Clachnaharry Signal Box: a tiny building from railways' golden era

This blog post by Urban Detective Hetty Lancaster explores the big stories behind little signal boxes.

Submitted by Hetty L on 19-04-2016 16:59:38

The Impact of Scotland's Railways

I quite like train travel mostly because I enjoy looking out of the window and watching the landscapes and cityscapes slide by.

As a student of history I can’t help but wonder about the changes that have happened over time, not just to the land or buildings but to the lives of ordinary people. The railways brought massive changes to communities all over Scotland by providing access to travel, distant markets, and a variety of work.

The growing popularity of railway in the first half of the nineteenth century saw rail travel expand across the country. By the 1860s more than 60 local railway companies had emerged across Scotland, later they would be amalgamated into five main companies. It had a major impact on the tourism industry not just attracting visitors from down south but also allowing many Scots to enjoy holidays in popular resorts such as Crieff, St. Andrew’s, Dunoon, Perth and Helensburgh.

A poster of a bay with 'Dunoon' beneath it.1935 poster promoting the Scottish Railways. 'Dunoon', by Frank Mason, reproduced courtesy of the Science & Society Picture Library.

The ‘golden era’ of railways often recalls nostalgic puffing steam trains and quaint village stations. With the modernisation of many stations and advances in rail technology this bygone time can be hard to see.

However alongside train tracks all over the country, signal boxes can still be found as a visual reminder and approximately 150 signal boxes survive in Scotland out of the 2000 or so built by the end of the Second World War. Signal boxes and the work of the signal men were vital to the safety and efficiency of the network. They controlled the points and the signals ensuring that trains entered junctions and stations on the correct tracks and at the correct times.

Often operated by long-standing signalmen who took much pride and joy over their little kingdoms they were immaculately maintained and became a home-from-home. Those on quieter routes incorporated hobbies such as reading and gardening to while away the time between trains effectively turning their signal boxes into mini libraries and greenhouses.

As rail traffic increased, a new system was required for signalling and the ‘tappet’ system was invented by James Deakin of Stevens and Son in 1870. This lever frame system was extremely successful and was the one most widely used across Scotland. The ‘tappet’ system allowed levers to be placed further away from the tracks, giving increased safety, and saw the introduction of purpose built signal boxes.

Designed to house the lever systems and provide the signalman with a good observation point, the signal box design, usually on two levels with the mechanical works housed below the operating floor, was unchanged for over 100 years showing that both the building and the lever and signal mechanisms were incredibly successful.

A black and white photograph of the interior of a signal box, showing a wall covered in levers.The interior of Inverkeithing Central Signal Box in Fife.

Clachnaharry Signal Box

While some signal boxes were very large with almost 100 levers, some were much smaller, one of the smallest is at Clachnaharry in Inverness with just four levers.

Located where the railway crosses the Caledonian Canal via a swing-bridge, Clachnaharry is especially interesting; not only did it control the signals for the railway, and unusually the canal traffic, it also controlled the operation of the swing-bridge.

The original Clachnaharry signals were the ‘semaphore’ type and the swing-bridge was hand operated but now the trains are signalled by radio and the swing-bridge is electronically operated. Both the swing-bridge and the signal-box are official category B listed buildings, showing their importance to Scotland’s transport heritage.

A black and white photograph of a small building beside railway tracks.The tiny Clachnaharry signal box, a Type 3 design by Mackenzie and Holland, dates from around 1900.

Clachnaharry In Context

The Caledonian Canal, an extraordinary feat of engineering designed by Thomas Telford (1757-1834), was built between 1803 and 1822 to connect the North Sea to the Atlantic Ocean using a combination of canals and lochs through the Great Glen. The swing-bridge at Clachnaharry was necessary so that the railway line did not block the canal traffic. The first bridge, built in 1862, was wrought-iron and this was replaced in 1909 with a steel bridge of the same design.

A photograph of a canal and bridge with a small white building to the right.Caledonian Canal and the Clachnaharry Swing Bridge by David Jones is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Clachnaharry was part of the Highland Line which ran from Perth to Inverness and northwards all the way up to Thurso.

Started in the 1850s, it reached Wick in the 1870s and the Kyle of Lochalsh by the 1890s. The popularity of Scottish tourism, not least those flooding north for the August grouse shooting, meant that the Highland Railway opened its own hotels and offered tours with David MacBrayne’s steamer ships. 

The building of the Highland Line required some highly-skilled engineering - something at which Scotland excelled. The image below shows the impressive Culloden Viaduct which is just one of the many viaducts along the Highland route including the Nairn Viaduct and the steel Findhorn Viaduct.

A photograph of the Culloden Viaduct with a Scotrail train on the Highland Line on it.Culloden Viaduct by Klaus with K is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The railways connected remote areas to the large urban centres and were particularly important in transporting goods and supplies as can be seen the image below in Wick.

They were also vital during World War One and World War Two when hundreds of troops were transported to Scotland by railway both for training and to serve in key locations such as the Scapa Flow Naval Base in Orkney. Thousands of Scots volunteers signed up and left by train to join those fighting on the front; too many would never return.

As cars became more affordable and road traffic increased, the 1963 Beeching Report suggested closing all the railway lines north of Inverness. Thankfully, this did not happen as the railways provided important access to these remote areas, especially in winter.

While some of the Highland branch lines have now closed, the main line north from Perth via Inverness and onto Thurso still provides a vital, and scenic, route through northern Scotland. The Highland Railway is an interesting part of Scotland’s railway heritage and the importance it has played in the lives of the Scottish people is being kept alive by the Highland Railway Society, including some great archive photos.

A black and white photograph of horse-drawn carts being unloaded. Men are taking boxes from the carts and loading them into train carriages.Carts being unloaded in the goods yard at Wick, 1939. Image reproduced with permission from The Highland Railway Society/Am Baile:

Hetty Lancaster is a Social and Architectural History student at the University of Edinburgh. She volunteered with Scotland's Urban Past throughout 2015.

With thanks to the following for providing content:

Historic Environment Scotland - Signal Boxes
Highland Railway Society
Am Baile
Friends of the Far North Line


Log in or register to add comment