Farewell to the Kyle line: Train driver Donnie calls time after 49 years

Donnie Maclean, pictured before his last drive on Saturday. Pic, Emma Noble

Well-wishers lined the station platforms along the Kyle-Inverness railway line on Saturday to greet a long-serving driver making his final journey after nearly 50 years at the controls.

Kyle man Donnie Maclean joined the railway as a 16 year old in 1971, but Saturday’s 17:54 service from Inverness was his last at the helm.

Donnie was straight out of school when he took up a job with British Rail – starting as a goods checker at a time when Kyle’s railhead pier was a thriving passenger and freight hub for both trains and ferries.

Donnie and colleagues on the platform

“At the time Kyle was still the port for the Stornoway ferry – it was a really busy place with people and goods coming and going all the time,” Donnie recalled.

“There’s been huge changes in all that time.

“The job I started off doing doesn’t exist now. There were far more people working here then than now.”

From the checkers job, Donnie moved to a position on the signal box for a year before a vacancy arose for a driver – a position he took and has since held for 46 years.

Donnie was following in the footsteps of his father Fachie, who himself clocked up a remarkable 45 years-service on the line.

“I think I must know every sleeper on the route,” joked Donnie, who will officially retire in August.

In April Donnie also marked the end of 37 years with the local retained fire crew.

He said that Saturday had been an “emotional day”, as friends and colleagues came out to greet him on the journey to and from Inverness, while a piper played as Donnie eased the carriages into his home village for one last time.

Getting ready to leave Inverness

His time as a driver has not been without incident.

He remembers once being snowbound at Achnasheen, and with no radio controls at the time having to walk to the next station to raise the alarm.

Passengers eventually had to be transported to safety by helicopter.

On another occasion, in the dead of a winter’s night, the train was clattered by a rockfall on a notoriously landslide-prone stretch near Stromeferry.

Donnie also remembers when the government threatened the line with closure, and he recalled the intervention of Plockton councillor Torquil Nicolson in spearheading a campaign to save it.

Since then the service has continued to be a well-used connection for locals, and by thousands of visitors from across the globe keen to travel on what is regularly listed as one of the world’s most scenic and spectacular rail journeys.

With passenger numbers reduced to a trickle in light of the coronavirus, it has been a strangely quiet final few weeks for Donnie, though he is hopeful that before too long he’ll be back using the train as a regular passenger.

A last stop in Strathcarron

Aside from spending more time with his two grandchildren and tending to his croft at Drumbuie, Donnie said one of his retirement plans was to buy himself a season ticket for Ross County.

He had planned to make the rail trip to Dingwall every fortnight during the season.

 “Unfortunately, that’s on hold too for now,” he added. “We’ll just have to wait and see when we are allowed back into the grounds to go and watch again.”