Jim Summers : Progressing Backwards, the Scottish Railway Collection at Bo’ness

Jim's initial slide, showing the detail of a telegraph pole, was not quite what was expected, though he moved on to show its picturesque location on the banks of the River Forth.  The two were connected, for the Scottish Railway Preservation Society at Bo'ness had won an award for its recreation of the telegraph pole route along its heritage railway line. Some people, but perhaps not all, held it as important that such a thing should still be preserved - after all,  it was once a feature of the landscape and railways, yet now only one such pole route remained in the entire UK, and it was in Scotland. Moreover, a whole somewhat intrepid profession of  telegraphic lineman was now nearly gone.

While, people might argue over what should or should not be preserved, it was meanwhile undeniable that thousands of visitors derived pleasure from their visit to the heritage railway at Bo'ness. Jim showed how operating such a railway required a large infrastructure of equipment and skilled people, and how depicting the past with aging artefacts, not to mention aging staff, could never really be strict preservation. The fleet of classic carriages with which the Society operated its popular railtours needed maintenance and equipment to the same up-to-date modern standards as those of main line railway companies. Nevertheless the working railway as a whole could and should be regarded as a museum.

In addition, however, were the three buildings of the Museum of Scottish Railways, where detailed study of objects large and small could be enjoyed at leisure. The extent and variety was such that Jim had talked well into his allotted time before he even mentioned steam locomotives, and when he did it was to show the big hearts and enthusiasm of the volunteers who undertook the rebuilding of carriages, wagons and locomotives. These items were often very far gone and demanded skill and ingenuity.  Preserving these latter qualities was important too, and it was encouraging that a youth section existed and that recovering drug addicts had been taught craftsmanship. The Museum was now recognised both officially and by railway cognoscenti as of national significance. Visitors were up 10% last year. Archives and small objects totalled 15,000.

Underlying all this was a continual struggle, not just of finding resources, but of conservation versus preservation or restoration, or of not bothering at all. Jim invited members at this point to cross the Forth and contemplate the town of Burntisland as it was in 1883. His colleagues had built with their own hands a detailed representation of the harbour and its railway traffic, including the pioneering roll-on roll-off train ferry. He showed a picture of schoolchildren enraptured by this recreation of their town. This represented another way of making the past accessible. With models, digital photography, things could nowadays be documented and brought to life in a small scale and in three dimensions. Even the landscape could be shown by means of models, as in the case of the Pendon Museum, which depicted in exquisite detail the Vale of the White Horse on one day in the 1930s. Detail and accuracy were the key, and so he finished by showing how the blue of the Union Jack and the blue of the Saltire flag were seminal to appreciating the subtleties of the famed blue livery of the locomotives of the old Caledonian Railway.