Thursday, May 22, 2014


The new First Transpennine Class 350 EMUs are now in use on the West Coast Main Line. I joined this one last week at Lockerbie for a regular shopping excursion into Carlisle, as I've done many times since coming to live in Annandale. The new colourful livery of the train, and the blue skies, set a cheerful mood for the day, even though my thoughts were on a terrible accident that occurred in 1915. It had been bright and sunny that morning too.

There has been much interest on the television and in newspapers recently about the Great War, this year marking 100 years since the beginning of that conflict. The First World War claimed the lives of more than 100,000 Scots. Some of these Scottish soldiers didn't even make it to the battlefield.

Last week, on the train to Carlisle, I made a point of looking out the window on the east side of the carriage to catch sight of a sign which marks the place where, ninety-nine years ago today, May 22, some 230 people died. Quintinshill. The story should be better known than it is.

A few days later I stood in the field beside the railway to take this photo. There used to be a signal box here, now long gone. But the main line still has passing loops here, as there was back in 1915.

The sky was overcast on the day of this visit, but the birds were singing. The ghosts of the dead may not even have noted my presence as I reflected on what had happened in the morning of May 22, 1915, but in such a peaceful place, it seemed the right way and the right time, just to tell them that they had not been forgotten.

The Quintinshill rail disaster is the worst rail accident, in terms of loss of life, in the history of railways in this country. The crash occurred when a troop train travelling from Larbert to Liverpool collided with a local passenger train that had been shunted on to the main line and was stationary it its path. The wreckage was then hit by an express heading towards Glasgow. Then fire engulfed the wrecked coaches. Horrific.

On the troop train there were some 500 Territorial soldiers of the 7th Battalion of the Royal Scots, who were based in Leith, part of the 52nd Lowland Division. They were heading to join the war in Gallipoli. 

Others lost their lives in the accident, railwaymen and passengers on the local train and on the express. A recent book about the accident, 'The Quintinshill Conspiracy' by Jack Richards and Adrian Searle, puts the death toll at 230. This figure varies in different reports. The roll of the regiment was destroyed in the fire, and many of the bodies were never identified given the ferocity of the fire.
This is how the line, now electified, looked when I first visited in August 2012. The Quintinshill signal box would have been on the left of this photo, as I'm facing south from my vantage point on the Blacksyke bridge which crosses the line here. It was not lost on me that the first train that passed the spot then was a rake of coal empties heading north. Back in 1912, it was the loop on the left that was occupied by empty coal wagons. So, as the loop on the right was also occupied by a goods train, the local passenger train, coming north in the same direction to that in the photo above, was reversed over onto the other main line, to let a northward bound express 'overtake'. The local train with its engine facing north, was hit by the south bound troop train.

As good a place as any to start in understanding what happened that morning ninety-nine years ago is on the Wikipedia page here, where there is a little animation showing the sequence of events involving the various trains. It is almost unbelievable that the signalmen in the box 'forgot' that a train was standing on track that had been signalled as clear for the troop train to progress.

Of course, that last sentence is an oversimplification. When I first learned of the accident, I had difficulty in believing the story, and so read as much as I could about the disaster. I wondered too why 'Quintinshill' was not more widely known about. Often the accident is called the 'Gretna Rail Disaster'.

Richards and Searle have answered some of my questions, and raised new ones, more of which in future blog posts. In addition, 'The Ill-fated Battalion' by Peter Sain ley Berry, also published last year, contains a lot of information about what happened to those who survived the crash (only sixty or so who were uninjured were mustered at the end of the day). The other half of the battalion, who were travelling on a separate train, joined the war in Gallipoli.

One of the first things I had to do was find out how the disaster had been remembered, and if there were memorials to those who had died.
Many of the Royal Scots' dead are buried together in Leith's Rosebank Cemetery, where this Celtic cross of Peterhead granite was unveiled in May 1916. The site is well tended and a service is held there every year.

214 names of soldiers who died are listed on the wall at Rosebank, in two panels like this. Check the list here, for the names. So many! Closeups of the names on the actual panels are here.

Not far away from Rosebank is a mural on a tenement gable in Leith. It was painted by Tim Chalk, Paul Grime and David Wilkinson in 1986, to show the essence of the town. The story of the mural is in Clare Carswell's article here.

One of the panels depicts the day of the public funeral of many of the soldiers, May 26. There's an actual photo here. It took three hours for the mile long funeral procession to pass the silent crowds which lined the streets from the batallion's Dalmeny Street headquarters.

In 1995 this memorial was unveiled in the car park of the Old Blacksmith's Shop at Gretna Green.

This is the plaque on the top of that memorial.

In 2010, this plaque was unveiled on Blacksyke bridge.

I hope to post more Quintinshill stories in the months ahead.

Photos © Skip Cottage

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