Great Scot!

takes us on a worldwide trip following the history of the Flying Scotsman, which returns to York after more than 150 years

Image: National Rail Museum

Image: National Rail Museum

The Flying Scotsman is an evocative name. When you think of Britain’s most famous train you think of a bygone age; locomotives steaming down the track with well to do passengers gliding down the corridors clinking glasses and laughing loudly. A pocketed memory of a world that no longer exists and an age that has very much passed. Except now it has returned – and it’s in York.

The Flying Scotsman is set to become the jewel in the National Railway Museum’s collection as it arrives this month fully restored and in working order. The Museum had previously bought the train in 2004 for £2.3 million when its future looked in danger and has spent the intervening 12 years and around £4.2 million to restore it for the general public to enjoy.

The Scotsman was built in Doncaster in 1923, an age of opulence and expression of wealth, but was in fact part of a longer tradition of trains running the traditional East Coast Line (now run by Virgin) from London to Edinburgh. The first trains run by the then North British Railway, North-Eastern Railway and Great Northern Railway were called Special Scotch Express services. They took 10 and half hours to reach Edinburgh Waverley from London King’s Cross in the 1860s, even stopping in our own fair city for a half hour lunch break. By 1875 the journey took eight and half hours and Special Scotch Express had started to be known as the Flying Scotsman (for comparison modern trains take around four and half hours to do the same route).

a hairdressers, a travelling newsagent and an opulent dining carriage were stalwarts of the Scotsman experience

It wasn’t until the introduction of the most famed locomotive in 1924 that the London North Eastern Railway (LNER) decided to adopt the name that the public had started to give it. From then on the public seemed to take the Flying Scotsman to its heart with the locomotive making its first public appearance at the British Empire Exhibition. It had the leading role in one of the first British speaking films in 1928 and was the first steam train to reach the speed of 100 mph; the Scotsman was a celebrity in a way that no other train was.

The LNER were very aware of the train’s marketing potential. “The LNER undertook frequent publicity stunts to amplify the Flying Scotsman’s brand and illustrate the service’s impressive high speeds,” explains Jamie Taylor, Interpretation Developer at the National Railway Museum. “In 1932, crew members on board the Flying Scotsman train conversed via telephone with the crew of the Imperial Airways airplane ‘Heracles’ while both sped northwards alongside each other at 90mph” – a feat that would surely seem impossible today.

The 20s and 30s were the high point in the Scotsman’s career. The train had become more than simply a way of travelling from A to B; a hairdressers, a travelling newsagent and an opulent dining carriage were stalwarts of the Scotsman experience with extra luxuries such as a cinema carriage being added for a short time. The Flying Scotsman simply had no comparison.

Yet even celebrities couldn’t avoid war work, and the Scotsman found itself pulling heavy loads and being repainted black to avoid enemy fire during the Second World War. It was during this time that the locomotive began to fall into disrepair for the first time. After the war steam trains came to represent the past rather than the future for British Rail, and the Scotsman lost much of the prestige that it had spent so many years building up. As a result, it was turned away from centenary celebrations in London simply for being too old fashioned.

Image: Paul Kingston

Image: Paul Kingston

For the next 20 years the Scotsman did what many of us hope to by middle age and started to travel the world in private ownership after British Rail threatened to scrap it. It spent the 60s swinging in the US dressed up as the epitome of Britishness, complete with a Winston Churchill impersonator, dancers clad in miniskirts and a carriage that was redesigned to look like the inside of an English pub.

Before long, however, its new owner became bankrupt and the train was near abandoned in the US where it had been running tourists around for four years. The Scotsman’s next destination was Australia where it spent the majority of the 1980s breaking the world record for the longest journey for a steam train – a trip of 442 miles. In 1988, it also participated in Australian Steam celebrations alongside some of the country’s best trains. The Scotsman finished its impressive expedition by circumnavigating the globe on its trip home, travelling via Cape Horn.

Following its return to the UK it passed from one private owner to the next – music producer Pete Waterman had a 50 per cent share in it at one point. By 2004 the train’s future looked doubtful once again and so the National Railway Museum, along with the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund and the National Heritage Memorial Fund, successfully bought the locomotive and set to work restoring it back to its former glory.

NRM is also hosting a late night opening on 28 April for the Scotsman’s return celebrating all things 1920s including cocktail making and Charleston dancing.

Paul Kirkman, Director of the National Railway Museum, believed that it was important for the NRM to take on the project: “As a national museum, we are committed to ensuring that as many people as possible can learn about the impact of the railways on the people of Britain,” he explains. “The LNER purposefully linked the locomotive and the service in the spring of 1924 and now our Museum is helping unravel these two great stories for new generations.”  With these restorations now complete the festivities have begun, welcoming the Scotsman to York before it continues on its travels, taking a nationwide tour.

As part of the celebrations the National Railway Museum has organised a plethora of events and exhibits to highlight the importance of the Flying Scotsman in British railway history. The Scotsman is currently on display in the NRM where it will stay for the public to view, photograph and admire until 6 March. After a brief spell on the tracks to highlight its extensive restoration the Scotsman will return to the NRM from 25 March.

Exhibitions will include ‘Service with Style’, where visitors will be able to walk around three carriages similar to the Scotsman’s original style, complete with a 1920s cinema and 1930s cocktail bar, all on display until 8 May. If cocktails sound like a good idea, then the NRM is also hosting a late night opening on 28 April for the Scotsman’s return celebrating all things 1920s including cocktail making and Charleston dancing.

The NRM has also created a gallery display to celebrate its most famous collection piece named ‘Starring Scotsman’. Running until 19 June, this charts the history and celebrity of the train alongside some of the most important memorabilia from its past. Finally, the intriguingly titled ‘Stunts, Speed and Style’ exhibition, running from 25 March to 8 May, will follow the history of the glamorous East Coast Line from its 19th century roots to the present day, exploring the luxury and absurdities which made it such a magnet for press attention.

The NRM is free to all, but if you have a little cash to spare there are still a few tickets left to travel on one of the Scotsman’s many trips up and down the country this year. When it’s not being admired by the thousands of visitors to the Museum the locomotive will be fulfilling its duty as the oldest working steam engine by journeying along its traditional east coast haunts, and also around the country as far as Bristol and Holyhead. However, with tickets starting from upwards of £275 this may not be an option for the average student.

This mixture of exhibition and working life seems to be the new norm for the Flying Scotsman, but questions of its impact and legacy remain. No matter what seems to happen to the Scotsman – whether it’s stranded in America or falling apart at home – there always seems to be someone who wants to pick it back up again, restore it to its former glory and put it back on the tracks. Even during its time out of service it has had a lasting impact on British culture and the British psyche, appearing on everything from £5 coins to the children’s television programme Thomas the Tank Engine. The desire to save the Scotsman is clearly a strong one.

Image: Paul Kingston

Image: Paul Kingston

Perhaps this shouldn’t be too surprising; in 2015 a YouGov survey carried out in India, Australia, the US and the UK found the Scotsman to be the best known train in the world – beating both the Orient Express and the Hogwarts Express to the top prize. The Flying Scotsman’s celebrity seems to be an enduring and palpable one. Maybe it’s because the Scotsman represents a glorious past for travel that we simply don’t or can’t experience anymore; a time when there was joy in simply travelling and not having to worry necessarily about getting to your destination quickly, because the journey was half the fun. Maybe it’s the steam that enthuses people; it’s a way to link ourselves to a time that has very much passed. Maybe it’s the quality and value of its construction that is so essential to the locomotive’s success.

Whatever one considers to be its most important and charismatic feature, one thing that cannot be denied about the Flying Scotsman is that it has succeeded in preserving a specific period of history that cannot be accessed in any other way. With this in mind, it feels highly appropriate that, at least for the time being, the home of the Flying Scotsman will be York, a city which itself preserves history in a way that no other location can lay a claim to.

The Flying Scotsman has succeeded in preserving a specific period of history that cannot be accessed in any other way

What will be the future for the Scotsman? A train that has already experienced and endured so much in its near-100 year history can surely have no further to go? It’s hard to say exactly but it would be difficult to see it leaving the National Railway Museum any time soon; surrounded by adoring fans and more railway memorabilia than you can imagine there cannot be a more appropriate home for one of the world’s most famous locomotives. That, coupled with the upcoming centenary of its construction means that tourists will surely be flocking to see it for years to come.

However, that is not to say that it should become just an exhibit; its working element is one of its most enduring features and that still has to play a huge part in its future. With age, though, comes responsibility, and the Scotsman has been plagued by running problems since its inception. It would be sad to see it forced to retire completely, but considering its age there will come a point in the future where this may have to be the case. The tough decision between conserving the past and using objects for their intended purposes is a difficult one, and with such an iconic piece of machinery perhaps no decision will ever feel quite right. For now, though, the Scotsman can steam on into its future, knowing that it is in the most stable hands since its decommission from British Rail in 1963.

The Flying Scotsman is an individual, a character without compare, and a key to our past. It can have as many clichéd phrases thrown at it as you like and they would still ring true. It captures the imagination and has inspired generation  after generation. Now it is going back to its roots to do the work that it was always built for, while also taking on a new role as an educative piece of the nation’s history – one that it will have no trouble fulfilling. M

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