Rail travel made Scotland a major sporting destination, with guns, rods and hounds heading north, and salmon, grouse and memories returning south, says Serena Cross

Serena Cross charts how the extensive emergence of rail travel in the 1860s opened up the possibility for people to seek out sport in previously unreachable places across the country.

Graham Downing is taken on a tour of the breathtaking Burghley parkland with head forester Peter Glassey to find out more about its ancient trees.


Until the middle of the 19th century, the remoteness of Scotland from England was keenly felt by the hardy few who braved the arduous, expensive and often hazardous journey north by stagecoach in the pursuit of their sport. At this time, for most, a day’s sport was largely limited to what could be found on the doorstep or within reasonable hacking distance from home, and it wasn’t until the 1830s that the dawn of the railway age ushered in a new era of comfort, speed and convenience which had never before been possible. An extensive railway network sprung up almost overnight and by the 1860s, trains regularly travelled at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour. It seemed the possibilities for travel were suddenly limitless. The sporting community embraced this revolution with gusto.
To put this into context, in the era immediately preceding the railways, to travel by coach from Glasgow to London took 42 hours, with 28 changes, and required 112 horses to service the whole route. A century before, the 400-mile journey took an eye-watering, bone-shaking 65 hours.

The Scottish Highlands were simply an out-of-reach wilderness and their sports were yet to be developed. Although the steam locomotive revolutionised the way this sport could be accessed and enjoyed, the boom of ‘railway mania’ that swept the country during the mid-19th century coincided neatly with one epoch-defining house purchase. In 1852, Prince Albert created the romantic Highland sporting dream by buying Balmoral as a present for Queen Victoria. This created an aspirational ideal to which the aristocracy and industrial new money subscribed in their droves. The way for the great age of the grouse moor and of stylised Highland stalking was paved with iron and coal, and soon the Twelfth had become the most glorious day in the social calendar; and King’s Cross or Euston provided the charmed means of getting there. Balmoral was a gift for both Her Majesty and for the prolific new railway companies, which fell over each other in the scramble to open new routes.

Deerstalking, grouse shooting and salmon fishing were now among the most fashionable pastimes for the elite. The handful of small, powerful companies which owned the railways were quick to capitalise on the potential income from wealthy sporting clients who were keen to make these extravagant journeys. New lines were opening weekly to cater for the needs of the crowds of tourists who descended upon the Highlands as fast as the tracks could be laid.

This unexpected influx of wealth paid the wages of the locals who were employed as grouse keepers and gillies and pony men. As one elderly Highlander remembered: “Before the war, I recall the excitement at Tomatin Station in August when the ‘sleeper’ train stopped, and passengers descended, guns and accoutrements, staff, then dogs from the guard’s van, to be met by transport called ‘shooting brakes’ to convey their parties to the various lodges up the glen where all awaited their comfort with warmth and Highland hospitality. Ponies, or garrons, were provided to transfer the less able to their allotted place for drives. The railway was a boon, with a short spur going from the station to the distillery. Houses were built to accommodate employees, mostly local men and their families, which was a welcome opportunity for steady work, as sport was only seasonal.”

The ease by which one could arrive by rail with a full entourage of servants and dogs determined which estates were most sought after. One of our Williams ancestors purchased the Ross-shire stalking estate of Strathvaich purely for its accessibility. Strathvaich is close to the tiny station of Garve and could be reached by rail links from London Euston or King’s Cross via Inverness. There followed a mere 10-mile trip in a pony cart from the station to the lodge. Previously this would have been an impossible journey on unmade Highland roads. The ‘Commander’, as he was known, would regularly decamp there for the entire stalking season and would enthusiastically comment that this branch line was among the most beautiful in the country. When he started seeing tourists coming to Cornwall (the family seat is Caerhays Castle), he would head north. Where else could one see stags grazing on the hillside from the train and really remove oneself from the bustle of England in the summer? Suddenly the Highlands became convenient and the sport evolved to meet demand.

It became the norm to transplant the entire household for the ‘season’ via the railways and, like other estate owners of the time, my family had its own liveried carriage. Before World War I, this was used to transport the entire family and their staff up to another Scottish estate at Glenquoich. The carriage was subsequently used to transport fresh fruit and vegetables, which were sent up from Cornwall once a week for the duration of the season. During the seasons of 1904 and 1905, King Edward VII came up by rail as a guest to stalk and the whole glen was driven to his rifle. How times have changed. ScotRail now won’t even allow a properly cased gun to be transported on any of its services. I’m not sure how it feels about fruit and vegetables.

Driven grouse shooting also benefited hugely from the railway boom and became recognised as a sport in its own right as big-bag days began to grow in popularity and accessibility. Fast railway connections between seaports and grouse moors caught the eye of American millionaires, foreign princes and maharajas, who visited these shores to join the establishment on hill and moor, using enterprising rail connections to make it so. The swiftness and reliability of these locomotives allowed an unprecedented supply of fresh grouse to meet the demands of London’s finest restaurants. It was now possible for grouse to be shot in the morning in Scotland and to be served for dinner in town that evening. Grouse aficionado William Town remembers nerve-racking days at Summer Lodge moor in North Yorkshire during the 1980s where three keepers, with three setters apiece, and nine walking Guns would head out at first light on the Twelfth with the aim to shoot 40 brace before 11am. The birds were swiftly collected from the moor and taken to Darlington Station, and put aboard the train to arrive in London in time to be dressed and cooked for dinner in the most famous restaurants in town.

With this newfound ease of travel from London, the fashion for hunting in the shires also exploded. The railways enabled horses and hounds alike to frequently visit one another and enabled sportsmen to hunt from home in London, rather than having to maintain a hunting establishment in the country. Great Central Railway produced a handy ‘Hunting Arrangements’ leaflet in 1902 containing a detailed timetable of services, together with a fold-out map detailing the six hunting countries nearest to the train line with the various meets and connecting train times from London. First-class hunting season tickets could be bought with ease and were valid for six months, running from Marylebone Station to Loughborough. These tickets cost a princely £21 in 1902. In today’s money, that would be about £3,000.

The Badminton Library volume on foxhunting explains how the hunting devotee of the 1880s could leave his London house before 7am, hunt all day and return by train to be home for dinner at 8pm. Most of these arrangements were with the Home Counties packs, particularly in Buckinghamshire, where a whole local industry of ostlers and grooms sprung up to service this fashionable practice. Although the railways provided a much faster and more convenient way to travel, the horses were less keen on being enclosed in dark, loud, rattling boxes. A former president of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, J Wortley Axe, wrote in 1905 that conditions on board often seemed intentionally designed to spook horses, with tethers too short to allow the animals to maintain their balance. The roughness of train travel meant that a trade in leg wraps, head bumpers and other protective gear became the norm. This would later evolve into the modern travelling gear we know today.

Many of the provincial packs decided that, for a fee, they would put on a hunting special train to boost their subscription lists. Horses would arrive at the station, whereupon they were loaded on to their horsebox on wheels for the journey to the meet. On arrival, rugs were rolled up and a token issued, to be redeemed on return. Horses were given gruel and hay by the ostlers who were employed by the railways. The horses were rugged-up and made comfortable for the journey home, and the owners were invited to watch their horses being loaded, before retiring to the comfort of a first-class carriage to enjoy a proper hunting tea.

Patrick Martin, who was huntsman of the Bicester with Whaddon Chase for 23 seasons, remembers tales of Clarence Johnson, one of his predecessors, being invited to the Master’s carriage for a gin if they’d had a particularly good day. This was on their own hunt special service, which ran between Woodford Halse and Finmere. These ‘north-end days’ drew fields of 200 to 300 and, afterwards, when the train drew into Finmere Station, hounds and hunt staff would disembark and hack past the nearby Shelswell Inn, where three glasses of whisky would be proffered on a tray in seniority order for the huntsman and the two whips. These would be drunk on the hoof as they trotted past and then all would hack back to kennels. The railways cemented the old Whaddon Chase country as ‘the Londoner’s Leicestershire’. The irony of what HS2 will do to the Bicester country is not lost on Martin. “I know every field of that country and to see what they’ve destroyed… They might plant a few saplings but they’re taking down these old, old oak trees and coverts. It’s vandalism in the name of progress,” he says.

Although it is still possible to head north on the Caledonian Sleeper, the days of sporting railways are very much over. It is better, perhaps, to reflect on the glory days when guns, horses, hounds and dogs went north and salmon, grouse and memories returned south.