TODAY is the 115th anniversary of Scotland’s forgotten railway disaster which took place at Elliot Junction on the Dundee to Arbroath line. A total of 22 lives were lost, making it the second-worst disaster on Scotland’s railways until that point.

The death toll was then second only to that of the Tay Bridge Disaster, and it was because of that event in which 75 people died that the tragedy which occurred on December 28, 1906 is often forgotten about.

For in an awful coincidence, the Tay Bridge collapse also took place on this same date in 1879.

History writers like myself often look for anniversaries to write about, so December 28 usually sees precedence given to the Tay Bridge event while Elliot Junction, also known as the Arbroath Railway Disaster, is relegated to the status of a forgotten tragedy. I will try to right that now.

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AT about 3.30pm on the fateful day, a local train heading from Arbroath was struck from behind by a North British Railway train which was also heading south with its tender in front, the driver George Gourlay having decided to turn around the Edinburgh to Aberdeen express because snow was blocking the line north of Arbroath.

An earlier derailment had rendered the line down to a single track, though that information was not passed to Gourlay due to signal box problems which also affected the signals themselves.

Running as a special train intended to stop at all local stops between Arbroath and Dundee, the express caught up with the local train which had left Arbroath 10 minutes before, but had been forced to stop at Elliot Hill Junction because of a train ahead of it on the single line.

Gourlay would later claim he was unable to see the signals in the “danger” position and added that he was only driving at 12 to 14 mph – other witnesses said much quicker – when his train smashed into the local train.


IN all some 22 people died, including 15 passengers and seven staff including the local train guard. Passengers assisted in the rescue, helping to free injured people – eight were seriously injured and 16 suffered less serious injuries.

The National: Liberal MP for Banffshire Alexander William Black was severely injured and he died the following dayLiberal MP for Banffshire Alexander William Black was severely injured and he died the following day

Liberal MP for Banffshire Alexander William Black was severely injured and he died the following day. He was 47-years-old. Gourlay suffered a head injury but some witnesses said they smelled drink on his breath.

Arbroath FC player Dev Cargill was one who rushed to the scene and he helped get injured people out of the wreckage, but in the severe cold he caught a chill and died a few days later. His death is not included in the final toll.


MAJOR JW Pringle was appointed to lead a public inquiry and his report was published the next year. He was in no doubt that Gourlay was chiefly to blame but there were mitigating circumstances. The question was whether the imbibing of whisky by Gourlay had affected his driving ability.

Pringle wrote: “He [Gourlay] was accustomed to work his train from Arbroath to Dundee as an express, without stopping at an intermediate stations. It is possible that he did not fully understand the special instructions given to him on this occasion.

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“Confusion of ideas or deadening of faculties may account for his conduct. The evidence suggests no cause for such confusion, or lack of alertness, other than the bemusing effects of either extreme cold, or of alcohol. The cold, admittedly severe, more especially in the unprotected position of tender first, could hardly, in so short a time as two or three minutes, have alone produced such a serious effect on a robust constitution.

“I have therefore, most reluctantly, been forced to accept the alternative, and give it as my opinion that the lack of intelligence, or of caution and alertness, displayed by driver Gourlay on this occasion were in part at all events induced by drink, the effects of which may possibly have been accentuated, after he left Arbroath, by exposure to weather.”

Gourlay was charged with culpable homicide, the initial charge sheet stating that he had “driven the train in a reckless and culpable manner, whereby it came into contact with another passenger train and killed a number of passengers”.

A jury at the High Court in Edinburgh found him guilty but recommended leniency and he was sentenced to five months imprisonment, reduced to three months on appeal after 92,000 people signed a petition to free him. The North British company defended their driver loyally and he returned to work for them.