Well, here’s a thing. …… “A holiday on Orkney sounds lovely but where is the railway interest,” I thought. ……..
We are holidaying on the Orkney Islands (April 2019), the scenery and beaches are wonderful. We were so sure that there would be little to interest me as far as railways are concerned. It seems as though we were wrong!
Sitting in our holiday cottage one morning, I decided to do a little internet research on Railways in the Orkneys, fully expecting to find little or nothing on a railway theme. I was wrong.
The Sanday Light Railway
First I discovered the existence of an erstwhile private railway on Sanday – the Sanday Light Railway. This was a privately owned passenger carrying miniature railway situated in Braeswick, on the island of Sanday, Orkney, Scotland.The Sanday Light Railway. 
The railway was of 7 1⁄4 in (184 mm) gauge. Construction began in 2000 and the line closed at the end of 2006. It was the most northerly passenger carrying railway in the British Isles, and although it was primarily the owner’s hobby it did achieve the status of a tourist attraction and local curiosity. 
The railway sometimes ran one of its two steam locomotives, a 2-4-2 and a 2-4-0, but more often one of three petrol locomotives. The railway also owned a number of items of rolling stock, including a very rare Cromar White first-class carriage. 
Although trains had been operating occasionally in some form beforehand,  the railway was officially opened to the public in August 2006 by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies just a few months before its closure, which was variously attributed to the owner being unable to keep his promise to hold Sir Peter’s civil partnership ceremony there  or unreasonable demands placed upon the railway’s operators by local council officials.
In 2008 the owner was taking legal action against a number of organisations  overperceived discrimination and misconduct by those organisations, in relation to the railway, its associated tea-rooms and the abortive civil partnership ceremony.
There are a series of pictures of the line on the Flying Cat blog.  There is also a series of short videos of the line on YouTube. For example:
Then I came across an article from 1966 entitled “Orcadian Railways.” This article was written by R.A. Bowen and was carried in the journal of the Industrial Railway Society, ‘The Industrial Railway Record’s. 
I should have known that what was at one time a very significant military area would have had some railway provision. The range of gauges was significant. There were relics of standard gauge lines in the 1960s as well as at least two different narrow gauges and …. yes …. even a short monorail system.
The full text of the article is reproduced in Appendix 1 as are the pictures that were included with it.
A book was written in the mid-1990s by W. Simm entitled ‘Railways of Orkney’. I have just ordered a copy, second-hand. It may therefore be necessary to supplement this post once I have had chance to read that book.  a the adjacent image comes from the front cover of that book and shows Orkney’s first steam railway – a construction line on Hoy, operated by the contractors building the naval base on the island between 1914 and 1920. The loco is a small 0-4-0T German built engine and it is hauling a short spoil train. 
A Tunnel to Orkney?
Orkney lies less than 10 miles north of the Scottish mainland, a distance short enough to prompt many islanders to wonder if a bridge or tunnel could ever join the two.
In 2005, the islands’ local authority investigated whether a fixed link was possible. Research suggested a sub-sea tunnel between South Ronaldsay in Orkney and a point close to John o’ Groats would cost at least £150 million. Would it have been a railway tunnel?
Highland Councillor John Green said at the time: “When you consider that around £11 million a year in subsidy goes into the Pentland Firth ferry – it wouldn’t take long to recoup that by building a tunnel.”
Numerous tunnels covering similar distances underwater have been built in Norway, which provided inspiration to Orkney councillors. 
There is a short thread on the National Preservation Forum, entitled ‘Orkney’ which considers the presence of railway item in museums on Orkney. 
I have found a few relevant photos while searching on thge internet. These are reproduced below:
This picture shows a short length of railway close to the Lyness Museum on Hoy, © Kirkwallian. Also taken at the Scala Flow Museum at Lyness. The gunpost at Scad Head required a cable-inclne railway as the road to the gun was too steep.© W. Watters. A remaining wagon frame and wheels from the Scad Head railway, © W. Waters. A Ruston and Hornsby locomotive at Lyness Museum on Hoy. K
- https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanday_Light_Railway, accessed on 29th April 2019.
- https://www.irsociety.co.uk/Archives/10/orcadian_railways.htm, accessed on 29th April 2019.
- https://www.national-preservation.com/threads/orkney.31090, accessed on 29th April 2019.
- W. Simm; Railways of Orkney: Including a Description of the Railway Exhibits at the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre, Lyness, Hoy, 1996.
- https://photos.orkneycommunities.co.uk/picture/number6140.asp, accessed on 29th April 2019.
- https://pin.it/brx5guadynbs43, accessed on 29th April 2019.
- https://theorkneynews.scot/2017/05/17/scapa-flow-visitor-centre/railway-on-lynessrailway-on-lyness, accessed on 29th April 2019.
- http://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/islandblogging/blogs/005209/0000013214.shtml, accessed on 29th April 2019.
- https://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle-2-15039/five-bold-scottish-transport-projects-that-never-took-off-1-4137347, accessed on 29th April 2019.
Appendix 1 – Orcadian Railways by R.A. Bowen BSc. (IRRD Volume 10 p221-230)
(Photographs by the Author)
The Orkneys are a group of about fifty islands, generally low-lying and more fertile than one imagines, lying off the north-east corner of Scotland. The only towns are Stromness and Kirkwall on the Mainland of Orkney, the largest island of the group; both have narrow paved streets, not really suitable for motor traffic. Kirkwall boasts a cathedral of Viking descent, while Stromness is the proud possessor of a museum which, in addition to collecting local relics, is travel minded, though I found no mention of rail-borne systems there at all. The isles generally are so full of historic and prehistoric remains that a trip to study only railways would need a greater enthusiast than I. My wife and I made a trip across the Pentland Firth over Easter 1963 and visited all the places of railway interest to which we had found reference, and some others besides.
In all we visited over twenty-five sites where rail had been used, but I must say that our explorations were not as complete as they might have been. Time and transport restricted our search to the Mainland of Orkney and the southern isles, under conditions which became slightly out-of-hand. It snowed, it blew, planes and boats were cancelled and we were eventually five days late back at work some twenty miles away on the neighbouring mainland of Caithness.
Suffice, to railways (or the editor will not print any of this). Whilst there is still a small amount of standard gauge in the islands, the Orcadian railways are essentially narrow gauge and the majority are those laid down by the Forces or their contractors in the two World Wars.
There are, however, two classes of indigenous civilian systems, which I will deal with first. One belongs to the Northern Lighthouse Commissioners and the other is a series of 2ft systems laid with ‘Jubilee’ track by the Orkney County Council in its quarries. A typical system consists of lines at the quarry face along which tubs are pushed to the foot of an incline, from where cable haulage is used to the top of a crushing plant. One notable feature is the use of wagon tables instead of points. The track is moved from quarry to quarry as required, but at the time of our visit was laid in Cursiter between Kirkwall and Finstown, and also at Lythes on South Walls. In the past it has been used at Chinglebraes, St. Ola, Workwell, Orphir, Springfield and Harray, all on the Mainland of Orkney.
The Northern Lighthouse Commissioners have their service depot in Stromness and use a little standard gauge track for moving buoys on a trolley. They also have a 2ft 6in system which appears to have been laid when the base was installed in the 1890‘s. This system serves their own pier and includes several oddities in the way of points and loops. When we were present a tame otter patrolled the system! The Commissioners have installed track of the same gauge at some of their lighthouses, where a cable hauled bogie is used to land stores. The only one I have visited is on Sules Skerry, one of a pair of islands about 38 miles west of the Orkney group. A similar system, including a point, exists on the Flannan Isles off the west coast of the Hebrides, and I have heard that there is one on Muckle Flugga, the penultimate northerly rock in Great Britain.
Of the ‘military’ lines perhaps the most interesting are those installed by Balfour, Beatty & Co. Ltd. (including their associates) for the construction of the Churchill Barriers. These barriers, four in number, replaced in the Second World War the blockships of the First, and were built by Balfour Beatty using prisoner-of-war labour, with the exception of the southern half of the most southerly one which was constructed by William Tawse Ltd. They connected the Mainland of Orkney with South Ronaldsay through the islands of Lambholm, Glimsholm and Burray, making a barrier along the eastern side of Scapa Flow and so forming a defence to the large wartime base there. Today they appear as an unfenced roadway on top of a mound of concrete blocks, spanning bits of the Atlantic Ocean. Balfour Beatty constructed their barriers by lowering rock from a cable suspended across each strait until sea level was reached, sometimes dealing with depths of up to five fathoms. Then the concrete blocks of three sizes (but typically six feet square by eight feet high) were lowered to form the edges and the basis for the roadway. The sites of the triangular fixtures that anchored the cableways and an attendant hut are still clearly visible in all cases.
These cableways were supplied by 3ft gauge systems, which ran from alongside a pier (though not actually confirmed on any) to the cable and then on to the “Blocking Yard” where the concrete blocks were made. The 3ft lines also served the quarries from which the raw materials were obtained and were frequently supported by a standard gauge system in the blocking yards on which steam cranes operated. Balfour Beatty had a service depot for these sites at Scapa on the Mainland (now a depot of the Orkney County Council Water Dept.), where a small quantity of track remains.
From north to south the lines were as follows. The first was on the north side of Lambholm. This island, otherwise uninhabited, housed the Prisoner-of-War camp, of which all that remains now is the ‘Italian Chapel’, two beautifully converted Nissen huts. The pier lies to the west, while to the east is the P.o.W. camp site, a few lengths of rail and a large Blocking Yard, with traces of the standard gauge system. The remains of another system exist on the south side of the island with the pier to the west, and to the east a large quarry, a few rails and one building, next to which are truck bodies suitable for carrying concrete blocks. The Blocking Yard was smaller and just before the quarry, but here it is not clear whether or not standard gauge track was used.
On the north side of the small island of Glimsholm there are traces of a 2ft system, leading from a small quarry on the west to the cableway, but No.3 Barrier was obviously built mainly from the Burray end. On the north side of the latter are the remains of a mile long system leading from a pier on the west, past a cliff face quarry and through a cutting (60ft long and up to 8ft deep), now affected by the sea, to the locomotive shed. From here the line continues past the cable and the remains, high up, of a camp, behind a farm to a quarry, and further up on to the island to a sandpit by a ruined broch (a Pictish dwelling shaped like a G.W.R. safety valve cover, with hollow walls). Here again confirmation of any standard gauge track is lacking, though it may have been to the west of the cable.
On the south side of Burray lie many traces of the longest system to be described. This leads from an old and still used pier on the west behind the village and thence up a hill to the road and past the cableway. It continues to the Blocking Yard with traces of the standard gauge lines, and then along the sand dunes to a reversing point from where it runs uphill to descend into the now flooded quarry. In addition Balfour Beatty built a small causeway on top of a reef linking the island of Burray with the privately owned one of Hunda in Scapa Flow to the west. A 2ft gauge Jubilee track system was used to convey the stone from a quarry at the western end of the causeway, and this was probably hand worked; the odd sleeper remains in the quarry. Their most interesting 2ft system, however, was used in the construction of two tunnels on the moor above Lyness-on-Hoy, the only generally upland island. Lyness had a large hospital and naval base in the First World War and in the Second was used for oil storage; it is now an Admiralty Oil Fuel Depot. The tunnels in question issue from Wee Fea about ¾mile apart near the 400ft contour. The line was used to remove spoil and was operated by two diesel locomotives. Though each tunnel was essentially an independent unit, the line did join them and connected with two quarries and an emplacement higher up the hillside. Some of the works were of a substantial nature with proper ballast occurring in places instead of just sand on top of the peat bog. A wagon table remains in one of the quarries since the lifting in 1943, and part of the formation has been adapted to form a single track road.
The hillside in question is full of bunkers and narrow concrete paths, but is otherwise primitive moorland. My exploration was rewarded with sights of grouse and an eagle, as well as a spectacular view at sunset of many of the Orkney islands, the lighthouses twinkling among the dark islets dotted in a turquoise sea.
If we remain at Lyness we can consider the purely Services installations, commencing with the Admiralty. Between the oil tanks set back from the shore and the three huge jetties that form the harbour is the remains of a standard gauge system installed first to serve the floating hospital in 1916 and constructed from bits of the Cromarty & Dingwall Light Railway. It was built by contractors using a steam locomotive (or locomotives) that later worked it. The system lay derelict until the Second World War when it was adapted to the needs of boom laying, acquiring pointwork dated 1937 in the process. In its present state it consists basically of half a square of double track, 150 yards along a limb, which can be used by the two steam cranes that shunt the limited stock (two flat trucks of 1916).
In the same area and serving the same piers is a 2ft system, which in places shares a rail with the standard gauge system. This is an adaptation of the earliest system on the site – one serving quarrying works by Topham, Jones & Railton Ltd. There do not appear to have been any locomotives in use on it in the Second World War, but that serving the pier at Rinnigill on the South side of the same bay, most certainly did have one diesel. One flat car remains on this track which is still present, but the locomotive was cut up not all that long before my visit.
The War Department also left traces, the most interesting being a self-acting incline about 900 yards long to serve a gun battery at Scad Head half way along the totally unpopulated section of the north-east coast of Hoy. The line ran from a camp set on top of a hill to the emplacement on the clifftop below, but it has been removed so effectively that even its gauge is now in doubt
Two types of short lengths of 2ft track laid by the War Department can be enumerated. One is a straight length joining two or more huts, or more truthfully, the concrete bases where the huts once were. These exist at the north end of the town of Stromness, at Howton (now a seaweed factory) on the Mainland of Orkney and at Muckle Rysa on Hoy. The second is that in a gun emplacement and which is typically semicircular and about 25 yards long; these exist to the south of Stromness on the mainland, on the south side of Glimsholm and probably in the south-east corner of Flotta. Neither of these types appears to have any interest to the locomotive enthusiast.
The Air Ministry laid a circular line on Fara, an island lying off Lyness, and the diesel locomotive used here was cut up at Rinnigill within the last decade. In addition to these systems there are one or two which appear to be of Ministry origin, but of which I have no further knowledge.
At Flotta, where once there was a huge camp and where the Services cinema is still used for dances, wedding receptions, etc., the two piers were connected by a 2ft system. Some of the track is still laid in the concrete.
Towards the north end of Hoy, just south of Quoys (a farm near Linkness) and separated from the south by four miles of unpopulated country, is the remains of a system some 900 yards in length that ran from a quarry (now a reservoir) alongside a road to a crossroads. One surmises that it is from systems like these that the various privately owned launching trolleys on rails (found all over the islands) originated.
One more rail system remains to be mentioned. That is the monorail of Alexander Sutherland (Contractors) on Lambholm, not far from the Italian Chapel, which lifts shingle from the beach to the hopper on the clifftop. It is quite standard with a Ford engine, mounted at the highest point, which hauls a car up. There are two cars extant, one lashed to the rail and the other lying beside it. It has one unusual feature in that tidal action is used to ensure a ready supply of shingle to the lower hopper.
It will be apparent that the history of the Orcadian railways and locomotives is far from complete, and I would welcome further information or confirmation of statements in this article (via the Editor); I should like to express my thanks for information to several people in Orkney including the County Surveyor and, in particular, Norman Sinclair of Burray whose house abutted one of the Balfour Beatty lines, and also to Dr I.D.O. Frew, E.S. Lomay, K.P. Plant, C.H.A. Townley and W.K. Williams.
|Name of site||Owner
in the past
(HD,HX or NY)
|1||Chinglebraes Qy||OCC||See(4)||(1)||No locos||427090|
|2||St. Ola Quarry||OCC||See(4)||(1)||No locos||457089?|
|3||Workwell Quarry||OCC||See(4)||(1)||No locos||467121?|
|4||Orphir Quarry||OCC||See(4)||(1)||No locos||342053?|
|5||Springfield Qy||OCC||See(4)||(1)||No locos||331158|
|6||Harray Quarry||OCC||See(4)||(1)||No locos||308175?|
|7||Cursiter Quarry||OCC||See(4)||In use||Part cable||80||377126|
|8||Stromness||S||2ft 0in||O.O.U.||No locos||30||257098|
|9||Stromness||GE||2ft 0in||O.O.U.||No locos||15||246079|
|10||Stromness||NLC||2ft 6in||In use||No locos||60||254087|
|11||Stromness||NLC||4ft 8½in||In use||No locos||20||254087|
|12||Scapa||BB(5)||3ft 0in||O.O.U.||No locos||Nil||444087|
|13||Howton||S||2ft 0in||O.O.U.||No locos||30||317040|
|14||Rock Works||BB||3ft 0in||?||Locos||?||? (3)|
|22||North||BB||4ft 8½in||Lifted||Steam crane||100||485005|
|41||North||BB||3ft 0in||Lifted||Steam loco||1800||473976-487986|
|43||South||BB||4ft 8½in||Lifted||Steam crane||100||482955|
|61||on two piers||2ft 0in||O.O.U.||No locos||40||347950/343948|
|71||—||AM||2ft 0in||Lifted||One diesel||?||339060|
|83||Muckle Rysa||?||2ft 0in||O.O.U.||No locos||15||305968|
|84||Lyness||(2)||4ft 8½in||In use||Locos (2)||300||312947|
|86||Wee Fea||BB||2ft 0in||(6)||Locos||1400||285941-292946|
|88||The Witter||?||2ft 0in||Lifted||?||150||281892|
|91||Lythee||OCC||See(4)||In use||Part cable||40||300905|
|100||—||NLC||2ft 6in||In use||Cable||150||624242|
Originally a quarry by TJR; then H. M. Naval Establishment in 1916; rebuilt 1937-1940; now Admiralty Oil Fuel Depot. Used 2ft 0in steam locos, then 4ft 8½in locos, and now has two steam cranes.
|(3)||Not traced – probably identical to (12).|
|(4)||All track seen is more nearly 1ft 11½in gauge.|
|(5)||Now OCC; still a rail store.|
|(6)||Track was lifted in 1943.|
ABBREVIATIONS USED IN THE ARTICLE
AM Air Ministry. AS Arthur Sutherland. BB Balfour Beatty & Co. Ltd. (often includes LMS) GE Gun Emplacement. LMS Lehane, Mackenzie & Shand Ltd. NLC Northern Lighthouse Commissioners. OCC Orkney County Council. S Services (Armed) SAI Self-Acting Incline. SST Spares sent to TJR Topham, Jones & Railton Ltd. O.O.U. Out of use. WDLR War Department Light Railways.
|*||Also named WINSTON CHURCHILL.||VB||Vertical boiler|
|**||Also named ADMIRAL LISTER.||OC||Outside cylinders|
|WT||Well tank||HC||Hudswell, Clarke & Co. Ltd.|
|ST||Saddle tank||HE||Hunslet Engine Co. Ltd.|
|T||Side tank||KS||Kerr, Stuart & Co. Ltd.|
|TG||Tank locomotive with geared drive||OK||Orenstein & Koppel|
|4wD||Four wheeled diesel engined locomotive||S||Sentinel (Shrewsbury) Ltd.|
|WB||W. G. Bagnall Ltd.|
In the footnotes below, the numbers in brackets refer to the site numbers in the list of sites given on page 227.
|(a)||TJR (84) c1916, shipped away by Admiralty c1920; some references give F and AJAX separate identities.|
|(b)||At (86) until c1943.|
|(c)||At (71); scrapped at (87).|
|(d)||Identification doubtful; seen at (41); later LMS; J. C. Staton & Co. Ltd., Tutbury, Staffs; scrapped at Piel & Walney Gravel Co. Ltd., Lancashire, in March 1963.|
|(e)||BB, Inverkeithing, c1945 (? ex Orkney); to Connell, Coatbridge.|
|(f)||Seen at (41) or (42); BB, Inverkeithing, by 1945; to Connell, Coatbridge by May 195u, presumably for scrap.|
|(g)||New to James Byron Ltd., Whitefield, Lancashire; on BB contract at Fort William in 1931 and 1932; at Inverkeithing c1945 (? ex Orkney).|
|(h)||New to the Home Grown Timber Committee and sent to the Canadian Forestry Corps, at Ampthill, Bedfordshire; Later at Harrogate Corporation Waterworks, Masham; later LMS, Gorple Reservoir, near Hebden Bridge, 1928-1934 at least; SST (12) in May 1943 and October 1943.|
|(i)||New to BB; seen BB Inverkeithing c1945 (? ex Orkney).|
|(j)||Ex Burnley Corporation; SST to BB for LMS at (12) in November 1942 and also April 1943; scrapped by W. Twigg Ltd., Matlock, c1950.|
|(k)||Ex WDLR 341; converted by HE from 2ft 0in to 3ft 0in gauge in 1925; to BB per Honeywill Bros. Ltd., dealers; SST (12) April 1943 and March 1944; at Inverkeithing by 1945.|
|(l)||New to BB, Kut Barrage Contract, Iraq; to HE for conversion from metre to 3ft 0in gauge and thence to Orkney c1940.|
|(m)||SST (14) March 1942, (12) October 1942; later to Jas. Tulloch & Co. Ltd., Aberdeen.|
|(n)||SST (14) August 1941, (12) October 1942; later to Penmaenmawr & Welsh Granite Co. Ltd.|
|(o)||SST (12) May 1942 and March 1943; later to Jas. Tulloch & Co. Ltd., Aberdeen.|
|(p)||SST (12) May 1942 and November 1942.|
|(q)||Seen at Inverkeithing c1945 (? ex Orkney).|
|(r)||New to Admiralty & Prisons, Peterhead Harbour Railway; to Admiralty, Rosyth, (loan); later used by J. Bell & Co., contractors, Orkney,(possibly at Lyness); SST Kinnear, Moodie & Co., contractors, (84) in May 1918 and March 1919. Derelict about 1920. Shipped by Admiralty in February 1920 to Peterhead and scrapped there in 1938.|
|(s)||At (84), (see “Railway Magazine, March 1936); if (r) is correct, then scrapped on site about 1940.|
|(t)||At (84) 1963.|
|(u)||At (43) about 1942.|
|(v)||At (22) about 1942.|