IN its centenary year, what a privilege to include in our Scottish Icons the, or a, Flying Scotsman. But, wait, is it Scottish? Lordy, that old chestnut.

Well, clue in name: Flying Scotsman. It’s not the Flying Belgian, nor yet the Flying Belgian. True, it was born in Doncaster, but the father was sort of a Scot, and its desired destination was always Caledonia.

More clarification on what’s often called the world's most famous steam locomotive: from what I can gather, yir nerds drop the definite article, which is reserved for the railway line as such and which, indeed, gave its name to the locomotive.

No’ really bothered, and from time to time I’ll call it the Scotsman for the sake of scansion in these couplets, ken? Tell you what, though: the Scotsman appears to have been more worth than its trouble (which was great). Folk went bankrupt for love of the beastie.

First the facts: length 70ft; height 13ft; weight 97 tonnes. Then the history: Flying Scotsman was built in 1923 by Edinburgh-born (though his stay was v. brief!) chief engineer Sir Nigel Gresley in Doncaster at a cost of £7,944, the first locomotive of the newly formed London and North Eastern Railway (LNER).

It entered service on 24 February 1923 and, in February 1924, acquired its name from the daily service between London King’s Cross and Edinburgh Waverley, which began in 1862 as the Special Scotch Express.

Flying Scotsman was the LNER’s pride and joy, representing the company at the British Empire Exhibitions in 1924 and 1925. And, boy, could it fly. After becoming a non-stop service in 1928, it reduced the 392-mile journey’s time to eight hours and three minutes.

On 30 November 1934, Scotsman officially became the first steam locomotive in Britain to reach 100 mph.

Plenty of puff

For a short while, under British Railways ownership, it was employed running passenger services from Leicester to London, Leicester, Sheffield, and Manchester. But, in 1953, it returned to the East Coast Main Line, where it continued huffing and puffing till 1963, when British Railways decided it was time for the scrappie.

Verily, however, it found an afterlife. Businessman and rail enthusiast Alan Pegler, who’d first seen the locomotive at the 1924 Empire Exhibition, bought it for £3,500, and spent much dosh restoring it at Doncaster.

Pegler ran enthusiasts’ specials, with 8,000 spectators gathering in Birmingham to watch the first run from Paddington to Ruabon, Wales. In 1964, the engine stood on the Forth Bridge for several days while being sketched by artist Terence Cuneo.

Following an overhaul in 1968–69, the Labour Government backed Pegler in an export-supporting tour of the United States and Canada. But US regulations caused problems. As you might imagine, a cowcatcher, bell, buckeye couplers, American-style whistle, air brakes, and a high-intensity headlamp had to be fitted.

Meanwhile, strict anti-steam laws in some states saw the engine categorised as a fire hazard requiring a tow by diesel or electric locomotive. The ignominy! The train couldn’t even carry paying passengers as this was also declared illegal.

Although breaking even at first, Pegler ended up bankrupt, leaving the locomotive stranded in storage at a US Army depot in California.

January 1973 saw steam enthusiast Alan Bloom enlist construction businessman and fellow rail buff Sir William McAlpine to help save the Scotsman. Sir William duly did his duty, and Flying Scotsman was shipped back the following month to Britain and greeted by enthusiastic crowds. McAlpine paid for its restoration at Derby Works and for two subsequent overhauls over 23 years.

Return to Oz

In 1988, the Scotsman was off on its travels again, arriving in Australia to participate in the country’s bicentenary celebrations. During the next year, it travelled 28,000 miles across Oz, setting a record for longest non-stop run by a steam locomotive at 422 miles. On account of its voyage to Australia and back, Flying Scotsman also became the first steam locomotive to circumnavigate the globe!

The Beastie returned to Britain in December 1989, running heritage excursions such as the famous Settle to Carlisle line and hauling the prestigious Orient Express Pullman.

In 1993, pop impressario Pete Waterman merged his railway enthusiasms with McAlpine's, and the two formed Flying Scotsman Railways. But, in 1996, McAlpine put the Scotsman up for sale, and next up with the spondulicks was entrepreneur and steam enthusiast Tony Marchington, who bought the locomotive and several coaches for £1.5 million. He spent a further £1 million on an overhaul, before the first run on 4 July 1999, from King’s Cross to York.

In 2002, Dr Marchington proposed a business plan that would feature a Flying Scotsman Village in Edinburgh, with the locomotive on display between outings. But Edinburgh City Council pooh-poohed the plan and, in September 2003, Marchington was declared bankrupt.

In February 2004, an auction was held for the locomotive, amid fears it might fall into evil foreign hands. After a fund-raising appeal for the “national treasure”, the National Railway Museum (NRM) in York won with a bid of £2.3 million, and that’s where the beastie is based to this day.

It still needed much TLC. On intermittent trips, more problems became apparent and, in 2006, it underwent further extensive restoration, costing £750,000. In 2009, the museum launched a Save Our Scotsman (SOS, geddit?) appeal for a further £250,000.

On the right tracks again

Eventually, after recurring problems with structural cracks and whatnot, in 2016 Flying Scotsman was unveiled (again) to an enormous crowd at the museum, before returning to the track under its own steam for the first time since 2005. Its first scheduled run was cancelled due to faulty brakes. On the rescheduled run, the train was forced to stop due to leading intellectuals trespassing on the tracks.

In April 2022, the engine was withdrawn for an overhaul in preparation for its centenary year. Alas, its first engagement following restoration was postponed because of a broken piston ring.

Ach, never mind. Plenty of life in the old fella yet. Centenary celebrations this year will include excursions, exhibitions and visits to heritage railways. Last month, the Scotsman visited Edinburgh where, to fans at Waverley, Poet Laureate Simon Armitage read a specially commissioned poem. It spoke of “a spaceship powered by water and coal”, and reported of its origins: “a nip of single malt and it coughed into life.”