Until the turn of the 18th century Oldmeldrum - then written Old Meldrum - was the principal market town between Aberdeen and Banff. However, with the building of the canal between Aberdeen and Port Elphinstone - on the River Don at Inverurie (then spelled Inverury) - the pre-eminence of Oldmeldrum waned. Whereas goods had been transported by road via Oldmeldrum and the small port of Newburgh at the mouth of the River Ythan, trade increasingly concentrated on Inverurie and its canal link with Aberdeen. By 1850, Inverurie was almost twice the size of Oldmeldrum.
When railway mania came to the North East in the 1840s, the canal in turn made way for the new Great North of Scotland Railway (GNSR), which was opened from Aberdeen to Huntly in 1854. The people of Oldmeldrum had high hopes that a link to the new railway would restore its prosperity. Although the Oldmeldrum branch was not initially included in the raft of branch lines planned by GNSR, it became the first to be opened, in 1856. Proposals for the Oldmeldrum branch included its extension northwards to join the Banff, Macduff and Turriff Junction Railway. Consideration was also given to a line extending via Methlick to join the Formartine and Buchan Railway to Fraserburgh and Peterhead. Eventually, though, these ideas were discarded in favour of a simple branch to Oldmeldrum.
The Inverury and Old Meldrum Junction Railway (I&OJR) was promoted with GNSR support and its Act received Royal Assent on 15 June 1855. This authorised the construction of the line from a junction near Inverurie, running for 5 miles, 1194 yards to its destination. Subsequently, in 1902, the original Inverurie was moved half a mile northwards to its current location, with the result that the official length of the Oldmeldrum branch became 4 miles, 1617 yards. Originally there was only one intermediate station - at Lethenty, which served the important oatmeal mill - but later a halt was opened at Fingask, where there were wool-carding mills.
Construction of the line was easy, as it lay along fairly flat ground. A cast iron girder bridge, of 50 foot span, over the River Ury was the only notable engineering feature. Thus it was that the line, which was started in September 1855, was completed by June 1856, at a cost of £5,000 per mile. After an inspection and satisfactory report by the Board of Trade officer on 23 June 1856, the official opening took place just three days later. A special train of a dozen carriages left Aberdeen at 1:15 pm, containing a large number of gentlemen and picking up others on the way to Oldmeldrum. The press report of the day waxed lyrical: "The engine was gaily busked with flowers, fog signals were let off at the various stations and the excellent band of the 79th, which accompanied the party, contributed largely to the spirited and harmonious character of the proceedings".
The train reached Oldmeldrum station at 2:30 pm and was welcomed by the cheers of a crowd of several hundreds from the town, where a general holiday was enthusiastically observed. The station house was decorated with evergreens and flags and there was a grand triumphal arch of evergreens and flowers over the line, with a crown in the centre. On arrival at Oldmeldrum, wine and cake were served to the ladies and gentlemen on the platform. At 4:00 pm, a party of 300 of the great and good sat down to dinner in the engine shed, which had been got up as a banqueting hall decorated with flags and with the Meldrum Arms over the chair. After the dinner, there were the usual lengthy speeches and toasts proposing the health and prosperity of the line and optimism about it being extended. After the train departed on the return journey to Aberdeen at 8:00 pm, the "gala day" was completed with a bonfire and display of fireworks in the town square.
In common with many other locations, the Oldmeldrum line did not actually enter the town it was intended to serve. The station was at Strathmeldrum, some 5 minutes walk downhill to the south from the main square. Then, it was surrounded by fields - with fine open views, particularly westwards to Bennachie’s Mither Tap. Today, the station area is hemmed in on all sides, with housing to the north and east and a large industrial site on its southern and western boundaries.
Oldmeldrum station comprised a fine granite station house, an engine shed, a carriage shed, a range of goods sheds and the usual loading bay. There was a turntable, to meet the Board of Trade’s requirement that engines did not run tender first. The turntable seems to have been a relatively short-lived installation and was removed in the 1880s. As with the turntable, the station was to lose its original station building, which was replaced by the present wooden structure in the early 1890s. It is a testament to the materials and workmanship that it remains in such generally good shape 120 years later. The roof structure is as pristine as the day it was erected. The design of this replacement followed the standard format for other GNSR stations - a good example of which can be seen on the Deeside line at Pitfodels Halt. Against these losses must be set the addition of a signal box in 1895 and the introduction of interlocked signalling and the telegraph.
Looking around the site today, whilst there is no trace of the signal box, it is still possible to gain a clear picture of what the complex looked like in its heyday, with not only the main station building on the platform, but also the goods loading platform and two of the sheds remain as shown by the attached photos. It is perhaps ironic that the main part of the site is now used by a bus company, since - as we shall see - it was to be the motorbus which led to the eventual withdrawal of passenger services from the town.
Traffic on the line started on 1 July 1856, with a service of four mixed passenger and goods trains from Oldmeldrum and three trains from Inverurie, all connecting with trains to/from Aberdeen. The exception was the lunchtime train from Oldmeldrum, which worked forward as a goods train to Waterloo Quay - then the Aberdeen terminus of GNSR - returning at 3:00 pm. The service was subsequently increased to 6 trains in each direction, with a typical journey taking 20 minutes for the 5 3⁄4 miles (9.3 km).
In terms of goods exported, the station relied mainly on its agricultural hinterland, with the transport of livestock, milk, potatoes, sawn timber, oats and most importantly casks of whisky from the nearby Glen Garioch distillery. This institution was also to provide regular traffic inwards with the carriage of coal and barley for the malting process. It is reported that the handling of the coal brought its own problems. In winter, after a hard frost, it had to be loosened with a pick-axe before it could be unloaded from the wagons, whilst in summer it had to be sprinkled with water to counter the “stew” (dust). The other main commodities imported to Oldmeldrum were cattle feed, fertilisers and cereal seed, as well as coal for home fires and for the Oldmeldrum gasworks (which supplied the lighting for the station building).
The branch’s passenger train ranked high in the affection of the locals, who bestowed the sobriquet of "Meldrum Meg" on the branch engine, which at the time was a Samuel tank it had acquired from the Morayshire railway. The Inverurie poet Dufton Scott had referred to it in one of his readings as "Meldrum Meg". From then on, every engine was known by this name.
Unfortunately the expectations of the townsfolk of Oldmeldrum for a revival of its fortunes from the arrival of the railway proved to be forlorn. The anticipated boom failed to materialise. Indeed, traffic on the branch developed so slowly that the income generated was insufficient to finance the company’s debts. As a result, as early as 1858, the I&OJR decided to transfer its operations to GNSR. It was finally wound-up in 1866. It seems that matters improved slightly thereafter, the report from the General Manager to the Directors of GNSR in 1870 recording that "The entire train expenses including fuel, wages of drivers, guards, etc do not exceed £350 per annum and the station expenses amount to about £250. The traffic to and from Oldmeldrum and Lethenty Stations yielded last year a gross revenue of £4935."
Increasingly, though - with improving highways - road transportation expanded and took traffic away from the railway. Not only did road hauliers undercut the railway’s freight charges, but the travelling public turned to buses for their convenience and economy. Attempts were made by the railway company to counter the drift to the roads and, in 1905, it experimented with steam railcars to find a more viable way of transporting passengers. That these were withdrawn in 1907 suggests the experiment was unsuccessful.
The writing was on the wall for the passenger service when a direct bus service between Fyvie and Aberdeen, calling at Oldmeldrum, was introduced in 1923. As the standard of comfort and speed of the buses improved, passenger traffic was further eroded. A 1930 internal report of the LNER, which had taken over from GNSR, highlights the stark economic reality: “ . . . the passenger receipts were £122 and the gross revenue on contributory passenger traffic was £121. One engine undertakes both the passenger and goods traffic and a Sentinel Cammell car for passengers traffic would be no saving since an engine would be required for goods traffic. It is reckoned . . . that if passenger traffic were withdrawn the following saving will accrue;
Thus it was that on Saturday 31 October 1931, the last passenger service was operated, although from time to time excursions were to run on the line. Its loss was lamented in the following verse:
Thereafter, Oldmeldrum became purely a goods station and was further downgraded by the loss of its stationmaster. Competition from the roads continued unabated and - as with so much of the rural network - the Oldmeldrum branch’s economics spiralled ever-downwards, with the service reduced to one train a day.
It came as no surprise therefore that the branch was closed. Only a small crowd turned up on 20 December 1965 to watch the last train pull out of Oldmeldrum. Though it was not an occasion for celebration, perhaps fittingly it was a 666-gallon consignment of whisky from the Glen Garioch distillery that formed the last train. Following the official closure of the branch line on 3 January 1966, it was temporarily used to store wagons before the demolition team arrived to lift the track.
The Oldmeldrum station building itself survived into the 21st Century. The volunteers of the Royal Deeside Railway (a local heritage railway) conceived the idea of moving it for restoration as the station building at their Milton of Crathes. As of December 2012, the core of the building has been re-erected at the new site, the roof is on and restoration continues.