The saga continues! Here’s Day 2 of my trip out to the Western Highlands and Islands. Missed Day 1? Find it here!
After a very wet and rainy day and a night of being somewhat colder than I had hoped and listening to sober people shouting at drunk people and then drunk people shouting back, I woke up to a beautiful sunny day with an amazing view of Ben Nevis. I had some pretty big plans, so I ate a quick breakfast and packed by backpack, leaving my tent and sleeping bag back at the campsite.
And then I began my walk into town. I don’t mind 40 minute walks through really pretty woods – who would? But on 40 minute walks that I’m only semi-familiar with, I reach a point about 15 minutes in where I think I’m nearly there, because this huge stone was fairly close to the beginning of my walk, so the houses I remember are just beyond this bend.
And then I pass that bend and realize I was wrong, so I’m convinced it’s the next bend. When it isn’t, I give up and stop caring about how long it will take and just walk. And then I reach those houses far sooner than my now revised sense of this walk let me believe, and I’m at the train station feeling like I’ve arrived early, when in fact, I arrived precisely when I meant to.
That’s how I arrived at the station for my ride on the Jacobite Steam Train. For those who have watched the Harry Potter movies, the Hogwarts Express is modeled after the Jacobite Steam Train, and the train is the same one filmed in the second movie when they’re in the flying car and going across a fancy-looking bridge. We’ll get to that in a minute.
But the Jacobite Steam Train has an incredibly interesting story even before starring as the Hogwarts Express. The West Highland Line is a very difficult line to travel, and it needed powerful engines to navigate through the highlands. Nigel Gresley designed a 2-cylinder locomotive which became known as the K2 a later created a 3 cylinder locomotive known as the K4. Edward Thompson and then Arthur Peppercorn further modified the design, creating the K1 Jacobite Steam Train. The Jacobite Steam Train was built in 1949. The coaches on the train are all 1960s Mark 1 coaches from British Railways and are completely open inside in order to give everyone the best view of the scenery.
If you’re taking the train round-trip, then there is no need to worry about which side you sit on – whatever you miss on the way up, you’ll see on the way back. If, however, you’re taking the train on a single journey, then you should try to sit on the left site (facing the direction of travel) from Fort William or the right side (facing the direction of travel) from Mallaig. Seats are assigned, but someone might be willing to swap.
Roughly halfway through the train ride, you cross the Glenfinnan viaduct. This viaduct looks out over Loch Shiel and the Jacobite monument, and is that bridge you see the train pass over in the Harry Potter films. Photos cannot do this viaduct justice in terms of its size, but I did try to capture it.
The 21-arch single track viaduct was built between 1897 and 1898 for £18,904 ($32,110) by Sir Robert McAlpine and connects Mallaig to Fort William. This was incredibly important for the economy of the Western Highlands, and is even featured on certain Bank of Scotland £10 notes.
Just past the viaduct, the train stops at Glenfinnan Railway Station, which houses the small but wonderful Glenfinnan Station Museum. Entry to the museum is £1, or £0.50 if you come on the train. There is a marvelous exhibit about how the viaduct was built (complete with photos and local legends) and the final room holds antique furniture and equipment used in the station. I personally love the ticket cabinet. The station also has a dining car and sleeping car, so you can stop there on your way to hike the highlands for a night or a quick lunch break.
Moving on from Glenfinnan, it’s about another hour and a half or so to Mallaig with beautiful views the whole way.
Mallaig is easily my absolute favorite town in Scotland. It has only a few main roads through town, and a couple of ferry ports loading out to Skye and the small isles. The local community center advertised a fundraiser luncheon on the train to raise money for a volunteer organization that helps rescue those lost at sea, and it was the best £3 I ever spent. I met some very friendly locals who were telling me about their town and asking about what I did and telling me the best places to go.
For someone who grew up in a coastal town and is used to the small-town lifestyle, Mallaig was perfect.
The community center is right across the street from the train station, and locals say there is always a fundraiser or event or something going on there. They also bring in a traveling cinema once a month (so I’m told) and regularly host live music and other events. If you’ve got time to spend in Mallaig (which everyone should), check out what’s happening at the community center.
After lunch I didn’t have too much time before the ferry left, so I wandered briefly up Station Road and out along the pier to take some photos before catching the ferry to Skye. Since the weather was flawless, the ferry ride was magnificent.
I had zero plans in Skye, just as I had on Mull. I didn’t want to make too many plans, because leaving things open caused a bit less stress and I was already so time constrained with my ferries and trains and buses that I didn’t want to add more confusion to the mix. Besides, a older man at the community center said that the area around the ferry was his favorite place on Skye, and wandering around the woods there would be the best possible thing I could do with the time I had.
Basically, I had it on good authority that my lack of a plan was a great idea.
So I got off the ferry and as everyone else was heading to tour buses and cars and driving away, I moseyed over to a small shop at the top of the hill (and one of only two stores in sight) called Ragamuffin. It was a fun little store, and if I had more money and more room in my backpack, I might have purchased something.
As I came out of the store, there was a sign for a woodland walk that led up a narrow path and disappeared into the trees. Since that was my plan anyway, I started down the path with my iPhone at the ready. A bit further down, there was a sign directing me to the woodland walk and, as a bonus, Seal Island.
Of course, I became infinitely more excited at the prospect of seals.
About ten minutes later, the path emptied out on an outcrop overlooking a large rock beach and several islands. One of those islands had a ton of seals. I tried to get a good photo, but the island was far enough away that my best effort was not that great.
There was a sign pointing down to an otter play area, and after traipsing briefly through what seemed like a jungle I came upon a rock formation that seemed the sort of thing otters would enjoy.
There were no otters.
I don’t know if I scared them off or if other people before me scared them off or if they were just sleeping, but there were no otters.
I was disappointed for about three seconds before realizing that I was now closer to the seals and might be able to take a better photo. I wandered out on the rock beach as close to the ocean as I could get and took in the view.
The tide was fairly low, so rather than climb back up the cliff and walk back through the woods, I climbed over the boulders and walked along the beach back up to Ragamuffin. I don’t think that would be possible if the tide where in, and I did get a touch wet, but it was well worth it.
After hanging out on the beach near the pier for a bit, I made my way back to catch the ferry back to Mallaig. After wandering around town and having a wonderful meal of fish and chips, I caught the normal train back to Fort William for the night.
For any who are interested, all of the photos and many of those from other posts are on sale here.