West Highland Line
Glasgow to Oban, Fort William and Mallaig
Welcome to one of the world's most memorable rail journeys
When the whistle blows in Glasgow's glass-roofed Queen Street station, and the train for Mallaig sets out, you are starting on a journey that is 164 miles long, and will leave an abundance of memories to treasure. On the way you'll see tiny villages, vast moors, towering mountains and historic glens. You'll see places you want to visit again, and explore more closely.
Come in spring, when the air is invigorating and the great glens stir with new life.
Travel in summer, when the long evenings bring spectacular sunsets over majestic skylines.
Set out in autumn, when the colours flare into purple, gold, yellow and brown.
Or board the train in winter, when the glinting snow adds a new dimension, and the herds of deer come to forage on the moors.
A line for all seasons ... all thanks to the vision and courage of the entrepreneurs, engineers and labourers who drove this track through some of Britain's most dramatic, beautiful and sometimes merciless terrain.
The first sod of earth on the route was cut with a silver spade in October 1889. In August 1894, the line between Glasgow and Fort William was opened to passenger traffic ...the greatest mileage of railway ever opened in one day in Britain. And in April 1901, the line to Mallaig was opened - the West Highland Railway was complete. Travel over it today and you'll come to understand why so many people have fallen in love with it since.
The start of your journey
Your journey to the sea-salt air of Mallaig starts at Glasgow, pulling out over the same lines that haul ScotRail services east and north. At Cowlairs, you turn left through Maryhill and Westerton and uphill to Kilpatrick, with the graceful lines of the Erskine Road Bridge in view. You're running parallel to the River Clyde, cradle of so many great ocean liners. Then it's on to Bowling, where the Clyde estuary broadens before you.
After Dumbarton, you cross the River Leven and at Craigendoran you veer to the right and on to the West Highland Line proper.
Helensburgh Upper was the home of Henry Bell while he perfected his steamboat 'Comet', launched in January 1812 at Port Glasgow on the south bank of the Clyde. Crowds on the shore scattered as the smoke belched from her funnel, racing across the water at 5mph! A new era was born.
Gare Loch is the first of many lochs you'll see, with its history as a military submarine base, but also popular with weekend yachtsmen.
At Garelochhead station you have a panoramic view of the village. Soon on the left, you'll see slender Loch Long. The jetty below is Finnart deep-water terminal, where tankers discharge their oil to be pumped by pipeline to Grangemouth, 60 miles away to the east.
Loch Long vanishes briefly, as the hills become more like mountains; then on the right its Glen Douglas, which leads to the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.
Loch Long returns, with its distinctive shape of Ben Arthur, known as 'The Cobbler', a favourite with mountaineers and walkers.
The road curves away through Glen Croe to Inveraray, where the castle is home to the Duke of Argyll, Chieftain of the Clan Campbell.
A few minutes beyond Arrochar and Tarbet station, Loch Lomond appears on your right, dominated by Ben Lomond. Across the loch is Inversnaid, the area once roamed by Rob Roy MacGregor, legendary warrior, robber and folk-hero. He used to question captives in a nearby cave - and he was prepared to dip them in the loch to extract information.
You're travelling along the flank of mighty Ben Vorlich. High above is Loch Sloy - watch for the huge pipes carrying the loch waters under the tracks to the electricity-generating house below.
The line descends almost to the water's edge at Ardlui station, and then it's a hard 15 mile climb up to Glen Falloch. Inverarnan Water foams under the line. In the glen stand ancient Scots Pines, remnants of the Caledonian Forest which once covered the land.
You cross over the Dubh Eas Water on a viaduct and are about the same height above the water as the Forth Railway Bridge is over the sea. Soon you'll see the Falls of Falloch on the right, and then you're in Crianlarich, where the line divides, with the southern branch swerving west to Oban.
West from Crianlarich to Oban
After Tyndrum Lower and the Fillan Water, the Oban branch takes you through beautiful Glen Lochy to Dalmally, beyond which stands the ruin of Kilchurn Castle, ancient stronghold of Clan Campbell. You swerve round the head of Loch Awe and enter the pass of Brander, which skirts the towering bulk of Ben Cruachan, within which is a power station. Look out for the wire fence, which guards the line against landslides. Rocks striking the wires automatically set the signals to danger.
To the left is the River Awe, setting for Sir Walter Scott's romance 'The Highland Widow'. Soon you're in Taynuilt, a delightful village on the shores of Loch Etive. The train follows Loch Etive, through a district called 'Australia' because of its bush-like character.
Near Connel Ferry you can see the Falls of Laura, where the tidal waters flow over a ledge of rock at the narrow entrance to Loch Etive.
Into Glen Cruitten, and from the summit the line winds downhill. Enjoy the splendid views of Oban, now only a few minutes away.
Oban is a coastal resort with a difference - the town and its bay are virtually land-locked, giving it a sheltered setting. It's a magnificent touring centre, whether you want to cruise to the Isles or explore the lovely land of Lorne. For memorable views, walk up Oban Hill to McCaig's Tower. Take a walk to Ganavan Sands and relax on the beach. Or there are ferries to Mull, Staffa, Iona, Coll, Tiree, Barra and South Uist.
North from Crianlarich to Fort William
Back at Crianlarich, the northbound fork of the West Highland Line climbs quickly to Tyndrum Upper and around Beinn Odhar to a unique horseshoe bend.
On then to Bridge of Orchy, well known to walkers and climbers. To your left is the ruin of Achallader Castle, stronghold of the Fletchers. Then it's on through Crannoch Wood, another vestige of the Great Caledonian Forest. The forest was probably cleared to rid the country of wolves, wild boars and outlaws. It still attracts naturalist, botanists, geologists and birdwatchers galore.
At Gorton Crossing you start on to the wild Rannoch Moor, with its peat bogs, streams, tiny lochs, boulders, streams and old tree stumps and roots. The West Highland Walkway from Glasgow to Fort William skirts the moor, but only the railway crosses this vast wilderness; this was achieved by 'floating' the line across the moor on a mattress of tree roots, brushwood and thousands of tons of earth and ashes.
Rannoch station, with its chalet-style building and Swiss birch shingles, stands near Loch Laidon. Pulling away from Rannoch, you can see the Black Mount and Glencoe, one of Scotland's premier skiing centres.
At Corrour Summit you are 1350 feet (450 metres) above sea level - the highest point on the line. Before reaching Corrour, you pass through Britain's only snow shed at Cruach cutting. The shed protects the cutting from winter snowdrifts, which can pile as high as houses.
To the right is Ossian, one of Scotland's highest lochs at 1269 feet (430 metres).
As you travel alongside Loch Treig, you gradually swoop down 415 feet (135 metres) until you're almost at water level.
At Tulloch you are virtually due north of Craigendoran, but now you head west into the Braes of Lochaber. The glen narrows until Monessie Gorge, where the River Spean roars through the white rocks, sculpted smooth by its ferocity. It's on your left, slightly below rail level.
A little beyond Roy Bridge on the left is Keppoch House, ancient home of the Chiefs of the Clan McDonald. And just past Spean Bridge, high on the hill to the right, stands the monument to the commandos, who trained here during the Second World War.
Ben Nevis looms ahead. At over 4400 feet (1465 metres), its Britain's highest mountain. And big - its circumference at the base is 24 miles. You'll see Inverlochy Castle before the train glides into Fort William.
Fort William has excellent shopping, ideal for your holiday souvenirs! You can also visit the West Highland museum and - if you're good on mountains - consider a hike up Ben Nevis, where you'll get spectacular views of the Cairngorms, the peaks of Wester Ross and out over the sea to the Wester Isles. But do make sure you're properly equipped for the climb.
And the journey from Fort William to Mallaig
Its back out from Fort William and on to Mallaig - during the summer, you may be able to get a steam train excursion.
At Banavie, the line crosses part of the Caledonian Canal, Britain's longest inland waterway, which links Fort William with Inverness. Look to the right and you'll see Neptune's Staircase, a remarkable series of canal locks.
Locheilside is home of the Clan Cameron. The breathtaking curve of the 100 feet high (35 metres) Glenfinnan Viaduct sweeps you past the head of Loch Shiel and the monument to Bonnie Prince Charlie, marking the spot where he landed and unfurled his standard in 1745 to commence his rebellion. The viaduct itself is a monument, as it's the first concrete viaduct ever built in Britain - by 'Concrete Bob McAlpine'.
Beyond Glenfinnan station, Loch Eilt is studded with tiny islands, each bearing tall silver trees. Once again, you're down by the water.
Lochailort stands in a glorious setting and was the site of one of the largest camps of labourers during the line's construction - almost 2000 men lived here. By now, you may be able to smell the sea!
Beautiful Loch Ailort goes by, then Beasdale, then tunnels, Loch Dubh on the right, a viaduct, spell-binding Loch Nan Uamh, and more tunnels.
Past Arisaig, look over Loch Nan Ceall and see the islands of Rum and Eigg, with its distinctive flat top. Onwards to Morar, through captivating scenery. On your right is Loch Morar, Britain's deepest loch at 1000 feet (333 metres) - and, of course, home to a monster!
To the left, you'll see the white sands of Morar, and the Atlantic waves rolling in.
And then you're in Mallaig. Take a stroll about the harbour. Absorb views over to Skye, across Loch Nevis to Knoydart, and to Rum and Eigg. Breathe deep the clean air and relax in the heart of one of Europe's most delightful areas.
From Mallaig, ferries can carry you to Rum, Eigg, the other Small Isles and the romantic Isle of Skye You could take a ferry to Oban, and travel back along the other branch of the West Highland Line. Or by ferry and road via Skye to Kyle of Lochalsh, to join the Kyle Line, another of the Highland's great scenic railways.