Whithorn in OO gauge

16 July 2020
This finescale layout by Alisdair Macdonald re-imagines a sleepy terminus on an ex-joint line in Galloway, which harbours great appeal for local freight and passenger services.


Layout name: Whithorn

Scale/gauge: EM converted to 4mm:1ft scale / 1:76 / OO gauge 

Size: 583cm x 90cm

Era/region: 1960s / 1970s / Scotland

Layout type: Fiddleyard to terminus

In a quiet corner of Galloway in South West Scotland, there ran a nineteen-mile-long branch line that was never profitable in all its ninety years existence. Even with nationalisation in 1948, the passenger service on the branch lasted for only two years until 1950. With such a short life, under the auspices of British Railways, there probably wasn’t even time to manufacture the Scottish Region light blue totem signs for the station! The line continued on with a goods service three times a week, until the final closure of the branch in 1964. It was one of the victims of the Beeching rationalisation. Nothing remains of the line today, apart from a few earthwork embankments and some cuttings.

Whithorn in OO gauge

The line is the Whithorn Branch, originally known as the Wigtownshire Railway. It ran down to the town of Whithorn from the junction at Newton Stewart, on the now-closed ‘Port Road’ from Dumfries to Stranraer. When the Whithorn Branch was constructed in 1875, the company directors approached both the Caledonian Railway and the Glasgow and South Western Railway as potential operators. Both companies declined the offer, deciding that there was not enough money in it for them. In the end, an agreement was reached with both companies to operate the branch on a joint basis. This arrangement lasted until 1923, when the LMS took on the responsibilities.

The joint CR and GSWR arrangement to run the line produced the peculiar situation in which the line had CR semaphore signals and GSWR signal boxes.

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Modelling Whithorn

So why model such an obscure location?  Iain Rice is to be blamed as the line was featured in his book ‘Light Railway Layout Designs’.  He put out the challenge in the chapter on Galloway that modelling the Whithorn Branch was ‘far from being hackneyed in the manner of a similar GW termini’. Thanks to Rice, the die was cast for me to model Whithorn. I had always wanted to model a real location, somewhere in Scotland, and now I had found it. I was also approaching retirement, an opportunity too good to miss to start some serious modelling. In addition, away back in 1961 at the age of sixteen, I had been fortunate to travel down the branch to Whithorn on one of the last steam special trains. When open, Whithorn railway station was the most southerly station in Scotland.

Whithorn in OO gauge

The Rice plan was followed with an early design decision taken that there would need to be passenger traffic on the model. For me, the running of only a pick-up goods service would likely become a bit monotonous. And being constructed as a light railway, the heaviest locomotives permitted to run on the branch were Caledonian Railway ‘Jumbo’ 0-6-0 locomotives, or the BR equivalent of an Ivatt 2-6-0 Class 2 locomotive. There was never a diesel locomotive running in revenue service over the branch in all the time of the line’s existence.  The opportunities for a variety of motive power would have been limited if the prototype had been followed. 

The model presumes the line was re-engineered at some point, which would then have allowed the running of heavier locomotives. Now a variety of steam locomotives can be seen on the layout, which would never have made it to the real Whithorn. All are based on the motive power that ran on the Port Road and its branches, and include an LMS 2P 4-4-0 and Class 2 Ivatt 2-6-0, a BR Class 4 2-6-4 tank and a Crab.  All are from the Bachmann, Heljan, and Hornby stables. As already noted, diesel locomotives never ran on the branch, but on the model a two-car Class 105 DMU, a Class 20, and 26 all make their appearances courtesy of Bachmann and Heljan. There is also a Class 24 from Sutton’s Locomotive Works.

Passenger and goods stock is a mixture of Bachmann and Hornby, all suitably weathered in acrylics and powders.

Whithorn in OO gauge

Gauge conversion

The track was laid originally to EM standards by a P4 colleague. Over time the trackwork has performed extremely well. However, recently joining a small group of skilled railway modellers, who have an award-winning 4mm OO gauge layout, the major decision was taken by all of the team that 'Whithorn' be re-gauged to 4mm OO gauge finescale, using Peco bullhead track.

This decision was helped with the acceptance that the superb quality of the more recent proprietary steam locomotives has made the conversion away from OO gauge that bit more challenging. It was felt that too many compromises were having to be made in any alteration work. On the other hand, re-gauging diesels and rolling stock is, of course, straightforward.

Whithorn in OO gauge

The layout is set out at a viewing height of around 4ft above floor level, and with the higher ground contours at the front of the layout, the difference in gauge is probably not discernible to the majority of viewers.

Control of all locomotives is by the NCE DCC system, and all have the appropriate sound chips on board. The points are controlled by Tortoise motors using switches on a mimic plan of the track layout on the control panel. This is independent from the NCE system. The two lower-quadrant Caledonian Railway signals are MSE kits, assembled by Stephen Freeman, operated with Cobalt servos. The Caledonian Railway ground shunt signals at the yard entrance are another MSE kit, with integral red and white LED lights, all expertly put together by club member, Chris Manners.

Sprat and Winkle couplings are employed on all rolling stock, with electromagnet uncouplers located at strategic locations to assist the operators in shunting moves.

Whithorn in OO gauge

The layout is operated from the front scenic side. This allows the operator to engage with those viewing it at exhibitions. A second operator runs the fiddle yard. For exhibitions, a sequence timetable is followed, which is useful for both operators to know what happens next. BR operating practice is followed, which adds to the enjoyment of running the layout.

Scenic elements

Whithorn in OO gauge

Another early design decision was that the scenery should dominate the overall appearance of the layout. It was desirable to have the feel of a rural branch line, with trains running through the landscape. The southerly part of Galloway, with its open landscape and low rolling hills, and the Lakeland Fells of England in the distance, had to be recognisable to those who know the area. The hand-painted backscene, created by the author, helps achieve this and concentrates the eye on the layout. N Gauge cattle have been used at the rear of the layout to emphasise the distant perspective of the landscape.

Landscape is not flat, and the variation in ground levels was formed using recycled polystyrene blocks fixed with PVA under a skin of Modroc plaster. The top surface was painted in dark brown oil paint to seal the plaster dust, and then given the static grass gun treatment to build up the varied colours and layers found in nature for the grassed and wooded areas. The period of early summer was chosen as the yellow broom and pink campion are in full bloom to provide colour. Lambs are found on the farm, and the local breed of cattle, Belted Galloways, have been featured, (and recognised by those who know), all to give a local sense of place. Great use has been made on the landscaping of the products by Woodland Scenics and other manufacturers, with acrylic paint and weathering powders. The river was formed with a fine gravel bed overlaid in layers and layers of gloss yacht varnish.

Whithorn in OO gauge

The buildings have all been scratch-built using Plastikard as the base material. The station building was drawn firstly as a three-dimensional computer drawing using Sketch-up, taken from researched photographs. This information was then translated into a two-dimensional drawing using Autocad from which the model was constructed.

The signal box was constructed using Wigtownshire Railway drawings obtained from the Glasgow and South Western Railway Association. It reflects the GSWR signal box that might have been at Whithorn, taking the signal box at Millisle on the branch as a reference. The box was in-situ right up to the closing of the line. The window frames were custom made by York Modelmaking.

Whithorn in OO gauge

The red brick dwelling, Oswie House, still stands in Whithorn. It is a useful guide to where the station was originally located in the town. For the model, the bricks on the elevations were counted from a Google Streetview image, and the model was built to a smaller scale of 1:87 to assist the perspective. At the scale of 1:76, the house visually overpowered the station area. The Provender Store is a Ratio kit-built model, while the Scottish-style farm buildings are generic.

The original creamery at Whithorn was not rail-connected, and the building is now long gone. For more operating options on the model it has been rail-connected. Although no drawings were found for the structure, the model version is a pastiche of the various elements of the original taken from photographs, reflecting the style of the original creamery. The creamery model won a certificate at ExpoEM North 2018 for the best example of use of scratch-building materials. The layout also won 'Best in Show' at that same ExpoEM event.

Final thoughts

If asked what has pleased me about this layout, I think it would be the positive reviews the scenery has received at exhibitions. I feel that I have met my original brief of branch line trains running in the rural landscape.

Whithorn in OO gauge

Is the layout completed? That is doubtful - there is always something to be attended to on the scenery, or rolling stock - especially after a weekend’s exhibiting!

Finally, thanks must go to Hazel, my wife, for all her support and her constructive criticism on 'Whithorn' over the years of its construction, and to Graham Heald, Chris Manners, and Raymond Reed, and all the members of the Wirral and North Wales Model Railway Group for their invaluable assistance.

To read more about Whithorn, see the February 2020 issue of BRM. Download today from www.pocketmags.com/BRM.