Talla Railway: Forgotten Reservoir Line in the Scottish Borders

Remains of farm access bridge over the abandoned Talla Railway near the A701 in the Scottish Borders. (Image: Walter Baxter. Remains of farm access bridge over the abandoned Talla Railway)

The UK countryside is crisscrossed by an impressive network of disused railway lines, silent echoes of a golden age in British transportation history. But not all were important routes. Nor were they necessarily intended to operate for more than a few years. Among the abandoned trackbeds are old mineral lines, industrial tramways and contractor railways used in the construction of major infrastructure projects of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

One such example is the Talla Railway, the remains of which are clearly visible to drivers on the A701 road between Broughton and Tweedsmuir in the Scottish Borders. Built between 1895 and 1897, this eight mile-long route branched off the Caledonian Railway’s Peebles Branch (originally the Symington, Biggar and Broughton Railway) at Rachan Junction, and wound its way south through the picturesque Talla Water valley.

Talla Railway map. (Image: John. Map of the Talla Railway heading south from the Peebles Branch)

By the late 19th century, urban expansion and changing domestic habits brought about a high demand for water in Edinburgh and other burgeoning towns. Due to its high rainfall, the valley around Tweedsmuir was identified by the Edinburgh and District Water Trust as an ideal location for a new reservoir. But its remote location meant that a private railway was needed to transport the vast quantities of construction materials and workers required to build the dam.

(Images: (left, right) Walter Baxter)

Land for the Talla Reservoir construction was purchased from the local baronet, Graham Graham-Montgomery, for £20,425 and a deal was struck with the Caledonian Railway to build a line (funded by the Water Trust) that branched off its existing railway near Broughton.

Construction of both the Talla Railway and reservoir would be undertaken by James Young and Sons of Edinburgh. The line was expected to cost £49,113. Once complete, water would be piped 35 miles to Alnwickhill, a suburb four miles to the south of Edinburgh city centre.

(Image: Peter Evans. Abandoned bridge across the Talla Railway trackbed)

Work on the Talla Railway began in September 1895 and was completed by August 1897, including the construction of a wrought iron truss bridge across the River Tweed. The following month, a stone-laying ceremony kicked off the construction of the Talla Reservoir and a special train steamed down the valley from Edinburgh to the Trust’s management building, Victoria Lodge (now a private home, below).

Victoria Lodge on the disused Talla Railway is now a private residence. (Image: John)

But the reservoir construction was plagued by a series of setbacks, including the derailing of the contractor’s locomotive, Talla, and the prohibiting of the engine’s use on the Caledonian Railway due to its technical deficiencies.

By 1899 Young and Sons had gone into liquidation and John Best of Leith and Robert McAlpine & Sons were tasked with completing the work. Around this time a small halt was opened in a siding near the Crook Inn, a popular after-work watering hole, which Best had bought a share in prior to opening the halt!

(Image: Walter Baxter)

By 1905 the Talla Reservoir was largely complete and opened amid much fanfare in May of that year. Its work done, the Talla Railway was abandoned, despite some efforts to maintain a basic passenger service for Tweedsmuir residents. But with the small community already in decline, a business case could not be made. By 1912, the sleepers and rails had been lifted for scrap or reuse elsewhere.

Abandoned for more than a century, evidence of the short-lived Talla Railway lingers in plain sight across the valley between Broughton and Tweedsmuir. Victoria Lodge and the iron truss viaduct survive today, as does much of the embanked railway trackbed that once carried workers and materials from Rachan Junction to the construction site.

The disused Talla Railway viaduct now carries a water pipe. (Image: Callum Black. The disused railway viaduct now carries a water pipe)

So if you’re a fan of railway history, or Victorian engineering and transportation infrastructure generally, keep an eye out as you’re travelling along the A701 towards Edinburgh in the north or Moffat to the south. Even today, the ruins of the forgotten Talla Railway are impressive, and quietly reflect an epoch of construction on an unprecedented scale.

(Image: Oliver Dixon)

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