MALLAIG, SCOTLAND — The summer steam trains that shuttle between Mallaig and Fort William, Scotland, have been sidelined the last few weeks. It's been unusually hot in the Highlands, and sparks flying out from the engines' smokestacks could ignite the heather. But even with its standard diesel engines, the West Highland Line still offers one of the most dramatic rides on rail.
One passenger from Edinburgh says he boarded a train in the morning, picked up the West Highland in Glasgow, rode out to Mallaig and then on back to Edinburgh. "I've done this every year for 25 years," he says. "It's the most beautiful train ride in Scotland. It gives me such an uplift. It gives me strength."
Completed in 1901, the West Highland line opens up parts of the Highlands that are still inaccessible except by rail. To its Victorian-era engineers, the triumph of the line was making it across the 400-square-mile Rannoch Moor, "the roof of Scotland." This great peaty bog ate up tons of turf, brushwood, and ash hauled in from all over Britain before yielding a bed solid enough on which to lay tracks.
From Rannoch Moor, it's a steep descent to Fort William. Here, local activists ask for signatures on a petition to block ScotRail's bid to close its West Highland sleeper service from London. (The courts ordered the service continued pending fuller consultation.)
Between Fort William and Mallaig, passengers set aside their books. With mountains, lochs, waterfalls, eagles, bouncing lambs, and masterwork concrete bridges to look at, there's not much interest in reading. Even those expecting the great curve of the Glenfinnan viaduct 100 feet above the ground seem stunned by it.
Watch out the left side of the train as you head down into Mallaig. The postcard vistas of the Western Isles could inspire your next stop.