A Brief History of the GNSR
Proposals for a line connecting Aberdeen to Inverness were first proposed in 1844. This proposal failed, but a more successful proposal was made in March 1845-6. The Great North of Scotland (GNSR) received Royal Assent in June 1846. This was intended to connect with the Aberdeen Railway which was approved the year before. The combined railways would connect Inverness to the railways of the south. Approval was expensive, with published accounts including 'entertainment' and bribes! The Aberdeenshire Canal had also been purchased. Although this was a money-losing operation, it was considered as potential competition.
The start of construction was delayed by the poor financial situation and disagreements over the location of the Aberdeen Station. Construction finally started on 25th November 1852, with the cutting of the first sod by Lady Elphinstone (wife of Sir James Elphinstone, the Chairman) at Westhall near Oyne. Construction delays were caused by earthworks being greater than estimated, and the slow transfer of the Aberdeenshire Canal to railway ownership. The canal was filled and used as the railway's 'Canal Branch' in Aberdeen. The line finally opened to Huntly in 1854 - to goods traffic on September 12th, and passengers a week later on the 20th. The line consisted of just under 40 miles of single track. There were few passing places, and many of the minor stations had still to be completed.
This initial line terminated at Kittybrewster in the northern outskirts of Aberdeen. The original plan was to connected with the Aberdeen Railway which would lead to a central station and railways to the south. This was partially solved with the Canal Branch which opened in April 1856. Running over the route of the old Aberdeenshire Canal, this connected to Waterloo near the harbour. Waterloo was a much better location for Aberdeen traffic, but lacked a connection to the Aberdeen & Deeside Railway.
Delays with construction of the GNSR, led to the people of Inverness to look for different railway connecions to the south. A number of railways such as the Inverness & Nairn and the Inverness & Aberdeen Junction were started. The GNSR came to an agreement with the Inverness & Aberdeen Railway, to meet at Keith and to have reciprocal running powers. The Parliamentary Bill passed in 1856, and the line was opened in 1858.
During this, and the next few years, the GNSR was involved in the building of a number of branchlines. Most were in the south, but a prominent line was the Strathspey Railway serving Dufftown. Strathspey was seen as a wealthy centre with its wood, iron, and whiskey traffic. Alas, the construction was expensive and the line made a loss for a long time.
The GNSR claimed to be the 'Royal Line', and this has its roots in the Deeside Line which carried Balmoral traffic. A Deeside Railway had been proposed on at least a couple of times, but construction did not begin until 1852. Construction was quick and it was open as far as Banchory in September 1853. The still independent railway extended to Aboyne in September 1859. The railway was a great success and typically paid dividends of 5-8%. Independence was short lived and ended in 1866 when the railway was leased to the GNSR for 999 years. This lease was under the terms of an Act that incorprated a number of northern lines into the GNSR. Banchory was the closest station Balmoral, but this was not to last long. In 1865, a second extension was proposed through Ballater to the valuable forests in upper Deeside, Balmoral, and have a terminus at Braemar. An extension to Ballater opened on October 17th 1866. The plan had evolved by this point to include a tramway for the final leg into Ballochbuie Forest. Tram rails were laid but never used. It is about this time that the forest was leased to Queen Victoria, and it is likely that this made the whole plan unnecessary.
Traffic to Balmoral used the new Ballater station, with the GNSR running special daily "Queen's Messenger" trains. The express messenger trains were unique to the GNSR at this time, and were intended for dispatches. Although first class only, they also carried some third class accommodation for passengers' servants. True third class accommodation was provided from about 1900.
The GNSR's relations with neighbouring railways were also poor. This was partly due to the GNSR's preference to take freight to Aberdeen harbour rather than lines to the south. However the main problems were with the Highland Railway. This had formed from the merger of the Inverness & Aberdeen Junction and Inverness & Perth Junction railways. The latter was built to give Inverness its own route to the south. The Highland Railway no longer relied on the GNSR for a connection to the south. The GNSR had problems meeting connecting timetables at Keith, so it is only natural that the Highland Railway did not look favourably on the running powers and timetable requirements of the GNSR.
The Highland Railway's 'bypass' of the GNSR and Aberdeen, also threatened the Scottish North Eastern, which included the original Aberdeen Railway. This forced the Scottish North Eastern and GNSR to build a connecting line and a shared central Aberdeen station. This was a complicated affair involving a number of proposals and counter-proposals, but the Denburn Valley line was finally agreed upon by both parties. Construction was quick, and the only delay was due to a tunnel collapse. The line opened on 4th November 1867. The GNSR's new approach into Aberdeen was a steep 1 in 72, and included two short tunnels. The GNSR finally had a connecting line to the south.
By the mid-1860s, the financial condition of the GNSR was poor. Expansion had been expensive, as had the various parliamentary and legal battles with the Highland Railway and the Scottish North Eastern. The loss of the Inverness traffic was a particular blow. The board of directors resigned in 1866 and all but six were replaced. Economies, prudent management, and a halt in new construction, slowly turned things around. By 1875, the GNSR was paying a dividend of between 3% and 5%. Soon after this, a doubling of the main line was announced, and this was completed to Kintore in June 1880. A much-needed modernisation program was also started. These changes led to an improvement in services. The first suburban services between Aberdeen and Dyce also started at about this time.
Growth during the 1880s outstripped the capacity of the Aberdeen Joint Station. Eventually an Act was passed in 1899 giving the GNSR and the Caledonian (formerly Scottish North Eastern) the powers to rebuild the station. This required a lot of preliminary work, including the relovation of the goods stations further to the east. This was followed by a widening of the Caledonian's approaches from the south. This included a viaduct and was particularly expensive. Finally by 1907, new platforms started to be built. All of the new platforms were in use by July 1914, but the entire station was not completed until after World War 1.
The 'war' with the Highland Railway was long and bloody, but ended in the mid-1890s with a House of Commons Committee and a change of Chairman at the Highland. The resulting peace started with a good, mutually-agreed timetable in 1897. By 1905, there was even a scheme to merge the two companies but this did not get the required support from enough Highland shareholders.
The GNSR had mixed success with hotels including the famous but overly ambitious Cruden Bay scheme. This started in 1891 with the acquisition of the Aberdeen Palace Hotel. This was modernised and included the then-new idea of electric lighting. This was a great financial success, and the GNSR started to look at a more ambitious project. This took the form of a golf course and hotel in Cruden Bay on the Aberdeenshire coast. The location was ideal for golf and a sandy beach but it was over ten miles from Ellon on the Buchan line. Hence an expensive branch with many bridges was built to Boddam via Cruden Bay. An attractive station was built at Cruden Bay, and this was connected to the hotel with an electric tram line. Trams were powered from the hotel's own generating station. Despite a very comfortable hotel and one of the best golf courses in Scotland, the scheme was a disaster. The season was too short to be profitable, and the new branch line never paid for itself due to the relatively poor country that it passed through.