WE in Scotland can claim many inventions, but one of the things in the modern world that Scots didn’t invent was the railway, though it was largely down to a Scotsman, James Watt, that the world’s first efficient mass land-based transportation systems came into being.

It was Watt’s piece of genius, conceived during a walk on Glasgow Green in 1765, that saw steam power become efficiently usable and made mobile steam engines possible.

In this latest part of a short series on the built heritage of Scotland brought about by transport, I will be looking at railway-associated constructions that have had an impact on Scottish history and culture.

As with all my recent columns I will be choosing my own favourites, all of which I have visited, and if you care to suggest something I have missed out then email me at nationalhamish@gmail.com.

It was steam power that drove the development of the railways in the 19th century but as long ago as 1722 a railway of sorts was built in Scotland. Having revisited the history of early Scottish railways I wrote in 2019, I am now prepared to accept that the East Lothian waggonway was a railway and thus Scotland’s first.

It was a wooden construction that ran between Tranent and Cockenzie in East Lothian using the force of gravity to convey wagons full of coal down from the pit to the harbour, horses then being used to haul the wagons back up.

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The waggonway was involved in a huge event in Scottish history as the Hanoverian government army under General John Cope used it as their line of battle on September 21, 1745. Not for long, however, as the Jacobite forces of Prince Charles Edward Stuart (above) smashed through them in a matter of minutes to win the Battle of Prestonpans.

The waggonway was further developed with iron rails in the 1830s and was still in use for transporting coal up to the 1960s.

I am delighted to report that a local organisation, the 1722 Waggonway Heritage Group, has found the remains of the original railway under the public footpath that now occupies the site and on which I walked while researching the 1745 battle, completely unaware of what lay beneath my feet.

The Waggonway project team point out that in 1762, James Paterson, a local blacksmith’s son, was hit by a wagon and died of his injuries. He was the first person to be killed on a railway anywhere. I am planning a series on local history projects later in the year and the industrious Waggonway group will be the first to feature.

Early Scottish railways used horses to draw their trains, as was the case with the Kilmarnock and Troon Railway, generally considered to be the first rail line in Scotland, opened in 1812. But after George Stephenson (1781-1848) developed the first railway featuring steam-powered locomotives in the 1820s in the north of England, Scotland rapidly embraced this new technology.

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The growth of the railways was explosive, fulfilling Stephenson’s dream of a national network using a standard gauge – it was his own gauge of 4ft 8.5ins which became the standard.

From the outset, Parliament in London controlled the development of railways, and the National Records of Scotland show that between the Kilmarnock and Troon Act of 1808 and 1905, no fewer than 197 railway companies were incorporated though only 167 actually came to fruition.

The rush to build what became known as the “permanent way” saw local railway lines developed all over the country in the 19th century, and though almost all of them have long since closed, they have left a huge imprint on the landscape of Scotland and left us many magnificent buildings in the shape of stations and bridges.

Around 80 stations are now listed buildings, proving their importance to our heritage. Broughty Ferry station, dating from 1838, is the first railway station in Scotland that is still in use to this day.

I have numerous favourites among the stations, and I will start with the most scenic, namely Duncraig near Plockton with its stunning views over Loch Carron. The station is on the Kyle of Lochalsh line which also includes the very picturesque Plockton station itself.

The National: Plockton, Loch Carron, Highlands, Scotland.  Picture: The Image Bank / Getty Images

The West Highland Line is world-famous and rightly so, and without even having to think I can name a dozen stations on the line which are worth seeing. Corrour station, for example, must be visited by any serious rail tourist for the simple fact that it is the highest mainline station in Britain. Also on the West Highland Line is Dalmally station, which I think is a classic example of a so-called “through station”.

I took my time to visit Arisaig station, also on the West Highland Line, while researching an article on camping coaches, old passenger carriages converted to provide accommodation at numerous stations during the 20th century. Arisaig had two such coaches for many years. As far as I know, all such camping coaches were withdrawn in 1969 – a pity, as I am assured some of them were quite excellent.

Glenfinnan station, which has its own private museum, used to have such a camping coach, and no wonder as the station on the line to Mallaig is not far from the world-famous Glenfinnan Viaduct, arguably the finest example of our built heritage associated with viaducts.

Its fame was assured even before it featured in the Harry Potter films, and thanks to those movies it is now one of the icons of Scotland.

Built between 1897 and 1898 by the firm of Sir Robert McAlpine, the viaduct stands 100ft (30m) above the River Finnan and has 21 arches. It is made entirely of concrete – McAlpine’s nickname was “Concrete Bob” – and is the longest concrete railway bridge in Scotland.

However, it is not the longest railway viaduct in the country.

That honour belongs to the Culloden Viaduct east of Inverness, near the site of the 1746 battle which ended the Jacobite rising. It has an impressive 29 arches over its 1800ft (549m) and to appreciate its scale you really need to view it from below. Sadly, the Culloden Moor station adjacent to the viaduct closed in the 1960s.

The Leaderfoot Viaduct near Melrose in the Scottish Borders is a spectacular sight. Rising 126ft (38m) above the River Tweed, it was built for the Berwickshire Railway in the 1860s, and is constructed of stone and brickwork. It was still in use for freight trains as late as 1965, but fell into poor condition and was nearly demolished in the 1980s.

Now in the care of Historic Environment Scotland and restored in the 1990s, it has become an iconic view in the Borders and is often visited by tourists to Trimontium, the Roman settlement just to the south-west of the viaduct.

Returning to stations, there is no doubting the importance to Scottish history and culture of the two biggest stations in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Glasgow Central is the country’s biggest station in terms of passenger traffic with around 30 million users annually. It dates from 1879 when the village area of Grahamston was demolished to make way for the new station that proved hugely successful from the outset – so much so that it had to be rebuilt from 1901 to 1905.

The famous walled bridge over Argyle Street, known as the “Hielanman’s Umbrella”, is one of several notable architectural features of the station, which also include the Central Hotel designed by Robert Rowand Anderson and opened in 1883.

Glasgow Central as the terminus of the main west coast line has seen the comings-and-goings of many famous people with huge crowds turning out to greet the likes of Benny Lynch after he won his world boxing championship, and to hail the Red Clydesider MPs after their election win in 1922.

The National: Commuters and travellers at Edinburgh's Waverley Station

Edinburgh’s Waverley station (above) has also seen many famous occasions and has featured in films, including Avengers: Infinity War. Waverley – the only station in the world named after a novel – replaced three other stations when the North British Railway opened it in 1866.

Its many architectural features include the glass dome dating from 1897, while Waverley is always linked to the hotel beside it, the North British Hotel that opened in 1902 but which has been the Balmoral Hotel since 1991, when Sir Sean Connery did the re-naming ceremony at the time he received the Freedom of the City.

Hotels are often associated with railway lines, and sadly it looks as though we have lost one of the most famous of them, the Station Hotel in Ayr, which was gutted by fire last month.

The most famous of the railway hotels is of course Gleneagles, near Auchterarder in Perthshire. It was started by the Caledonian Railway but that company merged into the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) who opened it in 1924. It was famous from the outset because its opening night saw the first ever radio outside broadcast in Scotland.

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Developed as a prestigious five-star golf resort and conference centre, Gleneagles has often been at the centre of international events. The Gleneagles Agreement on sporting contacts with apartheid South Africa was signed there at the 1977 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, and the hotel also hosted the G8 summit in 2005, before it was redeveloped in time to successfully host the 2014 edition of the Ryder Cup.

Most people looking at the railway’s built heritage in Scotland would focus on bridges, and we have two of the best in the Tay and Forth bridges.

The Tay Bridge is the second such rail bridge over the river, the first having collapsed on December 28, 1879, killing all 75 people on board a train which was crossing the bridge during a roaring gale. The stumps of the first mainly iron bridge are visible above the surface to this day.

Poor design and construction by the team led by engineer Thomas Bouch was blamed for the disaster – but within six months the North British Railway company was asking parliament for permission to build a second bridge over the Tay, not far from the first one.

This time the bridge was made of much stronger materials by Sir William Arrol & Co, and it was lengthened to 10,780 ft (3285m). It is in use to this day.

So, too, is Scotland’s most famous structure, the Forth Bridge. Built over the Firth of Forth some nine miles west of central Edinburgh, the rail bridge’s extraordinary cantilever design by English civil engineers Sir John Fowler and Sir Benjamin Baker has been copied but never surpassed.

The National: SOUTH QUEENSFERRY, SCOTLAND - APRIL 24:  A general view of the Forth Rail Bridge on April 24, 2014 in South Queensferry, Scotland. A referendum on whether Scotland should be an independent country will take place on September 18, 2014.  (Photo by Jeff J

A bridge between North and South Queensferry was proposed to replace the ferry service as early as 1863, but the all-steel design was not agreed until 1880. Construction lasted from 1882 to 1890 when it was opened by the Duke of Rothesay, the future King Edward VII.

Chief builder William Arrol (1839-1913) was knighted for his work, and with 55,000 tons of steel and 140,000 cubic yards of masonry, it was the largest construction project in Britain at the time. It had the longest cantilever single span in the world for nearly 30 years until the Quebec Bridge took that record. The Forth Bridge remains the second-longest cantilever single span.

Sadly, some 78 workers were killed in accidents during construction, while a further eight were saved from drowning by rescuers in rowing boats.

The Forth Bridge has long since passed into legend, with the phrase “painting the Forth Bridge” used to signify an endless task, even though the painting of the bridge is no longer continuous because of new materials being used.

It was named a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2015, and the following year was named Scotland’s greatest man-made structure, which it surely is.