Caledonia Dreaming Part 2
Updated: Jul 5
People often ask me to name my favourite destination. Of all the places I could choose Scotland is closest to my heart for very personal reasons. It was my late-mum’s passion and my folks would drag their touring caravan northwards a couple of times a year to indulge their love of all things Caledonian. On one such trip mum passed away. They had just set up for the night near Dumfries, just over the border. It was as if she was determined to leave us in her favourite country….just. The following weeks included my first travels around Scotland, piecing together the first UK tour for my then employer, a grand tour of Scotland, but also dealing with my loss head-on. During the following years I covered every piece of tarmac, every iron road, soon sharing an intense love of Scotland with my mum and filling holiday brochures with my new darling. This chapter is proof that something very lovely can develop from even the most desperately sad moments. It’s my love letter to Scotland.
It had been a whirlwind few weeks since I had received that terrible phone call. I’d brought my dad back from Ecclefechan, the village that even sounds like a curse, the morning after that wretched night. Then a week or so later I was up in Inverness and Edinburgh researching the first half of the tour. But it was the next trip that blew me away and made me return again and again. And again.
I’ll let you into a secret. I drove my car on this one. But I’ve ridden the tracks since and will describe those too, because the West Highland Line is a special draw. Armed with CDs I left Yorkshire at the crack of dawn, following my parents’ well-trodden path up the A1, Route 66 (yes, the A66 really, I know, but I am dreaming!), then the M6 northwards. My soundtrack would be Scottish Indie from Orange Juice through the Pastels and Teenage Fanclub to the Delgados, but with the addition of a recent bargain bucket find from York’s now long-gone Track Records, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” by the Byrds under the heavy Country influence of Gram Parsons. Cursing loudly at Ecclefechan as I passed, I circumnavigated Glasgow. Once you are past Dumbarton the scenery begins to unfold, skirting Loch Lomond en route to Crianlarich, a strange village with a hotel, a shop and a church that hosts a service a couple of times a month. Crianlarich is an eerie junction town for road and rail. It’s here that the West Highland Line splits into its western branch to Oban and northern branch to Fort William and eventually Mallaig. The road follows a similar path westwards, but the northern route takes in different terrain to the railway. I hit a left for Oban, mum’s favourite place on Earth.
So, I’ve just described a beautiful journey in terms of roads and towns. What about the scenery? Well, with your eyes on the road the scenery is a backdrop but not a focal point, an ever-changing mix of colour and wilderness. It’s different by train. ScotRail’s services leave Glasgow Queen Street, following a similar route at first, then deviating to provide almost instant pleasure. The first part of the journey northwards on the West Highland Line is dominated by water. The Firth of Clyde provides the first sea views, followed by Gareloch and a journey along the eastern shore of Loch Long, a 20 mile long sea loch. From Arrochar and Tarbet, with glimpses of Loch Lomond’s bonnie northern banks, you feel you are really heading into the Highlands, all deep forests as you climb to Crianlarich. The western branch to Oban then ticks every box for those seeking lochs and glens. Loch Awe is so aptly named and the track runs along the northern shore whilst those travelling by car see little of the loch from the heavily tree-lined road above. Nearby Cruachan mountain hides within it a secret masterpiece of engineering, a hydro-electric power station buried deep within the mountain. Next up is the ‘little ugly one’, or Loch Etive, another 20 mile long sea loch that is far from ugly. At the Falls of Lora the Connel Bridge rolls into view, the place where my parents would plonk their caravan, looking out across the shore, as we make our way into Oban, a rail terminus but a busy hub for onward ferries to the Hebrides.
Oban is renowned difficult spot to find group accommodation. There were a couple of hotels owned by coach operators. I remember knocking on the locked door of one of them. When the groups were all out on excursions, the hotel would shut up shop. The person looking at me with suspicion from the other side of the glass, unwilling to unlock the door, seemed to consider me more of an intruder than a person trying to bring them business. Other than this there are probably four suitable hotels, all with their foibles. The one in which I stayed the night was in my mind just about okay for our customers until I left my room the following morning to witness the bizarreness of the housekeeping staff’s equipment. The hotel had “invested” in used and battered Tesco shopping trolleys to carry the cleaning materials, new bedding, towels and toiletries. Not a good sign.
Having exhausted all opportunities in Oban, and having chosen the better of the hotels for our groups, I drove along the coast to Fort William via Ballachulish along the shores of Loch Linnhe. Dropping my stuff at the Alexandra Hotel in Fort William, pretty much a one-street town under the watchful gaze of Ben Nevis, I visited the other hotels. At the reception of the final one at the other end of Fort William’s High Street I greeted the receptionist.
“Yes Madam,” came the reply.
Stroking my supposedly manly beard, I explained the purpose of my visit, which didn’t turn out to be a long one, if I’m honest, but at least it provided a small comedy moment for this solo traveller.
In my youth I’d had long hair, particularly during the year I spent in Germany when I didn’t visit a ‘Friseur’ once. On my day off I would travel to Bremerhaven to pick up the previous week’s NME from the only newsagent in the region that stocked foreign titles. I’d then generally devour it in a local bar, but on one sunny day I sat on a wooden deckchair on Theodor Heuss Square, minding my own business, when an elderly man approached me with the words:
“Sind Sie ein Herr oder sind Sie eine Dame?”
Still chuckling at being mistaken for a bearded lady, I jumped back in the car and headed north. This was a road trip after all. In the evening sun I drove two hours across the wild western Highlands to Kyle of Lochalsh, overlooking Skye across the strait, returning as the sun was setting. The roads were empty, the colours of the heather iridescent in the setting sun, amidst rocky terrain and gushing clear mountain waters, punctuated by viewpoints where you just had to stop to admire scenery that has no peer on these islands.
My ulterior motive was to call in unannounced at the hotel where Michael Palin had stayed on his “Great Railway Journey of the World” to Kyle of Lochalsh. On arrival the sparse staff were busying themselves with a large German group that was almost bursting out of their small dining room. There was seemingly nobody at the reception counter, so I rang the bell. Immediately a head popped up from nowhere with the thickest jam jar glasses I have ever seen. Oh crumbs, here we go again. I managed the manliest of voices I could muster, but my request to see a room was brusquely refused. Whilst the hotel was no great shakes, that evening I became completely smitten with the wild allure of the western Highlands, if not their hoteliers. I would venture north again and again to grapple with them on many journeys through scenery of quite devastating beauty.
The route home was no less awesome. From Fort William the road leads through mighty Glencoe. Passing the excellent Glencoe Visitor Centre, the glen cuts through towering mountains on both sides of the road and climbs some 1,000 feet. Edging Rannoch Moor, the road rejoins the rail route at Bridge of Orchy before the junction at Crianlarich.
The northern branch of the West Highland Line (connecting Glasgow to Fort William and Mallaig) is for me the greatest of all railway journeys on these islands. Whilst the line’s infamy reaches across the world with Harry Potter, the Glenfinnan Viaduct and Jacobite Steam Train, and rightly so, these attractions on the West Highland Line are on the remote section between Fort William and the coastal fishing port of Mallaig, gazing out to the Hebrides. It is a remarkable journey, beginning with Neptune’s Staircase of locks on the Caledonian Canal at Banavie, slowing for the drama of crossing the Glenfinnan Viaduct, with majestic Loch Shiel dominating the glen below, the Glenfinnan Monument proudly commemorating the Jacobite Risings. As the single track heads towards the coast, the Small Isles, Rhum, Eigg and Muck, tantalise in the distance, leaping in and out of view. It’s a terrain of stark beauty, but with the promise of white sands, the sounds of nature and the best fish and chips in sleepy Mallaig, with Skye a stone’s throw away across the Sound of Sleat.
But it’s not the best bit! For me the line between Glasgow and Fort William has it all. From Glasgow ScotRail’s Fort William bound trains feature the same wonderful scenery as Oban trains – the Firth of Clyde, Gareloch, Loch Long and Loch Lomond – but whereas the Oban trains hit a left through the lochs and glens I described earlier, the northern branch climbs into real Highlands as bleak as they are beguiling. North of Crianlarich there’s a feat of engineering, the Horseshow Curve beneath mighty Ben Dorain, the track circling the glen to master the terrain. Next up is Rannoch Moor, where the track floats on peat boglands across the high heather moorland, a scene of desolate yet devastating beauty, so remote from our existence that no roads lead here. Deer scamper into the distance at the intrusion of human life in a scene of idyllic and splendid isolation. The track now following a vastly different and wilder route to the road, we tick off Corrour, the highest altitude station in the UK, backdrop of the remote scenes of the film “Trainspotting” and built originally to serve the nearby Corrour estate in the early days of tourism, when visitors would leave the cities for a weekend of hunting on the Highland moors. At journey’s end is Fort William, nestled beneath Ben Nevis, the highest mountain on this island.
Whenever I find myself on the ScotRail trains that service these routes I’m always impressed, but left dreaming. Dreaming that ScotRail (or someone!) might hook a panoramic carriage onto the train, with seats and tables, windows stretching to the sky, haggis, neeps and tatties served to your table and a wee dram of single malt to finish as Fort William approaches. Think “Glacier Express”. Then imagine “Glenfinnan Express”. How could it be anything other than a roaring success?! Maybe I’m just Caledonia Dreaming, but I keep coming back. I love this place. Thank you mum.