On a cloudy summer day me and my boyfriend went for a legendary railway trip, said to be one of the best in the whole world: The Jacobite Express, under the lead of the West Coast Railways in Scotland. The 84 mile round journey started in Fort William, the largest town in the Highlands, shadowed by the mighty Ben Nevis, Britain’s tallest mountain. This usually is the point where tourists and other British start an exciting quest: the discovery of the Western Highlands, which has an untamed beauty no other part of the country can compete with. On top of all that it beckons the curious, adventurous eyes, promising to offer the experience of a lifetime to every wanderer into the cold wilderness of Scotland’s bare hills and mountains.
Somewhere near Mallaig, western Highlands. Into the distance there are the islands of Eigg and Rum
Fort William was windy and unforgiving, the chill penetrating to the bones, but it wasn’t as harsh as the winter blasts back home in Eastern Europe, which are Siberian-like and deathly. Our ride wasn’t a surprise, for I have seen the actual train on the company’s website: a steam engine train, with a wonderful old-style locomotive, which reminded of the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter movies. But this wasn’t a coincidence. The route itself is via the 21-arched Glenfinnan viaduct, the very one that we have seen in the movie, which overlooks the wonderful Loch Shiel (the lake that’s part of the Hogwarts’ grounds, except in reality there is no castle in sight). When the train reaches the viaduct, it slows down or even stops, allowing travellers to take photos. On that particular day, it happened that a man was climbed up into a tree to get a better view of the fantastic train that graciously let its smoky tail wave the viaduct goodbye.
Soon after the happy encounter, we arrived at Glenfinnan station where we took some fresh air and the train got a well-deserved break. It performed wonderfully so far. This train station wasn’t large, yet it sheltered a small historical museum and a little farther a restaurant sheltered inside a retired train wagon, whose location was complemented by a heavenly green valley, with puffy white clouds descending over it.
The train advances further into the western wilderness, passing by Loch Morar, which is the deepest freshwater lake in Great Britain and also Loch Nevis, Europe’s deepest seawater lake. By now, the thick navy blue clouds have covered the sky, promising something you can never really miss on the British Islands: rain. But as soon as we arrived in Mallaig, our final destination, the strong winds broke into pieces the giant dark cloud above. Mallaig is a small port, with ferry services to the Isle of Skye and the Small Isles (Rum, Eigg, Muck and Canna) – part of the Inner Hebrides, offering a variety of scenery and wildlife. Basically the whole port smelled like fish and other seafood, especially on the docks. Of course, we went for lunch in one small restaurant on a street that might be the port’s High Street, which overlooked the multitude of ships resting before they confronted the angry sea. The food was good, yet the quantity was monstrous, as it generally is in restaurants on the Islands, at least from my point of view. We stayed in Mallaig for one hour and a half and just when we returned to ride back to Fort William, the promised rainfall poured over the land.
On our way back we crossed the Glenfinnan viaduct again, but the excitement was considerably lower. I am still wondering if I liked it because of the scenery or because of its connection to the Harry Potter movies. I guess it is the latter, for I felt really excited to travel the same route as the famous wizard.
The Glenfinnan viaduct, Loch Shiel and the Jacobite Monument
In no time we were back in Fort William, waiting for the bus that would take us to Inverness, the capital of the Highlands. Meanwhile, we rested by Loch Linnhe, which is 50 kilometres long! That makes it Scotland’s longest sea loch. On summer days, Loch Linnhe is perpendicular with the setting sun, therefore it is a favorite location for photographers. We walked along the High Street and went for a cup of tea in one small coffee shop that was about to close. The warmth of the place was a blessing compared to the furious winds outside.
It had been a long day, having traveled by car, by bus and by train, to get to one of the most representative locations in the western Highlands. The seagulls signaled the coming of darkness, which on Scottish summer days is never really the darkness you would imagine, but a soft mix of shadowy blue, adorned with frozen stars. And what makes Scotland unique among all other places, is that on such nights, when the cities are asleep, if you close your eyes and listen carefully, you can feel as if you are a million miles away from any civilization. Just before dusk we were headed to the bus station, waving goodbye to both Fort William and to a day I will remember for the rest of my life, for it was the day I turned 22.