Portsoy was first connected to the railway network in July 1859 with the building of the Banff Portsoy and Strathisla Railway, a company financed by local interests who hoped to revive the fortunes of Banff and Portsoy harbours as trading ports.
The line connected to the recently built Great North of Scotland Railway main line from Aberdeen to Keith at an isolated spot between Keith and Huntly. The junction to the main line was an upside down ‘Y’ shape; trains doubling back to Keith turned down the right arm to Grange platform; and those heading for Huntly along the left side to the Cairnie platform.
The main 16 mile section of the B.P. & S. ran to Banff, with a 3 mile branch from Tillynaught Junction to Portsoy. At one time or another, there were also stations at Grange, Millegan, Knock, Glenbarry and Cornhill. From Tillynaught to Banff, trains stopped at Ordens, Ladysbridge, Bridgefoot Halt, and Golf Club House.
The line didn’t have the best of starts: the first train derailed and tipped onto its side after only four miles. Excessive speed was the verdict, and a 16mph speed limit was set.
A single track goods line ran down steeply under Seafield Street alongside Church Street to the harbour, and is still used as a walk from Loch Soy park down to the Shorehead.
The sponsors’ optimism soon faded as it became clear that the harbour was not benefitting by bringing more goods into Portsoy for distribution by rail, but rather the railway network was in fact starving the smaller harbours of coastal traffic.
The company engineers also overestimated the ability of the locos’ primitive brakes to hold back loaded wagons on the 1:30 gradient to the harbour, and there was always the danger that a train could career into the sea. A one loco-one wagon weight limit further reduced the usefulness of the harbour extension.
Within four years, the B.P. & S, now rebranded as the Banffshire Railway, was already deeply in debt and its plan to continue along the coast to Portgordon was in ashes.
The Great North of Scotland Railway now took over responsibility for the three passenger trains a day, and in 1867, absorbed its struggling neighbour and its modest rolling stock of two tank locos (‘Banff’ and ‘Portsoy’); two tender engines (‘Keith’ and ‘Strathisla’); seven 4-wheel passenger coaches, and 30 wagons.
With the extra resources of the new owners, the number of trains each day was doubled to six.
The line got a new lease of life 20 years later. Having been beaten in the race to Elgin, the only other major town in its path, by the Inverness & Aberdeen Railway, the Great North had long plotted against its bitter rival to secure access to the lucrative Moray Firth fishing ports. Revenge was complete when their route extension proposal from Portsoy long the coast to Garmouth and on to Elgin was sanctioned by Parliament.
The new Coast Line, one of Britain’s most scenic railways, was built between 1884-86. Banff and Portsoy’s positions were now reversed, with Portsoy on the main line and Tillynaught-Banff being the branch line.
Instead of running straight into the terminus shed at Portsoy, the company had to build a new line curving to the west, and a handsome new wooden station building was constructed. It is now a category C listed building, and was extensively renovated in 2016. No trace of the platforms or other buildings from 1886 remain.
The canny Great North converted the 1859 station buildings into a goods station, and they stand to this day.
The harbour branch was little used after the new line was built. It was closed entirely, and the tracks lifted, in 1910.
At its peak Portsoy was served by 11 trains a day, some running all the way from Aberdeen to Inverness. Aberdeen was about two hours away on the through trains. As usual, there were no Sunday services.
In 1923, the Great North of Scotland Railway was absorbed into the new London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), and in 1948, Britain’s big four companies were nationalised as British Railways.
The line was always well patronised by Scottish holidaymakers, who flocked to the picturesque villages of the North-east in the days before cheap foreign holidays. Both the LNER in the 1930s and, later, BR cashed in, parking a Camping Coach in a siding near the station and letting it out to tourists.
Otherwise, not much changed; steam engines were gradually replaced by diesels in the 1960s, but the railway was constantly losing passengers and goods traffic onto the roads, and a hostile government axed thousands of miles of the network in the mid 1960s.
The Banff branch was an early casualty, closed to passengers in 1964, defiantly using steam power to the end. The remaining coast line from Grange to Elgin was completely closed on May 6 1968, to end more than a century of the railway to Portsoy.
Most of the former railway ground is now part of Loch Soy park, and a lot of the original trackbed from Cullen to Spey Bay is incorporated into the Moray Coast Trail, for walkers and cyclists.