SCOTLAND: The Isle of Mull and its railway

I said: I have traveled over the world, including Scotland, but I have never been to the Hebrides, Inner or Outer. I have long wondered why Samuel Johnson made his tour of them in 1773.  Did he go to the Isle of Mull? What is a mull? There are a number of places called Mull in that area.  Is George telling us that there are or were railways on the Isle of Mull? Incidentally there is a very slight difference between British and French gauges. The new Eurostar train tracks must solve that problem. I assume it adopted the French gauge.

George replies: You have missed a great deal by not coming to the Hebrides!  Dr Johnson was persuaded by his Scots friend Boswell to visit them and came to Mull, including our village of Lochbuie.  The name is Muile in Gaelic, similar to the word for a mill (muileann), but the island was never noted for its mills.  Arguments rage in the learned columns of the Oban Times as to the derivation.  There is also the Mull of Kintyre, made famous
by one of the Beatles pop group, which is a different Gaelic word (maol) meaning a bald head or a hill resembling one.  We have the only railway in the islands, built recently to run between the port of Craignure and Torosay Castle, of 10.5 inch gauge I think.  It has an excellent web site: with a camera.  Regarding the
French gauge, it is not significantly different from the British standard. I once traveled on the Golden Arrow from London to Paris, the train being shunted onto and off a ferry boat.  Now, of course, there is the channel tunnel.

RH: Scotland has all kinds of strange place names, including the Ross of Mull. A 10.5 inch gauge railway???

A posting by George Sassoon led me to ask two questions.  The first concerned strange Scottish place names, including the Ross of Mull. George explains: I think that "ross" here means something like "nose", or "the bit that sticks out".  It is a long peninsula.  The second question concerned the Mull railway, which George says has a 10.5 inch gauge, George replies: I think that the gauge of the Mull railway is actually 260 mm., according to the web site, which was chosen for various technical reasons.  Even so, looking at the web site the rolling stock is not excessively narrow. No doubt my friend David "Paddy" Smith can explain the reasons. RH; 20 centimeters if only about  8 inches. It sound like a toy train.  Why doesn't George take a look himself?
I demanded the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the Isle of Mull railway.  I expressed disbelief when George Sassoon said it was 10.5 inch gauge railway. George then gave the figure as 20 centimeters, to which I replied:
20 centimeters if only about  8 inches. It sound like a toy train.  Why doesn't George take a look himself?  George replies: It's 260 mm actually or 10.23622 inches!  I have walked along the track and inspected the rolling stock - it is a bit of a toy, but it does the required job of shifting tourists between the ferry and Torosay Castle!  To my shame, having a car, I have never ridden on it.  RH: George, stick to your car. In the 19th century, broad-gauge supporters recommended a 7 foot gauge on the correct grounds that it would provide more stability. The narrower the gauge, the less the stability. A bicycle has 0" gauge. Could the railway obtain insurance? If the train toppled over, many tourists could be injured.

George's friend David (Paddy) says: Whilst not technically a toy train, neither is it a "proper" railway. It is a tourist line built and operated (I suspect) by people who enjoy tinkering with trains, a habit enjoyed by most of the work force of the nationalised railways in GB, which were essentially run for the benefit of the employees of same. Why the Mull people chose that particular gauge I know not, except than generally the more narrow the gauge, the lower the construction costs. It is possible to mount fairly substantial body work on narrow gauge running gear. Witness the African railways, many of which were 3 feet 6 inches and the metre gauge network once extensive in Europe. We found a metre gauge line still in operation in the Loire on the Epicureans trip last year. I will forward a photograph in due course, so as to confuse the issue as much as possible. RH: 3'6" is not 10.2",

Concerning the Isle of Mull Railway. Ed Jajko bids us look at It is an interesting article.  The train may be described as cute, but I would think a strong gust of wind would blow it over.

Ronald Hilton 2005


last updated: April 13, 2005