Review of “A Quite Impossible Proposal: How Not To Build A Railway” by Andrew Drummond, pub. Origin
“To make the fisheries work profitably and effectively, better transportation options were needed. And better transportation options meant investing in more and improved railways. As a strategy it made complete sense.
And so we now turn our attention to the complete foul-up, by government and private enterprise alike, of this laudable endeavour.”
It may seem odd to write a history book specifically about things that didn’t happen, in this case railways that were never built in the West Highlands. But then this history is written by Andrew Drummond, eccentric novelist and historian, and it deals with more than railways. It concerns, in fact, the long-term neglect and abuse of a region and its community by a small class of people, namely landowners, who happened to have managed to grab ownership of most of it. It begins with an overview of the dire state of the region in 1883, when the Napier Commission sallied forth to inquire into the condition of crofters and cottars. It was the first time such a commission had really sought the views of ordinary people, and they may have been surprised by the vehemence of some of the testimony they heard, for instance the Rev Roderick Morison’s fiery denunciation of the way local people were cleared out to make way for deer hunting:
"Glen after glen is being cleared of its shepherd families, who are replaced by one or two solitary game watchers, the idlest of people pretending to earn a living and the best customers of the adjacent public houses and smugglers. […] It will no doubt be said that to interfere with the rights of property is to undermine the very foundations of society. To me it appears that those who endanger those rights are those who make them intolerable by a free and enlightened community. It may I think be boldly said that all rights, customs, monopolies and privileges that tend to the manifest injury of a country and its inhabitants must and ought to – and eventually shall – fall before the increasing intelligence and advancing power of the people."
It was utterances like the Red Reverend’s, and minor insurrections by disaffected crofters protesting about enclosures and evictions, that had alarmed the authorities in Westminster, who feared something on the scale of the troubles in Ireland. Perhaps, though, the Highlanders did not make sufficient nuisances of themselves, because the government, which did spend money on improving infrastructure in Ireland, could never be got to finance public works on the same scale in Scotland. This was one reason the railways that could have made such a difference to the region were never built: two other reasons were the intransigence and parsimony of landowners and the slowness and inefficiency of bureaucracy.
There is much scope here for anger, which often comes through in Drummond’s sardonic tones, for instance when he describes the impact on Scottish fishing of the Northern Barrage, a barrier of mines from Orkney to Norway, placed by the USA and the UK to deter U-boats in the Great War:
"A fair number of civilian lives were lost when ships hit the mines in the years immediately after the war, but by then the American industrialists had made their profits, so no real harm was done."
There is also, however, a lot of scope for his trademark humour and delight in oddities. Sometimes the amusement arises simply from his way of putting things, as when he describes Spencer Perceval as “the only British Prime Minister (so far) to have been assassinated”; sometimes from his unerring eye for absurdities, like the one he spots in the Napier evidence:
“Do they get much employment from shooting tenants?”
“A good deal, for a short time” (Oh, the fatal lack of a hyphen!)
Further entertainment is provided by the cast of real-life characters, particularly the aristos with their impenetrable inter-relationships, like the Earl of Lovelace, who won a medal at the Great Exhibition for polychrome bricks, married Ada Byron the computer programmer and went on to have a daughter who “married the poet and horse-breeder Wilfrid Blunt and thereby inadvertently became the great-aunt of the Soviet spy Anthony Blunt.”
But there is also a huge amount of actual information here, including statistics, maps and plans; serious railway enthusiasts will have a fine time. Drummond is a serious historian; he just isn’t a dull one, perhaps because he never forgets that history is made of human beings, such as the unfortunate passengers trying to travel from Durness to Lairg in 1919, traversing the first twenty miles “in a horse-drawn waggonette surrounded by mail bags, boxes of live lobsters, live calves tied in sacks, personal luggage etc” (an extract from the report of the Rural Transport Committee). How's that for a replacement bus service? Seldom can a trawl through a century’s worth of official papers have produced quite such absorbing results.