The fascinating history of the gateway to Bute

Wemyss Bay pier, and the railway line from Glasgow, will be 150 years old on Saturday, May 16, 2015.
Wemyss Bay pier, and the railway line from Glasgow, will be 150 years old on Saturday, May 16, 2015.

The 150th anniversary of the opening to the public of the railway line to Wemyss Bay will be celebrated next weekend. But how much do you know about the history of the pier and the railway line which together handle more than 800,000 passengers every year?

Opened as a branch line from Port Glasgow on May 15, 1865, the railway line to Wemyss Bay was constructed by the Greenock and Wemyss Bay Railway Company, but from the start it was operated by the Caledonian Railway Company.

The original station terminal was designed in the style of a handsome villa, in order not to detract from the spacious second homes which wealthy businessmen and industrialists from Glasgow were building in the area.

This was the height of the steam power era. Until the coming of the railway, the steamer journey from Glasgow to Largs took five hours and cost 7/6d cabin fare single. Now the new Wemyss Bay Railway, for an all-in fare of 2/7d, reduced the journey time to an hour and a half, a third of the time being spent on the steamer from Wemyss Bay to Largs.

At last public transport was affordable for most people, and sailing on the Clyde on board one of the many paddle steamers became hugely popular. A day ‘doon the watter’, or better still, a fortnight on the Clyde coast, became a real possibility. Formerly quiet coastal towns developed into holiday resorts, with esplanades, golf courses, theatres and hotels.

Wemyss Bay pier has long served as the crossing point to and from Rothesay. But the development of the Clyde coast resorts and the rail service connection brought steamer services between Wemyss Bay and Largs, Cumbrae, Innellan and Toward, as well as Rothesay.

Traffic increased and it was not long before the 1865 terminus became inadequate. The present station and pier were designed by Caledonian Railway engineering staff under Donald Mathieson, assisted by James Miller, Scotland’s leading railway architect.

It was greatly enlarged, doubling the number of platforms and steamer berths, and most significantly, by means of its glorious glass canopies over platforms, concourse and walkway to the pier, provided protection from the worst of the Scottish weather for the travelling passenger.

When the new station and pier opened in 1903, Wemyss Bay was recognised as the finest railway pier in Britain, and is now classified as a Grade A listed structure.

Today traffic is much reduced, and the extensive accommodation for staff and public services not required - though Wemyss Bay is fortunate to have still an operational cafe, bar, toilets and a staffed ticket office too.

The Friends of Wemyss Bay Station, a group of volunteers formed to support the station, operate a second hand bookshop and a gallery in the former First Class Waiting rooms. As part of ScotRail’s Adopt a Station scheme, they also care for containers of plants, a continuation of a long-standing tradition at Wemyss Bay.

Currently the station is undergoing a major renovation to those glass canopies and is not at its most elegant. Nonetheless, this is a year to celebrate - and the day to mark in your diaries is Saturday, May 16.

On that day, one of CalMac’s Rothesay-Wemyss Bay ferries will be ‘dressed overall’ [for landlubbers, that means it’ll be bedecked in flags - Ed], with a special display of photographs and models of paddle steamers on board, supplied by members of the Clyde River Steamer Club, the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society, the Scottish Maritime Association and others.

In the Station Gallery at Wemyss Bay there will be an exhibition of railway paintings by Dugald Cameron, including new work showing the original station and pier in operation. During the morning only, from 10am to 12 noon, there will also be models of Caledonian Railway locomotives on display.

During the afternoon the AGM of the Friends will be held in Skelmorlie & Wemyss Bay Parish Church Hall at 2pm, when all will be welcome. The speaker will be Richard Kinsella, of Network Rail, who will talk about the current programme of renovations at the station.