West Highland Line
Cold steam slides off the window onto your numb hands. Heavy fog shrouds the scene beyond, and black soot seeps through the drafty margins.
The weather on this October day is what the Scots describe as “drich,” which can be pronounced correctly only when you spit. But the mood inside this train between Fort William and Mallaig on British Rail’s West Highland line leans more toward “bonnie.” Such a day attracts only the hard-core train junkies who will be the first to confess that they are savoring every bone-chilling mile.
“Why am I here? It’s great to stick your head out the window and get soot in your eyes,” said one English holiday-maker and rail-road buff I cornered on the train’s last run for the season.
“It’s a religion…a form of madness,” he said.
The Scottish landscape favors misty greys and browns in October, but in May the countryside basks in color, yellow gorse, blushing wild rhododendron and greens of every hue. Each season promises new wonder here where the mountains meet the western shore and this old-fashioned steam train plies its rugged trade.
Intrigue is guaranteed by the fickle Scottish climate. And the passengers hale from many an unusual place. But be forewarned: This is not the Orient Express. On board, the conversation leans more toward nostalgia than who-dun-it.
I first journeyed on the crowded train through scenic Lochaber in May with veteran travellers of the route, owners of a farm in the Yorkshire Dales. The panorama that unfolded as the portly steam engine labored to conquer each incline enchanted even my travel-weary companions. Highland light fashioned romantic vistas worthy of the finest palette.
The mood was festive, the car full of chatter with a decidedly international flavor. On board were Germans, Italians, English, Scots and at least one American.
This ride through Scotland’s wildest highlands is popular as well with young people taking a break from what is euphemistically known in Scotland as “hill walking.” Many are just down from Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Scotland at 4,418 feet.
Photographers lined up in the compartment between the cars where the open window accommodated those who dared to lean out and shoot a picture, a practice now outlawed because of the 11 tunnels on the line.
On this warm day, the open window vents admitted enough of the engine’s hearty discharge to lend the occasion authenticity. At each crossing, the engine tooted modestly at the photographers gathered to snap its picture.
The narration delivered in heavy Scottish brogue over an ancient public address system was incomprehensible. But on a rainy day in July the train attracted fewer passengers and the history of Lochaber was that much easier to hear and comprehend.
The 41 mile journey begins at Fort William on the sea Loch Linnhe in the shadow of Ben Nevis. Here during the highland clearances many reluctant crofters were loaded onto ships for the long journey to America.
From Fort William the train travels west crossing the Caledonian canal just below Neptune’s Staircase, a series of eight locks built in 1822. No longer wide enough for naval vessels, the locks provide fishing and pleasure craft a route from the Atlantic ultimately to the Moray Firth via Loch Ness thus avoiding the treacherous route around the north of Scotland. Looking back toward Fort William, travellers will see Ben Nevis towering over Loch Eil.
Beyond Loch Eil, Bonnie Prince Charlie lore begins to enhance the landscape. The Bonnie Prince, pretender to the throne, is second only to poet Robbie Burns in the hearts of the Scots for his ill-fated Jacobite rebellion against the hated English.
Charles Edward Stuart first raised his standard at Glenfinnan on the west coast in August 1745. His rag-tag followers managed to get as far as Edinburgh in the east but were soon forced into a desperate retreat. Their brutal defeat came at Culloden near Inverness on April 16, 1746. Much of the lore that attaches to Charlie’s legendary escape is based in Lochaber, the home of the West Highland Line.
At Fassfearn Prince Charlie was said to have plucked a white rose from a bush and stuck it in his hat, creating the White Cockade, the emblem of the Jacobites.
Just beyond, the train begins to cross the Glenfinnan Viaduct, considered an engineering marvel in its day, the first mass concrete viaduct ever built in Britain. To the west of the viaduct lies Loch Shiel and the monument to the Bonnie Prince.
The inscription notes that there Charlie “made the daring and romantic attempt to recover a throne lost by the imprudence of his ancestors.” On Loch Shiel Charlie was secreted through enemy lines lying in a hollowed out log to make his retreat to the Isle of Skye and ultimately to France where he died a drunkard.
At Loch Shiel the train begins the arduous assault on the wildest of the highlands passing somber lochs and lonely glens. A hard-won hill often garners a grateful, but always polite, cheer from the passengers.
Again, the Bonnie Prince lends romance to the vista where a cave is said to have provided refuge during his flight. I saw here one of Scotland’s majestic red deer standing on a promontory, shocked by the intruding engine’s belching, soot-spewing manner.
Film lovers may recognize an abandoned chapel at Polnish — Our Lady of the Braes. The church was used as the model for a church erected in the filming of the movie “Local Hero,” starring Burt Lancaster.
Crossing Loch Nan Uamh on another viaduct, the cairn marking the arrival and departing location of Bonnie Prince Charlie comes into view.
At this point, the train turns north to run along the western shore offering remarkable vistas of creamy beach, aquamarine sea, and the isles of the Hebrides beyond.
Arisaig on the shore is the westerly most station on British Rail. Here the British climate is at its mildest thanks to the proximity of the Gulf Stream. Offshore are the islands of Eigg, Rhum and Skye.
Most travelers stay on board all the way to Mallaig, Europe’s largest shrimp fishing port. Residents of this scruffy little town cater only reluctantly to tourists, an attitude I have found rather endearing during my brief visits there.
Mallaig serves up the traditional fish and chips or a more proper British tea. On a cold, rainy day passengers gravitate to the pubs.
My favorite stop is at a book shop in a ramshackle trailer where I found a fascinating selection of books including Gaelic, Self-Taught, and a full-size inflatable Frankenstein.
I took time in October after the train pulled out of Mallaig to question my travelling companions who were trying to squeeze the last dregs out of their ale and their summer.
The youngest was Christopher Doig who at age 4 is, according to his mother, “already a train fanatic.”
The loudest were a group on a tour arranged by an English firm called Inside Track. I asked how Lochaber compared to the other lines they had seen. On this rainy day, the answer was “It’s wetter.”
The fireman had abandoned his post long enough to grab a cup of coffee, his face a shocking red from the day’s work. ” ‘Tis dirty work,” said Derek Pattrick, with a grin that betrayed his love for the job.
The most well-informed traveller I spoke with that day was Graham King who had retired as a finance manager for British Rail four years earlier. A frequent train traveller himself, he favors the Lochaber line. “I guess it’s the weather, the scenery, the quietness about it,” he said. “You can hop off at one of the smaller stations and just get away completely.”
Fascination with steam is growing, he said, among those who have known only diesel-powered trains. “We lived with the beasts,” King said, of the steam engines. “We were glad to get rid of them.”
The other well-informed hobbyists on board represented the Scottish Railway Preservation Society, which provides the commentary and operates the souvenir shop.
Nicholas McKellar explained that steam engines travelled Lochaber between 1901 and 1950 when diesel took over. The steam train was resurrected in 1985 and now operates four days a week from May to October. A diesel-powered British Rail train operates on a daily schedule along the same line.
McKellar said he learned to love trains as a child when his father worked for British Rail.
“What is it,” I asked, “that is so special about steam trains?”
“It’s just popular,” he said. “Maybe you can’t understand it until you get soot in your eyes.”
“Why are you here?” he asked.
I looked at my soggy sneakers and the water on the inside of my rain-proof coat. “You might say it’s a form of madness,” I said.
McKellar smiled knowingly at his rail-loving buddies. “Aye, lassie,” he said. “Aye.”
1991-2017 Linda Murray Green. All rights reserved.
This article originally appeared on the University of Edinburgh website.