TELEVISION: LOOK OUT FOR THE NAVVIES ON BBC ALBA ON THURSDAY, DECEMBER 31 AT 9PM

Documentary reveals new photos taken during construction of spectacular railway line

The West Highland Line – television documentary has been made about the constriction of the railway between Fort William and Mallaig with a collection of old pictures and great music.

By Liam O’Heanai

A NEW BBC ALBA documentary on New Year’s Eve reveals newly discovered photos taken during the construction of the railway line between Fort William and Mallaig.

Arguably one of the most spectacular railway lines in the world, this collection of over 100 hi-res celluloid nitrate plates were unearthed in a sale in Cornwall in 2019.

Local musician, Ingrid Henderson, follows the story of these photographs, what they reveal about lives and people in Lochaber, and attempts to discover the artist behind the lens.

At the same time she creates new music to pay tribute to the railway and the people who built it. For Ingrid, born in Mallaig, brought up in Fort William and now living and working in Glenfinnan, the railway has always been present in her life.

In this programme, which is called Song of the Track/Ceol na Loidhne, Ingrid travels the line stopping at stations along the route to find the places in the photographs, and looks for inspiration to compose a new album.

Producer, Annie Cheape, said: “This previously unpublished original source material features over 100 images of the build project led by contractors, Robert McAlpine and Sons, and includes the renowned Glenfinnan Viaduct.

“Along with construction they document the people working on the railway, and the dangerous conditions they encountered.

“These images reveal the faces of the nurses who tended the injured in the make-shift field hospitals. Hundreds of men died to drive this section of the railway through one of the roughest terrains in Britain.

Memorial to the 37 navvies who died during the construction of the West Highland railway erected by Cardross man Billy Thomson, his wife, Peggy, Margaret Rose, of an Arrochar community group, and an officer from HM Naval Base Clyde. The men were buried outside Ballyhennan Cemetery.

“Many hundreds were injured while blasting through the rocks, most of them navies from Ireland or the Scottish islands.

“Many men were injured during the rock blasting, but alcohol was a huge problem too. Men died of hypothermia after drinking too much, or had accidents on Monday morning while still under the influence. As a result, McAlpine set up an innovative scheme of licensed drinking huts with ‘safe whisky’.

“These images also reveal the faces of the nurses who tended the injured in the make-shift field hospitals. They are smiling, look relaxed, happy and enjoying themselves. It’s unusual to see women of this period photographed in this informal way.”

With the help of the Lochaber Archive Centre, Ingrid attempts to find the names of some of these women. She also visits Hege Hernes who lives at Glenfinnan Station, who reveals evidence to suggest that the photos were taken by Tom Malcolm McAlpine, one of Robert MacAlpine’s sons.

He was a manager of a section of the line where one of the men was badly injured during concrete blasting, and some of the photographs document his recuperation.

Sgeul Media made Song of the Track/Ceol na Loidhne for BBC ALBA and it airs on Thursday, December 31 at 9pm. It will also be available on the BBC iPlayer for 30 days afterwards.

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