Wemyss Bay – Britain’s Most Beautiful Railway Station?

Beautiful Wemyss Bay railway station – photo c/o The National Archives of Scotland

Wemyss Bay Station in Scotland is one of Britain’s prettiest railway stations. Stepping into the station building is like walking back into another time period.

In many ways, Wemyss Station represents the pinnacle of the Golden Age of railways. Its glorious interior belongs to an era when rail transport was celebrated in the bricks and mortar of its stations.

I stumbled on this Edwardian railway masterpiece by accident when I turned up too early for a ferry from Wemyss to the Isle of Bute on a recent Scottish holiday.

Wemyss’ stylish station

With time on my hands, I took a stroll from the ferry car park to the striking building opposite. I was puzzled by its design. I wasn’t quite sure whether it was a railway station until I saw the sign over its main entrance.

Looking at the building from a distance, it’s a weirdly eclectic mix. It looks like a seaside pier with a 60-foot clock tower in Queen Anne style. A half-timbered Arts and Crafts style mansion has been stuck on its far side. No wonder I was confused.

Once inside, I was surprised to discover its spectacular railway and Edwardian architecture. It’s a hidden delight on the seafront of this small Scottish village.

Inside Wemyss Bay Station

The main concourse of Wemyss Bay station is a revelation… and there are surprises around every corner.

The impressive centrepiece is a ticket office located inside a mushroom shaped glass and brick dome. The station platforms radiate from this structure and curve away into the distance.

At the far side of the ticket office, there are more architectural treats in store which reflect the unique role which the station once played as a vital link between the Clyde’s railways and Scotland’s west coast steamboats.

There are flower baskets and displays everywhere which add to the station’s charm and its welcoming ambience.

The circular ticket office

A spectacular curving walkway takes the traveller down to the original steamboat terminal along a long and winding wood and glass pier structure.

You get a real feeling for what it must’ve been like travelling to the station in its Edwardian heyday.

It’s easy to imagine the noise from the rushing crowds, the trains tooting, the guard’s whistles, and the sound of steamboats clunking up alongside the harbour pier.

Early travellers at Wemyss

The station as we see it today was designed by architect James Miller and Chief Engineer of the Caledonian Railways Company, Donald Matheson.

The stylish walkway down to the steamboat jetty was given a curvaceous shape to allow for the easy flow of hundreds of people around the station.

It would have echoed with the sound of the train passengers as they hurried along the wide walkway which was designed to allow for separate queues for different destinations.

Large crowds came by train from Glasgow and the Clyde to take holidays not too far from home on the Scottish islands. There would have been huge excitement and a feeling of holiday ‘fever’!

The curving walk to the boat terminal

On the other side of the station you’ll discover the impressive Edwardian station platforms, with their distinctive cast iron pillars.

The wood and glass roof overhangs and shelters are characterised by a rich tapestry of lattice work.

The overall effect is striking with the predominantly cream colour scheme only broken by occasional accents of dark greens and browns.

The Golden Age of Rail and Steamboats

Wemyss Bay station platform in the 1800s c/o National Archives of Scotland

I was keen to discover more about the station’s early history. Wemyss seemed to be a strange place to build such a grandly designed railway terminus.

In the 18th Century, Wemyss was a small fishing and estate village but life changed irrevocably with the coming of the railways.

The railway line between Wemyss and Port Glasgow opened in 1865. Wemyss Bay became the first combined rail and ferry terminal on the Clyde coast – a ‘jump off’ point for the Scottish islands on the west coast.

Originally there was just one platform at Wemyss Bay Station but a boom in demand for domestic holidays led to a second platform being added in 1872.

This expansion continued when trains from Wemyss Bay started running to Glasgow Central Station in 1890. The Scottish islands holiday boom had begun.

The ‘modern’ station was completed in 1903 with the building of a new sea wall and the covered pier-style shed which allowed the rapid interchange between the trains and boats.

The Caledonian Sea Packet Company took over the operation of steamers from Wemyss Bay – and business was brisk in the summer holiday months.

This was, of course, long before foreign package holidays changed the whole travel industry in the 20th Century.

Crowds of travellers at the height of steamer and rail travel

The Glory of Wemyss

Wemyss Bay Station still looks almost as it would have done in its heyday although it’s very much quieter these days.

You can almost hear a pin drop when you’re walking around the station in between train arrivals and departures.

Mind the gap – Edwardian station platforms

Recent conservation work has been fantastically sympathetic and has retained the original style of the station.

Everything looks incredibly authentic. There’s not even a hint of a modern ticket machine or barrier. It’s like being inside a railway time capsule.

The Friends of Wemyss Bay Station are also doing a fantastic job keeping the station looking amazing. No only do they run the book shop, they’ve even started a Station Garden on an old railway siding!

The Steam Age

Wemyss was very much a child of the Steam Age, an interchange for steam trains and steamboats which ran in tandem.

The Clyde steamers were famous for their Scottish coastal trips and the Wemyss routes were some of their most popular.

The steamers pulled up at the pier next to the station and passengers could make the easy change from train to boat.

Walking down to the pier today, I tried to imagine the plumes of black smoke coming from the steamers’ funnels – and the crowds of passengers waiting to board the boats.

Steamers at Wemyss Bay c/o National Archive of Scotland

In the 19th Century steam power revolutionised public transport, and enabled people from every class to take day trips and holidays by rail and steamboat.

Although it’s easy to romanticise the steamers today, it must have been a dirty experience if you were on deck when the smoke clouds were billowing into the air.

As the steamers became more sophisticated, they started providing more luxurious interior lounges and even hospitality suites. Read more about the boats on the Dalmadan website

Old steamer at Wemyss

The steamers provided cheap and relatively fast travel – and many later boats offered a high standard of interior decoration and comfort for passengers

The fare for a first class steamer ticket from Wemyss to Rothesay on Bute was 3 shillings and 6 pence (around 18p in today’s money).

Lower income travellers could buy a third class ticket for just 2 shillings and 9 pence (about 14 pence today).

By the 1950s the steamers had become dinosaurs, and had been overtaken by modern boats and ferries. With the boom in foreign holidays, they were served another blow. One by one, the Clyde steamers were put into retirement.

The Wemyss Bay to Rothesay car ferry opened in 1954. The new boat – called Cowal – boasted modern technology including radar. It provided a two-hourly service between Wemyss and Rothesay, seven days a week. 

In 1964 the old Wemyss steamboats – the Duchess of Montrose and the Jeannie Deans – were taken out of service. It was the end of the steam era.

The Duchess of Montrose steamer

Today the car and passenger ferry to Bute still takes passengers on much the same route as the old steamboats.

But it’s a very different experience from Edwardian times.

Today’s trip takes about 30 minutes and is a much more prosaic affair. You’re on and off the boat to Rothesay in no time but it’s still fun to ride the island waters.

The Caledonian ferry and station today

Celebrating the Past

Wemyss Bay is still full of life and people rushing around its station but there’s a gentler air than in its busy heyday.

A couple of contemporary additions add to the atmospheric feel of the old railway station.

A modern statue of a small boy called ‘Bobby’ holds a toy yacht, reflecting the boating history of Wemyss. He’s named after a well-known 18th Century fisherman who lived locally in Wemyss Bay.

Bobby also commemorates the thousands of holiday makers who passed through the station over the last century. The added modern face mask on Bobby jolts us back into the modern world.

Bobby – symbol of holidays past and present

Tucked along the far side of the station is a fantastic independent book store located in the station’s former 1st class waiting rooms.

The book shop also acts as a ‘museum’ featuring travel paraphernalia , posters and photographs from the great railway and steamboat age.

There’s even a ‘Reading Room’ where you can sit and while away the time whilst delving into a bit of Sottish railway history.

First class reading room

There are other nods to the station’s history as you walk around its main concourse.

There’s a small display space with knick knacks from past times including the original ceramic plates from one of the steamboat’s hospitality suites.

There’s also an information timeline board in the main concourse which chronicles the history of the station.

It’s funny to read how the original refreshment rooms at the station led to controversy. After complaints about people’s bad behaviour, it was declared that “no spirits be allowed to be sold at the Station Refreshment Rooms, and smoking is to be prohibited”!

Perhaps not much has changed since those Edwardian days…

Steamer cups and plates

Glory Days

I was delighted to discover Wemyss Bay station by complete accident. If only I’d had more than 40 minutes to explore the place. It’s well worth a detour and I’ll definitely be going back there.

You can still catch the train from Glasgow Central to Wemyss – and walk the pier to ride on the ferry to Bute.

Wemyss Bay has done something that many railways stations have been unable to do – retain its authentic heritage and still feel relevant today.

If you’re looking for an interesting railway journey, this is definitely the place to go!

Wemyss Bay car ferry today


Many of the black and white photographs are courtesy of the Scottish National Archive. Other material is copyright and courtesy of the JimMacIntosh Collection.

The station ticket image is courtesy of the Glasgow Herald.

If you’re interested in the detailed history of Wemyss railway and steamers, it’s worth popping into the station book shop and buying the booklet “Wemyss Bay Station” by Jim MacIntosh (Lightmoor Press). It’s also available from Amazon and Waterstones.

2 replies »

  1. Fascinating read. I first visited Wemyss Bay in the mid 60s on a family holiday based along the coast in Largs. One of our day trips was on board a paddle steamer called Talisman which called at the pier on the outward and return journeys to Rothesay. We’re staying just down the coast near Saltcoats in July this year so I think a visit may well be in order!

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