A Day Trip on One of the Great Train Journeys of the World:
Ardlui, on Loch Lomond, to the Western Isles port of Mallaig
via Rannoch Moor, Ben Nevis, Fort William and Glenfinnan
Experience Scotland at its very best in a day. This scenic train journey has been voted one of great train journeys of the world and takes you through some of the remotest countryside in Britain. The train service departs from Glasgow but it can be joined at Ardlui station, a 4 minute walk from Ardlui Marina, at the head of Loch Lomond.
The scenery is stunning during any season; the burst of new life in spring, the rich greens of summer, the kaleidoscope of colours on a clear day in autumn when the deciduous trees are a mass of gold. Even a chilly day in winter, when every blade of grass is encrusted with frost, offers its own beauty.
The train service begins in Glasgow and was first opened in the late Victorian era initially to Fort William. The line follows the northern shores of the Clyde estuary to the Georgian spa town of Helensburgh before following the banks of the sea lochs of Gare Loch and Loch Long. After passing through Arrochar & Tarbet station, the first glimpses of “Ye bonnie banks of Loch Lomond” appear.
From here, the views are some of the finest of the journey. The railway runs along a shelf cut into the hillside above a canopy of trees from where there are views to the south of the loch and to the east to the Inversnaid Hotel, located besides the beautiful Arklet Waterfalls on the eastern shore.
Access to both can be by Aries, a ferry from Tarbet or by road via a long but beautiful drive through The Trossachs National Park. A short while later is the station of Ardlui which is at the head of Loch Lomond.
After departing Ardlui, the train climbs up Glen Falloch, beside the River Falloch, before arriving at Crianlarich, where three glens meet. A short distance further, north of Tyndrum station, the railway describes a horseshoe curve beneath the immense volcanic shape of Ben Doran while crossing two curved viaducts. Except for 1 road in the distance, there is no sign of civilization, a hint of the journey ahead.
Once the railway has passed the end of Loch Tulla, it is over 30 miles before anything more than a railtrack is seen again. The wilderness of Rannoch Moor is breathtaking, one of those rare places in Britain where there has been little to disturb the course of nature. The pause at Rannoch station usually sees a few well-equipped hikers and walkers take the easy journey back to a comfortable bed. There is a tea-room in the summer at the adjacent Moor of Rannoch Hotel but if you decide to get off and wait for the next train, relax because there may not be another to Mallaig until the following day! However, if a hiking experience appeals, the train will return about 8 hours later on its journey back to Ardlui and Glasgow.
The people who got to know this isolation best were the few railway staff at Corrour, the highest station on the British Rail network at 1,338 feet. An old railway carriage on the platform once served as a school attended by their 11 children. But, today, residents occupy the Corrour Station House Restaurant with rooms built beside the railway where you can dine on venison from the 52,000-acre Corrour Estate and sup Cairngorm Brewery ales.
The treeless undulating peat bog landscape continues, with Loch Treig below the line to the west, until Tulloch station. From here the railway line follows the River Spean, passing the spectacle of the Monessie Gorge, the foot of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK, before arriving in Fort William.
Fort William & Ben Nevis
It was in 1901 that the extension from Fort William to Mallaig was opened. The station at Fort William is a terminus where trains for Mallaig reverse before turning west to pass the head of Loch Linnhe to run along the water’s edge of Loch Eil. The train curves around the head of Loch Shiel, passing over the Glenfinnan Viaduct before climbing to reach Glenfinnan station, which now has a railway museum and a camping coach serving refreshments in summer. Besides being immortalized in the films of Harry Potter, the construction of the viaduct in concrete, by the Scottish Engineer Robert McAlpine, was a revolutionary innovation in Victorian construction of civil engineering projects. A short walk from Glenfinnan station is the Glenfinnan monument to Charles Edward Stuart and the visitor centre.
The panorama of mountains and the remains of crofters’ cottages, is soon enhanced to the west by views over sea lochs towards the Small Isles of Muck, Eigg and Rum. The brilliant blue of the sea, edged with translucent emerald-green, is reminiscent of tropical beaches and inlets, an impression only encouraged by the sight of palms and subtropical plants growing under the effect of the Gulf Stream.
After Lochailort station, the journey along the Atlantic coast to Mallaig begins. It first passes Loch nan Uamh, the Loch of the Caves, where the Bonnie Prince landed from a French frigate in 1745, in great anticipation, before raising his standard at Glenfinnan. The same loch would also serve as his place of departure only a year later after the disaster of the Battle of Culloden. Past Arisaig, Britain’s most westerly station, and after weaving through some stone cuttings, the railway cuts across the western end of Loch Morar, Europe’s deepest lake at 1,017 feet. On autumn nights, thousands of eels swim out of this loch for their extraordinary 3,000-mile journey to the Sargasso Sea to lay their eggs.
Running beside beaches of white quartzite sand, the train slows for its journey’s end at Mallaig station, adjacent to the fishing and ferry harbour. The railway’s history is one of many subjects explored in the nearby Heritage Centre. Once Europe’s principal herring port, Mallaig is for many the place to follow the Young Pretender and take a boat “over the sea to Skye”.
If time prevents you from going “over the sea to Skye”, enjoy a delicious seafood lunch instead before departing Mallaig on your return train journey some 2½ hours later.
Agreement has been secured for Aries to stay 2 nights at Ardlui marina. The Ardlui Hotel is part of the marina complex and its restaurant and bar facilities are fully available. The rail station is a 4 minute walk from the marina.
During the peak months it is advisable to book seats prior to your holiday as booking levels are high, particularly between Fort William and Mallaig.
The train for Mallaig (without changing at Fort William) departs Ardlui Station about 0930 and returns about 2000 but please check schedule on National Rail Journey Planner: ojp.nationalrail.co.uk
The journey time between Ardlui and Fort William is about 2¼ hours and between Fort William and Mallaig just under 1½ hours. (The total journey time between Ardlui and Mallaig is 3¾ hours)
The train times allow a 2½ stay in Mallaig – ideal for a lovely lunch of local fish.
Price guide is between £30-£40 return for adults. Lower prices are available by booking early online.
A seasonal catering trolley is available on some trains.