West Highland Line: The World’s Best Rail Experience

West Highland Line

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.

West Highland Line: The World's Best Rail Experience

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.

West Highland Line: The World's Best Rail Experience

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.

West Highland Line: The World's Best Rail Experience

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.

West Highland Line: The World's Best Rail Experience

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.

West Highland Line: The World's Best Rail Experience

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.

West Highland Line: The World's Best Rail Experience

Crianlarich Station

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!

West Highland Line: The World's Best Rail Experience

The Glenfinnan Viaduct AKA the ‘Harry Potter Bridge

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!

West Highland Line: The World's Best Rail Experience

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.

West Highland Line: The World's Best Rail Experience

Glenfinnan Station

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.

West Highland Line: The World's Best Rail Experience

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.

West Highland Line: The World's Best Rail Experience

West Highland Line: The World's Best Rail Experience

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.

West Highland Line: The World's Best Rail Experience
West Highland Line: The World's Best Rail Experience

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.

West Highland Line: The World's Best Rail Experience

  • If booked in advance, tickets from Glasgow to Mallaig can be as little as £11.50 each way
  • I stayed in Mallaig for one night at the lovely West Highland Hotel and returned the next day
  • From Mallaig you can get the ferry to Skye, the Small Isles and Knoydart
  • I devoured langoustines in the Chlachain Inn and a half pint of prawns at the Tea Garden 

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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…

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Massive thanks to Davie and John for making the journey unlike any other 

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13 Comments

  • Rachel says:

    Wow, you had a blinder of a day to do this glorious line! The amount of times I did the Oban to Glasgow bit and saw nothing but mist and rain when I lived up there!
    Sounds like you were on your feet the whole journey, for all those wonderful photos! Amazing post!
    I’ve recommended this line to loads of people, it fully deserves its best in the world tag.

    • Kay says:

      Thanks Rachel! The weather was the best I’ve seen this year (apart from my trip to Italy!). I’m doing the route to Oban in September so hoping for some sunshine then too. Most likely I’ll be glued to the window with my camera again!

  • Yasmine says:

    Looks absolutely stunning. I’ve always wanted to explore Scotland and I love train journeys, so this looks perfect!

    Yasmine
    http://peekingduck.co

  • David Crossley says:

    Fantastic inspiring article with beautiful photos.

    I’m doing it myself soon but catching 04:50 Caledonian Sleeper from Waverley, an iconic train for an iconic line. Taking my golf clubs to play in the Traigh Open at Arisaig. Can’t wait!

    • Kay says:

      Thanks David, that’s really nice of you to say. Have you done your journey yet? I fancy the Caledonian Sleeper too. I love Arisaig! Hope you have a good time playing golf 🙂

  • John Dowson says:

    Hi Kay,

    I love that part of the world and have visited it frequently though never via the west highland way line.
    It’s a journey that I definitely want to make and after reading your fantastic words and looking at your amazing pics, very soon !
    Keep up the fantastic posts (please) and keep inspiring us to enjoy an amazing country 🙂

    • Kay says:

      Hi John. It was honestly one of the best experiences I’ve had in Scotland, so you have to add it to your list! If you book far enough in advance, the fares are really good value. Thanks very much – I have lots more posts about Scotland to come so stay tuned and stay inspired 🙂

  • We cannot begin to describe how jealous we are that you got the perfect day to travel and more so got the condcutor to give you an open window. I’ve personally, had a DSLR hanging outside a bit dangerously to take some haze free shots on the same line (Glenfinnan Viaduct of course). Your pictures are magnificent!!

    Another amazing thing about this line is that you can get off just about anywhere & there’s so much to do. Beaches at Arisaig & Morar, hiking at Corrour & Crianlarich, etc.

    • Kay says:

      Thanks so much for your comment! 🙂

      I’ve done the journey again since, and have had mixed weather conditions. I was definitely very lucky on this occasion. It was one of my favourite travel experiences to date.

      There are so many great places on that route aren’t there? I wish I could just take off all around Scotland for a a couple of months.

  • Gareth Furlong says:

    Hi Kay, Fantastic article! – with such glowing endorsements, I’m seriously considering giving this a try later in the year.

    I see that the Jacobite steam train also runs partially along the same route (Fort William to Mallaig) – would you regard the Jacobite as a worthwhile addition to the trip or would it just detract from the natural, rugged beauty of the journey?

    Also, in your opinion, does Mallaig have sufficient sightseeing opportunities to keep someone occupied for a day or two, or is it worth venturing slightly further field, I.e, a visit to Skye (although I don’t drive, so I don’t know how plausible that is via public transport)

    • Kay says:

      Hi Gareth! Thanks so much for your lovely comment 🙂
      I honestly can’t recommend this journey enough. Travelling by train is so relaxing, and the varied landscapes on this route are second to none.

      I’ve not been on the steam train, but I imagine this is an amazing experience. It’s likely very busy though!
      I travelled twice in the month of April on the standard train and it wasn’t heaving.

      You could base yourself in Mallaig for one or two days, though there isn’t much in the town itself. You could get the train back down a couple of stops to Morar or Arisaig (STUNNING BEACHES). You could also get the wee ferry into Knoydart (Britain’s last wilderness) from Mallaig. It takes around 30 minutes, and you can do the ‘Knoydart in a nutshell’ walk, then have lunch at the Old Forge. One last suggestion is that you could go to Eigg for a couple of nights. It’s such an amazing wee island. I really need to write about it soon.

      Hope this helps! Kay.

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