Full steam ahead
The Glenfinnan Viaduct in the Scottish Highlands carries trains on the Scottish West Highland Line. (Pete Seaward)
Across the Scottish Highlands and around Italy’s lakes, these rail journeys make tracks through some of Europe’s most beautiful landscapes.
The West Highland Line
Alex MacDonald is a softly spoken railway man, and a true Highland gentleman. From up on the footplate of his clanking, hissing beast of a Black Five locomotive, he waves us aboard. “Surely I have,” he says, when asked if he has a minute or two to talk. “Shunting can wait.” And while we discuss the season ahead, whether he’s ever run out of steam, and what that big lever does, he still has time to greet a succession of small boys lifted up by their parents to peer into his cab. It is as if they are being blessed by the Pope.
“The Pope?” echoes fireman Neil Henderson, fresh from shovelling two tons of coal, and ready to shovel two more on the return journey. “Never mind the Pope! For us, he has the rank of God and above.”
Alex looks slightly embarrassed, but the radio crackles and spares his blushes. It is time, he announces, to shunt the coaches clear of the arrival platform; in other words, time for those of us whose journey has ended to climb out into the thick wet mist of the fishing port of Mallaig.
I have always liked trains, and once upon a time I could have been one of those boys lifted up from a Highland platform for an engine driver’s benediction. It is a fascination that dates back to my first decade of holidaymaking, to the long trek back to the Isle of Skye – my mother’s place of origin – on the overnight sleeper, a small boy so excited that sleep was the last thing I wanted to do. Which is why I find myself momentarily watery-eyed; it is as if I have travelled back 45 years.
But this journey had begun a mere 16 hours earlier, in a very different setting. The Caledonian Sleeper to Fort William sets out every evening from London Euston. Once passengers are on board, the long-haul destination produces an instant camaraderie, and people begin to gather in the lounge car in an interesting cross-section that ranges from a beaming American family, heading for a wet week of ancestor-hunting, to a half-mooned lawyer type with a share in a Highland estate. Stories are swapped and whiskies are distributed by a doggedly chipper bar steward who has the look of someone who knows he has got a late night ahead.
I slip away when conversation reaches the subject of Scottish independence, and minutes later am tucked between clean sheets, hurtling through a nation at rest.
The next thing I know, the train has worked its overnight magic, and the canyons of office blocks and black cabs have been replaced by red deer grazing on granite crags. This is the West Highland Line (Glasgow to Fort William and thence to Mallaig), the most beautiful railway route in Britain. My cabin attendant brings breakfast as we emerge onto the 56-squaremile wilderness that is Rannoch Moor, a raging sea of bog and rock that only the railway dares to cross. The track-layers had to contend with horrendous conditions back in 1894, and 37 of them died. In places, the ground was so boggy the line had to be laid on a floating raft of logs, where it is still ironed flat by passing trains.
Arriving at the more man-made landscape of Fort William, it is time to transfer to the next leg of my journey. The Jacobite is a daily steam-hauled service that has recently achieved a new kind of stardom as the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter films, in which it steams majestically, just as now, across the Glenfinnan Viaduct.
As we cross the snaking, single-track bridge there is a glimpse of Loch Shiel, and of the monument that marks the spot where Bonnie Prince Charlie first assembled his Jacobite army that nearly did so well for the Scots. His hopes ended with a catastrophic defeat at the Battle of Culloden, and he had to flee over the sea to Skye, and eventually back to France.