Michael Portillo explores the historic Dumbarton shipyards that built the Cutty Sark, visits Loch Lomond, and goes hunting for gold in Scotland's mountains.
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In 1840, one man transformed travel in Britain.
His name was George Bradshaw, and his railway guides
inspired the Victorians to take to the tracks.
Stop by stop, he told them where to travel, what to see,
and where to stay.
Now, 170 years later, I'm making a series of journeys across the length and breadth of the country
to see what of Bradshaw's Britain remains.
Over the next few days, I'll be travelling along a railway route
that's been described as the most scenic in Britain.
Through the West Highlands, to the Isle of Skye.
This part of my journey begins in
one of the most heavily populated parts of Scotland.
But it's also the route that points towards
the highlands and islands, and Bradshaw's guide anticipates
a succession of beautiful and varied scenery,
and remarks that "any traveller for pleasure has only to choose
"the first conveyance westward, to find what he seeks and be gratified."
It's a line that brought thousands of tourists to these mountains
for the first time,
and my Bradshaw's guide helped them to find their feet in this unknown territory.
On today's leg of the journey,
I'll be discovering how Queen Victoria attracted
train loads of tourists to Loch Lomond.
This is very valuable, I can see it's signed by Victoria.
That's a real treasure that you've got that.
Finding out how Scottish timber fuelled the rail boom.
We have fast-growing trees for things like railway sleepers,
that was one of the big demands in the 19th century.
And learning how a great sailing ship took her name from a witch in a poem.
It comes from a Burn's poem, Tam o' Shanter.
He can't help himself and he jumps up and he shouts, "Weel done, Cutty Sark!"
I started this journey in Ayr,
and I'm now moving north towards the Highlands.
I'll be taking the picturesque West Highland Line,
travelling through rugged moor and mountain,
all the way to the Inner Hebrides and the Isle of Skye.
On this stretch, I'll visit the former shipyards in Dumbarton,
and reach the shores of Loch Lomond at Tarbet,
as I head for the villages of Crianlarich and Tyndrum.
I'm beginning in the Clyde estuary,
once the centre of Scotland's shipbuilding industry.
The industrial revolution made many fortunes along the River Clyde,
but of course it also produced the enormous transformation of the landscape,
maybe emphasising the differences
between lowland Scotland and the Highlands,
where I'll be headed shortly.
But now as you move along the Clyde,
what's most in evidence are the effects of de-industrialisation,
as some of the trades and crafts of the 19th century are wound up.
One town changed beyond recognition since Bradshaw's day
is my next stop, Dumbarton.
Back then, busy workshops lined the quays
and mighty vessels took shape in the shipyards.
Bradshaw's guide says "Dumbarton is built in a level
"tract of country near the confluence of the River Leaven and the Clyde,"
and I can see behind me the very point where the two rivers meet,
and it says, "It also has the advantage of possessing
"a spacious and convenient harbour." And that strikes me as pretty sad
because I'm on the site of what was once Denny's shipyard.
And there's nothing left. I can hardly believe it.
In Bradshaw's time, Denny's was just one of several shipyards that
occupied the banks of the river.
In the 19th century, the railways helped the yards to expand,
bringing coal and metals to the slipways.
By the early 20th century,
one in five of the world's ships was built on the Clyde.
Bruce, good morning.
'I'm meeting Bruce Biddulph, whose family worked in the shipbuilding trade.'
-Is this really the site that was once Denny's shipyard?
-Yes, this is it.
It stretched from the rock over there right along the river,
just to before that tower and you had three or four slipways here.
And the reason they could build the ships so big here was
because they launched them down this river into the Clyde.
I came here today by train but there's no sign of railway lines around here,
were there railway lines?
Oh, yes, there were two lines came off the main line
into the MacMillan Yard and into Denny to supply materials, so, you know, they were big concerns.
-Essential part of the process, to get the steel in, and so on.
-Very much so, yes.
'Although the Clyde was well known for producing steam ships,
'Dumbarton's shipyards also built one of world's most famous
'sailing ships, the Cutty Sark.'
'She was launched right here, in 1869.'
This is a bit puzzling to me, what were they doing building a sailing ship at the end of the 19th century?
In part, it was prejudice on the ship owner's part
because they didn't trust steam entirely.
But apart from that, prior to the Suez Canal opening,
the sailing ship was actually more reliable going round
the cape in Africa on the Indian and Chinese trades.
It's a bit like now with electric cars. We can build them,
but we don't have the facilities to look after them,
in those days it was the same idea.
A lack of engineers and a lack of facilities if the ship broke down.
So sailing ships were still pretty viable in those days.
The Cutty Sark was a new type of composite sailing ship.
She had an iron frame and a wooden hull,
and on the trade routes to Australia
she was even faster than the best steam ships.
She was originally commissioned by a Scottish entrepreneur,
who gave her her unusual name.
I've never understood what Cutty Sark means, where did the name come from?
It comes from a Burn's poem, Tam o' Shanter.
Tam gets drunk one night and he sees the witches
and the Devil having a bit of a cavort.
And he spots one young witch, who's rather pretty,
and she's dressed immaculate in white, and he's captivated by her,
and he can't help himself and he jumps up and he shouts,
"Weel done, cutty sark," and "cutty sark" refers to the white shift that she's wearing
so imagine a large sailing ship covered in sail,
then she just looks like a white shirt on the sea.
Denny's shipyard continued to produce innovative ships right up until the 1960s.
But increasing competition from abroad finally forced it to close.
One part of Dumbarton, at least, hasn't changed since Bradshaw's day.
My guidebook says, "The ancient castle of Dumbarton
"stands on the summit of a high and precipitous two-headed rock,
"and is a place of great antiquity"
If Bradshaw returned, perhaps only the sight of the great fortress
securing the harbour would convince him that he was in Dumbarton.
While in Dumbarton, which has lost its industries,
I felt that sense of pride at once what was achieved here.
And now I'm on my way to Loch Lomond, a place which, fortunately,
has never been over-developed, and which remains one of the gems of Scotland.
Well, now I'm properly embarked on the West Highland Line.
And all the way along the route, we get these fantastic views of sea
and loch and mountain, it really is one of the most striking railway journeys in the world,
and a fantastic piece of Victorian engineering.
My Bradshaw's warns me to look out for my next destination.
"Five miles to the north-west of Dumbarton, the traveller
"from the south obtains the first view of the celebrated Loch Lomond,
"the most beautiful and picturesque of all the Scottish lakes".
I'm getting off at the loch side station of Tarbet
to explore one of the sights best loved by Victorian tourists.
All along the West Highland Line, the stations are beautifully kept and wonderfully set,
and Tarbet had the advantage of having not only a railway station,
but also a steamship pier.
And it soon became a favourite with Queen Victoria herself.
Before the railways, only affluent tourists could afford to visit
the remote Scottish Highlands.
Thereafter, the middle classes could follow in the footsteps
of Queen Victoria, by taking the train to Loch Lomond
for holidays or day trips.
Bradshaw's guide is incredibly enthusiastic about Loch Lomond,
and on a day like today you can see exactly why.
"Loch Lomond is justly considered one of the finest lakes in Scotland.
"A lake of incomparable beauty, as in its dimensions,
"exceeding all others in variety, as it does in extent and splendour".
And then, of course, Bradshaw gives you practical tips.
"Steamers up and down Loch Lomond daily in the summer
"call at Tarbet and Inversnaid,
"the landing places for Inverary, Loch Katrine and the Trossachs".
And it's for Inversnaid that I'm now bound.
Queen Victoria is known to have explored the loch on steam cruises,
and a boat still provides the best means to appreciate this extraordinary lake.
I first got to know Loch Lomond very recently.
Just a few weeks ago, I came here on holiday,
and I was astonished by it. Of course, I'd heard the name very often
but I didn't realise it was 23 miles long,
I wasn't prepared for the size.
And it's so beautiful, it's so green and so wonderfully unspoiled.
I'm landing at the Inversnaid Hotel, where in the 19th century
coaches took tourists on to the wilder reaches of the loch shores.
I'm here to learn why this part of her kingdom captured
Queen Victoria's heart.
'Mary Haggarty and Heather McTavish are life-long local residents.'
Queen Victoria herself came here?
Queen Victoria visited here, yes.
She probably visited on more than one occasion.
And I was told that after Prince Albert died,
she and Albert had bought Balmoral,
that she didn't like to go to Balmoral for a while because it had such painful memories,
therefore, she used to come here.
She went into deep mourning after Prince Albert died.
But also her daughter married the Duke of Argyll,
which would have brought her to this area.
And this would always have been, sort of, near to her heart.
Victoria's husband, Albert, died suddenly in 1861,
and the Queen never ceased to grieve.
Astonishingly, Heather has what appears to be an original document,
underlining the depth of Victoria's sorrow.
Well, my father was a Victorian and lived all his life
here in these parts, and I found this letter just amongst papers.
Goodness. This is very valuable, I can see it's signed by Victoria.
And it's dated June 22nd 1884.
"I'm anxious to express to all the women of Great Britain
"and Ireland how deeply touched and grateful I am by their very kind
"and generous present of the statue of my beloved husband."
That's a real treasure that you've got that! It tells you,
you know, that's years after the death of Albert,
-and still very touched by anything that has to do with his memory.
-I had a very Victorian father.
So you had this tremendous connection with the Victorian world?
Yes, he was 63 when I was born and I'm 79 now,
so this is going a long way back.
Heather's father was born around the time
that my Bradshaw's guide was written,
but he didn't share Bradshaw's enthusiasm for the railways.
Your father made a speech, he talked about the coming of the railway,
and he was rather negative about it.
He said, well, first of all,
he talked about a thousand men being employed to build it,
and that four policemen had their hands full on a Saturday night.
Obviously, the navvies were getting drunk on a Saturday night.
But he said when the railway was finished so was old Arrochar, "we were no longer".
Although Heather's father believed the railways changed his community for the worse,
others saw the benefits the trains could bring.
They got their provisions, their papers.
Their post was dropped off by the trains.
Children went to school.
The train would stop and they'd just climb up the ladder
and get dropped off at night, so the railway made its own community.
It certainly changed,
but I maybe would say it did open up the villages.
'I've loved this afternoon spent on the shores of Loch Lomond.
'But now it's time to cross the water back to Tarbet to find my bed for the night.'
This time, I'm catching a lift with ranger team leader, Jenny Rogers.
-Put one of these on.
-Thank you very much indeed. Right, thank you, we're all set.
Ready to go.
'Her patrol boat's full of kit for monitoring this remarkable lake.'
So Michael, this is about roughly the deepest part of the loch, we're in about 610 feet.
-That's your depth metre there.
-Yep, depth metre here.
It's about as deep as it gets, and its deepest point is about 190 metres deep,
which is about as deep as the North Sea in the deepest parts.
-Yeah, or you can get three Nelson's Columns or the Eiffel Tower, with the top peeking out.
-And despite this enormous depth, no monster lurking beneath?
-No monster that we've seen, no,
but we'll leave that up to Loch Ness.
'Jenny's dropping me off right outside my hotel.'
The Tarbet Hotel started life as a coaching inn,
but in the 19th century it underwent a huge expansion, to accommodate the new influx of travellers.
-Michael Portillo checking in please.
-Good afternoon, sir.
-Very nice to see you.
'My Bradshaw's Guide recommends it as "the finest and most commodious on the lake."'
Good morning, come on in, come on in.
Now as you can see I have a pretty good vista here over trees and mountains but
if you want a panorama of the loch, you have to come in to the bathroom.
Now just look at that!
Isn't that fantastic?
A loo with a view.
For the rest of this Scottish journey I shan't be able to use
the 1860s Bradshaw's that I usually rely on,
because the line I'm following was built only in the 1890s.
So I've picked up a later edition to guide me as I continue north from Tarbet to Crianlarich.
As the train approached I could hear it powering up the steep gradient into the station
and I can't disguise my excitement about the West Highland Line.
Before this was built, many of these places were accessible only by horse, by mail coach,
possibly by steamer, and the West Highland Line brought
all these communities and made these splendours of Scotland accessible to all the country and imagine
the task of building this line, up steep gradients, through the mountains and across Rannoch Moor.
What an achievement.
Work began on the West Highland Line in 1889.
It was one of the most challenging railways to build, through some of the most rugged terrain in Britain.
This stretch skirts the western shore of the loch, and travels through ancient Scottish woodland.
The trees I'm passing now are like a traditional Scottish forest,
I'm seeing a lot of oak trees, I'm seeing the occasional Caledonian pine.
Of course now they block the view.
In Victorian times they wouldn't have been many trees here and very often the steam trains caused fires
and there were forest fires and the view would have been better.
But on the other hand, along the railway line now,
there's the opportunity for the forest to take root again,
for the traditional forest to re-establish itself.
My next stop is Crianlarich, once a great transport hub for the timber trade.
Until recently, passenger services shared this line with logging trains,
moving south from local stations to the saw mills.
-Bye bye now.
-Take care, enjoy the rest of your journey.
Wow the scenery just gets better and better the further north you go.
The view is superb, but s very different from what Victorian visitors would have seen.
By Bradshaw's day, these hills had been stripped
of their native forests by centuries of tree felling and grazing.
Now, they're dotted with large conifer plantations, which have changed the landscape once again.
-Hello, how are you? Are you walking the West Highland Way?
-Yes, we are.
Now, what do you think of the landscape you've seen so far?
It's beautiful. From Loch Lomond to...
the first couple of days aren't anything to write home about
but from Loch Lomond to here is brilliant, it's worth it.
There's a lot of plantation here isn't there and these are not
indigenous trees, do you think that's a problem?
It is across Scotland because they don't look as nice and they're not nice to walk through
because they're dead places, they're too dense.
But some of the woodland that's more native, that's been really nice.
Thank you, bye bye, good luck.
'I'm not a big fan of Scotland's conifer plantations either,
'so I'm keen to find out how they've spread through the Highlands' since Bradshaw's era.
-Mairi, good morning!
'Mairi Stewart is a woodland historian.'
Lovely spot... Looking across the loch, the trees that I'm looking at almost by the water's edge,
that would be the traditional, the indigenous tree for Scotland, would that be right?
-The native woods, yes, of Scotland.
-What trees are they?
Mainly birch but there's oak, there's hazel, there's some rowan and willow.
Now higher up the slope I'm seeing what I imagine is a commercial plantation of timber, is that right?
That is commercial, spruce plantation,
planted probably sometime in the second half of the 20th century.
I don't like those very much, I think they spoil the landscape
but I suppose at many periods in our history, we've needed timber very, very badly in Britain.
Absolutely, up until the 19th century it was terribly important.
Everything, housing, utensils for farming,
saddles were made of timber, everything you could think about
which we wouldn't regard as being made of timber today was required for life in Scotland in the past.
By the end of the 19th century, all this activity had reduced Scotland's forests to an all-time low.
But landowners found a possible solution.
New conifers that were being brought in in the 18th and 19th century
became the tree of commercial timber exploitation.
So, we have fast-growing trees for things like railway sleepers.
That was one of the big demands in the 19th century.
As industrialisation accelerated, even these new plantations couldn't keep pace with the demand for wood.
Then, in 1914, war brought even greater needs.
Everything required timber. The crates that took the biscuits to the troops in the trenches,
the trenches themselves, even aeroplanes were made of timber and it was a real crisis for Britain.
The country needed a reliable source of home-grown wood, so in 1919, the Forestry Commission was set up,
and rows of conifers were planted across Scotland.
It was the start of a new timber industry
that untill recently exported logs along the line from Crianlarich.
Sadly, the timber trains are no more, but luckily for me, passengers still travel from here.
Before my next train, I'm checking out he station tea room.
I've heard they run a special service for hungry travellers that's been on offer for over 100 years.
Hello. Good morning.
I wondered if you could show me your ancient food orders?
These are obviously telegrams that have been sent up
from Glasgow, they're dated 1901 so they're way over 100 years old.
This is the well to do from Glasgow coming up, ordering their breakfasts
-and packed lunches, whatever.
-What does that say?
Tea, ham and eggs, et cetera...
These have probably come up by morse code and had to be translated.
Breakfast for two, is that what it says?
And then it specifies exactly what they want?
-So there's nothing new under the sun is there?
-No, people still do the same thing.
This morning we had a telephone call about 10 mins before the train comes
in from the previous station saying please can we have two bacon rolls when we arrive and a coffee so
it's ready for them cause the train just stops long enough to get the token to go on to the next station.
I should've called ahead, because now there's no time for bacon sandwich as I've a train to catch.
I'm going only five miles up the track, to Tyndrum.
As I approach the village, I'm at the gateway to Scotland's famous Grampian Mountains.
Ladies and gentlemen, we're approaching Tyndrum Lower. Tyndrum Lower the next station stop.
So this is Tyndrum Lower Station and my Bradshaw's Guide is ecstatic about the mountains.
"Where the Grampians first rise,
"for almost the whole breadth of the country, the high grounds are penetrated by straths
"and glens of considerable extent, each traversed by its own streams and diversified by numerous lakes.
"Several of the mountains in this district are upwards of 3,000 feet high."
Which, of course, is the definition of a Munro.
Scotland's Munros take their name from a man cut from the same cloth as George Bradshaw.
In 1891 Sir Hugo Munro carefully listed 283 peaks over 3,000 feet,
and to this day keen climbers proudly bag them one by one.
A bit strenuous for me.
I've come to Tyndrum intrigued by plans to revive an activity
that hit the headlines in Bradshaw's time, gold mining.
Good to see you.
'Mining Engineer Chris Sangster believes there could be
'as much as five tonnes of gold hidden in Tyndrum's hills.'
Five tonnes of gold is worth a bob or two I imagine?
Between 150-200 million at the moment, depending on the gold price, yes, it's a significant deposit.
-Worth getting up in the morning for isn't it?
-Oh, indeed, indeed.
'In 1869, Scotland had its very own short-lived gold rush.
'600 hopeful adventurers descended on Helmsdale,
'but it was all over within a year.
'Attempts were made to revive gold mining here in the 1980s,
'but then the gold price was too low to make it viable.'
'The gold is found in a seam of quartz, but it's not easy to see.'
The gold occurs as very, very fine particles. 90% or it less than 0.1 of a millimetre.
So you don't see gold underground here or very, very, rarely here.
So it doesn't just come out as lovely chunks of gold, you have to do something to it?
No I wish it did but that's a little bit of an urban myth.
'To extract gold from the rock, miners first hew it out in big chunks,
'and then grind it into a fine powder.'
When you start taking the rock out, how much gold will you find inside?
In a tonne of the vein material
we've got about ten grammes per tonne of gold.
That equates to about one wedding ring, just more than one wedding ring,
in a tonne of rock. To mine our five tonnes of gold that we have here
we're going to have to move half a million tonnes of rock.
It's a massive effort to produce small quantities of gold
but if Chris succeeds
there's a chance the West Highland Line could one day be hauling treasure from these mountains.
I've been overwhelmed on my journey today by the beauty of the Highlands
and struck by how important the railway is to connecting remote communities.
But as my trip to Dumbarton reminded me, people need jobs
and whilst tourism is very, very big in the Highlands other industries are needed, too.
Timber's one of them.
And maybe gold mines will be part of the future.
On my next journey...
I'll be discovering how Victorian railway engineers
conquered Britain's most desolate wilderness...
The bogs on the moor
sucked everything up that the engineers laid.
Part of the railway you see here, north of the station has been floated on brushwood and turf.
Visiting a shooting estate favoured by the political elite...
These guys, they were tough.
There was a whole sort of cult, of course, amongst very many of these people of being tough.
And deer stalking was part that.
And learning how the railways helped to make whisky world famous...
This is from pretty much the exact time of the railways arriving in Oban.
I can see the railway here, can't I?
Here's the station, here's a train puffing along.
Yeah, that'd be probably one of the first pictures of the railway.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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Michael Portillo takes to the tracks with a copy of George Bradshaw's Victorian Railway Guidebook. Portillo travels the length and breadth of the country to see how the railways changed us, and what of Bradshaw's Britain remains, as he journeys up the west coast of Scotland from Ayr to Skye.
Michael explores the historic Dumbarton shipyards that built the Cutty Sark, visits one of Queen Victoria's favourite haunts, Loch Lomond, and goes hunting for gold in Scotland's mountains.