West Highland Line
The World’s Best Rail Experience
* Updated in February 2018
For moments in life when you are limited on time but just need to ‘get away from it all’, I strongly suggest that you book yourself a ticket on the West Highland Line.
Scooping the award for ‘Most Scenic Railway Line in the World’ for two consecutive years, this is a journey which prescribes a seriously high dose of stunning scenery to sooth the mind and soul. If like me you commence your journey in Glasgow, you will have ample time for relaxation and reflection all the way to Mallaig; just over five hours to be precise.
The duration of the journey is that of a flight from Scotland to North Africa, but the time flies past like the landscape through a window. The train has much more leg room and space to move around than a flight, with ever-changing scenic views which rival that of any in-flight entertainment I’ve ever seen. Travelling by rail is my favourite mode of transport.
This railway adventure showcases a sequence of dramatic landscapes, showing off all of the natural attributes for which Scotland is famed. The cityscape is soon an image of the past, as the scenic splendours begin to unveil after no more than a tea-break after departure. There is a progressive build up of beauty from the Firth of Clyde to the fjord-like Gare Loch, a mere warm up for what is yet to come.
The carriage on the train was surprisingly empty, with just a few clusters of passengers scattered in the rows. There was plenty of space to walk around and pounce across the aisle to the opposite window when summoned by the views.
The train was by no means fancy, which was just as well; any overland exploration through the wildly gorgeous Scottish highlands must be matched with a rustic, old-skool train. A shiny modern train would just look daft.
Aside from the non-stop snapshots of inspiring scenery, there was something really special about this journey which I just couldn’t put my finger on. Perhaps it was how relaxed everyone was; from the group of mountain bikers drinking wine in plastic glasses, to the eager backpackers snacking on budget essentials from the supermarket, to the lone female storyteller from Canada who became my buddy in Mallaig that night.
As we advanced over Scotland’s largest area of uninhabited wilderness – Rannoch Moor – I marvelled at the great expanse of mysterious moorland, feeling blissfully far away from my hectic lifestyle in Edinburgh. The route was stunning and remote, the pace was unhurried.
It was as if the final destination did not matter, when the journey to get there was so magical.
The train splits at Crianlarich, with some carriages heading for Oban and the remaining two continuing on to Fort William and Mallaig. The journey from then on had the intimacy of a road-trip, with an unusually high staff-to-passenger ratio for a train journey.
The Train Conductor was happy for us to step outside onto the platforms at middle-of-nowhere stations, giving us a countdown of minutes to enjoy the fresh air and stunning surroundings.
We were the only people for miles and miles, and it felt amazing.
We passed snow-capped peaks, mirror-like lochs, rivers, glens, waterfalls, forests, old ruins and a herd of deer that ran across the moorland with a synchronised gracefulness. I felt so proud and lucky to call Scotland my home, and we hadn’t ever started the most scenic leg yet!
The Fort William to Mallaig stretch has earned worldwide fame thanks to Harry Potter. Visitors can indulge in a wee slice of Harry Potter magic by climbing aboard the Jacobite Steam Train (which runs May – Oct) and riding over the iconic Glenfinnan Viaduct; now popularly known as the ‘Harry Potter Bridge’.
Since I was travelling in April, I stayed in the comfort of the same seat the whole way. Actually that’s a lie, I was kindly invited by Train Conductor Davie Fagan to take photos from the open window in the driver’s cabin at the back of the train. What a privilege!
My photos were now crystal clear and free from any dodgy reflections. Plus, Davie gave me top tips on when to capture the best views and from which angle. This personable level of service is rarely found these days, least of all on public transport!
Davie proudly showed me amazing photographs on his phone which he’d taken during the many times he’s travelled on this route over the years. His passion for the scenery and his eagerness to share it with passengers has clearly never faltered.
One of the highlights for me was the prominence of Ben Nevis on the landscape. I’ve never seen the UK’s highest mountain bask in the sunshine like that before – in fact it’s said the summit is only visible around 30 days per year!
My hair danced in the wind, as my eyes locked on this fine sample of natural perfection. I couldn’t have been more content.
Despite having been in a relatively confined space for around five hours, I was in absolutely no hurry for this experience to end. Davie and Train Driver John Hynd treated us by stopping on the Glenfinnan Viaduct so that we could savour the moment a bit longer.
The multiple arches were as impressive close up as the views down to the Loch Shiel, the iconic point where Bonnie Price Charlie famously landed in 1745.
Davie made sure I captured all of the best bits, and even coordinated with Driver John over the phone so that I could run up to the driver’s cabin at the front of the train to photograph Loch Eil through the only gap in the trees.
John and Davie could not have been more accommodating, they really made the trip.
We wound round into Arisaig and I soon had a sneaky peak of Morar’s silver sands. A series of small isles – Rum, Eigg, Muck, Canna – rose from the surface of the water, which sparkled in the sunlight. The distant silhouette of the Cuillin mountains on the Isle of Skye was otherworldly, yet close enough to reach by ferry in just thirty minutes.
When I stepped off the train in Mallaig I was met by sunshine and the strong smell of fish and chips. I dropped off my bag at the hotel and went straight out for seafood and whisky. It seemed like a fitting celebration for what I truly believe is the best rail experience in the world.
I asked the Twitter public “How would you describe the West Highland Line to someone who hasn’t done it?”
Here’s what they said…
Massive thanks to Davie and John for making the journey unlike any other