Click here for part 2: Model ships for Dunalistair

Dunalistair is a fictitious fishing port on a sheltered sea loch somewhere on the West Coast of Scotland, in an area of low, rocky hills and sand dunes reminiscent of Kintyre. There are some ideas of the Campbeltown and Machrihanish Railway and the standard gauge West Highland Railway in this scene. Dunalistair is a self-contained scene that might have been a model railway in itself. The model is intended to represent the Edwardian period, but this is not followed too strictly as it is very difficult to reproduce such a forgotten era. Rolling stock, road vehicles, and ships reflect a period roughly between 1870 and 1920. My own 40-year-old memories of the Clyde and the Scottish West Coast were very useful, and a lot of information was found in books and calendar pictures.

Plan of Dunalistair

Doon the watter

The tide is out, and on beaches, rocks and jetties barnacles cling to the exposed surface. Birds feed on sand and mud banks, a small boat is grounded and one flue of a partly buried anchor sticks up from the sand. A lighthouse and cottage stand on a rocky headland between patches of sand, rock and rough grass. Following the shore, the railway circles the lighthouse on its climb to the higher reaches of Dunalistair, eventually disappearing from the stage. Dunalistair-bound trains never cease to be a thrilling sight, first silhouetted against the blue Atlantic, then leaning into the superelevated curve around the headland and finally bowling downgrade past the home bracket.

Coal transhipment in Dunalistair is rather more mechanized than it used to be in Campbeltown, with a high-level pier and loading chutes instead of a primitive crane to discharge the coal wagons. The coal chutes are fitted with lifting gear to enable ships to come alongside without risk of damage. The structure should really have been a bit taller, because at high water a ship would rise too much under the chutes, but it is big enough as it is. The scratchbuilt coaster Renfrew Lass of Gourock is what I would call an improved Clyde Puffer fitted with a fo'c'sle and a poop deck to improve its seaworthiness for the Dunalistair-Clyde run. Inside the curve stands the Fisherman's Rest, a waterfront pub visited by fishermen and dock workers. This old building, based on a photograph of Lerwick, stands on the rocky shore and has a flight of steps descending to the water. A balsa model of my first sailboat Shipshape is alongside the inn's landing steps, a pretty varnished wooden boat that is really too modern for this scene. Perhaps a case of modeller's licence?

Shaka Zulu arrives with a Colonial-type passenger train connecting with the paddle steamer.

The shipyard is the centrepiece of the layout. The port side of Flora M is touched up with red lead whilst the engineer inspects the propeller gland with the shipyard's chief fitter.

Renfrew Lass has just been moved astern to load the forward half of the hold with coal. The Garratt is shunting a coal wagon over the chutes.

Atlantic heads a coal train along the coastline.

Detail on the slipway of MacQuarie's yard (photo by Jan van Mourik).

Passenger train headed by Ariadne passing the lighthouse (photo by Jan van Mourik).

The shipyard next to the Fisherman's Rest was based on a Dutch prototype of just the right size for Dunalistair. The crane is a steam version of the electric one on the prototype. A steam winch powers the slip cradle. The steam tug on the slipway was converted from a plastic toy boat using bits and pieces from the scrapbox and a lot of creative painting, and named Flora M. of Oban. The scene was detailed with chains, rigging and piles of timber. When modelling a slipway you'd better leave all loose gear above the high water mark. Otherwise it might be shifted into the harbour once the tide starts to runů

Dockside scene

For general goods traffic the C&DR has a long siding serving a warehouse on the quay. Before the take-over by container traffic, ships often used to load directly from or discharge on railway wagons. In some African and Asian ports during the 1970s these were still set out on the quay by steam. Shunting on the quayside in Dunalistair sometimes takes me back to my Merchant Navy days, when I could look down from the deck of my ship on a spotless South African class 12R loco, noisily setting out wagons for us to discharge into and showering me with hot cinders in the process.

Dunalistair, having no rail connection to Glasgow, has no fish industry of its own. Many local fishermen sell their catch in Mallaig or Oban. On a Saturday night, however, the harbour would be crammed with fishing boats. On the loading platform in front of the warehouse the goods clerk is checking the crates and barrels that have just been unloaded. Near the hand crane, John Munro's new Foden steam lorry simmers while it waits for a trip to the other side of town. On the patch of wasteland to the right of the warehouse, nets are drying on a rack, and a horse-drawn cart piled with another net waits nearby, the owner being busy arranging it over the rack whilst his young son holds the horse's bridle. A friend of ours who knows about horses remarked that the boy wouldn't stand a chance with the horse, holding it like that, but I haven't been able to change it yet...

The fishing boats were built using plastic lifeboat hulls and extensively detailed again using scrap material, an enjoyable job during rainy weather in a holiday cottage many years ago... Old Seamus Macgillavry, who has just returned from the night's fishing, has tied up his boat and is cleaning out a fish barrel, with several cats in hopeful attendance. Ten feet below (the tide still being out) his son Calum is at work clearing up the boat whilst the drying foresail flaps from the stay. Nearby old number D12 'Catriona' is turning into the wind with her skipper holding the halliard in his hand, ready to drop the lugsail as another old salt waits on the quay ladder to take a line.

The station building at Dunalistair.

Drying the nets (photo by Jan van Mourik).

The steamer Lochalastair tied up alongside the pier. Ariadne has just arrived with a passenger train (photo by Jan van Mourik).

Catriona's skipper luffs prior to dropping the lugsail. Loco Shaka Zulu on the quay. (photo by Jan van Mourik).

Passenger train entering Dunalistair, curving past the town.

The back gardens of Dunalistair across the track from the Foundry.

A pier station was considered to be a better choice than the Hall Street prototype on the Campbeltown & Machrihanish. Remembering former services on the Clyde by the paddle steamers Caledonia and Waverley, there had to be a paddle steamer alongside the pier connecting with the C&DR. Lochalastair is based on an old kit by Heller representing an 1860s steamer, but was modified to resemble a typical Clyde passenger steamer of the Edwardian age, with a saloon aft of the bridge. The pier, like that in an old photograph of Rothesay, has a wooden surface, and is fitted with gas lanterns. Some passengers of the boat train are still ashore, and others are on the deck of the steamer.

The station

The station building itself is a grand affair not quite appropriate for an insignificant narrow gauge railway, with a long canopy made of Dapol kits. The canopy was inspired by the glass roof of Wemyss Bay station leading to the steamer pier. The passengers are in Edwardian dress and behind the platform a hansom cab is waiting for the odd passenger able to pay its fare. To the left of the station building is the formal station garden, another memory of my early holidays in Scotland.

To the left of the station is the signal box, followed by the water tank and coaling stage. There is an ash pit similar to the ones at Rae Bridge and Inverlochan, consisiting of concrete blocks leading the rails across a shallow pit. This idea was copied from the ash pits I saw on the Avontuur branch of the former South African Railways. A wheelbarrow and shovel were added. Beside the track, in several locations dummy shunting signals have been installed. Do I hear mutters of over-signalled narrow gauge railways? Then look at the Donegal and the Festiniog: the CDR may be narrow gauge, but with the coal traffic it is prosperous and busy enough for serious signalling!

Inspection loco Terry, named after one of the Director's sons... (photo by Jan van Mourik).

The Caledonia Foundry with a locomotive boiler for repair (photo by Jan van Mourik).

Close-up of the main street in Dunalistair (photo by Jan van Mourik).

Greta shunting the harbour (photo by Mick Thornton).

Overview of Dunalistair looking towards the Caledonia Foundry.

The Caledonia Foundry again, with a detail view of the crofter's cottage.

The town and the foundry

In the far left corner a siding serves the Caledonia Foundry, a low relief structure kitbashed from a Pola kit. The foundry depends for its livelihood on the railway, the Craigcorrie Colliery Co, and ships calling at Dunalistair. The Foundry has interior lighting and detail. Outside on the loading platform some detail was added and a chain hoist hangs over the track in the entrance. A small non-working signal appeared at the siding, but the ground frame and rodding controlling the siding and its signals is still lacking. The nearby crofter's cottage is modelled after a prototype in the Isle of Skye. In the yard is a pigsty and a few storage sheds. The postman is calling at the gate, and the crofter comes out to collect a letter.

The town buildings represent a small Scottish town with a mixture of stone-built and whitewashed structures. The main street climbs steeply from the harbour, turning right at the top to disguise its disappearance into the background. There is the shipchandler's business of Farquhar & Maclaren, and across the road is a fishmonger's shop appropriately named the 'Jolly Kipper'. In the road the doctor's hansom waits at the gate, and a woman in Edwardian dress is out shopping. The backyards were detailed with walls, fencing, washing lines, shacks, an outside loo and a vegetable patch supervised by an obviously ineffective scarecrow.

Below the town the tracks curve away from the station across the level crossing giving access to the dockyard. The ungated level crossing (still to be fitted with cattle guards) is an obstacle to outward bound trains, which have to slow and whistle for the crossing to be cleared. The harbour traffic across the tracks is a constant source of irritation to the CDR's irascible top link driver, Angus Macnab. If he had his way he would rather put on some speed before hitting the gradient and curve around the headland. Inbound trains are required to slow to 5mph at the home signal, but despite that coal trains have been known to come skidding downgrade across the level crossing and into the harbour sidings, whistle screaming, brake van and tender brakes smoking and the loco in reverse.

Another view of Greta on shunting duty.

The Caledonia Foundry's shunting loco Jock crossing the harbour road.

The Garratt arriving with a heavy coal train.

Railcar 1 on an extra service to Dunalistair.

Night scene

All buildings have been adapted to internal lighting which involved shading constructional gaps. Lamps have been fitted high up in the roof, resulting in squares of light shining on the ground outside the window. There are lights under the station awning and the street lanterns are illuminated, and even the ferry has its running lights on as if it is ready to sail. Those signals that can be viewed from the front (the home bracket and the platform starter) have been fitted with lamps made of a grain of wheat bulb in a pierced aluminium tube. These are fed 6 volts, giving a nice glow through the spectacles which were drilled out and fitted with plastic lenses.

Now the layout can be lighted up in the dark, realistic night operation is possible. Using a blue lamp for room illumination, sessions in the dark are very atmospheric, with the station and harbour illuminated, the pinpricks of the signal lamps, a soft glow from the town windows and far away on the headland the wink of the lighthouse. A whistle and a headlight glimmering on the track announce the late evening train from Rae Bridge. A red glow from the cab reflects from the engine's smoke, and a few illuminated carriages clatter into the dimly lit platform. The ferry and the passenger pier are brightly lit, with navigation lights shining from the steamer's paddleboxes. Over at the coal pier a pressure lamp illuminates the hold of the coaster still being loaded: its skipper obviously intends to sail on the morning tide.

Night views of Dunalistair.

Detail view over the shipyard (photo by Jan van Mourik).

Renfrew Lass again, under the chutes of the coal pier. (photo by Jan van Mourik).

The 'Fisherman's Rest' pub with me in my old 18ft boat 'Shipshape' alongside, about to climb its smugglers stairs to go and have a dram. The boat of course is far too modern, being a 1973-built plywood daysailer, but it's nice to imagine having sailed there... On the coal pier, no 11 'Greta' is pushing an open wagon towards the chutes.


Looking around the small harbour, I remember all the impressions and ideas of at least thirty years that were combined into Dunalistair. The whitewashed houses huddle together in the cold morning light as if still sheltering from last night's gale, whilst faraway across the loch a faint whistle announces the early down train from Rae Bridge. The boat train simmers in the platform road as the Oban paddle steamer enters harbour on the tide, her hooter giving three toots and the paddlewheels going astern as she comes alongside. Dirty harbour water slops oilily between quay and ship, and the gulls are having a shouting match on the warehouse roof whilst the usual morning bustle of the harbour gets under way. There is a smell of the sea from beyond the lighthouse on the headland, and the harbour shunter struggles to bring the last coal wagons on to the jetty alongside, sending up a cloud of soot and scattering the gulls as it slips noisily on the greasy quay sidings. Renfrew Lass may be smaller than anything I ever sailed in, but even she has that air of being made ready for sea, with old Jamie firing up the boiler down below and the skipper unlocking the wheelhouse. It almost feels as if nothing has changed over the years, and once again I am securing hatches with the hands, stumbling across the cluttered gangway, my eyes gritty from being on deck half the night, in that bitter-sweet anticipation of going out to sea in her and feeling that familiar roll under my feet again...

Model ships for Dunalistair