Winter Journeys Through Northern Climes : BY TRAIN IN SCOTLAND’S WEST HIGHLANDS
A whistle pierces the glass-vaulted spaciousness of Glasgow’s Queen Street Station, and the sleek blue and tan Super Sprinter train effortlessly glides forward on its 164-mile, 5 1/4-hour journey toward the fishing village of Mallaig on the western coast of Scotland.
For anyone who wants to experience the powerful history and exquisite beauty of Scotland’s West Highlands, this is the most relaxing way to do it. Winter is the least crowded time of year, and it is usually not nasty, cold and gray. In fact, there is often more rain in summer; off-season can be lovely weather.
As one sits back comfortably on plush cloth seats, the train forges northwest, past towering mountains punctuated by sweeping glens, and vast desolate moors seemingly alive with the romance and intrigue of years gone by. (The run is part of the BritRail and ScotRail systems, both of which offer a variety of money-saving passes.)
Along the way, small villages cling tenaciously to the line--for many years their only lifeblood. Originally they were inhabited by the rail line’s builders and maintenance workers. Nowadays, tourism is the No. 1 industry, and the visitor who wants to stop off for a while will find that many hamlets offer accommodations and friendly tearooms and pubs.
In the train cars, passengers sit in sets of four on either side of the center aisle--looking at two fellow travelers across a table, or out the spacious windows that extend from table-level almost to the ceiling. No longer pulled by locomotives, the new lightweight trains are constructed in two-coach units, with a bathroom at one end and at each end a tiny compartment for the engineer. In winter, one’s seatmates are likely to be locals going to and from Glasgow or Fort William, perhaps shopping or on some other errand.
Throughout the journey, an attendant sells tea, coffee, sandwiches (cheese and tomato or “egg mayonnaise”), cans of cider, Scottish beer, fruitcake and other refreshments from a mobile cart on the train.
I first traveled on the West Highland Line in 1954, when I, age 6, and my parents first moved to the tiny village of Crianlarich. In those days, slow, cumbersome steam trains made the journey from Glasgow to Fort William. Now the lightweight Super Sprinter, introduced in 1989, travels that distance in a fraction of the time. I lived on and off at Crianlarich during my childhood and adolescence, frequently traveling on the West Highland Line. Since immigrating to the United States 20 years ago, I’ve gotten reacquainted with the line on visits home at least once or twice a year.
Shortly after leaving the gray suburbs of Glasgow, the track parallels the River Clyde, which gradually widens into an estuary. Adhering to its banks are deserted and rusting reminders of Scotland’s heyday as one of the world’s foremost shipbuilders. From here, the line plunges into the Highlands, the hills rising up abruptly from finger-like sea lochs--small fiords, really. Soon the long spread of Loch Lomond sparkles in the haze to the right of the train. Its mirror-like surface is momentarily broken by a tiny boat that leaves a stream of white through its somber water.
Loch Lomond is Scotland’s largest loch, or lake, measuring 24 miles long and five miles wide at its broadest point. It is studded, near its southern end, with 33 islands. These are the “bonnie, bonnie banks” that have, throughout history, inspired songs of nostalgic longing in Scots destined to live abroad. The train traverses the west side of the lake in its upper reaches, and then leaves Loch Lomond to wind up in Glen Falloch, a narrow valley with a few scattered cottages and farms and mountains rearing up on either side.
The winter scenery is full of delicate warm-greens and gray-browns. Numerous rhododendron bushes border the line. Their leaves shimmer in a faint breeze, the light dancing off smooth surfaces. Naked gorse bushes stand dormant, awaiting their summer gold. Dry stone dykes are clad with bright-green lichen or moss. Dead, brown bracken lies flat to either side of the line.
Now the lower slopes of the snowy peaks off to both left and right are braided with scraggly columns of pine and larch trees. These extensive tree plantations, established during the last three decades, decorate many hillsides throughout the country. In the 1800s, money-hungry landlords evicted almost the entire population of the Highlands to make way for huge sheep farms. But today, more lucrative forestry has replaced the sheep industry in many areas.
At the village of Crianlarich, population about 100, the line divides, with the southern branch heading west to the town of Oban. At this point the train also splits up. The rear two coaches go west to Oban, the front ones heading on toward Mallaig. One should make sure of being in the correct section prior to reaching Crianlarich, but there are usually adequate announcements over the speaker system.
A few miles farther on, at the village called Bridge of Orchy, the railroad approaches Rannoch Moor, the wildest stretch of countryside in Scotland.
In the distance, the road to Glencoe snakes westward from Loch Tulla. It is impossible not to remember that here, in this “Glen of Weeping,” one of Scotland’s bloodiest massacres took place.
In 1603 the thrones of England and Scotland were united, both countries being ruled from London. For many years, the Highland chiefs, who detested this union, fought against the representatives of the English throne.
The time came when the chiefs were forced to swear allegiance to the English king. This had to be done by Jan. 1, 1692. Macian, chief of the Macdonalds of Glencoe, was inadvertently a few days late. As punishment for this, the Scottish under secretary issued orders calling for the death of all Glencoe Macdonalds under the age of 70.
During February, the regiment responsible for carrying out this secret mission spent two weeks as guests of the Macdonalds. They lived with them in their homes, played with their children, ate at their tables.
Early in the morning of Feb. 13, 1692, about 40 of the 200 Macdonalds were murdered, including women and children, and their homes were set on fire. At least another 40 perished in deep snow while trying to escape the slaughter.
As the train penetrates deeper and deeper into the wilderness of Rannoch Moor, the landscape becomes relentlessly bleak and deserted, covered with large areas of permanent bog. In all directions, the ground is dotted with lochans (minute lakes), joined together by meandering burns (streams). Peat is thick and ancient, and is littered with cotton grass, sphagnum moss and bog myrtle, a little plant with a lovely sagelike smell. Gnarled, old tree stumps and roots leer starkly. Brown clumps of heather crown the higher ground. In the distance rise sad, lonely hills, snow-streaked and gray. Herds of white-bottomed roe deer graze nervously, easily spooked as the train rumbles by.
Experiencing the extreme remoteness of this moor, one wonders how on earth the line was built here. This, in fact, was achieved by “floating” the metal girders and wooden “sleepers” (supports) across the moor on a mattress of tree roots, brushwood and tons and tons of earth and ashes.
Suddenly Ben Nevis comes into view, shrouded by low clouds. At an elevation of 4,406 feet, it is Great Britain’s highest mountain. Its great bulk looms majestically over the town of Fort William, overshadowing rows of terraced houses. The air is now full of the scent of the Atlantic and sea gulls screech overhead.
Here everyone must change to a connecting train before continuing on the last leg of the journey to Mallaig.
Immediately after leaving Fort William, at Banavie, the line crosses the Caledonian Canal. This is Britain’s longest inland waterway, allowing boats to sail between the Atlantic Coast and Inverness on the North Sea. To the right is Neptune’s Staircase, an unusual series of 10 locks raising the water level 64 feet.
As the train crosses Glenfinnan Viaduct, the monument to the loyal supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie comes into sight. It was here that, on Aug. 19, 1745, Prince Charles Edward Stuart--better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie--began his campaign to regain the throne of Scotland from George II, who many Scots considered to be a usurper. From here he would travel throughout the country, gaining extensive assistance from the Highland chiefs who considered him to be the rightful heir to the throne. Eventually he was defeated at the Battle of Culloden.
The line now hugs the coast. In the foreground stretch the gleaming white sands of Morar. Out in the Atlantic hover the tiny islands of Eigg and Rhum. The Island of Skye beckons hazily a few miles to the northwest.
Finally the train arrives at the fishing village of Mallaig. For many visitors, this is the jumping-off place for trips to Skye and other Hebridean islands. The Super Sprinter glides to a halt. Passengers disembark and stream toward the boat dock. A Caledonian MacBrayne ferry awaits, promising further adventures.
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Getting there: British Airways, American and Northwest connect (either on the East Coast or in London) to Glasgow from LAX for about $580 with 21-day advance purchase. United has connecting service for about $610.
Train information: The BritRail Pass, which must be obtained before you leave North America, allows travel over the entire British Rail network. First- and Standard-Class passes can be purchased for 8, 15 and 22 days or one month. The BritRail Flexipass allows travel for any 4, 8 or 15 days in a month. A sampling of 1995 BritRail pass prices: Eight days Adult Standard Class: $230, Adult First Class: $315; 15 days Standard: $356, First: $515; 22 days Standard: $445, First: $645; one month Standard: $520, First: $750. Children 5-15 pay half the adult fare; people 16-25 and over 60 can get discounted passes. Call BritRail (212-575-2667) or your travel agent.
A number of rail passes can be obtained from most city train stations once you are in the United Kingdom. Passes known as Freedom of Scotland Rovers, valid for unlimited travel throughout the Scottish rail network, cost about $160 for eight consecutive days, $98 for four out of eight days, and $180 for 12 out of 15 days.
A West Highland Rover pass allows you to enjoy the area between Glasgow, Oban, Crianlarich, Fort William and Mallaig for any four out of eight days for about $58.
The Freedom of Scotland Travelpass offers unlimited travel on Scottish rail, Standard Class only, and on most Caledonian MacBrayne ferry services to the islands, a one-third discount on many bus services and a discount on some flights. Passes are about $160 for eight consecutive days, $220 for 15, $269 for 22. Expect prices to vary with fluctuations in the exchange rate. Call BritRail (above), or in Glasgow (011-44-41-204-2844 from U.S.), or your travel agent.
For more information: Contact the British Tourist Authority, 551 Fifth Ave., Suite 701, New York 10176, (800) GO2 BRITAIN.