Jun 272014

Asleep at the wheelBy Duncan Harley

There are well over 25 thousand museums in the UK, ranging from national institutions such as Glasgow’s Burrell collection, to the likes of the Maud Railway Museum, with many others in between.

Some museums are open 24/7 and are free to all comers.

Others are subject to a voluntary donation and are open mainly during the summer months, except on Wednesdays, unless of course there is a Q in the month; but I digress.

Funding, or the lack of it, dictates opening hours, and unpaid volunteers are the mainstay of most such museum enterprises. In the main they are a sterling effort, but often difficult to access due to these constraints. There is no criticism intended here, only comment.


Fortunately for us in the North East of Scotland, the Bon Accord Steam Engine Club is in the habit of bringing heritage right to our doorstep.

Hosted by the Scottish National Trust flagship property, Castle Fraser, the Bon Accord Steam Fair of 2014 was by all accounts a flagship event. With over 50 thousand gallons of water and a good few tons of coal on tap, the magnificent engines which drove the industry of both Victoria’s last decades and the early years of the 20th Century fairly wowed the crowds.

Steam power is of course nothing new, and the history of the steam engine stretches back to the First Century AD, with the first recorded rudimentary steam engine being the Aeolipile described by the Greek mathematician and engineer Hero of Alexandria.

It’s a powerful means of propulsion which the likes of Scottish inventor James Watt used to good effect, to produce rotary motion.

advanceAt some risk of injury, try placing some tinfoil over the spout of your kettle at full boil and you’ll see what I mean. Steam is indeed powerful stuff.

Steam engines powered Scottish industry for well over eighty years. Mills, ships and transport benefited from the power of steam. In fact some would argue that the empire was built on the back of it. The Clyde built steam ship Waverley and her sister ship Jeanie Deans epitomised the breed.

However at the heart of it all was the humble steam traction engine.

The Bon Accord Steam Engine Club (BASEC) was founded by Bill Barrack, an enthusiast concerned that many magnificent self-propelled steam engines were ending up as scrap. He and a few like-minded folk set about preserving them for the enjoyment of future generations. I am pleased to say that Bill’s efforts, plus those of all of his fellow enthusiasts, have not been in vain.


As if the spectacle of over forty steam-powered road vehicles entering the show ring at last Sunday’s event was not enough, one in particular caught the public’s attention.

While the Kintore Pipe Band piped “Happy Birthday” amidst the grey coal smoke and white steam of yesteryear, the veteran one hundred year old steam traction engine Finella, owned by the Barrack family since 1947, stood proudly to attention while her birthday wishes from the Queen were read out to the assembled crowd.

Her Majesty had taken time to send her good wishes to a centenarian who even in retirement continues working to bring pleasure to all who see her.

bon accord 4Founded in 1967, and with ten years under its belt at the Castle Fraser venue, the Bon Accord Steam Engine Club have proved yet again how enduring the power of steam can be.

On the drive home we followed a line of admiring petrol heads, in a long and smoky queue behind Grampian Transport Museum’s Sentinel Steam Wagon as it slowly drove along the highways and byways of the long road to Alford, at an average speed of 19 mph or less.

No one overtook the smoking monster and no one really minded the holdup.

Such is the price of heritage.

© Duncan Harley All rights reserved

  • Comments enabled – see comments box below. Note, all comments will be moderated.


May 092014

By Duncan Harley.a4 steam inverurie 17

Inverurie’s historic connection with steam was recalled at the weekend when the LNER Class A4 4488 Union of South Africa stopped at Inverurie Railway Station, en-route south via Aberdeen and Stonehaven, following a week long rail tour of
the UK.

Built for the London and North East Railway Company in 1937, the streamlined green liveried steam locomotive pulled in at Platform One for a one hour stop to allow both rail enthusiasts and interested passers by an opportunity to admire a potent symbol of a bygone age.

Originally operating from Edinburgh’s Haymarket, this engine later transferred to Aberdeen and hauled the last passenger steam train from Kings Cross on 24th October 1964 before finally being withdrawn from British Railways service in 1966. A similar locomotive the “Mallard” holds the world steam engine speed record having clocked over 125mph (202 km/h) in 1938.

The Union of South Africa’s passengers on Saturday were enjoying the nine day “Great Britain VII” rail tour run by the Railway Touring Company. Leaving London Victoria on April 26th the steam tour had made its way north via Beattock Summit, Mallaig and the Glenfinnan Viaduct of Harry Potter fame before returning via Inverurie to London’s King’s Cross Station on May 4th.

Comfortably seated in Pullman style coaches many passengers were railway enthusiasts and indeed on one carriage window a sign had been posted which read “Caution, this Train Contains Nuts.”

As one traveller explained:

“This is a chance for railway buffs to live out the dream of travelling in the steam age and a sense of humour, as well as an interest in the rolling stock, is essential.”

a4 steam inverurie 7

LNER Class A4 4488 Union of South Africa at Inverurie Railway Station – Credit: Duncan Harley.

It’s hardly surprising that enthusiasts hark back to a golden age when trains not only transported folk around the country, but did so in some style.

Saturday’s visit by the Union of South Africa certainly drew crowds, although one concerned local had seemingly been drawn to attend only because he assumed that the plume of smoke emanating from the station signified a train on fire.

He soon joined excited onlookers however and, after pulling out his phone, began sending pictures to all and sundry.

There are over 100 heritage railways currently operating in the UK including Aberdeenshire’s Alford Valley Narrow Gauge Railway and The Royal Deeside Railway near Banchory. If a nine rail day trip is beyond your reach then perhaps a day trip on a local scenic railway could fill in a very pleasant summer afternoon.

  • Comments enabled – see comments box below. Note, all comments will be moderated.