What is it about the Flying Scotsman that has led to its enduring fame and popularity above all other steam engines? Why has it earned a place in the hearts of many nations, but especially the Brits? The locomotive’s history has had many highs and lows, and a moment when it seemed destined for the scrapheap, only to be saved for the modern age.
Completed in February 1923, at a cost of almost £8,000, the Flying Scotsman was originally built by the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), to a design by its chief engineer, Sir Nigel Gresley. It weighed 97 tonnes, was 70ft in length, and was one of the Pacific type (class A1) express tender locomotives – the most powerful used by the railway.
It was not, in fact, built in Scotland, as many believe, but in Doncaster in the north of England; and the story behind its naming holds a clue to its early fame, says Andrew Mclean, chief curator at the National Railway Museum (NRM) in York. “The locomotive was deliberately named by the LNER after the ‘Flying Scotsman’, which was the unofficial name of its famous flagship service, the Special Scotch Express; launched in 1852, it ran daily from London’s King’s Cross to Edinburgh,” he says. LNER advertised that service as “The Most Famous Train in the World”; that, coupled with the public’s confusion over the difference between a locomotive and a train, boosted its fame no end. (To clarify, Scotsman is a locomotive or engine, and pulls the carriages of a train.)
“Scotsman was not revolutionary in the way George and Robert Stephenson’s Rocket was,” says Mclean, referring to the 1829 steam locomotive considered the greatest innovation of the Victorian era. “Nor was it the largest, most powerful or fastest.”