After our adventures in Edinburgh and Glasgow, the urban part of my family’s Scotland trip was essentially over. It was time to take a train way up into the Scottish Highlands, and on the eponymous (West) Highland Line, no less – widely considered to be one of the most beautiful railway journeys in the world. Our trip began in the currently-not-too-beautiful Glasgow Queen Street Station, which is under renovation.
There was a brief underground section after Queen Street, and once that tunnel ended, we were out of the urban part of Glasgow and into the surrounding sprawl. We flew past plenty of local stops, although the seemingly insignificant Dalmuir got one – it’s at a junction between two lines, which is why it was deemed worthy of stopping. There was a break from the constant rowhouses after that as we ran along the River Clyde, but our next stop in the sizeable town of Dumbarton came pretty soon after.
We were in a land of sheep and farmland from there, getting some great views of the River Clyde as we passed a few small towns and villages. After a stop in the larger town of Helensburgh and another in the small village of Garelochhead, a conductor came around to check tickets. He saw me taking photos of the river views. “If you think this is good,” he said, “just wait until we get further north. The views are like…” And then he dropped his jaw like he was in complete shock. “And it’s too bad it’s a cloudy day, because when it’s sunny, it’s like…” He dropped his jaw even more. ScotRail conductors are awesome.
By this point the land was too mountainous for farming, so the scenery got a lot more rugged as we twisted our way along various lochs. Long-distance trains to the Highlands are all that run along this stretch of track, so even though the villages kept getting smaller, a few of them still got stops. Ardlui, for example, was a tiny resort hamlet, but it still had a full high-level platform. And the views were absolutely stunning.
Ardlui was situated at the northern tip of Loch Lomond, the largest lake in Great Britain, and there was some super rugged mountain running after that. The line twisted its way along the slopes until it reached another local village stop, Crianlarich. Here, we got a brief layover as the train split in two: half of it would head west to Oban, while we were continuing north to Fort William and Mallaig.
While the Oban line splits off just after Crianlarich, there is an interesting situation where both lines roughly parallel each other for a bit. As a result, the little tourist village of Tyndrum gets a stop on both of them, Tyndrum Lower and Upper Tyndrum, making it the smallest settlement in the UK with more than one railroad station. While the following terrain was mountainous, it was also green, and we got occasional views of farms and bodies of water.
Bridge of Orchy Station served a very small tourist village, but the next one, Rannoch, was basically just a small parking lot and a few buildings in the middle of nowhere! The scenery got really interesting around Rannoch, with this almost otherworldly ground texture that made it feel like we were on another planet. There were absolutely no signs of civilization.
Corrour Station was even more remote – in fact, it’s one of the most isolated stations in the UK, as well as the highest in elevation. There are literally no public roads to it, but it’s actually quite well-used by hikers. We ran along Loch Treig, after which the line curved west and it felt like we were back on Earth: the land was green and fertile along the River Speen.
Tulloch Station was on the remote side, but the next two, Roy Bridge and Spean Bridge, were in actual towns. It was woodsy for the next while before we started to pass some…industrial buildings? And then some houses! Yes, we were arriving at Fort William, a very major town (the second-most populated in the Highlands) with a stub-end station.
The train reversed out of here to continue to Mallaig, but we decided to hang out in this town for four hours until the next train. The station was small, but it had decent amenities, including a waiting room, bathrooms, and luggage lockers (very convenient for our big bags). During our time here, we had lunch (long-distance ScotRail trains have snack carts, but it’s not substantial if you’re looking for a big meal), perused the shops along the pedestrian main street, and visited an amazing free museum.
Our train to Mallaig was pretty busy as we headed out from Fort William. While it is small as far as major towns go, Fort William does have a few “suburbs”, and the first two stops toward Mallaig serve these mostly residential areas. The next stop, Loch Eil Outward Bound, was built in 1985 for a (surprise, surprise) nearby Outward Bound center.
The line was remote at this point with stops serving small settlements, although the land was lush and green, with sheep grazing on open fields. Things got more mountainous after Loch Eil, and we soon approached the really famous part of this line: the Glenfinnan Viaduct, a gorgeous bridge that appears in several movies, including the Harry Potter franchise. The collective gasps on the train should be an indication of how darn amazing this thing was.
Post-viaduct, we twisted our way through the green mountains, with occasional views of lochs. Some stations were remote, while others served little villages. Glenfinnan Station, fittingly after the viaduct of the same name, had a cool-looking railway museum inside of it.
The third-to-last stop was Arisaig, the westernmost station in Great Britain. It was here that the line curved north and the land got flatter, since we were close to the ocean at this point. After the second-to-last stop, Morar, a few buildings were dotted throughout the landscape, and we eventually came straight up to the sea. That was the sign that we were coming into Mallaig, and indeed, we soon pulled up into the small fishing village’s little terminal station.
So, thoughts on the West Highland Line: I mean, what else can I say? The hype is justified – this really is an incredible journey. It was covered by our Spirit of Scotland passes, but it’s a pretty reasonable £40.50 round trip (£27.20 one-way) otherwise. You could make a day trip from Glasgow out of it if you wanted to, but it would basically be a full day of riding trains with a few hours of layover in Mallaig. However, Mallaig is a gateway to even more amazing places. Speaking of…
Caledonian MacBrayne, or CalMac, is the main ferry operator to many of Scotland’s islands. After spending the night in Mallaig, we took their Mallaig to Armadale service to reach the next leg of the trip on the Isle of Skye. While the ferries are already cheap to begin with (just £3 for the 35-minute trip to Skye), they’re fully covered by the Spirit of Scotland pass, too!
The Mallaig to Armadale service has kind of an odd schedule thanks to changing tides, with gaps anywhere from 30 minutes to over two hours (and the frequencies are worse if tides are low). It’s a car ferry first and foremost, and the vehicle slots tend to sell out quickly, but we booked our passenger-only tickets at the very last minute and they said there was plenty of room. After the parade of cars got onto the ferry, we headed on ourselves.
The boat didn’t have much as far as passenger accommodations go – this balcony above the cars with some seating was all we got. The ride was really pretty, though, especially on a foggy morning, with fantastic views of the mountains. When we got to Skye, they made the one other foot passenger and us wait until the cars were all off, then we set foot onto the island.
Oh boy, now it was time to deal with the Skye bus system. Operated by Stagecoach (whom we’ll see a lot more of – they operate most of the local bus services in the Highlands), this system is essentially a public school bus system that runs a few additional trips throughout the day. The service is amped up a tiny bit in the peak of the peak tourist season with extremely limited Sunday service, but most guidebooks tell you to bring a car onto Skye for a reason. Most routes only run a few trips a day. Tickets on Skye are confusingly zoned and insanely expensive (although there is a £9.50 day pass), but luckily any Stagecoach bus on the island is free with the Spirit of Scotland pass.
The 52 is the route from Armadale (Skye’s principle ferry terminal, remember) to the island’s main town, Portree. It runs three full trips per day, except during the peak tourist season, when it operates a staggering five. Yikes. The schedule shows ferry arrivals, but the quality of the connections…vary. We could’ve gotten the well-timed 10:35 trip, the first one of the day, but we decided to wait three and a half hours until the next one so we could visit Armadale Castle.
This trip had a ten-minute connection with the arriving ferry (er…not that the bus schedule tells you that – it appears the Saturday ferry times listed are wrong), and when we boarded at the castle, there were six people already on board that seemed to have made the connection! The road hugged the water for a while, offering fantastic views toward the mainland. There was at least some civilization along here, with houses showing up at regular intervals.
Once we pulled away from the ocean, there was no development anywhere, and the land was shrubby and rugged. Pretty soon, though, we reached the other side of this part of the island, and houses practically lined the road. A few businesses showed up at Broadford, Skye’s other main settlement – the bus took a brief layover at its post office.
We headed out from Broadford and the scenery just kept on giving. Coming up to the water again, we got an amazing view of the mountainous Isle of Scalpay, and then we started to enter a mountainous area ourselves, and…wow. I cannot describe how incredible it was.
As the road reached the coast again, we ran through a small settlement called Sconser. It has a few houses and a church, but it’s most notable for being the departing point of a CalMac ferry to the Isle of Raasay. We passed another tiny settlement, Sligachan, and it was back into shrubbery from there. The many houses of Portree eventually came into view across the loch of the same name, though, and we soon pulled our way into its main square.
Portree Square is the hub of all bus service in Skye, including intercity and tour buses, but there’s not much to it. There are three lanes for buses, which doesn’t seem to always be enough, and then a single shelter with not enough space in it. That thing can get crowded at busy times!
Once in Portree, I thought it would be fun to embark on a trip on the 57, the massive 2-hour long route that loops around the north side of the island. It runs four full loops a day in each direction, but despite that, it was fairly well-used by both tourists and residents. Also, the scenery is SO great.
Like I said, Portree is a tiny town, so we very soon left it and entered the middle of nowhere. Alongside a loch, the road switched from two lanes to something seen very often on Skye: one bidirectional lane. These single-track roads have passing points every once in a while, and sometimes other drivers have to back up to let vehicles going the other way get through. And we were traversing one in a 40-foot transit bus.
I had picked the mountain side while my parents got the water side, and truth be told, their views were almost always way better. Still, that didn’t make the trip any less enjoyable for me – there was amazing stuff even on the non-water side. We stayed on this main road, passing through little settlements occasionally, with long mountainous stretches in between.
We crossed the north side of the island by going inland a bit, but we were right by the sea again on the way back south. It was basically the same scenery as before…until we got to the village of Uig. The road came down the side of a mountain here, providing a fantastic view of the town and its ferry terminal (CalMac runs ferries from here to islands further west) – and it was on my side, too!
Once we got down the hill, we did a deviation to Uig’s ferry terminal and layed over for five minutes. The half-hour trip back to Portree was on a proper one-lane-per-direction road (super high-capacity, I know!), and it was more “occasional settlement with lots of middle of nowhere segments” running. Portree had a bit more “sprawl”, as it were, coming in from the northwest, but it was less than five minutes from the start of the developed area to the center of town. That was an absolutely amazing ride.
Ultimately, I have a hard time recommending Stagecoach’s Skye system to anyone who doesn’t have a willingness to plan around incredibly infrequent services laid out in convoluted timetables. Also, remember that its primary purpose is getting kids to school – if you’re a tourist trying to get to all the major sites, you can only do so much with the public buses. Heck, even though they do add some Sunday service in the height of the summer, weekday service on some routes gets massively cut back because school is out. My family did a guided tour around the island the next day, firstly because it was a Sunday so the buses weren’t running anyway, and secondly because you just see a lot more that way. So while it’s possible to get around Skye using transit, I would say it’s best to keep it to getting on and off the island.
Speaking of getting off the island, we were originally just going to use Stagecoach, doing a two-seat ride to Kyle of Lochalsh. We ended up getting to Portree Square early, though, and there was a Scottish CityLink (the Scottish intercity coach network) bus sitting there. Now, Spirit of Scotland tickets are valid on certain Scottish CityLink routes, including on their Skye runs, but it theoretically only works if you book in advance by phone, which costs 12p a minute, plus there’s a £1.50 reservation fee.
We hadn’t done that, but that didn’t stop my mom from showing the driver the passes in a plea to get a ride. He was sympathetic to our cause, pulling out his phone to call his manager. As they talked, he gave us a wink, and once he hung up, he told us we were good. We were in there! The inside of the bus was similar to any American coach bus, with reclining seats, individual light and temperature control, and USB ports.
The route is duplicative of the Stagecoach lines it parallels, right down to making generally the same stops. For a while, it was the same thing as the 52 from before, right up until a little after Broadford. The road ran along the sea from there, and we eventually approached the Skye Bridge to the mainland and Kyle of Lochalsh. We had to deviate to village called Kyleakin first, though.
We looped back around to the rotary at the foot of the bridge. The bridge was fantastic – it climbed really high up, then fell back down onto an island. One more smaller bridge took us to the mainland, and we were soon in the village of Kyle of Lochalsh. There was a little bus loop where a surprising amount of people got off along with us. Well, the one-seat CityLink ride is cheaper than the two-seat Stagecoach ride, so frankly, I get the appeal!
How’s about one more scenic train ride to round out the post? While the Kyle of Lochalsh Line isn’t held in quite as high regard as the West Highland Line, it is still a beautiful ride. The train station here is on a peninsula, and it has a cute little building with a bathroom-equipped waiting room, as well as a small railway museum.
The Kyle of Lochalsh Line is just as infrequent as the West Highland Line, with four trips per day (two on Sundays). The first 40-odd minutes of the trip hugged the coastline, and as you can imagine, there were some awesome water views. The stations were pretty remote, but there was nothing insanely out there like on the West Highland Line – each one did serve some form of settlement.
While the trip beyond was mountainous, it was nothing like the alien world on the West Highland Line. This was definitely Earth, with lots of grass and rivers, and some occasionally lush foliage. It was also the middle of nowhere for sure, and some stations seemed to only exist to serve a couple of houses.
There was a very sudden switch from mountains to farmland at one point. This was the sign that we were approaching Dingwall, a town with around 5,500 people, and the point where the Kyle of Lochalsh Line joins the Far North Line. This town and all stations after it get a fairly regular service – it helps that every station from Dingwall was in a sizable town.
Beauly was the second-to-last stop, and the line hugged the coastline from there. We had to slow to a crawl to get over a bridge crossing the Caledonian Canal, after which we entered a residential neighborhood. As the houses very quickly got denser, we went over the River Ness, curved our way into an industrial area, and arrived at Inverness – the largest city in the Highlands – ending another fantastic train journey.
I say largest city – it still only has under 65,000 residents. With that being said, the station was legit, with seven tracks that were mostly sheltered by a big roof. It had a large, if mostly devoid of seating main area, and even faregates!
And that’s it for Part 2 of Scotland! In the third and final part (which will come out at some point – these things take a long time to write, so give it time), I’ll cover our journeys around Inverness, as well as up to the Far North…and beyond.