A human and technical story of First World War international friendships under trying circumstances.
It was a hot sunny day in the summer of 1981 when we first visited Raasay, an island in the Inner Hebrides. After a six-mile drive up the main road to Brochel Castle, and then back, we boarded the small car ferry for the return journey. It was only then that we saw what looked like ancient earthworks above the pier, which itself was remarkably large for a small island. “Can you tell us what went on there?”, “It was an ironworks in the First World War – there was a railway from the mine in the mountain down to the kilns here, and it was worked by German Prisoners of War,” replied the sailor who had just finished securing the loading ramp.
When it sank in that there had indeed been a railway on Raasay, and several more on Skye, to boot, the obvious questions began to arise: What gauge of railway? What was the motive power and are there any photographs of the locomotives? Why was it built at this particular location, and why isn’t it working now?
In no time at all, serendipity stepped in, as we learned that out of fewer than 20 islanders who had actually worked at the mine in the First World War, three were still not only alive but hale and hearty and very happy to talk to us. A letter to The Scots Magazine produced a reply which read, “My father was the Mining Engineer, would you like to see his personal notebook and some early photographs?” How lucky could we get? Many hundreds of letters later… the story was pieced together, and what a fascinating one it is, involving many characters from Winston Churchill onwards.