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Issue 30 - Iron road to the Isles

Scotland Magazine Issue 30
December 2006


This article is 11 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Iron road to the Isles

In the latest part of our series looking at how you can get around Scotland by train, Mark Nicholls heads to the west coast and makes Fort William his departure point

Travelling around the region from Fort William by train takes you through some of the most spectacular rail scenery to be found anywhere in Scotland.

The route south carves a path across the bleakness of Rannoch Moor to Crianlarich while the route from Fort William to Mallaig crosses the wonderful Glenfinnan viaduct on its way to the coast.

This is the route of the West Highland Line – in Gaelic, Rathad Iarainn nan Eilean – the “Iron Road to the Isles.” Fort William can be reached via the Scotrail overnight sleeper service from London Euston station. It is the main town in the west Highlands and takes its names from a fort founded in 1690, named after William, Prince of Orange. It is a lively centre with pubs, shops and restaurants.

And while there’s plenty to do and see, it makes a great base from which to explore the region.

There is the West Highland Museum in the town’s main square, which takes up the theme of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites, with many relics from those times.

On the edge of town, to the north, The Ben Nevis Distillery and visitor centre is the site of one of Scotland’s oldest licensed whisky distilleries, established in 1825. It marks the entrance to Glen Nevis and a little further down the glen is the Glen Nevis Visitor Centre, a countryside and local heritage interpretation centre – useful for weather reports and advice if visitors are planning a Ben Nevis expedition.

Glen Nevis, with Ben Nevis rising on one side, offers superb Highland scenery and a choice of walking routes.

A little further out on the A830, the Caledonian Canal drops down to Loch Linnhe at an impressive series of locks called Neptune’s Staircase, where there is always some canal activity to enjoy.

This is the Lochaber region, containing some of the most spectacular mountain landscapes in Scotland and also offering fantastic opportunities for walking, climbing, cycling, mountain biking, trekking, golf, angling and a range of watersports.

But within easy reach by train from Fort William are locations such as Glenfinnan, Arisaig and Mallaig or in the opposite direction Oban and Crianlarich.

Taking the train from Fort William in the shadow of the United Kingdom’s highest mountain Ben Nevis (4,406ft), Glenfinnan lies 17 miles west of Fort William and around half an hour away by train. It is famous as the place where Bonnie Prince Charlie (Charles Edward Stuart) met with clan chief Lochiel and his Cameron clansmen on August 19, 1745, to raise the Jacobite standard for the second rebellion to try to restore the exiled Stuarts to the throne. The campaigners made it as far south as Derby before their eventual defeat the following year at Culloden.

The Glenfinnan Monument on the shore of Loch Shiel was designed by the Scottish architect James Gillespie Graham and erected in 1815 as a tribute to the clansmen who fought and died in the cause of the Stuarts. The National Trust for Scotland visitor centre at Glenfinnan tells the story of the event and has several items on display.

Glenfinnan has a fabulous curved viaduct which carries the railway over the glen behind the monument. Frequently photographed, particularly when the summer steam-hauled excursions travel over it, the 21-arch structure also featured in the Harry Potter films with the famous Hogwart’s Express crossing it at speed.

Loch Shiel, a freshwater loch, is also popular for boats trips, fishing and long walks along its nearby forestry paths. The community also hosts the Glenfinnan Highland Games each August.

Further along the line is Arisaig, which enjoys a wonderful seaside setting by the shore of Loch nan Ceall and the Atlantic. From the loch there is a regular passenger ferry to the Isles of Rum, Eigg, Muck and Canna and in good weather the trip can make great days out for sightseeing.

The Land, Sea and Islands Visitor Centre in the heart of village is a community project housing an exhibition celebrating the social and natural history of the area with photographic displays and artefacts. There is information on crofting, fishing, church history and marine life and the old forge has been renovated and forms a focal part of the display.

Mallaig, an hour and 20 minutes by train from Fort William, lies at the end of the Road to the Isles and was once the largest herring port in Europe. It is still busy with ferries and the fishing fleet, which now unloads white fish, crab, lobsters and prawns.

The town also has the Mallaig Heritage Centre, which was built in 1993 on the site of the former Railwaymen’s Dormitory beside the railway station and provides an interpretive centre, museum and archive for the region.

The journey south from Fort William, on the Glasgow line, is bleak and spectacular on its way to Crianlarich, which is an important Highland rail junction.

The journey across Rannoch Moor in the winter can often be snow covered with deer seen running away from approaching trains, while the station at Corrour on the moor is one of the most remote in Britain. Tyndrum, a little further along, is the smallest place in Scotland to boast two railway stations – Upper Tyndrum and Tyndrum Lower, the latter on the branch to Oban.

Continuing through Crianlarich takes you to Garelochhead on the banks of Gare Loch or instead take the branch to Oban, with its harbour and regular ferry links to the Isles. It is overlooked by the ruined keep of Dunollie Castle, which has stood sentinel over the narrow entrance to the sheltered bay for around 600 years.

Oban once had the royal seal of approval from Queen Victoria, who called it “one of the finest spots we have seen.” There are numerous opportunities for boat trips, cruises, eating and drinking in the pleasant harbour town.

A little further out is the Scottish Sea life Sanctuary, nestling in a mature spruce forest on the shores of Loch Creran and home to some of the UK’s most enchanting marine creatures. In crystal clear waters you can explore more than 30 natural marine habitats containing everything from octopus to shark.

You can also pause en route to Oban at the Falls of Cruachan, a request stop on the railway line, which is used by hikers during the summer who walk past the falls to climb Ben Cruachan.

One of the highlights of the region in the summer months are the special steam excursions which recall the heyday of rail travel, with carriages hauled through the wonderful scenic landscape by thundering black locomotives. The service, from Fort William to Mallaig is regularly steam-hauled at that time of year.

But even if you don’t catch the steam trains, rail travel through this region is an experience in itself through some of Scotland’s finest terrain.


First ScotRail or tel: +44 (0)8457 550 033 for tickets, timetables and more information.

The Highland Rover ticket allows for travel on the West Highland line at £62.50 for any four out of eight consecutive days travel and is valid on some coach and ferry services.

However, you can check fares and plan individual journeys locally.

Highlands tourism

Fort William

Ben Nevis Distillery Lochy Bridge, Fort William, PH33 6TJ Tel: +44 (0)1397 700 200 or visit

Glen Nevis Visitor Centre Glen Nevis, Fort William, PH33 6PF. Tel: +44 (0)1397 705 922 or visit tre.htm

Glenfinnan Visitor Centre and Monument NTS Information Centre, Glenfinnan, Highland, PG37 4LT
Tel: +44 (0)1397 722 250 or visit

Land, Sea and Islands Visitor Centre Arisaig, PH39 4NP Tel: +44 (0) 1687 450 263 or visit

Mallaig Heritage Centre Station Road, Mallaig, PH41 4PY Tel: +44 (0) 1687 4620 85 or visit

Scottish Sealife Sanctuary Barcaldine, Oban, Argyll, PA37 1SE Tel: +44 (0) 1631 720 386 or visit


Fort William to Mallaig steam trips Tel: +44 (0)1524 737 751 or visit