The West Highland Line: A Tour Guide’s Guide

Travellers on Scotland’s world-renowned West Highland Line can look forward to a number of exciting initiatives over the next couple of years. Revamped trains will offer innovations such as see-through windows, flushable toilets and, best of all, on-board “tourism ambassadors” to tell visitors all about the route.

Recently, over a pleasant evening of cocktails, canapés and lounge jazz in the Marine Bar, Mallaig, I got chatting to one of the newly recruited “ambassadors”, who was kind enough to give me an advance copy of their script, which I’m delighted to reproduce here. And I must admit, even to a seasoned traveller like me, it’s remarkably enlightening.

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The Isle of Eigg, viewed from the site of the proposed Isle of Muck Monorail terminus.

Section 1: Mallaig to Fort William

The line to Mallaig was built in 1901 in order to take herring to London, back in an era when fish had much higher disposable incomes than they have today. But the railway soon caught the imaginations of local humans as well, keen to escape the industrial grime of Beasdale and Lochailort for the unspoilt majesty of Dalmuir.

The importance of Mallaig as a port grew following the introduction in 1932 of its first car ferry, the Road to the Isles. To avoid confusion with the vessel’s somewhat unusual name, the nearby A830 trunk road was subsequently renamed the Boat to Fort William. Mallaig’s once mighty fishing industry has declined from its 1960s heyday; but the sea continues to play a vital part in the village’s economy, and species as diverse as prawns, haddock, salmon and mackerel can be found in its Co-op to this day.

Our first stop is Morar, whose “White Sands” were famously featured in the film Local Hero. The movie’s soundtrack was written and performed by jobbing musician Mark Knopfler, who has since fallen on hard times and can often be found hanging around the beach during tourist season, noodling away on his guitar for pennies. A similar fate befell locally-born weather presenter Carol Kirkwood, who now lives in a wheelie bin outside the Morar Hotel, offering speculative long range forecasts in exchange for Special Brew and pork scratchings.

At Arisaig, the line affords spectacular views of the islands of Rum and Eigg, which take their names from the two most popular breakfast items in the West Highlands. The village itself is a pleasant five minute stroll downhill from the station, though the return journey is an arduous three day climb that should only be attempted in the presence of a Sherpa. Arisaig is currently the westernmost railway station in Britain, although it is scheduled to lose this title in 2019 when the Isle of Muck completes its long-awaited monorail network.

Historic Glenfinnan is where Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his royal standard to instigate the Jacobite Rising of 1745. As the train crosses the iconic Glenfinnan Viaduct, it accelerates to a near-standstill so passengers can admire the famous monument to the Prince on the banks of beautiful Loch Shiel – surely one of the finest views in Scotland.

Of course, none of this is of the slightest interest to the thousands of grown men and women who come here every year with the sole purpose of following in the footsteps of a fictional schoolboy wizard. In this respect, it’s no exaggeration to say that Harry Potter has done for Glenfinnan what Miss Hoolie did for Tobermory. On the station platform, local entrepreneurs rush to sell Harry-themed postcards, keyrings, golf umbrellas and gimp masks to enthusiastic tourists – whose children, meanwhile, remain on the train, staring at their phones, valiantly trying to get Snapchat to work with a one bar mobile signal. They have no idea who Harry Potter is.

From Glenfinnan, the train continues east along the northern bank of Loch Eil, stopping briefly to pick up frostbitten escapees from the loch’s Outward Bound centre, and on to the village of Corpach, which gained its name – meaning “field of corpses” – following a particularly violent shinty match in 1470.

At Banavie, we pass the famous Neptune’s Staircase, a system of locks on which boats ascend 60 feet to the higher section of the Caledonian Canal. You’d do well to take a moment to admire this while you still can, because after almost 200 years in operation, modern accessibility requirements dictate that it will shortly be pulled up and replaced with a state-of-the-art “Neptune’s Travelator”. Banavie is also the home of the signalling centre that controls every train departure on the West Highland Line, from Mallaig all the way to Helensburgh, with the aid of an exceptionally loud whistle.

On the approach to Fort William, the region’s most celebrated landmark finally comes into view, to gasps of delight of locals and tourists alike. No trip to the area is complete without paying it a visit; but once you’ve been to McDonald’s, it’s also worth checking out Ben Nevis. Despite its status as the highest mountain in Britain, the climb to the summit is surprisingly straightforward, attracting visitors in large numbers – partly to admire the stunning views, but mainly so they can bang on about it for years as if they’re Sir Edmund chuffing Hillary.

Section 2: Fort William to Crianlarich

The circuitous nature of this section of line can be traced back to a design meeting at Glasgow engineers Forman & McCall in 1889. Chief engineer James Bulloch, running late and still drunk from the night before, hastily sketched out a route on the back of a beer mat on the tram to work before presenting it to his colleagues. When the practical difficulties of the proposed line were pointed out to him, Bulloch decided to brazen it out, as the minutes of the meeting record:

Mr Forman observed that the intended route would pass over miles of saturated, uninhabitable bogland, rendering its construction almost impossible; but Mr Bulloch demurred, insisting it would “aw be fine” and that “awbody kens trains can float, eh?”. Mr Bulloch then abruptly left the meeting and headed in the direction of a local hostelry, pausing briefly to urinate in the street and swear at a passing horse.

Based on Bulloch’s visionary design, the line heads northeastwards from Fort William to Spean Bridge. It passes close to the Commando Memorial, which honours a local regiment who helped conserve scarce textile resources during World War II by going into battle without any underwear. Their sacrifice became a symbol for British stoicism in wartime, and led to the coining of the term “crack troops”. The highly lifelike Commandos sculpture was completed in 1952, and it’s understood the Queen Mother took enormous pleasure in unveiling it.

Roy Bridge was home to the parents of Mary MacKillop, Australia’s first ever saint, and indeed its only one until the recent canonisation of Dame Edna Everage. North of the village lies the glacial feature now known as the Parallel Roads of Glen Roy, although prior to improvement works during the last Ice Age, it was referred to as the Single Track Road of Glen Roy with Passing Places.

From Tulloch station, we head south past beautiful Loch Treig, whose evocative-sounding Gaelic name translates into English as “Loch of Death” – a macabre naming convention shared by nearby Loch Arkaig (“Loch of Indiscriminate Slaughter”) and Loch Ossian (“Loch of Stamping on Little Bunny Rabbits”). Here, the train begins its long climb to the highest station in the UK at Corrour. The steep incline poses a challenge for the ironically-named “Sprinter” trains that operate this route, and it’s relatively common for the guard to ask passengers to get out and push.

The scenery around Corrour may be familiar as the location of the “Great Outdoors” scene in Trainspotting, in which the group get off the West Highland Line train and set out to climb the nearby Leum Uilleim mountain. Rumours that the same train also inspired the film’s “Worst Toilet in Scotland” scene remain unconfirmed.

By this point, there are no roads for miles around, and the surrounding countryside is wet and treacherous, as starkly illustrated by the dozens of abandoned, half-submerged rail replacement buses visible from the train window. The train, however, continues serenely across the moor to Rannoch station, its tracks “floating” on a mattress of tree roots, earth and brushwood, which represents something of a triumph for drunken, last minute railway design.

The railway line finally rejoins the main road just before Bridge of Orchy, which consists of a hotel, a church and not much else. In West Highland terms, this is enough to qualify it as a major conurbation. We then round the spectacular horseshoe curve at the base of Beinn Dorain, on which the train will often pass itself coming in the opposite direction, before arriving at Upper Tyndrum. If ever you’re catching the train here, be sure to go to the correct station: the village also has stops at Tyndrum Lower, Tyndrum Even Lower and Tyndrum Subterranean, making it the only settlement in Britain with more railway stations than people.

Finally, after almost two hours’ travel through largely barren wilderness, the scenery changes dramatically. Bright lights, office blocks, multiplex cinemas and retail parks begin to dominate the skyline, which can mean only one thing: we are approaching Crianlarich.

Section 3: Crianlarich to Glasgow Queen Street

Crianlarich is where the Mallaig and Oban lines meet, which means a wait of around ten minutes while the two trains divide, sub-divide, sub-sub-divide and reattach, often all at the same time. As a result, the station is beloved of smokers, who gather on the platform and attempt to consume as many cigarettes as possible before the scheduled departure. The all time record is held by the late Willie “One Lung” Jackson of Locheilside, who on 23 October 2004 managed to puff his way through thirteen filterless roll-ups and a cheroot before being ushered back on to the train.

These days, smoking is officially prohibited even on the open platform, following a successful complaint from a nearby sheep with a slight bronchial condition. Like the rule outlawing on-train drinking after 9pm, this by-law is both warmly endorsed and religiously observed by regular users of the West Highland Line.

The first stop on this final section of the line is at Ardlui, at the north end of Loch Lomond. Traditionally, this is the last northbound stopping point for day-trippers from the central belt who get off here, stop for a few pints in the Ardlui Hotel and get the late train home, which is sufficient for them to claim proudly that they’ve “done” the Highlands.

From Ardlui, the train proceeds south along the west bank of the loch, which despite its proximity to Glasgow, remains an unspoilt oasis of serenity, punctuated only by a few hundred passing speedboats, jet skis, cruise ships and supertankers. The picture postcard view across the loch was largely unobstructed until the past few years, when local practical jokers began planting trees at regular intervals to irritate tourists attempting to take photographs through the window.

The next stop, Arrochar and Tarbet, is situated on the narrow isthmus between two lochs. Arrochar sits at the head of Loch Long, a popular location for diving and fishing – though many old-timers feel these pursuits have lost much of their excitement since the closure of Arrochar’s torpedo testing facility in 1986 – while the village of Tarbet lies on Loch Lomond, a little under two miles away. During the Scottish-Norwegian War of the 13th century, Viking invaders would haul their longboats across the isthmus in order to reach Loch Lomond. Warriors who completed this arduous task were traditionally rewarded with extra pay and rations. This was known as an Isthmus Bonus.

Garelochhead station looks over the naval base at Faslane, which houses the UK’s stockpile of Trident missiles. As at Glenfinnan, locals have been quick to capitalise on the area’s fame, and souvenir hunters are encouraged to visit the pop-up shop on the platform and pick up a fully functioning scale model of a nuclear submarine to entertain the kids.

Helensburgh Upper represents the end of the West Highland Line “proper”, after which the train joins the busy Strathclyde suburban rail network. The remainder of the route is perhaps less spectacular than what has gone before, but still has much to recommend it. As we reach the Clyde Estuary, a number of anonymous but renowned local artworks become visible, including Still Life With Shopping Trolley and a postmodern arrangement of dead pigeons and Tennents cans that is simply entitled Glasgow. The train also provides the ideal perspective – and distance – to view the towns of Greenock and Port Glasgow at their very best.

Finally, after further stops at Dumbarton Central and Dalmuir, we reach our final destination of Glasgow Queen Street. As you disembark, keep an eye out for any West Highlanders who have travelled with you, as they take a moment to absorb the contrast between Scotland’s largest city and the landscape of lochs and mountains from which they’ve come – before swiftly realising their mistake and getting straight back on the train.

[Author’s note: Please note that this is an unofficial draft copy of the tourism ambassadors’ script, and I cannot be held responsible for any minor inaccuracies contained therein. For a more authoritative representation of the line, you might want to check out the Friends of the West Highland Line website and/or this wonderful BBC documentary from 1960, showing a day in the life of the line in the era of steam travel.]

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