One of the most scenic train routes in the world, the West Highland Line crosses the north-west area of Scotland allowing one to see the moors, lochs and glens of the old country, celebrated in 2013: the Year of Natural Scotland.
Makes perfect sense. Scotland is both a land blessed by nature and loved by man. Centuries of human occupation did small harm for its dramatic landscapes and the countryside is a dream destination for those looking for a good trail. Castles turned into hotels offers history lessons full of violence and intrigue as well as the mandatory whisky (always with a y). If on a budget, family runs B&B welcome travelers who enjoy a pint of strong beer and hot pot of stew in front of a lit fireplace after a walk among the midst.
This idea of Scotland found me, at late October, embarking in Glasgow on the West Highland Line. After a three-hour run I got off the train in Corpach, two stops up north after Fort William. The line departs four times a day (three on Sundays) from Glasgow’s Queen Station and takes about four hours until its final stop, in the small port village of Mallaig. From there, a ferry reaches Skye and the Small Islands – what gives the railline the nickname Road to the Isles (Rathad nan Eilean in gaelic).
These higher lands of the west make some of the most impressive scenarios of Europe, tainted green during summer and red in autumn, snow white during winter and full of birds and deers in spring time. And there is no better best way to experience it than on foot and train.
Train travels are part of European life and works specially well in the Great British islands, where they are relatively cheap, highly enjoyable and ridiculously punctual – at least for me, an South-American traveler uncostumed of trains. A wise tourist will do much of trading the annoying lines and delays of the air travels for a tranquil day on the rails, observing the changing landscape from the window.
I was wondering about how much the rigorous British rail timetable exemplifies this singular commitment with the clock that we call the British punctuality, when I got into another train, this time the steam from Fort William to Mallaig, on a Saturday morning.
Fort Willam is the end point of the West Highland Trail, that, as the railroad, also starts in Glasgow, but takes between five and seven days walking to complete. One can also reach Glasgow or Fort William inside the luxury and comfy Caledonian Sleeper, leaving Euston station every night and crossing England and part of Scotland on a twelve hour trip. Thing is: by night, you won’t see the landscape and it is sure worth your attention.
One peculiar stoping point during the travel between Glasgow and Mallaig is the so-called ‘most remote train station in Great Britain’, the desolated Corrour, where nowadays you can find the ‘most isolated restaurant in Great Britain’, also an inn with three rooms for rent, the Corrour Station House. Film buffs will notice that this is the station where Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Tommy got off the train in Trainspotting.
Fort William has churches, warm pubs, a pedestrian High Street and the talkative people of North Scotland – as a taxi driver in Glasgow said to me when hearing of my itinerary, ‘the more to the north, the better the people’. In my small experience, I can say that I found some truth in that. The food is fit for cold climates and something of an acquired taste, including the haggis, a kind of sausage traditionally made using a goat or cow stomach.
The city lies on the shadow of the Ben Nevis, the highest peak of Great Britain (1344mt), the mountains of Ardgour and the Loch Linnhe, and is marketed as ‘the capital of outdoor sports in the Great Britain’. Would be a dream if it wasn’t crossed by a highway. The lack of charm given by the extend asphalt line gives the city a just-passing feel: you’ll find proper accommodations, food, souvenir shopping and a sober whisky distillery tour.
Because of the adventure sports niche, there is also a very strong offer of equipment for walkers, mountaineers or simply travelers. The NeviSport shop, located right at the side of the bus central, saved me when my backpack lost a strap due to its heavy weight - a first rule of travelers that I keep forgetting: always travel light. The same driver who drove me around Glasgow laughed when helping me to put the bag inside the taxi saying “what are you carrying inside that, a body?”. I almost cried when I told him that it was a selection of whisky and books that I was doomed to carry with me until the end of my trip.
The Road to the Isles, leaving from Fort William, can also be travelled by bus or car, giving one a little more of privacy and freedom. But the train, both the regular West Highland Line and the touristic steam train that works during summer season offers hot tea, scones and the chance to ride above the spectacular Glenfinnan Viaduct. Built in 1898, it faces the Loch Schiel and stands the monument of the same name, that marks the spot where Bonnie Prince Charlie started the 1745 Jacobite rising. This is what gives the steam train its name: The Jacobite.
Historic information aside, the viaduct became world famous after starring the Harry Potter films. Fans will sure recognize it. The huge success of the series boosts the tourism on the Jacobite tour, with the train painted as the Hogwarts Express. It is a day ride, stoping at the most scenic points. There is a two hour stop for lunch at Mallaig – more than enough. With a little luck, you can see deers running beside the rail.
It was my time for returning to England. But someone with more time to spend in Scotland would do well leaving Mallaig by ferry for the Western (Lewis, Harris, North and South Uist) and Small (Muck, Eigg, Rum and Canna) Islands. Or go back to the lochs and embark on the strange sort of tourism that is to look for an hypothetical ancient animal inside the Loch Ness – what can be done navigating the Caledonian Canal from Corpach to Inverness, the capital of the West Highlands.