The West Highland Line is a railway in Scotland running from Glasgow to Fort William and Mallaig, with a branch to Oban. It's rated one of the most scenic railways in the world, but is a practical everyday route for passengers and freight. It's a lifeline not only for communities along it but for Hebridean islands connected by ferry to the terminuses, as indicated by its Gaelic name Rathad Iarainn nan Eilean - "Iron Road to the Isles".
In the mid-19th century, a frenzy of railway expansion reached all the cities of Scotland, even Inverness, but the northwest remained blank on the map. As the easy-to-build, profitable lowland railways were completed, increasingly hare-brained proposals were put forward for outlying routes — one for the West Highlands reckoned trains could be sucked over the hills, with an almighty thhhhhwurp! to out-do the sucking of the bogs they crossed. Eventually from 1866 a line was built in fits and starts from the existing network near Stirling via Callander, Killin and Crianlarich, with a complete route to Oban by 1880.
Much more difficult terrain lay north, and much poorer prospects for either passenger or freight revenue. The ground was either too soft or too rock-hard, and there was no locally-available labour or materials. Costs were higher and investors (already burnt) were wary. A further obstacle was existing railway companies, who squealed at anything that might threaten their local monopolies. What changed government thinking was rural poverty sparking civil unrest in the Highlands, as it had in Ireland. So funding and legal assent were obtained, ground was broken in 1889 on what would become the West Highland Railway, and it reached Fort William in 1894, extending to Mallaig in 1901. At Crianlarich it crossed the Callander-Oban line, with the minimum of cooperation between the two routes until the Beeching cuts of 1965 — then the Callander-Crianlarich section was abandoned and the Glasgow-Oban route became a branch of the West Highland line.
- See also: Rail travel in Great Britain
The train is the easy bit. Timetables, fares and discounts are described on the National Rail website, which directs you to the multiple train operators to buy your ticket. Scotrail operates the regular day-time train but you can buy from any, including for connecting journeys from England to Glasgow. Reservations are essential for the sleeper from London (the booking horizon is 12 months), and recommended for day-time trains in July, August and around public holidays. The rail service connects with several Hebridean ferries and gets busy at peak times, and you don't want to be standing in the corridor all that way. Off-peak there's no problem buying tickets for immediate travel, but advance returns are generally a better deal. These may tie you to specific trains but this is not the sort of route you hop-on, hop-off on a whim.
You need accommodation, probably both in Glasgow and at your intended terminus. Glasgow itself is a great destination that deserves a few days to explore. It gets chock-a-bloc in August during the Edinburgh Festival, as everywhere within an hour's travel of that city is booked solid.
What do you intend to do at the north end? If it's just a stroll on the promenade and purchase of a souvenir tea-towel, preparation is simple. More is involved for water activities or mountain hikes, where you have to factor in changes in the weather and the logistics around train times. At any rate be better prepared than Sir Robert MacAlpine (1847-1934), founder of the construction firm, who set off with six colleagues to survey the intended route over Rannoch Moor. On a bleak January day in 1889, facing a 70-km hike over trackless bog, they were dressed as if sauntering down the street to the bank on a mild morning in May. Two days later they were rescued; it's a miracle they all survived. Their ordeal did some good as further evidence of the need for a railway.
Get in edit
Glasgow is the start of the West Highland Line, and the usual springboard for exploring it. The city has good air connections across Europe and within the UK, and trains and buses from London and all over Scotland; it has never been a ferry or liner port. There's lots to see and do here, and plenty of places to eat, drink and sleep.
Glasgow Central is the arrival terminus for trains from London Euston, Birmingham and Manchester, via Preston and Carlisle; the fastest trains from Euston run hourly and take 4 hours 30 min. Some trains from London Kings Cross via Newcastle and Edinburgh terminate here, but it's quicker to change in Edinburgh. Trains from southwest Scotland also run here, from Lanark, Motherwell, Dumfries, Kilmarnock, Stranraer (for Belfast ferry), Ayr, Prestwick Airport, Ardrossan (for Arran ferry), Largs, Troon, Wemyss Bay (for Bute ferry), Greenock and Gourock (for Dunoon ferry).
Central station is 500 m southwest of Queen Street station. It's simplest to walk, unless the weather is foul or you're laden with luggage or sprogs. Bus 398 is free if you show an onward rail ticket. Don't use the Underground, it's just as far to walk.
Glasgow Queen Street is the start for trains along the West Highland line. It has fast trains from Edinburgh via Falkirk, so this is your usual arrival point from London Kings Cross, Leeds, York, or Newcastle, changing at Edinburgh. (Slower trains from Edinburgh, including through-trains from England, trundle across the industrial central belt to Glasgow Central.) Services from Inverness, Aberdeen, Dundee, Perth and Stirling also terminate at Queen Street. Saturdays it's thronged with football fans and drunks, but few of these are taking the West Highland train.
Scotrail trains are the principal service, running the length of the route six times M-Sa and thrice on Sunday. The first departs shortly after 05:00 and the last towards 18:30. These are composed of two-coach diesel (Class 156 Sprinter) units, and they start from Queen Street with two or three units, a four- or six-coach train which divides at Crianlarich. The front two or four carriages turn west to Oban while the rear unit of two carriages continues north to Fort William and Mallaig. There is a corridor between units.
The Caledonian Highland Sleeper runs F-Su from London Euston to Fort William, booking essential. It departs after 21:00 and runs northwest via Preston to reach Edinburgh in the early hours, where portions detach for Aberdeen and for Inverness. Passengers in the seating saloon without a sleeper bunk must change coaches here, but you can't use this train for Edinburgh or Glasgow - instead take the Lowland Sleeper which leaves Euston towards midnight. The Fort William portion rumbles across the central belt and through Glasgow to join the West Highland route approaching Dumbarton some time after 06:00, and from here on can be used as a day train. It stops at all stations on the way including Crianlarich but has no portion (or sensible connection) for Oban, as the first Scotrail train of the day is 20 minutes ahead of it. It reaches Fort William at 10:00; the return south departs towards 20:00 to reach Euston for 08:00.
The Jacobite is a heritage steam-hauled tourist train between Fort William and Mallaig, departing daily April-Oct at 10:15 and returning at 16:00. May-Sept there's also a daily afternoon service, departing at 12:50 and back before 19:00. That means it connects with the sleeper both ways. It makes a 15-min stop at Glenfinnan to photograph the viaduct, and at Arisaig by request. The morning run gives you 90 min in Mallaig, while returning by the afternoon run gives you 4½ hours, enough for a boat trip. See Fort William#Go for practicalities: the fare is about three times the Scotrail service.
The full route from Glasgow takes 5½ hours to Mallaig or 3 hours to Oban, diverging at Crianlarich.
Between Oban and Mallaig takes about 5 hours, with a 30 minute wait at Crianlarich.
Glasgow to Crianlarich edit
- 1 Glasgow Queen Street (0 km) is the terminus for trains from Inverness, Aberdeen, Dundee, Perth, Stirling and the faster trains from Edinburgh. Local through-trains use the basement platforms. The West Highland route carves away from this leash of tracks to rattle through the suburbs north of the Clyde.
- 2 Dalmuir (16.1 km) at the northwest edge of the city is near Auchentoshan Distillery.
- Kilpatrick, Bowling and Dumbarton East are platform halts with trains from Glasgow to Helensburgh and Balloch, but the West Highland trains don't stop there.
- 3 Dumbarton Central (26.6 km) is where trains branch for Helensburgh Central and for Balloch on Loch Lomond. The town is tatty and industrial but has a fine castle on a crag overlooking the Clyde estuary. If you landed at Glasgow Airport, you could take a taxi direct here across Erskine Bridge to bypass Glasgow.
- Dumbarton marks the boundary of the Highlands, and the first major transport obstacle in the shape of the "Argyll Alps". The road heads north along the bank of Loch Lomond, and a former railway did so, now a cycle track. The mainline railway however swings west to follow the shore of Gareloch, a sea inlet, and from here on is single track, not electrified.
- 4 Helensburgh Upper (41.0 km) is close to Hill House, built and decorated by Charles Rennie Mackintosh in 1902/04. It's a mile uphill from the main town, which is more easily reached by the frequent trains to Helensburgh Central.
- 5 Garelochhead (51.9 km) is a Victorian beach resort blighted by the Royal Navy submarine base at Faslane, and other industry.
- 6 Arrochar and Tarbet (62.9 km) are neighbouring villages on a low saddle of land between the hills flanking Loch Lomond and Loch Long. The A82 towards Inveraray also crosses here, so the villages are busy with traffic.
- 7 Ardlui (82.1 km) at the north end of Loch Lomond has water sports. The route now climbs Glen Falloch.
- 8 Crianlarich (96.2 km, two hours out of Glasgow) is where the tracks diverge and daytime trains divide for Oban or for Fort William and Mallaig. (The sleeper has no portion for Oban.) It's the midway point on the West Highland Way long distance footpath and is set amidst mountains, but you need road transport to reach the trailheads to climb them.
Crianlarich to Oban edit
- 9 Tyndrum Lower (104.2 km) on the west flank of the glen is slightly the more convenient of the two Tyndrum stations for accommodation there; the village stands on the West Highland Way. This branch of the line then climbs over the hills to descend into Glen Lochy / Glenorchy.
- 10 Dalmally (123.5 km) is a pleasant village, birthplace of Labour Party leader John Smith (1938-1994).
- 11 Loch Awe (127.9 km) station is near the eastern head of freshwater Loch Awe, 41 km long. Kilchurn Castle is a scenic ruin at the tip of the loch, blasted by lightening in 1760. It was originally on an islet, became a peninsula when the water level was lowered in 1817, but occasionally becomes an island again thanks to the railway: after heavy rainfall the access path under the railway floods. Just beyond the station, St Conan's Kirk is a hotch-potch of just about every architectural style.
- 12 Falls of Cruachan (133.1 km) is a request halt, where the big attraction 200 m from the platform is Cruachan Hydro Electric Power Station. This is housed in a cavern deep within the mountain: a guided tour buses you in. Its role is to meet spikes in demand for electricity, by releasing water from an upper loch to roar down through the turbines.
- "Pass of Brander Stone Signals" is the Neolithic-sounding contraption protecting the line here from rock falls. Installed in 1882 shortly after the line opened, it's a screen of trip-wires: if a rock falls and breaks any wire, the mechanical semaphore signals go to "danger". A derailment in 2010 was caused by a fall starting below the wires; it caused a small fire aboard, left one coach teetering over the embankment, and caused eight minor injuries.
- 13 Taynuilt (142.4 km) is where you unexpectedly return to sea level, after what has felt like three hours of climbing, but the yellow bladder-wrack on the shore of Loch Etive is the proof. Half a mile north of the station are the gaunt ruins of the 18th / 19th century Bonawe Iron Furnace. It was wood- and charcoal-fired and could only produce pig iron: it became obsolete once coke-firing was developed to make steel.
- 14 Connel Ferry (153.3 km) historically carried road traffic across the narrow outlet of Loch Etive. Tides here are fierce, with 30 km of sea loch to fill and empty twice a day. In 1903 a sort-of-railway, sort-of-road bridge was constructed. It was primarily a freight line to the slate quarries at Ballachulish, but from 1909 a low-loader also took cars across, a prototype which the designers of LeShuttle-Eurotunnel no doubt studied carefully. In 1914 a road was squeezed in besides the track, but with insufficient room for trains and vehicles to pass, so it became effectively a very long level-crossing. The track was removed in 1966 and it's now a traffic-light controlled road bridge on A828. Dunstaffnage Castle is glimpsed west beyond the bridge.
- 15 Oban (163.3 km) is the agreeable terminus town. Lots of accommodation and other facilities here, and you may need an overnight stop if you're taking one of the Hebridean ferries. (To Craignure on Mull is the busiest, most frequent sailing.) The railway and bus stations are next to the ferry terminal.
Crianlarich to Fort William edit
- Upper Tyndrum (103.8 km) is on the east flank of Glengarry, lying a little further from Tyndrum village than Lower station on the west flank. It is however undeniably more convenient if you hope to go to Fort William, rather than to Oban where the front portion of the train is heading. The line north is paralleled by A82 and the West Highland Way, until it sweeps round in a horseshoe bend over Allt Kinglass Viaduct.
- 16 Bridge of Orchy (116.3 km) grew up after 1746, when a military road and bridge was built in the wake of the Jacobite rebellion. (Bonnie Prince Charlie had inadvertently done the locality a favour, since the River Orchy rates as a white-water kayaking destination, and you really don't want to be fording it.) The village is on the West Highland Way and there's a hostel within the station building. Beinn Dorain (1076 m / 3530 ft) to the east is ascended from here.
- 17 Rannoch (141.2 km) feels like the most remote railway station anywhere, but you haven't seen Corrour yet. Rannoch Moor is a great boggy plateau where in places the track has to "float" on wooden stretchers. The road crosses its west edge then descends to the coast via Glencoe, while the line swerves east to avoid the gradient. However bleak, this moor is not a timeless wilderness, but the outcome of Victorian land use which the present owners are working to reverse and re-wild. B846 from Pitlochry and Loch Tummel ends at the station, and there's a cafe and bunkhouse. Gorton station once stood 15 km south, where a disused carriage was the village schoolhouse and the teacher rode up each morning from Bridge of Orchy.
- 18 Corrour (152.9 km) is near the summit of the line at 411 m / 1350 ft. It's reached by a private estate track, no visitor vehicles allowed but bicycles are welcome. The estate makes its money from visitors shooting deer or fish or bicycles or something. A hostel stands 2 km east; Loch Treig is the body of water seen west.
- 19 Tulloch (169.0 km) is lower, as the route turns west and leaves the moor for the valley of the River Spean.
- 20 Roy Bridge (178.2 km) is where River Roy flows into River Spean: look south (left side) for the waterfalls and Monessie Gorge. This village was home to the parents of Australia's only saint to date, Mary MacKillop (1842-1909, canonised 2010). They emigrated and Mary was born in the Melbourne suburb now called Fitzroy; she visited the ancestral home in 1870.
- 21 Spean Bridge (183.5 km) is in the Great Glen, the fault line slicing diagonally across the Highlands and filled by a string of lochs, linked coast-to-coast by a navigable canal. The lake in the valley below is Loch Lochy, and Loch Ness is out of sight 30 km further northeast. The railway turns southwest.
- 22 Fort William (197.5 km) is the regional hub, with accommodation and other facilities. The Caledonian Sleeper terminates here, but in summer connects with "The Jacobite" steam train to Mallaig. The town is the north terminus of the West Highland Way, the base for climbing Ben Nevis, and is near Nevis Range skiing centre. Buses run to Inverness, Oban and the Isle of Skye. Fort William is on the coast but is not a ferry port, except for the dinky little ferry across Loch Linnhe to reach Ardnamurchan Peninsula.
Fort William to Mallaig edit
- This extension to the line was completed in 1901 and has some of the best scenery, with stern mountains, douce pasture, shining waters and bold Victorian engineering juxtaposed. The train reverses out of Fort William and runs north around the head of Loch Linnhe, diverging from the line from Glasgow at Inverlochy Castle. Three battles were fought hereabouts, no wonder the castle is a ruin.
- 23 (201.2 km), where the line turns west, is near the start of the Caledonian Canal, which here ascends through the picturesque "Neptune's Staircase" flight of locks.
- 24 Corpach (202.8 km) is at the very foot of the Caledonian Canal, with a short flight of locks. You can easily walk along the towpath between here, Banavie and Neptune's Staircase.
- 25 Loch Eil Outward Bound (207.6 km) is the stirring name of the activity centre on the shore of Loch Eil, the western extension of Loch Linnhe.
- 26 Locheilside (213.6 km) is a request halt near the head of that loch. These are the traditional heartlands of Clan Cameron, and one famous chieftain was "The Gentle Locheil" Donald Cameron (1695-1748). His support was pivotal in Bonnie Prince Charlie's decision to campaign in 1745. That Jacobite cause and many clansmen died at bayonet-point at Culloden. Lochiel escaped to die in exile in France, while his family and lands suffered ruthless reprisals.
- 27 Glenfinnan (224.1 km) is best known for the long sweeping viaduct just before the station. You get a limited view from the train, though "The Jacobite" waits for a photo stop. Don't walk on the viaduct! - it's an active railway, you're trespassing and might get squished. (線路の上を歩かないでください, 请勿在铁路上行走！- yes this includes you!) The 21-m column below marks the launch of Bonnie Prince Charlie's campaign, when he landed and raised the Stuart royal standard on 19 Aug 1745 to optimistic huzzahs. By 1814 when the monument was erected, all of that lay in a romanticised Gaelic Dreamtime, and Scotsmen dressed in the clan-appropriate kilt were dying for the United Kingdom in the Napoleonic wars. The long lake starting here is Loch Sheil - like Loch Lomond this was a fjord where the outflow was blocked by glacial debris, so it became a freshwater lake. Viaduct and village are often used as TV / film locations, such as "Harry Potter and the Game of Thrones" or whatever it was.
- 28 Lochailort (239.0 km) is a request stop. This sea loch is a branch of Loch nan Uamh. 5 km further down the line purports to be the grave of Professor Albus Dumbledore, the bookish magician of "Harry Throttler and the Game of Bones" or whatever. It's equally possible he faked his own death.
- 29 Beasdale (246.6 km) is a request stop on the sea inlet of Loch nan Uamh. The Prince's Cairn is where on 20 Sept 1746 Bonnie Prince Charlie fled back to France, to resume his first and all-consuming love affair with the brandy bottle.
- 30 Arisaig (252.3 km) has long sandy beaches and boat trips to the Small Isles of Rhum, Muck, Eigg and Canna.
- 31 Morar (259.5 km) is a tiny village on the coast, with white sandy beaches.
- 32 Mallaig (264.3 km) is the small fishing and ferry port at the end of the line; it has accommodation, a museum, and an inn with an extensive whisky collection. Mallaig used to be the main way to reach Skye, by ferry to Armadale. You can still come this way, but most road traffic nowadays goes north to cross by the bridge at Kyle of Lochalsh. Other ferry routes are to the Small Isles, to Lochboisdale on South Uist, and to Knoydart, the last villages of mainland Britain to have no road connection with the rest.
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- Glasgow is Scotland's largest city, full of interesting architecture, museums and culture. Edinburgh is only a hour away.
- Oban has ferries to the islands of Mull, Lismore, Colonsay, Islay, Coll, Tiree, Barra and South Uist.
- Fort William is a great base for hiking, at the foot of Britain's highest mountain Ben Nevis. A long distance path passes Loch Ness to reach Inverness.
- Mallaig has ferries to Armadale on Skye, the Small Isles, and the Knoydart Peninsula.