Friday, September 4, 2015

Traveling on Scotland’s West Highland train

The romance of a steam powered train as it crosses the Glenfinnan Viaduct in Scotland  (wikipedia)
GLASGOW, SCOTLAND When it comes to traveling by train in Great Britain, nothing compares with the West Highland Line of Scotland. The magnificent 164-mile scenic railway passes along or beside rushing rivers, deep Scottish lochs, muscled peaks, canopied forests, mysterious moors and a breathtaking curved viaduct that is a living postcard in its own right.

Starting point for the West Highland Train  (wikipedia)
The train originates from Queen Street Station in Glasgow. With frequent service between Glasgow and Edinburgh, travelers staying in Scotland’s capital have easy connection. A change of trains to the West Highland line is necessary in Glasgow, however.

This is not an express. Plan for five-hours or more between Glasgow and Mallaig. Due to irregular stops, many of which are by request only, trains easily get off schedule. Day-trippers can make a round-trip, but an early start is a must.

Many riders travel to Mallaig to catch the ferry to the Isle of Skye. Frequently those travelers return by way of Oban to take the train to Crianlarich where coaches reconnect for the trip back to Glasgow.

The tiny four carriage trains pull out of Glasgow roughly paralleling the River Clyde. It doesn’t take long for the surroundings of Glasgow to give way to rugged mountain terrain that plunges into picturesque lochs through a scrim of morning mist. Soon the double tracks merge into a single serpentine ribbon of steel that promises bold new adventures up ahead.

The cramped interiors are not designed for luxury, but passengers don’t seem to mind as they flit from one side to the next to view each new panoramic vistas.
Wooly Highland sheep add to the picturesque journey on the West Highland Line  (wikipedia)
With a constantly changing carousel of scenery, one side of the train is no better than the other. Simply choose a seat and be prepared to be awed while shuffling back and forth to witness the majestic scenery that stream by the window.

Gare Loch is first. As home to Britain’s nuclear submarines, it seems incongruous amid the tree-lined brownish-green hills covered with bluebells.
The famous Loch Lomond at twilight  (wikipedia)
Gradually the hills become more mountainous. On the right a long, deep, U-shaped valley known as Glen Douglas guides travelers toward the “bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond."

Soon the loch made famous in the song Loch Lomond comes into view with Ben (Gaelic for “mountain”) Lomond towering over the scene. Across the water lies Inversnaid, the rolling landscape once roamed by legendary Scottish folk-hero Rob Roy MacGregor.

The tiny rail station at Crianlarich  (wikipedia)
Just beyond, the train coasts through a tunnel of trees that eventually reveals streams rushing beside fields of wildflowers and steep heather carpeted banks covered with craggy yellow gorse. Here and there shaggy brown Highland cattle graze lazily, oblivious to the curiosity seekers aboard the train. 
The train divides at Crianlarich with two carriages traveling to Oban, and the other pair to Mallaig.

Wheels sing upon the tracks as steel grinds against steel at every sharp bend in the rails.  Just north of Tyndrum the train makes a dramatic horseshoe turn around a curve that wraps around a valley lined by two large conical hills.

Eerie moonscape atmosphere of Rannoch Moor with its Hound of the Baskervilles atmosphere (wikipedia)
From there it’s on to Rannoch Moor with its eerie Hound of the Baskervilles aura. The train is the only way across the boggy pockmarked moonscape with its outcroppings of rock and lonely otherworld atmosphere. Desolate though it may be, the Rannoch Moor is a highlight of the journey.

Ben Nevis Mountain in the Scottish Highlands  (wikipedia)
But there’s no time for despair because just after the moor, the stunningly beautiful Loch Treig comes into view. The squealing wheels hush as the train gently glides beside bluish-gray water that yields to rising banks of deep green on the opposite shore.

As the train pulls into Fort William, passengers catch a view of the ruins of historic 13th century Inverlochy Castle, which was the site of two major battles. Fort William, the largest town in the region, nestles in the shadow of the highest mountain in Great Britain. At 4,400 feet, Ben Nevis is a Mecca for hikers. The base alone has a whopping circumference of 24 miles.

Fort William is a popular jumping off spot for travelers not wanting to venture to Mallaig. The shopping is excellent and the village is delightful.
Scottish loch in the primeval Highland countryside  (wikipedia)
Those who journey onward however, are in store for the indescribable beauty of Glenfinnan Viaduct with its 21 arches that curve southward toward Loch Shiel. Along the shore of the loch stands Glenfinnan Monument marking the site where the Jacobite Rising of 1745 erupted when Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his standard to raise an army and march on Edinburgh.

Summer travelers can enjoy crossing the viaduct aboard a steam-powered train. It’s the ultimate romance of the rails that can only be appreciated by the experience itself.
The stunning Glenfinnan Viaduct is a highlight of the West Highland train in Scotland  (wikipedia)
The end of the line is Mallaig, where frequent ferries are available for visits to Rum, Eigg and other small islands as well as the popular Isle of Skye.

This is rail travel as it once was and as it should be. Scotland’s West Highland Line is a memory in the making.