Scotland's first passenger railway, between Glasgow and Garnkirk, opened on the 27th of September, 1831.
Railways have been in existence for well over two thousand years, with the first important railway that is recorded in history being the ‘Diolkos’. That basic track system was built by ancient geeks in 600 BC and was used by the Greeks to convey ships across the Isthmus of Corinth. It was around eight kilometres long and was in service for at least six hundred and fifty years. The Diolkos even constituted the first fare paying public railway as the locals were able to catch a lift on payment of a fee, which was a concept that didn’t occur to Europeans until around the year 1800. The first railways in the UK were in use by the late 16th Century. Those were rails along which hand propelled tubs were used to carry ore from mines in what is now Cumbria. Soon after, the Wollaton Wagonway came into being in Nottinghamshire for a similar purpose. The first public railway in the UK was the Surrey Iron Railway in south London, in 1803, and the first fare paying, passenger railway in the industrial world was the Oystermouth Railway in Wales, which opened in 1807 and later became known as the Swansea and Mumbles Railway. The first railway in Scotland was the Kilmarnock and Troon Railway, which was authorised by Act of Parliament and came into service in 1808. It was also the first railway in Scotland to use a steam locomotive.
Prior to 1831 in Scotland, apart from the Killie to Troon line, only some short lines existed, such as the Dundee and Newtyle line, which was opened in 1830. The Dundee line was a short line that ran over steep gradients and was worked chiefly by ropes and fixed engines. There were also several, local mineral railways like the Monkland and Kirkintilloch Railway, which opened October 1826, and the Ballochney Railway, which opened in 1828. In fact, the formation of the Glasgow to Garnkirk line stemmed from that need for transporting industrial goods. However, the success of the line was due to its having been specially constructed to also carry passenger traffic. Its success, particularly after the opening of Buchanan Street railway station in 1849, changed public opinion and led to other, visionary schemes. One such scheme was the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway, which was opened in 1842, thanks to the efforts of John Leadbetter, who was a successful linen merchant and railway enthusiast. However, the man with the need for transporting industrial materials was Charles Tennant. He needed the railway line to reach Glasgow and the Clyde, because the Monkland Canal wasn’t able to handle enough coal for his firm’s needs. Tennant was a weaver and the chemist who is famous for having patented the process of using lime and chlorine gas to bleach linen, back in 1788. He was also a friend of Robert Burns, but you won’t find any poem of Burns’ about railways. The chemical and engineering dynasty of Charles Tennant & Co. was first registered in Glasgow in 1797 and became one of the largest industrial complexes during the Industrial Revolution. Its St. Rollox chemical works grew to be the largest in the world during the 1830s and 1840s and its 435.5ft high chimney, known as ‘Tennant’s Stalk’, dominated the Glasgow landscape from 1842 until 1922, when it was struck by lightning and had to be demolished.
The Garnkirk Railway Bill, entitled ‘An Act for amending certain Acts for making the Glasgow and Garnkirk Railway; and for raising a further Sum of Money’, was passed in the House of Commons on the 24th of May, 1830. It was part of an ingrossed Bill for ‘amending certain Acts for making the Glasgow and Garnkirk Railway, and for improving, maintaining and rendering Turnpike the Road leading from the said Railway near Broomhill, by Keppoch Bridge, to the Town Head of Glasgow’. The Bill was brought to the House of Lords that same day and was committed by that house on the 28th of May, when the Earl of Shaftesbury reported “That they had considered the said Bill, and examined the Allegations thereof, which were found to be true; and that the Committee had gone through the Bill, and directed him to report the same to the House, without any Amendment.”
The Glasgow and Garnkirk Railway double track line was built to the Scotch gauge of 4ft 6in and the engineers were Thomas Grainger and John Miller from Edinburgh, who had previously constructed the Monkland and Kirkintilloch Railway. The Contractors were Forbes & Sutherland and Riddel & Thomson. The line began operating as a goods only service from May of 1831 between the Monklands coalfield and Townhead station using steam and horse haulage. It was officially and ceremonially opened on the 27th of September, 1831, when it made its first passenger journey under steam haulage. The famous Scottish painter and recorder of history, David Octavious Hill, painted three pictures of the opening day's events and today, these paintings are part of the Mitchell Library’s Glasgow Collection. In one, he painted a view of trains passing on the embankment at Germiston on the day of the opening of the railway. The embankment at Germiston was three-quarters of a mile long and forty-five feet high and the view is looking west towards ‘Tennant’s Stalk’. The masts of boats on the canal at Port Dundas can also be seen in the far distance on the hillside to the right of the chimneys. Another shows some men in the foreground taking a boozy picnic and portrays the line’s two Stephenson steam locomotives, the ‘St Rollox’ and the ‘George Stephenson’, passing each other. However, as one engine set off from Garnkirk and the other from Townhead that day, it is unlikely that they met at St Rollox. The tower and spire of Glasgow Cathedral and the Knox Monument are visible in the far distance on the right in that painting as they are in the third. The last painting looks south from the St Rollox chemical works and shows the mast of a boat moored on the Monkland Canal, which passed to the south of the works. There are railway wagons in the painting, which appear to be carrying the coal, which was needed for the chemical works.
In 1832, Gartgill station was renamed Gartsherrie and in 1843, the line from Glasgow Townhead to Gartsherrie South Junction was extended to Coatbridge. The following year, the line was renamed the Glasgow, Garnkirk and Coatbridge Railway when it was opened through from Gartsherrie South Junction to Whifflet, and the Wishaw and Coltness Railway, via Coatbridge Central.