As a founder-member of the Scottish Railway Preservation Society in 1962, I've just put cash in their direction to repair flood damage on their remarkable Bo'ness line, and also to act as a memorial to those who died on the Aberdeen train. Way back, I was put on the rails by my history teacher, Sandy Aitken, at Royal High, wartime treasurer of the SNP when Hugh MacDiarmid/Chris Grieve was on the committee and meetings − clipped and brisk under John MacCormick − only stopped when closing time (9.30pm) neared at Milne's Bar.
Sandy could also remember the station-master and guard at long-vanished Broomlee (near West Linton) in tears − 'Laddie, we're done for!' − when the three-Dreadnought Jutland losses came in just after the Dublin Rising of 1916, and as an overture to the Somme bloodbath. The impossible had happened, because 'solid' reality collapsed. We are in a similar situation, though London silliness might be put in its place by Irish practicality. The revival of Iarnród Éireann − the state railway − has been quite remarkable, since Dublin has not just centralised train control but talks of long-distance electrification, coupled with ambitious standard-gauge tramway plans for Cork as well as Dublin.
Think things through: why not repeat the sort of integration now being followed in Scandinavia and the Baltic republics? Thirty years ago, Denmark was a pattern of islands, connected by ferries. It's now tunnel-linked to Sweden and shortly will be to Germany − not swallowed by a bigger neighbour but generating enough growth to dictate the outcome − think Lego, think Maersk.
Ought we to be visualising a western trade-and-culture route paralleling the Atlantic as a rival pole to England's South East? In 2015, National Geographic
paid me to sail up the western sealanes from Devon to the Shetlands and then east to Bergen. There was no doubt that the Irish West was far livelier than the Hebrides: what had been in Dingle's streets, 'J Byrne Groceries and Guinness', was now 'Molly Byrne Software and Stout'. Why not? − with universities at Galway and Limerick − and a lively European presence, looking out for its own technology.
If Denmark wants a tunnel to Germany, and Finland wants one to link with Estonia − free public transport! − and the Baltic republics, why not spread the action? Sure, Ireland has its own railway gauge of five feet three inches − only paralleled in Argentina and Victoria in Oz − but adaptation's not unknown. Spain has created dual-gauge expresses. Practical marine architecture can serve for far more purposes than just pumping oil − read my Fool's Gold
(1995, Penguin) on what we can still learn from that episode in creating new ways of living and travelling and thinking.
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