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The Flying Scotsman is the world's most famous train service. 2023 marks 100 years since the iconic steam locomotive known as the Flying Scotsman entered service.

What is the Flying Scotsman?

The Flying Scotsman has come to refer to many things, from the train service and locomotive itself to a nickname applied to Scottish sporting heroes including an aviation pioneer, several cyclists, and a Formula One driver.

The name was first associated with the Special Scotch Express train journey from London King’s Cross Station to Edinburgh which ran every day from 1852. It was the fastest day express service on the east coast mainline, and before long became popularly – but unofficially – known as the Flying Scotsman.

It was the first service to run non-stop over 100 miles and for a long time held the record as the world’s longest scheduled non-stop run from London to Newcastle, a distance of 268 ½ miles. During the period between the First and Second World Wars, the service became a byword for the luxury of rail travel. 

Lantern slide featuring The Scotch Express, also known as the Flying Scotsman service between London and Edinburgh, seen here passing Dunbar in 1921, two years before the famous locomotive was built (T.1921.35)

The Flying Scotsman and LNER

LNER was born with the creation of the Big Four new railway companies when after the First World War the government grouped the surviving rail companies into four regions.

Although divided geographically these new railway companies were still in competition with one another due to overlapping territories and routes. For example, LNER largely served the eastern side of the UK from London up to Scotland on the east coast mainline and was in competition with the London Midland and Scottish Railway which served the west coast route to Scotland. They in turn were competing with the other regions to encourage passengers to use their services and each was keen to promote their own distinct style and region.

100 years of LNER

Take a journey departing from 1923 and follow LNER through the ages to the present day.

The iconic locomotive

The Flying Scotsman is one of the Pacific type (Class A1) express tender locomotives built in Doncaster from designs by Sir Nigel Gresley, LNER’s chief mechanical engineer. They were the most powerful steam locomotives used by the LNER railway on the fastest and heaviest express passenger trains between London and Edinburgh. By 1924, when it was selected to appear at the British Empire Exhibition in London, the locomotive had been given the name Flying Scotsman after the express passenger service it served. It was one of twelve Pacific type locomotives in service on the east coast main line that year, with another forty due to be delivered.

LNER 4-6-2 No. 4472 'Flying Scotsman' - 2005. Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum.

The Flying Scotsman vs The Royal Scot 

National Museums Scotland has recently acquired two stunning examples of railway art depicting two of the most famous locomotives from the golden age of steam. The first is the original artwork for LNER’s advertising campaign from the summer of 1932, Take me by the Flying Scotsman, by A R Thomson. The second is an enormous billboard poster for of the Royal Scot.

The Royal Scot

The Royal Scot locomotive was built in 1930 under a different name and was only called the Royal Scot in time for it to tour the USA in 1933. The Royal Scot was built for the London Midland and Scottish Railway to compete against the LNER Flying Scotsman. The Royal Scot ran on the West Coast Main Line, while the Flying Scotsman ran on the East Coast Main Line. 

Both the Royal Scot and Flying Scotsman represented the height of steam railway engineering at that time and were the flagship locomotives for their railway companies. As such they were the stars of their advertising campaigns, which took the form of large posters.

The Royal Scot in 2017 by Charlie Jackson, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The development of railway art

The age of railway art as a serious field of commercial art and design took off in the 1920s and reached its pinnacle in the 1930s. Before the First World War railway posters were used to cram as much information about a railway service and its destination as possible; posters were text heavy and the results were described by artist Norman Wilkinson as an "uninspired jumble…a hotch-potch which was quite unintelligible at a distance".

Railway poster art of the more visual style which we recognise today; came about after the First World War.

LNER took the progressive step of appointing its first Advertising Manager in 1923, just a month after the company was formed and immediately introduced a poster advertising campaign. Soon all the railway companies were employing the biggest contemporary artists to create eye-catching new works each year, which are still reproduced and popular today.

Art Deco railway art

Typically, railway poster art focused on images of the destination: sunny resorts and beaches, golf courses, quaint towns and rural scenes. The railway companies, however, were always keeping an eye on their competitors, and looking to create impact with their designs, which the new Art Deco style achieved.

The development of the Art Deco style in the 1920s, which flourished in the 1930s, saw art and design embrace industry for the first time in an assertively modern style. Art Deco was obsessed with travel and speed, and new forms of transport in a decade that saw land, air and water speed records being broken year on year. Artists sought to convey luxury, movement and speed in a futuristic, abstract new style.

Painting entitled Take me by the Flying Scotsman original artwork for LNER by AR Thomson, 1932 (T.2020.55.1)

In 1932 LNER approached the artist A R Thomson to create new works focussing on the scale of the black shiny Flying Scotsman locomotive, and the impression of speed conveyed in an iconic Art Deco style. It is in marked contrast to the usual railway poster art which traditionally showed pleasant images of the holiday destination rather than the experience of train travel itself. Perhaps for this reason, and in spite of its artistic merits, when the poster was displayed on station platforms it was not as popular with the public as the Southern Railway design.

The perceived lack of popularity, however, does not mean it was not a successful design. The railway advertising managers themselves recognised the value of being provocative. In 1929 the Public Relations and Advertising Officer for Southern Railways wrote, "the most valuable asset of a well-designed poster is its shock value…its kick, strength, visibility, immediate readability." In this regard Take me by the Flying Scotsman poster is a classic of its time. It can currently be seen on display on Level 1 of the National Museum of Scotland. Further information about the painting.

The Royal Scot 10-0AM Euston to Glasgow & Edinburgh poster.

Take me by the Flying Scotsman poster. Science Museum Group Collection. © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum, CC BY-NC-SA.

The Royal Scot 10-0AM Euston to Glasgow & Edinburgh poster was created by the artist P Irwin Brown for rival company LMS in 1931. It depicts that locomotive head-on, as though racing towards the viewer. The limited palette of white, grey and black, highlighted by the horizontal slashes of red and yellow at the LMS livery and in the block art deco lettering of the title below it, make for bold, eye-catching graphic design. It is an image of power and modernity through industry and engineering.

Flying Scotsman today

The full-size locomotive is in the collections of the Science Museum Group, but many more have enjoyed ownership of their own Flying Scotsman locomotives thanks to the beautifully scaled models made by toy manufacturer Hornby, like this example in our collection.

A clockwork Flying Scotsman locomotive with tender in the colours of LNER, by Hornby (T.2003.294.2)

Since the 1930s there have been several other claims to the title of the Flying Scotsman, predominantly associated with cycling. The Flying Scot series of bicycles were built in Glasgow from the late 1920s until 1982 by a firm founded in 1901 by David Rattray.  Although most 'Scots' bicycles were men's frames, there were also women's versions called The Queen of Scots.

Individuals have also been conferred with the title of 'the Flying Scotsman', notably cycle-racing pioneer, innovator and twice world hour record holder, Graeme Obree, and more recently Sir Chris Hoy, the eleven times World Champion and six times Olympic champion cyclist.

Sir Chris Hoy at the Homecoming Parade in Glasgow in 2012. Photograph by Mark Harkin, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Other sporting Flying Scots include Eric Liddell, who won the 400m gold medal at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paristhe Formula-One racing car driver and team owner, Sir Jackie Stewart, and 1930s aviation pioneer Jim Mollison. Sir Jackie Stewart’s racing helmet, Obree’s homemade bicycle, Old Faithful, on which he broke the World Hour Record in 1993, as well as the gold medal won by Sir Chris Hoy at the 2006 Commonwealth Games are all on display in the Sporting Scotland Gallery on Level 6 at the National Museum of Scotland.

Racing helmet, Sir Jackie Stewart OBE. On loan from Sir Jackie Stewart OBE (IL.2001.111.1).

Flying Scotsman Steam Locomotive Weekender Tour

As part of the 100th anniversary celebrations for the Flying Scotsman locomotive, a weekend excursion on The Flying Scotsman route from London up to the East Scottish coastline takes place from 30 June to 4 July 2023. The locomotive will visit Edinburgh and travel across the Forth Rail Bridge on Monday 3 July 2023. 

The Flying Scotsman travelling across the Forth Rail Bridge

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