Unlike the other Scottish Journeys and Notes on this page this is not based on Ted and Steve’s recent personal jaunts. Until 2017, Steve was a tour manager with Great Rail Journeys and in that capacity led a number of tours to the Highlands of Scotland. Ted sometimes came along for the trip. This post features some of the highlights of these tours. We’ve also taken the opportunity to include a few stories from earlier pre-gowithted.com visits to the area, particularly about the Kyle line, which crops up in our lives from time to time. We hope that this post provides you with a few ideas for a Highland journey.
Steve in his Tour Manager days
The railway to Kyle of Lochalsh
Loch Carron from Plockton
The railway line crosses Scotland from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh. It branches off the Far North Line to Wick at Dingwall then heads through largely empty countryside, with only a few hamlets on route. The line was constructed to develop the west coast fishing industry. It opened in 1870 as far as Stromeferry then extended to Kyle of Lochalsh in 1897. Kyle was the gateway for ferries to Skye, replaced by a road bridge in 1995, and to Stornoway, replaced by a more direct roll-on roll-off ferry from Ullapool in 1973. Today the scenery attracts many tourists to the line and it still remains an important transport link for locals.
Steve’s granny used to tell a story about travelling along the line to Attadale, a small halt on Loch Carron (my aunt and uncle lived there for a few years) on the Saturday evening train in the early sixties. When the train arrived at Garve the train driver, guard and most of the men on board, including my grandpa, got off and nipped into the Garve Hotel for a dram. Then the train carried on to Achnasheen, where the driver, guard and the male passengers, including grandpa, disappeared into the Achnasheen hotel for a dram. Then the same thing happened once again at Strathcarron, the last station before Attadale. My granny was not amused, grandpa was pleasantly refreshed, no-one would have been in a hurry and it would have been the only train on the line.
Achnasheen Hotel from the train, 1994
Steve and several friends spent a wet summer in 1973 living in a caravan at Achnasheen in 1973 and working as surveyor’s chainmen on a project to widen the road from single track. We were told that Achnasheen meant ‘field of storms’, which was accurate – you could see filthy weather coming up Glen Docherty to the Northwest and fine weather approaching from Strath Carron to the Southwest (or vice versa) and you knew which would arrive in Achnasheen.
The focus of life was the Achnasheen Hotel, no longer there – it burned down in the nineties. When the lunchtime trains arrived (Achnasheen was the passing place and the trains spent a few minutes in the station) the barman in the public bar would have lined up a row of pints of lager and heavy ready for thirsty customers popping in from the train. If there were customers (and we were usually there) the bar stayed open until the early hours of the morning – this was in the days when closing time was 2200. After a minor traffic accident outside one day, the police decided to investigate around midnight – however, a telephone call from Garve told us the police were heading our way and pints were carried along the railway platform to our caravans until the coast was clear and the bar reopened.
A train to Kyle at Clachnaharry, near Inverness, 1994
Occasionally we would have to survey part of the railway line. The surprise was the amount of toilet waste on the line – this is long before retention tanks. This was on a line with two trains one way and three trains the other each day – I never did work out why – something to do with certain trains being mixed passenger and goods trains.
The final stretch of the line from Strathcarron to Kyle is the most scenic with great views of Loch Carron, the mountains of Wester Ross and over to the islands of Raasay and Skye. Plockton, a planned village round a sheltered bay (there are even a few palm trees) is particularly scenic. Ted and I spent a night there on a trip in 2012, shortly before we started writing up our travels for this site – the evening photos of Plockton and Loch Carron are from that visit.
At the time the parallel A890 road between Attadale and Strome Ferry was closed for several months by a landslide. Initially this meant a detour of up to 140 miles, including for children from Lochcarron village to reach the secondary school in Plockton. A spare ferry was then found to cross the loch at Strome – the ferry was the original route until the road was opened in 1970. Then, for a while, a short stretch of railway became the road, effectively a long level crossing, which opened to traffic while there was no train in the section between Strathcarron and Kyle. Miss the opening times and you could have several hours to wait. Landslips and road closures are a regular feature on this stretch of road and work continues to identify and fund a long term solution.
At the end of the line, Kyle of Lochalsh grew up around the station and piers. Before the Skye Bridge opened the main feature was the queue in summer for the ferry to Kyleakin. With a decent fish and chip shop and a couple of bars it has all the basics of civilisation. When I was about five years old we holidayed in Attadale and I have vague memories of an afternoon trip to Kyle. My parents, used to the plentiful distractions of life in Glasgow, struggled to pass the three hours before the return train and we spent most of the time in a swing park.
The Kyle of Lochalsh – Kyleakin ferry in 1994, with the Skye Bridge under construction in the background
I camped with a friend in Kyle for a couple of nights in 1974 and we decided to visit Skye. That’s when I discovered that hitchhiking (or indeed, in these days, doing anything) on a Sunday was not a good idea. Several years later Colin worked in a Kyle hotel for a summer and told the story of how those who had chosen to visit the bar for a few drams on a Sunday were shamed by the minister broadcasting their names on loudspeakers outside the church. He had to visit the travelling dentist when he called at Kyle and was advised to go in the afternoon, after the dentist had had a few whiskies at lunchtime to steady his hands. There were more stories from that summer involving drink, the ferry, midges, cornflakes and jobbies, which I’ll save for another time.
Eilean Donan Castle
On the Great Rail tours a coach would meet us on arrival at Kyle and take the group to Eilean Donan Castle eight miles away for a guided tour. The castle sits on an islet at the meeting point of Loch Alsh, Loch Duich and Loch Long. It Is highly photogenic and graces the lid of many shortbread tins and whisky ads. There has been a castle on the site since the thirteenth century, but after destruction during the Jacobite rebellion, the current building is a reconstruction on the original ground plan built in the early twentieth century, now a major tourist attraction. On our tours, if we had time before the return train from Kyle, we would take the group over the Skye Bridge, so they could say they had been over the sea to Skye. An alternative route back to Inverness is the main road through scenic Glen Shiel to Loch Ness. A few Citylink coaches follow this route from Kyle (and from Dornie near the castle) to Inverness, and others head for Glasgow via Fort William, Glencoe and Loch Lomondside.
…and the King of the Castle
Fort William to Mallaig
Another of Scotland’s great railway journeys is the 42 mile trip from Fort William to Mallaig. We used the line on our trip to Knoydart – see JOURNEYS SCOTLAND Knoydart . We’re mentioning it here because the line is also used in summer by the Jacobite steam train – several of our Great Rail tours included a journey on the train. It is more expensive than the service train (in 2020 £43 return, compared to £15.30) and is best to reserve in advance. However, it is an experience that shouldn’t be missed. Unlike on heritage lines the train can reach a reasonable speed and the on-board service and ambience is excellent. Plus there is the scenery – Ben Nevis, the Caledonian Canal, Loch Eil, Glenfinnan, Arisaig and Morar and the views across to the Small Isles and Skye.
The Jacobite ready to depart Fort William (above), and the Glenfinnan Monument and Loch Shiel (below)
En route, both service trains and the Jacobite call at Glenfinnan, famous as the place where the ultimately unsuccessful 1745 Jacobite Rebellion began, marked now by a nineteenth century monument. The railway crosses the glen on the impressive 1897 concrete Glenfinnan viaduct, with views over the monument and Loch Shiel. Glenfinnan and the Jacobite train (as the Hogwarts Express) featured in Harry Potter films, which attracts visitors from across the world. The Jacobite waits at Glenfinnan for a short time and passengers can visit the small museum and tearoom on the platform. A longer break at Glenfinnan (possible by studying timetables) gives the opportunity to visit the monument and climb the nearby hill for views of the glen, loch and viaduct. is well worthwhile.
Glenfinnan Viaduct (above), and the Jacobite arrives at Mallaig (below)
The line can be included as part of a West Highland itinerary. At Mallaig there is the option of exploring the village (takes about ten minutes before it is time for a pint), the ferry to Knoydart or to Armadale on Skye for buses access the island. Still on our bucket list is the boat trip to the Small Isles of Eigg, Muck, Canna and Rum. From Fort William there are bus links northwards through the Great Glen to Kyle and Skye or alongside Loch Ness to Inverness. On coach tours we’ve taken the scenic road along the other side of Loch Ness – however there is no public transport on the Fort Augustus to Foyers section. Buses also head south to the Ballachulish Bridge, then along the coast to Oban or inland via Glencoe to Glasgow. The West Highland Line to Glasgow across Rannoch Moor is an excellent journey.
The Fort Augustus to Foyers road, above Loch Ness
Ardnamurchan is a remote peninsula, south of the Mallaig line and north of Mull, away from main roads. Access is via a daily bus from Fort William across the Corran Ferry, from where it is 43 miles of single track road via Salen to Kilchoan. In 2013 Steve led a tour to the area which used Glenborrodale Castle as a base – I was allocated the highest turret as my room. Unfortunately, the castle and grounds and islands are up for sale and it is not clear whether accommodation will be available in future – if you have a few million to spare it could be yours.
Glenborrodale – the view from our turret
From the castle we drove through Morvern to reached Mull via Lochaline and returned via the Tobermory – Kilchoan ferry. These days it is a car ferry, though boarding can be tricky for large vehicles and coaches – Shiel Buses, the local company which we used had tales of a German coach being comprehensively knackered trying to drive off the ferry, resulting on one of their own coaches reaching Germany. The German firm had still not returned to collect their repaired coach. Some of the group reached as far as the lighthouse at the tip of the peninsula but we haven’t managed to get there yet (and there is no pub beyond Kilchoan).
Steve previously visited Ardnamurchan in 1974, hitchhiking from Oban via Corran Ferry and camping in a field by the Kilchoan Hotel. At that time mains electricity had not reached the area and the hotel was powered by a generator, which provided flickering lights and from time to time interrupted the deedly-dee records being played in the bar. The ferry was only for foot passengers – those going over to Mull and the bright lights of Tobermory for the day were warned that the weather was deteriorating and they may not get back – this was the middle of August. A cycling trip in 1987 took me as far as Salen (I recollect the hotel was miserable) then on to Glenfinnan and Lochailort via a lunchtime few pints in the Glenuig Inn – a fine place, though it looks as though it has gone upmarket since and may not open for thirsty cyclists until 1600.
The Oban – Craignure ferry from Duart Point
Mull, Staffa and Iona
And then there is Mull, most easily reached by frequent ferries from Oban to Craignure. Not far from Craignure is Duart Castle, seat of the Clan Maclean, which several of our tours visited. It is also accessible by a shuttle bus service organised by the castle which meets ferries from Oban. The castle itself is in a classic defensive position overlooking the Firth of Lorn, Loch Linnhe and the Sound of Mull. It is of thirteenth century origin but had been abandoned by the eighteenth century. It was bought in 1911 by the then chief of Clan Maclean and restored.
Duart Castle from one side
Steve is not particularly interested in kailyard kitsch and tartanry but remembered that his mother had been told by her dentist (the things you learn at the dentist) that their surname Gillon was linked to Clan Maclean, so when we visited the castle I asked. It turns out to be true – it is a sept of the clan and Maclean sort of means Son of Gillon. Writing this I checked Wikipedia, which states that the founder of the clan was a Scottish warlord named ‘Gillean of the Battle Axe’ (the warrior genes don’t run in the family but I’m sure there were a few battleaxes). Our castle guide then opened a locked cupboard and brought out the special leather-bound visitors book, reserved for clan members, which impressed the group. On one visit we were greeted by the widow of the previous clan chieftain, an elderly woman with a cut-glass English accent – like most of the minor Scottish aristocracy they presumably rushed to be absorbed into the British upper classes when the opportunity arose.
Duart Castle from the other side
On one tour we were based for several nights at the Isle of Mull Hotel in Craignure, a modern building obviously architect designed to fit into the landscape – in so much as that is possible in a 1960s concrete building. Our guess is that is was constructed with the help of funding from the Highlands and Islands Development Board – we stayed in a similar hotel on Barra. The rooms and the food were fine but it must have been built just before the first round of disability legislation – there were steps everywhere and of course the least accessible rooms had been allocated to the least mobile members of the group. On the same tour Mull provided the rudest coach driver we ever had. It didn’t stop us from enjoying our time on the island
Twenty-one miles from Craignure, Tobermory the main town on the island (aka Balamory) is an eighteenth century planned fishing village set out round a bay – frequently photographed because of the brightly painted houses. It’s a pleasant place to while away a few hours – there are a couple of reasonable bars and the Tobermory distillery has a visitor centre and tours (and the whisky is excellent).
Iona Abbey (above), and Fingal’s Cave, Staffa (below)
From Craignure pier, in the opposite direction the road leads to Fionnphort 35 miles away through rugged Glen More and alongside Loch Scrivain. Fionnport is the ferry terminal for the short hop to Iona and for boat trips to Staffa. Our tour took in both islands in the same day but you could spend longer. Iona is the site of the monastery reputedly founded in the sixth century by St. Columba and today the Abbey is the main building on the island. The small village is peaceful – there are few cars on the island. Staffa was a revelation – we had seen photographs of the island and Fingal’s Cave but the landscape of basalt columns is stunning close up. We were fortunate enough to be able to land (which depends on the weather) and could walk along the precarious path to the cave entrance – don’t miss it if you have the opportunity.
The boat trip to Staffa
There’s much more to the Highlands and Islands….
Lerwick, Shetland, 2003
And those are the highlights of our West Highland tours. Other parts of the highlands and islands which Ted and Steve have explored in recent years are covered in other Scottish notes – to the south we’ve visited Oban and Easdale , Islay and Campbeltown . Our visits to the Outer Hebrides in 2014 and 2017 are covered in JOURNEYS SCOTLAND The Western Isles . Inverness and the rail and road journey to and from Wick are covered in Inverness to Wick . Steve reached Durness and Cape Wrath in North West Sutherland in 1981 and Lochinver in 1991 with Colin. Steve also visited the Orkneys in 1981 and Shetland in 2003 with Colin and Ted – too long ago to write up and our photos are almost non-existent. If we return to any of them well add them to the page in future. In the meantime, enjoy.
Steve, somewhere near Lochinver, 1991
Great Rail Journeys: www.greatrail.com operate a wide variety of tours around the highlands and islands.
Scottish Citylink: www.citylink.co.uk main coach and bus routes to and within the West Highlands
Caledonian Macbrayne: www.calmac.co.uk ferries
Eilean Donan Castle: www.eileandonancastle.com
Jacobite steam trains: www.westcoastrailways.co.uk
Shiel Buses: www.shielbuses.co.uk Ardnamurchan bus service
Duart Castle: www.duartcastle.com
Staffa boat trips: www.staffatours.com
Scottish Midge Forecast: www.smidgeup.com Essential during the midge season
The Scotrail service train at Mallaig, with a couple of fare dodgers on the roof
Photographs: All of the photographs are by Steve Gillon, except for the photo of him as Tour Manager, by Randy Clipson, and at Lochinver, by Colin Hood
Copyright: © Steve Gillon 2020