Muirshiel's Grouse Railway
by DEREK PARKER
An old railway track which transported shooting parties across desolate hills and moors above Lochwinnoch is one of just a few of its kind in Scotland.
The grouse railway line' was built around 1922 by shipping magnate Sir James Lithgow. It provided shooters and beaters with access to butts made from wood, heather and stone on Duchal Moor north of what is now Muirshiel country park.
Shooters concealed themselves in the butts and blasted coveys of flying grouse driven from their hiding places among heather and blaeberries by beaters. The beaters thrashed the moorland vegetation with wooden poles and yelled loudly to flush grouse from the undergrowth.
During the season from August 12 until December 10, the moorlands echoed to gunfire reverberations, the yells of beaters and the distinctive 'gobak gobak' alarm calls of flying grouse veering from side to side to dodge lethal shotgun pellets. Retriever dogs picked up birds which had been shot.
Game records from Lord Howard of Glossop's Muirshiel estate reveal massive 'bags' during the grouse shooting season with 824 and 1837 birds being shot during the 1935 and 1936 seasons respectively. While it is acknowledged that grouse shooting is not to everyone's liking, the activity provided a valuable source of income for men, women and children living in and around Lochwinnoch. During my time as a ranger at the country park, Lochwinnoch man John Eadie told me his father was a gamekeeper at Muirshiel around the time of the Second World War. Lord Howard, his family and about a dozen servants came to Muirshiel from England for the grouse shooting season. On shooting days, between 20 and 30 people from Lochwinnoch were driven in a bus to Muirshiel. For six separate grouse drives, they were paid five shillings each. That was a lot of money in these days,' said Mr Eadie.
Lord Michael Fitzalan Howard – son of Lord Howard of Glossop – told me: 'Muirshiel estate worker Peter Clark took a pony and cart on to the moor to pick up the shot birds. We shot the moor on a two-day cycle and usually had a picnic lunch out in the open. I have happy memories of these days in the hills around Queenside, Duchal and the Kaim.'
Beating parties also included boys with behavioural difficulties from Kibble School in Paisley. They wore red overalls and carried red flags so they could be easily seen by the 'guns' and not shot accidentally.
The family library of the present Duke of Norfolk – who is descended from Lord Howard of Glossop – contains an account from George Gardner, headmaster at Kibble School, 108 Greenock Road, Paisley. It requests payment of £58 eight shillings and sixpence for grouse-beating duties by between 10 and 20 boys at the estate during the 1936 season. A copy of Lord Howard's receipt is still in the family library at Arundel Castle, Sussex.
The Lochwinnoch beaters, estate workers and Kibble boys would have been familiar with the grouse railway line. It included platforms bridges over burns, levers, junction points and buffers. At an elevation of between 700 and 1200 feet, it traversed 12 miles of boggy moorland and peat hags between Muirshiel and Hardridge Farm, near Kilmacolm High Dam. That's where the locomotives, four-wheeled passenger cars and dog vans were kept in a corrugated-iron shed.
The two-foot wide metal railway line and wooden sleepers cost £1000 per mile to build. It remained in use until the 1980s but gradually became derelict as shooter and gamekeeper numbers declined. During my time at the park, the countryside rangers led guided walks along the route of the track which took in landmarks such as Laverock Stone, Hyndal Hill, Calder Dam and prehistoric homesteads. But by then the rail route literally had reached the end of the line. Nowadays all that remains are a few sections of track half-hidden among rushes, heather and blaeberries.
Derek Parker worked as a countryside ranger at Clyde Muirshiel Regional Park, Lochwinnoch, from 1985 to 1999.