Norman McKillop [Toram Beg]

Driver McKillop of Haymarket was a wee man, and it was difficult to conceive how such a slight figure could have driven the A3 Spearmint, let alone fired those voracious North British Atlantics, but he did. He was an adicted writer, and when his eyesight failed he became editor of the British Railways Scottish Region magazine at its office near St Enoch Station in Glasgow, and where he couuld be seen in the refreshment room enjoying Burton draught beer at lunch time. He was both a convinced trades union man (he wrote the official history of ASLEF) and deeply aware of the need to improve the education of enginemen and had been deeply involved in mutual improvement classes.

Toram Beg, Wee Norman in Gaelic, was the pseudonym adopted by Norman McKillop, whilst he still worked as an engine driver, using it for contributions to Trains Illustrated and Trains Annual. He had always been drawn towards authorship and had begun like many others by writing on scraps of paper in the hope of writing something greater at a later date.

We met several times in the refreshment room at Glasgow St Enoch Station where he shared lunch with my father. Norman was attracted to the draught Bass served there, and the site was conveniently near to their squalid offices in Dunlop Street. They were both very different from myself: small and dapper, and wearers of trilbies. It was difficult to imagine that so slight a person could have had the strength to drive a steam locomotive, let alone to have fired one in his younger days, yet his skill as an engine driver had been noted from an early date.

At the time of our meeting he was the Editor for the Scottish edition of the British Railways Magazine as deafness had ended his footplate career. His own favourite publication was The Lighted Flame1 – the official history of ASLEF. But having in deference to his memory mentioned this worthy, and well-written history, we will begin by examining his more typical output as exemplified in Enginemen Elite2, Ace Enginemen3 and Western Rail Trail4. In these Driver McKillop explored his own working methods and some of those of his colleagues. Most of what follows employs McKillop's own words, as like Treacey's photographs it is impossible to better the original.

For several years, Spearmint (60100) was Driver McKillop's regular engine and in Enginemen Elite he makes a forceful case for the Haymarket practice of allocating locomotives to specific drivers, rather than the common user practice adopted elsewhere, as in his own words: "The common user principle as applied to railway locomotives has never really produced efficiency or economy in spite of the specious arguments in its favour and possibly this can be more readily understood by a statement of an actual fact which was clearly demonstrated at Haymarket."

Spearmint had arrived into his hands in deplorable condition, but after insisting that certain key work was rectified it became his own engine where to quote him verbatim:

"The value of this job to the driver with his own engine was the reasonable time between his arrival and return working, and (so far as I was concerned) the fact that you could park your engine at the end of a loop and work away uninterruptedly. Right now I would like a word with the economists who see a chance to exercise their talent when they spot a spare hour where an engine shown on the diagrammed working as doing nothing for an hour or so between trains. It is during those supposed-to-be idle hours, that a real man gives attention to his engine, and possibly saves a good deal more cash than the "paper economy" shown by the hour taken from his daily diagram, and marked by the economist "unproductive" time.

"Unproductive time! Ye gods! if they had seen what happened in the time we had at our disposal that week at Perth. While my mate was swabbing out the tool box and making it fit to house tools and oil cans (which did not leak), while he was doing this and knocking some of the filth off the cab, I was on the ground with the cab doors and a hammer straightening them to the shape they were supposed to be; and you've no idea what can be done in this respect using a rail as an anvil. These were first essentials.

"Once we got some semblance of sense into head lamps and gauge lamps, cleaned the gauge glass protectors so that the water looked like water and not a misty, ghostly movement "seen through a glass darkly," it was time for me to give attention to things not normally looked at on the common user engines.

"Again I'd like to say a word to the people who think that the common user principle is an economy on railway steam engines. I could almost guarantee to find on any common user engine which has been running for a few months a dozen oiling points at the very least which have never received a drop of lubrication.

"This was the case with Spearmint...". It would be unfair to quote more, but it should be noted that secondhand copies should be available, and it should be possible to borrow copies through "good" public libraries. Nevertheless, he did reinforce his argument by noting the high mileages attained by Gresley Pacifics which seldom required a works overhaul before they had run 90-100,000 miles, while some of them were running anything up to 140,000 miles from the time they left Doncaster works.

Enginemen Elite is autobiographical which inevitably means that it begins with his experiences as a cleaner and firemen on the North British Railway before he became a driver.

Like most enginemen he had a deep-rooted suspicion of the products of other lines, especially if they were right hand drive engines, which were particularly difficult to operate on the sinuous North British lines. The Great Northern D1s (the Ponies) were his particular bete noire, but North Eastern types, which also featured a right hand driving position, were not immune from criticism.

"When you drove a "Z" or a "V" you had to adopt the crouching attitude of a jockey at the most tense moment of a classical race. This may look all right as an indication to the outside viewer that you're "streamlined for speed," but quite honestly its not at all necessary on a railway engine. I like to sit as comfortably relaxed as possible, and couldn't care less for making an impression.

"The seat on the N.E. Atlantic was broad enough almost to serve as a bed; your feet rested comfortably on a built-up footstool, and in this respect they were the acme of comfort, that is, if you could sit properly and catch your signals through the front cab window.

"But when you passed through the first tunnel and the front window became obscured by blobs of sooty muck there was nothing else for it but to crouch on your seat like a half-shut jack-knife, and stick your head out at the side in the approved style supposed to be that adopted by high-speed enginemen (at least I've seen quite a few pictures where this seems to be the common idea).

On the other hand, the North Eastern types were far smoother than their North British counterparts: "So there I would sit on the driving seat, shove up the "ram's-horn" throttle handle and glide away with a duplicate of one of the night expresses to London ("glide" is the only way to describe the beautiful motion of a "Z"). The only thing on my mind was the question "How's the darned thing going to behave on this one?" The "thing," of course, was the steam reverser."

On arrival at Gateshead he was amazed to find the enginemen's institute situated in a fine building as the mutual improvement classes, in which McKillop took a great interest, were housed in an old carriage body at Haymarket.

Finally, his contribution to trades union history must be recorded. Once again his writing skill is self-evident. In Chapter 8 of the Lighted Flame (Recognition) he wrote: "There was something blandly humorous in the assertion made by certain boards of directors that they regarded their employees as free and independent men—and yet they denied the right of the trade unions to speak for these men, because they are not feeling any unrest and are not underpaid. Within the Associated these ‘free and independent men' were organising at an increasing pace. They were becoming aware that it was useless to depend on separate approaches to individual companies. The duties and responsibilities of Enginemen were similar, no matter where they were operating, and should be rewarded in a similar fashion, in rates of wages and conditions of service, on a national basis. Late in 1906 an Executive had been elected, which on 18th January 1907 formulated and sent out a circular putting forward the details of a National Programme that had been adopted at a conference on the 8th of the month.

Later the author vividly describes the sufferings of enginemen forced to relocate during the 1930s with little or no assistance from the cash-strapped companies.

"The position of Cleaners and young Firemen on the railways was deplorable. As the junior members of the staff, they were first to become redundant, and thousands of them were forced to abandon their homes, not once but on many occasions, and to lead an almost nomadic existence, moving from depot to depot, to keep themselves in a job. Depots in some parts of Britain became almost international in aspect: the tongues of Scotsmen, Englishmen and Welshmen were heard mingling in parts of the country very far from their respective native heaths. It must not be surmised, either, that because they were junior in the grade they were juvenile in years. This was no trek of the unencumbered lad. Since in thousands of cases these unfortunate men had served the railways from 5 to 10 years, and were married men with families, one does not require a vivid imagination to picture the lives they were forced to lead.

"If they were lucky-and very few were-they would get housing accommodation, but most of them had to leave their families and homes, and pay for lodgings where their gipsy existence took them. This sort of thing persisted for years, with the hope of promotion and better living receding ever farther .

It must be noted that this keen trades union activity enriched his skills and did not unduly clash with his relationship with management.

From the enthusiast's standpoint Chapter 13 of The Lighted Flame (Locomotive Design) is perhaps the most interesting as McKillop applies some stick to Churchward's design on the grounds of accessibility: "it is recorded how one driver got jammed into the gearing and was extricated only with difficulty". On the other hand, the Gresley Pacifics "were accessible and comfortable to the men who were going to handle them" and "Gresley gave us a padded bucket seat with a back to it, and what was more, placed everything within reach". Going underneath the locomotive for oiling was minimized due to the derived motion. Perhaps the only criticism which could be levelled at his assessment is that he preferred the vacuum to the Westinghouse brake as the latter had a "tangle of copper pipes all over the engine". He did concede, however, that the air brake was far more effective at stopping trains.

Western rail trail describes a journey made across Canada with his wife, Mary, mainly by the Canadian Pacific route. The first two Chapters give their response to Canada. Montreal was so much colder than the spring of Edinburgh which they had left, where the daffodils danced in their much-loved garden. At that time Canada was so much richer than Scotland: a state which has now been reversed (forty years later Kevin was amazed at the response of his Canadian nieces at a great family gathering on the Island of Arran to their surprise that Glasgow had been full of BMWs: what had they expected: Trabies?). Norman was awed by Candian wealth as expressed in terms of consumer durables and the high cost of living.

Some of the journey was made in the cab of the diesel-electric locomotives. Without question the high point, in more ways than one, is the traverse of the spiral tunnels between Field and Banff where the railroad storms its way across the continental divide in the heart of the Rockies. There is also a brief interlude with a minor diversion into the USA and a Kafkaesque account of his encounter with that empire's imigration service where it was suspicious of his need to visit railroad stations (how was Kevin so fortunate at his courteous reception at both Chicago and Niagara in the 1990s?). Where our routes intersected both were awed by Niagara, surely one of the greatest spectacles on the planet.

On page 105 there is a wonderful tribute to the influence of Andrew Carnegie and his lavish gift of libraries to his native Scotland. "For without the free libries he so lavishly provided for Scotsmen, I think that at least one of them wouldn't be attempting to write a book today." Dear Norman would have been aware that Frank's son was a librarian and was marrying a fellow librarian at about the time those words were written. He would also have seen "Let there be Light" on the entrance to Edinburgh Central Library many times. But our hero must have the last word: "attempting": such genuine modesty. Surely, McKillop is a worthy candidate for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, or must the Scots have to produce their own Scottish National biographical dictionary? Nelson considered McKillop to be a major writer: surely greater than Annie S. Swan.

1. McKillop, Norman. The lighted flame. London: Thomas Nelson, 1950.
2. McKillop, Norman. Enginemen elite. London: Ian Allan, 1958. vi, 154 p. incl. 16 plates. 40 illus. (incl. 8 ports.)
3. McKillop, Norman. Ace enginemen. London: Thomas Nelson, 1963.

4. McKillop, Norman. Western rail trail. London: Thomas Nelson, 1962.
McKillop, Norman. How I became an engine driver. Nelson. 1953.
Mildly autobiographical.


2007-06-28