RICCARTON JUNCTION - THE BEGINNING
For the end-of-course assignment for a module that I was studying for my university degree, I had to choose an urban area and write about how a change in technology had brought about a change in the urban structure. As far as I was concerned, there was only one place to go and write about - that was Riccarton Junction in the Scottish Borders. Although its population was always less than 150 people, it was a railway town in its fullest sense.
According to popular legend ...
i.... the village was brought into existence by the railway
ii... its only access to the rest of civilisation was via the railway. There was no road to the village.
iii.. the village died when the railway went away.
The myth of Riccarton Junction was perpetuated by the press of the day. The "Weekly Scotsman" of 12 May 1949 leads with a headline "There's No Road To Riccarton" and recounts some rather strange stories that bear little relation to the facts. It states inter alia that the population amounts to 120, yet they all live in "a dozen or so houses" - some 10 to a house according to those calculations - rather than the 36 houses that I identified from contemporary sources. It's hardly surprising, given the above from a supposedly-reputable source, that so much misinfirmation is in circulation.
But although my research uncovered much that is different from the popular legend, that is neither here nor there. What is important is that I took a great number of photographs, and several other people very kindly allowed me the use of theirs to compare with those that I took.
So let me set the scene by describing the area. Where we are is about 15 miles south of Hawick and just a handful of miles from the border with England. And while this is no Scottish outlying island or remote Highland valley, there can be few places in Britain as desolate as this.
During the "Railway mania" of the mid 19th century, two Bills were presented to Parliament. One was from the Border Union Railway, proposing to build a railway line from Carlisle to link up with the line that had recently been built to connect Hawick with Edinburgh. The other was from the Border Counties Railway, with the aim of building a line to link Hawick with Hexham in England.
Parliament gave its consent to both railway lines, and construction began in 1859. The lines met at a remote corner of Roxburghshire a short distance from the border with England, at a height of 850 feet in a remote part of High Liddesdale.
This area is surrounded by high fells. Larriston Fells, 1677 feet high, are to the south and Peel Fell, 1975 feet high, is to the east. Arnton Fell, shown in the photograph on the left which was taken from the Newcastleton-Hawick road 3 miles away, is to the west and stands 1467 feet above sea level. The area was given over to sheep farming, with subsistence haymaking and corn on the few fields that were suitable for agriculture.
There were no roads or tracks here, and the area was so isolated that it had no local name. The nearest settlements, Nether Riccarton and Over Riccarton and their mill, were over two miles away on the Jedburgh road and there was a ruined Peel Tower known as Riccarton Tower 15 minutes walk away. Hence the junction became known as Riccarton Junction.
In fact the area is so isolated that a few miles down the Border Counties line at Reedsmouth, some of Britain's historic steam locomotives (presumably from the museum at York) were stored during World War II to save them from German bombing raids.
The area wasn't quite as uninhabited as the above might suggest. There were two crofts in the area, occupied by shepherds and their families, although I have not been able to discover whether they were there before the railway was built. One croft, now demolished, was known as Phaupknowe, and the second (shown in the photograph to the left, taken from the old railway track bed) was called Leesburnfoot.
Leesburnfoot is now a bothy used by hikers walking the Waverley Line and is maintained by volunteers from the National Bothy Association. I am told that is has been "improved" by the addition of relics and structures gathered from the site of the village.
As you might expect, the terrain round here is difficult for a railway line. The feats of engineering are certainly impressive, with numerous deep cuttings, high embankments and the Whitrope Tunnel. The gradient is at times as much as 1 in 75.
Those were the major problems. The relatively minor ones included the undulating terrain, with deep depressions that were as much as 60 feet deep. The whole area around the junction was levelled off by the tipping of ash into these depressions. As an aside, the ash had a significant part to play in the later history of the junction.
And it wasn't just the terrain that was difficult. The weather could be relentless. In the severe winters of 1947 and 1963 the area was completely cut off from the outside world by heavy snowfalls. In 1963, a passenger train was stranded in the snow nearby, and the passengers had to walk to the village, where they were billeted on the inhabitants. There was a real danger that food supplies would be exhausted.
Despite all of this, the junction had a strategic importance. There was the railway station, where people could change trains between the Waverley Line and the Border Counties Line, and thus station staff would be required. Goods sidings were required for the sorting of wagons between the lines, and so shunting staff were needed. The junction required signalmen to control the lines and the signals, and lengthsmen to keep the railway track in good order.
The steep gradients made it necessary to supply banking engines to help fully-loaded trains up the banks, and so an engine was kept here for that purpose. Another engine was kept here to work trains along the Border Counties Line. An engine shed was built to house them and others that might find their way here, and drivers, firemen and ancillary staff were needed.
There was also a gas plant, which is said to have provided enough gas for 300 lamps.
Riccarton Junction possessed several items of equipment that were in demand by other stations. The engine turntable here was the largest in the area and engines that were too big for the turntable at Hawick came here to turn round. There was a wagon weighbridge that could weigh up to 20 tons, and other depots often sent wagons here to be weighed. Riccarton also had a steam crane that was used for lifting heavy loads, rails, sleepers etc. It was used extensively on the east coast main line to repair the damage following the floods of 1948. Later it was sent permanently to Edinburgh.
All in all, at least 60 employees were required to control the railway operations here, but there was no urban settlement nearby to recruit them, and no highway to bring them in. They had to be recruited elsewhere, and they required accommodation nearby so that they would be close to their employment. The railway constructors had built 6 cottages for their own purposes, so the railway company took them over, and built some more. This became the village of Riccarton Junction.
Most authorities, apart from the "Weekly Scotsman" of course, give the total number of houses as 35, including the station house, the school house and the shop premises. In actual fact there would seem to be 36. By the time the village of Riccarton had become an attraction in its own right, two rooms at the south end of the south signal box were being used as bothies by the loco men and the lengthmen. Previously, however, these rooms had formed one unit of housing, in which a lengthman had lived.
The houses were pretty basic, if not primitive. They were built of local "Dent" stone and roofed with slate, and had little in the way of comfort. No bathrooms for the railwaymen, of course. They made do with a tin bath in front of the fire, and babies were bathed in the sink. In almost every case, the toilet was outside. There were two blocks of flats, each with four apartments, and these had just one outside toilet per block.
There were several different types of house, and these are itemised as follows -
i....houses nos 2-9. These were situated in pairs, facing south-east, and to the north of the station. They were known colloquially as the "Store Brae" houses - the Store Brae being the name of the path that ran in front of them down towards the station.
ii...house no 10 - this was used as the shop and little is known about its layout.
iii..nos 11-18 were in fact two blocks of four flats each - two on the ground floor and two on the first floor. They had substantial stone porches and were known colloquially as the "Porch Houses". These, and the rest of the houses, faced south-west and looked down upon the station.
iv...nos 19-22 were three-bedroomed houses with just one room downstairs and a large kitchen.
v....nos 23-26 were also three-bedroomed, but had two rooms downstairs and a small kitchen.
The village hall was built onto the gable end of number 26.
vi...nos 27-34 were two-bedroomed, with one room downstairs. There was also a pantry to the kitchen into which an inside toilet had been installed in no28 sometime during the 1940s.
vii..no 35 was the schoolhouse, with the luxury of a bathroom and inside toilet, and the Station House was known as no 1
With grateful thanks to Frank Rutherford of Copshaw Pictures who allowed me to use the photograph aside.
It's never been satisfactorily explained which were the 6 original houses taken over by the railway company. But I have seen an Ordnance Survey map of the village that shows just 6 houses at the side of the Store Brae instead of the 8 that were known to be there and which can be seen in the photograph.
I'm wondering therefore whether it was the Store Brae houses that were the originals, and that there were in fact the 8 houses from the beginning - the figure of 6 being assumed from the Ordnance Survey series of maps. Please if you can shed any light on this.
Water came from a spring on the fells, but it was filtered out in a bad just behind the schoolhouse and drained into a tank at the back of house no 27. Only the stationmaster's house, the village hall and nos 27 and 33 had electricity in the early days - supplied by the company's generator. The remainder relied on paraffin lamps, of which the "Tilley lamp" was the most popular. It was not until 1955 that the National Grid struggled over the fells from the south-east. At that time, most of the villagers took on contracts with the Electricity Board that included the supply of an electric cooker.
Even the National Grid managed to bring controversy with it. Street lights were installed, but the Council insisted that payment for the lighting was the responsibility of British Railways. They refused to pay, insisting that it was the responsibility of the Council. This dispute dragged on for ever, with the residents being left in the dark once they left their houses.
In view of the biting winds that could roar up the valley at times, the exposed westerly walls of the houses were faced with slate
There was some primitive attempt at damp-proofing. From the ruins of one of the houses I was able to identify what looks like a course of bitumen inlaid between a couple of courses of stonework. You can see this in the photograph to the left.
Judging by the position of this ruin, it would seem that this would be part of a house from the row containing numbers 27-34.
Every house had someone living there who was employed by the railway. Even in the school house. The husband of the school mistress was a railway guard. There were also several retired railwaymen and railway widows.
Many of the residents were keen vegetable gardeners and some even kept animals. For there wasn't very much of anything else to do. There was a railway refreshment room which served as the village pub, and there was a village hall that provided indoor entertainment (card games, table tennis, carpet bowls) on weeknights and occasional dances at weekends. Some of these dances were so well patronised that the railway company laid on special trains to take the revellers home.
But any other entertainment involved taking a train to either Newcastleton or Hawick. And when the last train back from Hawick was retimed by the railway company to depart prior to the end of the final house at the Hawick cinema, there was uproar.
A local minister came occasionally to hold church services in the village hall, walking or cycling alongside the Border Counties Line (this was a single track, but the earthworks were built to double-track standards).
But it wasn't all doom and gloom however. On other Sundays the residents had to travel to either Hawick or Newcastleton to attend church. For this, they were issued with a free railway pass. In those days, this part of Scotland was "dry" on Sundays, but bona fide travellers journeying more than a certain distance were entitled to liquid refreshment of the alcoholic variety. The distance from Riccarton to Hawick fell into this category, hence church passes were quite popular.
There was a grocery shop run by one of the local villagers. This was situated in house no 10. Later, however, it was taken over by the Hawick Co-operative Society and moved into railway premises. Post Office facilities were undertaken in the railway ticket office, and there was a public telephone on the station platform.
All of the stock for the shop came in by train, as did the newspapers and paraffin and coal for domestic purposes. A pair of enterprising villagers had a horse and cart and supplemented their railway income by transporting articles, including the coal, around the village.
The mail also arrived by train. The village postman (later postwoman) delivered locally and then caught the 10:30 train down the Border Counties Line to the furthest point of the round and then walked back making the deliveries.
I've mentioned the Store Brae (seen here in the photo on the left, with the ruins of the houses to the left of the track) that ran down from the houses to the railway station. There were two other paths that ran parallel to this - the Middle Brae, that ran from an alleyway between houses 18 and 19 and went down to the railway line past the Stationmaster's house, and the Hall Brae, that ran from the Village Hall down to a footbridge over the railway lines and onto the Station platform.
It shoud be pointed out that the railway station was an "island" in between the railway tracks - the only such station on the Waverley Line.
There was of course a path that ran in front of houses 11 to 34, and continued through a swing gate and up to the school and school house.
The gate must have been quite impressive if the gateposts were anything to go by. One of them can be seen in the image on the left, lying in the undergrowth. It seems to have escaped the attention of the looting party that was organised by members of the Bothy Association.
The village primary school - to the right in the photograph aside - was attended by children in the village and from the neighbourhood, and these latter mostly came by train. Judging by the attendance roll, the catchment area extended northwards to areas such as Whitrope and Shankend. One assumes that children from the east or south of Riccarton Junction went to either Saughtree or Newcastleton Primary Schools. There was no station platform at Whitrope so childen had to clamber onto the train with the aid of a ladder.
For secondary education, children went to Newcastleton and also to Hawick. A passenger carriage was attached to the 06:30am freight from Carlisle to Edinburgh Millerhill when it arrived at Riccarton Junction for the transport of those children going to Hawick.
The village had a character all of its own. The "Scotsman" newspaper once described it as "The Scottish equivalent of a wild west frontier town: a community created in the middle of nowhere to accommodate the iron horse".
And as you might expect in an isolated "frontier" community, there was a great deal of clannishness, and a great deal of intimidation of the many by the few. One matter that is regularly quoted is a story of how a soldier returning from World War I to his railway employment at Riccarton Junction is promoted over the heads of several other railwaymen who had remained behind during the war. This promotion caused much unpleasantness and several of the wives of the passed-over railwayment made such an issue that the local police were obliged to intervene. The police report of the incident recorded that "ill-feeling amongst a section of at least of the company's employees at Riccarton is deep-rooted and nothing short of a drastic weeding out of the disturbers will effect a remedy".
So now that I've set the scene for the village, we can move on now to talk about its demise.