West Highland Line: travelling through history and geography

Crianlarich station

Crianlarich Station: a chance to stretch legs on West Highland Line

Glasgow to Mallaig is one of the great railway journeys of the world, although you might not guess it from the rattling old rolling stock First Scotrail puts on the line. At least this time we can see out of the windows. A guard once explained to me that the coaches are cleaned only every few weeks; get your timing wrong and you peer at some of the finest scenery in Scotland through a film of mud.*

It is a trip through history as well as geography. When it was built in the 19th century, the line was a major engineering achievement, traversing the roughest terrain in Britain and including the construction of some of the first reinforced concrete bridges and viaducts in the world. Along the north bank of the Clyde, through Singer, where I witnessed the closure of the sewing machine factory in 1977 with the loss of 3,000 jobs (it had once employed 30,000), Dumbarton, a shadow of its former glory as a very prosperous shipbuilding and shipping town, Gare Loch, scene of CND protests against nuclear submarines, up eventually via Fort William to Glenfinnan, where Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his first army.

view across Glenfinnan to loch and mountains

Through the window to Glenfinnan

For some of its length the line follows roads around the lochs – Gare, Long, Lomond – but then it strikes out on its own across bogs and hills, giving views that only the hardiest walkers, or stalkers, can glimpse.

The line laces through the story of John Lorne Campbell and Margaret Fay Shaw from their earliest days, and they travelled it hundreds of times. John’s father was working in Dumbarton when he met John’s mother. From her school in Upper Helensburgh Margaret watched the ships waiting at the Tail of the Bank for a pilot to take them into Glasgow. Many times they were delayed and thankful finally to reach the comforts of the Marine Hotel, Mallaig. On one occasion their train was stuck in snow overnight on bleak Rannoch moor, Orient Express style.

British Rail, apparently, used to produce a map with a guide to what you can see en route, but (again according to my guard informant) after privatisation the price was put up to £5 and no-one bought it. If First Scotrail would pay for it, I’d be happy to write another.

*My wife thinks Im too hard on Scotrail, says it adds to the sense of adventure but I note that on the Kyle to Inverness line they put on more modern coaches, which are much more comfortable.

A view from Aviemore Station to snowcapped Cairngorms

The journey home: Inverness to Edinburgh via Aviemore

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