19th June – Discovering the “Spirit of Scotland”

Glasgow Queen Street – Mallaig

I may not be Interrailing, but from today I am on a rail pass. The “Spirit of Scotland” pass allows me 8 days travel for £125, with my railcard. I can travel anywhere north from Carlisle in the west and Berwick-upon-Tweed in the east, plus a selection of bus routes linking places not easily or directly covered by the rail network. It really is ridiculously good value.

My train to Mallaig didn’t leave until lunchtime so I had a late and lazy breakfast, checked my emails then wandered across the city. I really like this place. The architecture is super and it has a good feel, for the most part.

Queen Street station has a rather odd extension on the front. I did some reading and discovered that this replaced a hotel that had been there previously, which in turn had replaced an office. Internally there is a lovely arch, but sadly it is no longer visible from the street. The first 4 pics were found while I was searching. Last two are mine.

My train was busy but I’d got on promptly so had a window seat on the correct side of the train for the views down the Clyde estuary. I’m quite familiar with this line, having ridden a couple of charters to Oban this way.

The line turns north after Helensburgh and climbs way above Gare Loch and the Faslane submarine base, which almost entirely hidden barring a momentary glimpse (which I didn’t catch on camera.) After Arrochar the views swap to the other side of the train as we hug the hillside above Loch Lomond.

At Crianlarich there was a pause for 15 minutes or so as the train was split, with the first two carriages going to Oban and the rear four continuing to Fort William and Oban. I took the opportunity to stretch my legs on the platform.

At the incredibly remote Rannoch station there was a problem with the doors, which took. few minutes to sort. They switch the train from automatic to manual operation due to the shorter platforms, but something evidently didn’t happen correctly first time. From here all the way to Mallaig, barring at Fort William only the centre door of the train was opened at any station.

I must get off at Rannoch some time, it’s a super area, but incredibly remote and trains are very infrequent.

Somewhere in this section, I’m not sure exactly where, we enter the Highlands. As the crow flies we’re not far from Glencoe, but there is no sign of civilisation from the train. After crossing the moors we begin the slow descent to Fort William.

The train reverses at Fort William, but helpfully lots of people got off and I was able to bag a seat on the opposite side, which I knew to be the best option from here to Mallaig, though as it turned out the train was so quiet I was able to dive from side to side as it suited me. I was also able to take advantage of the ventilation windows opening to take most of my photos from here onwards without (dirty) windows in the way. Thanks to the Scotrail train manager who didn’t sulk with me, though I wasn’t doing anything dangerous as my camera – and fingers – were within the profile of the train, even if they were outside the hopper window.

The first section after Fort William has interest on both sides. First we cross the Caledonian Canal at Banavie, right next to Neptune’s Staircase, a flight of 8 staircase locks; the longest and highest in the United Kingdom.

Loch Eil is lovely. The railway runs along the edge of it for several miles before starting to climb towards the iconic Glenfinnan Viaduct. I was able to shoot video as we crossed the viaduct.

The views over the next few miles are stunning. First on one side and then the other, the line passes through several tunnels and across numerous embankments and viaducts as it finds its way through the hills, before starting to descend towards the coast.

At Arisaig we met the newly reinstated second Jacobite steam train. Several carriages were empty, so I presume they’ve not converted all the doors to safe operation yet, as the others were jam packed with happy tourists. I did the steam train journey maybe 30 years ago with Kayt, before it was called the Jacobite. Amazing that they’ve been filling trains pretty much every day since in this remote part of Scotland, yet claim they don’t have the money to fit safety mechanisms to the doors. Hmm…

The final stop before Mallaig is Morar. A small but lovely settlement about 3 miles away. I’d hoped to walk this during the evening but annoyingly my knee is not up to it at the moment. I will do it one day! The line drops to sea level and runs into the town parallel to the road.

I dropped my bags in the hotel and did a much shorter walk around Mallaig Harbour. It is still a quite active port. Herring have always been important here, but it is also a base for some large salmon farming operations. I was quite disconcerted by huge pipes running from the boats directly into a building a few hundred yards away. Surely they don’t vacuum the fish out of the boats?! Based on something I read a little later on a display board on the opposite side of the harbour, I actually think the pipes deliver large volumes of feed to the factory farm boats; somewhat less worrying!

We’re far enough north now for it to be light until quite late. I took this photo shortly before 11pm out of my bedroom window, less than 24 hours from the summer solstice.

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1 Comment

  1. George Rogers

    I love the West Highland route. It really is touch and go as to which is better – this or the Kyle line, but for me probably the West Highland simply for the length of the trip. I stayed at Loch Ossian YH a couple of years ago and took the train back down to Rannoch, fabulous little station.

    There’s also a very good second hand book shop in Mallaig that I have frequented before – in fact last year I decided to have a random weekend trip leaving home Friday evening, train to London, sleeper to Glasgow, return trip to Mallaig (via said book shop) and then Sunday train back home. A long way to buy books…

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