Go back to article: Flying Scotsman: modernity, nostalgia and Britain’s ‘cult of the past’


Flying Scotsman is arguably the world’s most famous steam locomotive. The engine, a standard bearer of British engineering excellence and modernity in the 1920s, became, in the 1960s, a symbol of the dying age of steam. As Britain’s post war austerity and increasingly lesser role in the world gave way to Harold Wilson’s modernising ‘white heat of technology’ Britain’s ‘cult of the past’ took greater hold. Wistful nostalgia for the past can be seen across the cultural landscape of the 1960s in books, poetry, music, television and film. With a marked increase in the rise and popularity of preservation groups across the country this was a decade when interest in Britain’s ‘national heritage’ enjoyed enormous growth. Viewed within this context the remarkable saving of a steam locomotive from the scrapyard as Britain’s railway abandoned nineteenth century technology illustrates how the past has increasingly shaped Britain’s cultural landscape. This raises wider questions about what it means to preserve cultural objects and how, if at all, their authenticity can be preserved.

Figure 1

The Flying Scotsman steam train on the tracks at London Kings Cross station

Flying Scotsman at King’s Cross Station, London, on 14 January 1963 before her final run under British Railways ownership. The locomotive’s appearance has changed greatly from her 1920s and 1930s heyday.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160507/001