WEST HIGHLAND LINE
The West Highland Line is probably Scotland’s most famous train line in terms of scenery as it follows the west coast, gives ease of access to the west coast islands, then heads into the heart of the Highlands and some of the country’s most spectacular wild places. It runs between Glasgow and Fort William in the Highlands and then onto the west coast fishing village at Mallaig. Next stop the Isle of Skye. All in all, a five-hour journey covering 260km of natural Scottish spectacles. You can, of course, do it in one go, but railway holiday providers will tailor make a trip for you so that you can break it down into heavenly Highland chunks.
The famous West Highland line offers one of the finest views in Scotland. This is because the train track parts company with all roads, and takes you through the absolute wilderness of places like Rannoch Moor and the mountains of Glencoe. You leave the rest of the world behind when you take this train journey.
- Robert Kidd, founder of McKinlay Kidd, our leading Scotland rail holiday operator
History of the west Highland Line
Not surprisingly, given that this is pretty wild terrain, the West Highland Line was built in various stages but it dates back originally to 1894 when the first section from Craigendoran (near Glasgow on the River Clyde) to Fort William was opened. The next section to Mallaig was completed in 1901, providing important connections to fishing communities and also the more industrial areas around the Clyde. It was a battle to get it built, not only because of the cost but also because it involved years of disputes between traditional crofters and landowners.
In order to determine the route, there is a lovely story about the construction experts, including concrete magnate Robert McAlpine, walking the 65km section between Spean Bridge and Rannoch Moor, dressed in their office clothes which turned out to be, not surprisingly, a vicarious journey. Thus proving that the construction of a railway route on such remote, otherwise treacherous terrain was justified.
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Which direction?You can, of course, take the West Highland Railway in either direction and your tour operator will enjoy telling you which side of the train proffers the best views accordingly.
You can do the West Highland Line on its own, start in Glasgow and just make a long weekend of it including a night on the Isle of Skye. Or you can spend a week doing not only the West Highland Line but then linking up with the Kyle Line which takes you to Inverness, and then after that there is a whole other network heading north or south again. For travellers who are doing a rail circuit of Scotland, many start in Edinburgh, head north via the Cairngorms National Park to Fort William and then make the West Highland Line their final, and totally sublime stretch.
Glasgow to Spean Bridge
If you start in Glasgow and head north, the first stop on many holidays is Spean Bridge, a small Highland village with big views. Ben Nevis, Loch Lochy and the Great Glen being a veritable trio of treats and accommodation here always welcomes hikers with open arms. Monroists love this as a base for the Grey Corries in particular, but you can also enjoy the area with a more sedentary cruise on the loch.
The train route itself is a three-and-a-half-hour journey of mountainous magnificence, cutting through the heart of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, across the barren yet stunningly beautiful Rannoch Moor and up to the UK’s highest altitude station at Corrour. From Glasgow to utter gorgeousness in a heartbeat. And your heart will skip a beat too.
Spean Bridge to Fort WilliamThis is only a 20 minute journey but with spectacular views of Ben Nevis throughout as you head into Fort William, considered to be the adventure hub of the Highlands. It is also the terminus for the Caledonian Sleeper train to London, and so some train travellers join the West Highland Line here and head north to Mallaig. As well as being at the foot of Ben Nevis and the Mamores Mountains, Fort William is also on the shores of Loch Linnhe, so keen paddlers can look into hiring a kayak or open canoe for the day. Nearby Corpach is the spot for that for ease of access into the loch, which is part of the famous Great Glen Way.
Fort William to Mallaig
The highlight of this coastal stretch is the Glenfinnan Viaduct, not just for fans of Victorian railway architecture, but also those of Harry Potter as it famously features as part of the route to Hogwarts. It is pretty magical though, dating back to 1901 it curves just enough for you to take in its 21 arches that cross a 300m span over the River Finnan Valley, at an impressive height of 30m. Other great sights include Loch Shiel and the iconic 18m high Glenfinnan monument.
More loch loveliness awaits as you pass Eilt, Ailort and Nab Uamh with a dramatic end along the great beach at Morar. Worthy of movie credits in fact, especially as it features in the iconic film Local Hero (and for those of you too young to remember it, this is definitely one to dig out). Final stop Mallaig, which is end of the line on land but beginning of a journey out to the glorious Isle of Skye, just a 35-minute ferry trip away.
Jacobite steam train
An alternative way to travel on the Mallaig to Fort William line is on the Jacobite steam-hauled train, Monday to Friday from mid-May until early October. Travelling in 1950s carriages with traditional drop down windows, this really is the most stunning way to take in this section of the West Highland Railway. And you certainly will feel the Harry Potter magic this time, as you chuff chuff your way over Glenfinnan Viaduct. You can go one way or do a round trip so that you can experience it twice. Which is well worth it.
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