The West Highland Line (Scottish Gaelic: Rathad Iarainn nan Eilean – “Iron Road to the Isles”) is one of the most scenic railway lines in Britain, linking the fishing port of Mallaig on the west coast to Glasgow City. Passenger services on the line are operated by First ScotRail, primarily between Glasgow and Mallaig with the daily Caledonian Sleeper overnight service between Fort William and London Euston. Our sleeper train from London terminated at Fort William, but the true glory of the West Highland Line was yet to come. The section between Fort William and Mallaig passes over a magnificent viaduct at Glenfinnan, through Arisaig with its fine views of the Small Isles of Rùm, Eigg, Muck and Canna, and the sparkling white sands of Morar before coming to Mallaig itself.
It is regarded as one of the Great Railway Journeys of the World and was voted Top Railway Journey in the World 2009 and 2010 by Wanderlust Magazine, due mainly to the stunning scenery through which the steam hauled Jacobite Express travels. The 84 mile round trip takes you past Britain’s highest mountain, deepest loch, shortest river and most westerly station.
On this Friday morning as we pulled into Fort William on the overnight Caledonian Sleeper from London we did so with an increasing sense of anticipation for on the platform opposite was our next transport, the hissing, steaming “Jacobite Express” the steam locomotive-hauled train which operates over this section in summer and which in less than a half an hour’s time would take us on our next adventure the 42 miles to Mallaig. This it would do slowly for just over two hours with time to appreciate the scenery of sea, mountain and isle on this twisting single line track to Mallaig, the port for the Isle of Skye.
Described as one of the great railway journeys of the world this 84 mile round trip takes you past a list of impressive extremes. It starts near the highest mountain in Britain (Ben Nevis), visits Britain’s most westerly mainland railway station (Arisaig), then passes close by the deepest freshwater loch in Britain (Loch Morar), and the shortest river in Britain (River Morar) and finally arrives next to the deepest seawater loch in Europe – Loch Nevis. The train leaves Fort William at 10:20am and returns to Fort William at 4:00pm with an hour and a half in Mallaig. It is a great way to spend the day! On this Friday morning the locomotive was a Black 5 “The Sherwood Forester” which pulled a rake of atmospheric Mark 2 British Rail stock which has a brake van, a First Class coach, Diner Coach and Standard Class coaches which also included an onboard souvenir shop. In First Class tea and scones are served and there is a friendly ambience on board. Make sure you make a reservation (01524 737751) as this train has lots of coach party bookings with American, Japanese and Continental tourists.
This section of the West Highland line, the Fort William to Mallaig extension, became a reality following an Act passed in the House of Commons in 1896. Lady Margaret Cameron of Locheil cut the first sod on the 21st January 1897 from which point the contractors, Robert McAlpine and Son, were allowed 5 years 6 months to construct the 40 miles of track. The task was completed by April 1901. Some 3,500 navvies worked on the line and whilst the viaducts are partially faced in stone they are in fact durably constructed in poured concrete giving the contractor the nickname which was to stick with him “Concrete Bob.” This was the first mass concrete viaduct in the country, and the use of concrete rather than stonework is one of the reasons that the West Highland Line has remained usable to this day.
From Fort William the train crosses the River Lochy with the ruined Inverlochy Castle on the east side of the river. After crossing the river the train travels along a flat expanse called the Corpach Moss with houses to the left and the Great Glen stretching into the distance to the right. The Great Glen is a spectacular valley running for over 60 miles between Loch Linnhe in the south west and Inverness and Moray Firth in the north east. The train slows down near the far end of the Moss to Cross the Caledonian Canal.
To the left of the train there is Neptune’s Staircase a row of locks that raise the canal to a height of 65 feet. The longest lock gate system in Britain and built during the Napoleonic Wars. Even (like most of the works built in response to the Napoleonic Wars) though it was never used for its wartime purpose the Caledonian Canal is a wonderful ship canal traversing the Great Glen of Scotland from Fort William to Inverness. One final point about Fort William – there is no fort! Built as part of a chain across the Great Glen which included Fort George and Fort Augustus it was knocked down to build the railway!
The train does stop en route to Mallaig at the village of Glenfinnan where Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his standard. After crossing the world famous 21 arch Glenfinnan viaduct, which has been used in the Harry Potter movies, and offers wonderful views down the 17 mile long Loch Shiel, the train stops at the station giving you time to stretch your legs and visit the Museum in the station buildings. Situated at the head of Loch Shiel, Glenfinnan was the setting for the start of the ill fated Jacobite Rebellion led by Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745. Glenfinnan is a very special place, and is almost hallowed ground for many Scots because of the historic associations with the Jacobite cause. It was here in 1745 that Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his standard in front of his gathered army to signify the beginning of the doomed second Jacobite rising that would become known as the “45”. A 65ft monument commemorates the event, with further fascinating memorabilia and displays relating to Bonnie Prince Charlie to be found in the Visitor Centre. The statue on the top is not as many imagine that of the Prince, but one of his supporters. The monument was originally part of a hunting lodge which has since disappeared. Boat trips are available on the loch between Easter and October.
Next we continued to Lochailort which is well known for having firsts. Here, during the construction of the railway, as there were over 2,000 navvies living here, the first construction site hospital in Britain was established with 8 beds, 2 nurses and a doctor. Lochailort was also the first site of fish farms now seen all over Scotland. It was established in 1969, by the then Marine Harvest company. Lochailort is of interest because of Inverailort Castle, used for commando training in the second world war. Churchill’s declaration of unconventional war prompted the creation of the top-secret Special Operations Executive (SOE). Its agents would cause havoc behind enemy lines. In the autumn of 1940 the first recruits began to arrive at Inverailort, SOE’s initial Highland training HQ. Here, far from prying eyes, they absorbed essential paramilitary skills; how to survive in the wild, how to handle weapons and explosives, how to wage guerrilla war and how to kill silently. To teach them came a legendary duo from Shanghai, men used to policing the toughest and roughest city of its day – Major Bill Fairbairn and Captain Eric Sykes, who jointly invented the famous double-edged commando knife.
Beyond are the villages of Arisaig, Morar and Mallaig. On a clear summer’s day from Arisaig you can see the “Small Isles” of Rum, Eigg, Muck, Canna and the southern tip of Skye. From there the train passes Morar and the silvery beaches used in the films “Highlander” and “Local Hero.” Loch Morar is worth a visit as well, it is the deepest fresh water loch in Europe at 310 metres, and has its own monster called Morag!
The final destination for the Jacobite Express is of course Mallaig. A bustling fishing port located at the end of the famous “Road to the Isles”. From the ferry terminal you can travel to Skye and the Inner Hebridean Islands of Rum, Eigg, Muck and Canna. There is plenty to see and do while in the village and you have plenty of time before the return journey to Fort William. Whilst in Mallaig you can visit the Heritage Centre but whilst interesting I found the exhibits haphazard and somewhat amateurishly displayed. When the train first arrived at the village it consisted of a few cottages and the notoriety of being the point where Bonnie Prince Charlie returned to the mainland after his wanderings with Flora MacDonald in the Outer Hebrides. However, with the opening of the line in 1901, the harbour was built, another task taken on by the engineers of the line and before long, Mallaig became one of the most important fishing ports on the western coast of Britain – a position it still holds to this day. However beyond the fishing and the ferry to Skye this is a tourist village determined to rake in the tourist pound during the season. Two examples, despite the expectation of fresh seafood the village speciality appears to be battered haddock and chips with tea, bread and butter for £8.50, the price being standard wherever you go. There are no left luggage facilities at the station but you are directed to the Waterside shop where you can leave your bags for £2.00 each.
After having lunch and sightseeing we reprised our route back to Fort William and to Glasgow on ScotRail. This is a long trip (over 5 hours) on a turbo diesel service(with no First Class) but the ScotRail staff were friendly enough and it provided an opportunity to drink deeply from the cornucopia which is the dramatically beautiful scenery on the deservedly famous Iron Road to the Isles.
The Road to the Isles is described in the traditional Scottish ballad of the same name with the well-known chorus:
Sure, by Tummel and Loch Rannoch
And Lochaber I will go.
By heather tracks wi’ heaven in their wiles;
If it’s thinkin’ in your inner heart
Braggart’s in my step,
You’ve never smelt the tangle o’ the Isles.
O, the far Coolins are puttin’ love on me.
As step I wi’ my cromak to the lsles.
Note; “Coolins” are the Cuillin mountains on Skye and a “cromak” is a shepherd’s crook.
Britain’s Great Rail Journey; The Caledonian Sleeper
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