Of all the glorious railway termini London boasts off, Euston might be the only outlier. And while my original plan – in the pre-pandemic era – would have involved Brunel’s magnificent Paddington Station as a point of departure, I’m going to have to make do with this incredibly dreary 60s remake of what was almost certainly a more impressive Victorian affair back in the day.
Thankfully, my time in Euston’s concourse is short-lived, and after a quick bite at Nando’s outside, I make my way to Platform 1. Barring Saturdays, The Caledonian’s “Highland” service departs Euston nightly at 9:15 pm, but unlike every other train listed on the departure board, there is no rush to board. This being an overnight train, things are a lot more civilized and sleeper class passengers can board upto 45-minutes prior to departure, giving one ample time to drop off one’s belongings, and then – as should be the case on any respectable journey – make one’s way towards the Lounge Car.
The Highland service is in fact the first of two nightly departures from Euston. A “Lowland” service leaves a couple of hours later, depositing its clientele at Glasgow and Edinburgh respectively, the next morning. The Highland train splits into three separate sections just outside Edinburgh, with a portion each headed to Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William. The Fort William leg is my chosen one, as after much research I’ve determined that it is in fact the most time one can spend on an overnight sleeper service anywhere in the country. And despite innumerable visits to the UK in the past, this is also my first time going up to Scotland. The journey couldn’t be more appealing.
There are three classes of sleeper accommodation onboard the Caledonian – Classic, Club and Caledonian Double, in ascending order of comfort and amenities. One can book upto 12 weeks in advance to avail the best prices, but I was late to the party and literally had to pay the price for it, especially since I was booking a room for myself. Once onboard that swanky new train though, the sticker shock is instantly forgotten. My Classic room, despite its constrained dimensions, is kitted out like a hotel, complete with high quality mattress, premium pillows and very plush linen. A handy accommodation guide, an amenities kit, a menu, and an order form for breakfast the following morning make up the rest of its offerings. As we speed past Watford Junction, I grab my key card and make my way to the Lounge, or Club Car, as ScotRail refers to it.
Priority access to the Club Car is accorded to the higher paying sleeper customers, but its not particularly busy, and besides, the staff seem very accommodating. Apart from a full Scottish-forward dinner menu, there’s an extensive selection of Highland and Lowland Single Malt and Blended Scotch Whiskeys on offer, all of them very reasonably priced. Aficionados of the spirit could probably pick out a handful or more from that list, but Highland Park is the only name familiar to me, and also the easiest of the lot to pronounce. I pick a heavily peated malt instead, and as if dinner never happened, order some crisps to go with it. A nightcap for the books.
A change in direction is the first thing I notice upon awaking. That and a long forgotten sound – on Britain’s railways at the very least – a distinct clickety clack. Speeds are significantly lower as well, necessitated by the many curves and steep grades that define the West Highland Line, one that dates from the late 19th-century. Outside my window, I’ve literally and figuratively been transported to a whole new world.
I slide open my cabin door to glance out west – we’re skirting the eastern shore of Loch Long, and have been for a while in fact. Turning eastward and away from the lake, we slow for a halt at the station of Arrochar & Tarbet, where a Glasgow-bound local service awaits the crossing. Upon departing, I catch my first glimpse of the storied Loch Lomond, the largest lake in Britain. We are now traveling through the very scenic Trossachs National Park, an area known for its thickly wooded valleys or glens and innumerable lakes or lochs.
Next is Crainlarich, where the route to Oban diverges from the West Highland Line. A gentle but consistent knock on my door signals the arrival of breakfast, and as I’m consumed with devouring it, I end up missing the entirety of the beautiful horseshoe curve (I’m informed later) that lies not far north of the Junction. Garelochhead, Arrochar & Tarbet, Ardlui, Crainlarich, Tyndrum, Tulloch – some of the many delightful and occasionally tongue-twisting stops along our route today, each one spelt out prominently in Gaelic on the boards that adorn those stations. The stations themselves are simple island affairs, with the most impeccably kept chalet-style buildings, where its not uncommon to find a traditional tea room.
Sheep the size of cattle graze the hillsides to our east, barely pausing to notice their morning disruption. Over to our west, I spot a stag in a clearing, then not far from it, a whole herd of them who scamper into the thicket, shy from all the unwanted attention. It’s not for nothing the silhouette of that handsome beast adorns the livery and branding of the Caledonian Sleeper.
Peatlands make up 20 percent of the land in Scotland and that couldn’t be any more apparent than the stretch of the West Highland Line that lies just to the north of Bridge of Orchy. Leaving the last bits of habitat behind – in this instance, a lone farmhouse – we begin to cut across the incredibly desolate expanse of Rannoch Moor, a 30-mile stretch that proved to be one of the most challenging to build for the railway’s engineers. Past the station of Rannoch as the sun peeks out briefly, we slow down considerably to cross a beautiful stone viaduct; it’s one of a handful that help carry the railway across this seemingly endless and very soggy tract of peat bog.
Amidst all the stunning wilderness of the heath, the station of Corrour is probably as remote as it gets. It featured prominently in the film Trainspotting, is home to a small B&B, boasts no cellular service whatsoever, and is a 16-mile hike from the nearest public road. At 1347 ft (410 m) above sea level, it’s also the highest mainline railway station in the UK, and the summit of the West Highland Line.
Loch Treig appears in dramatic fashion to our west, not long after we’ve crossed Corrour, and I make my way to the Club Car in search of more caffeine. Service has just concluded, unfortunately, but a staffer who’s recognized me from last night ushers me over and hands me one gratis. Bless his soul. The West Highland Line follows the Loch for quite a few miles, and sipping on my coffee I watch with awe the ocean-like swell below, brought on by strong highland winds no doubt. During another rare display of sunshine, and sensing that we’re getting closer to our destination, I ask if the imposing peak to our west is in fact Ben Nevis. Too cloudy to spot her this morning, I’m told.
Arrival at Fort William is a few minutes early, and those brief spells of sunlight from only a short while ago seem like a very distant memory. It’s as gray, windy and wet as one could expect. Par for the course this time of year apparently, making it even harder to imagine that Fort William is widely considered to be Scotland’s outdoor gateway.
Cristo is waiting outside as planned – a little soaked at this point – and within minutes of my arrival we’re barreling down the A830, wipers working at double speed. Cristo runs a taxi service out of Fort William, is quick to respond over email, and was the most reasonable of the operators I reached out to. He also happens to be from the Canary Islands, so not that I was planning on it all the way up here, but Spanish shall be our chosen mode of communication for the next 25-minutes or so.
The hamlet of Glenfinnan lies about 17-miles west of Fort William, on the northern edge of Loch Shiel. Most notable for being the site of the Jacobite Rising in the late 18th-century, it sits in one of the most picturesque locales imaginable. A monument to the Highlanders lies at the foot of the loch, and a well kept hiking trail encircles the area, providing access to it and every other point of interest, with spectacular vistas along the way. Despite the conditions, it is absolutely gorgeous here, and I can only imagine what a clear summer day would be like.
Of utmost interest to me though is the hamlet’s storied and namesake viaduct. While the West Highland Line reached Fort William by 1894, the extension to Mallaig wasn’t completed till 1901. It included a crossing of the fast flowing River Finnan and that gap was closed by means of a magnificent curved viaduct made up of 21 arches, an industry first at the time given its use of concrete on this scale. More recently, it shot to fame courtesy of the Harry Potter franchise, featuring in four of the films no less, in scenes involving the lovable Hogwarts Express.
I’ve completed a full loop of the trail at this point; documented a Glasgow-bound train, visited Glenfinnan station, the lone village church, the monument by the loch, as also the visitor center for a quick bite. I’m back now at the same vantage point as before, soaked to the bone and finally feeling the cold. Me, and a fellow railfan that is, who’s visiting from the Lake District. The 0821 to Mallaig shows up at its appointed time. As it clears the viaduct and rolls by directly below us, we get a double toot and an enthusiastic wave from the guard of the train. Its definitely been worth it 🙂