP has been formed to benefit the remote rural communities served by the Far North Line in Caithness and Sutherland.

Its chairman is David Watson, manager of the Kyle of Sutherland Development Trust, and secretary is Michael Willmot - well known locally for spearheading the renovation of Helmsdale station

David Watson, manager Kyle of Sutherland Development Trust.
David Watson, manager Kyle of Sutherland Development Trust.

Mr Watson said: “The Far North Line is a world class, if underutilised, asset. So for a few years there have been many conversations held to discuss how the communities it serves can truly benefit from it.

“The formation of the Far North Line CRP is an exciting development that can ensure that our fragile communities have a say in how the line develops and how it can continue to serve the communities of Caithness and Sutherland for the next 150 years.”

The anniversary event was set to take place in 2020 but had to be postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

It is being organised jointly by Helmsdale Station Community Interest Company and Timespan Visitors Centre, and will highlight the completion in 1870 of the Duke of Sutherland’s Railway between Dunrobin Castle and Helmsdale – considered to be one of the more extraordinary stories in the building of the national rail network.

Funds to construct a railway north of Inverness had run out by the time the line reached Golspie.

The 3rd Duke of Sutherland – known as the “Railway Duke” – took matters into his own hands and paid out of his own pocket for the building of the next 17 miles of line, across the Sutherland Estate to Helmsdale.

This gave him the privilege of a private station at Dunrobin Castle and the entitlement to drive his own engine along the line he had paid for.

The anniversary celebrations begin on Friday evening with a performance of local folk music in Timespan, which is also offering during the weekend an evening meal, morning refreshments and lunch.

Tomorrow morning there will be presentations on the history of the line led by Keith Fenwich, author and editor of Highland Railway Journal; David Scott-Cowan, and Dr Nick Lindsay, chairman of Clyne Heritage Society.

The presentations will not only include the story of the 3rd Duke and his obsession with the development of rail, but will also recall the operation of the line when all stations were staffed.

The launch of the CRP will take place after the presentations and before lunch.

In the afternoon there will be an opportunity to travel along the line, with a window view line guide provided, to Dunrobin Station where station master Daniel Brittain-Catlin will be on hand as a guide for the station museum.

Mr Willmot said: “As well as a chance to tell the story of the technophile third duke, we hope this will be an opportunity to publicise the dramatic scenery and numerous attractions along the Far North Line through Caithness and Sutherland and to show that the line’s colourful past can be matched by a bright future.”

Places are limited and booking is required - contact Michael Willmot at helmsdalestation@gmail.com or phone 01743 588654.

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