A day in the life of Corrour

The 15:24 to Fort Williams pulls out, leaving three of us behind on the platform at Corrour. I follow the couple who’ve alighted, across the tracks to the station house, which also serves as cafe, bar, restaurant, and reception. Inside, there’s a working fireplace, plenty of literature, a cozy couch, an enticing handwritten menu with the promise of sumptuous meals and tasty beverages, and for added comfort, three adorable canines. Its too late for lunch and much too early for dinner, so I make do with a cortado and a whiskey fruit loaf.

Everything’s baked on site, I’m assured by Emma, as I try and contain my reaction on first bite. Including the chef, she’s one of three who run the entire show here, and following my highly indulgent treat, she walks me back across the tracks to show me my room. There’s a grand total of three on their property, and mine is named The Great Marquess, after the only surviving K-4 class steam locomotive that once plied this line. Not only is the room well appointed, but for someone like myself it gives new meaning to the cliche, room with a view.

I’m deep in the Western Highlands of Scotland, about ~90-miles north of Glasgow. My lodgings for two nights can only be reached by train or by foot. The closest public road is about 17-miles away, making Corrour the most remote station anywhere in the United Kingdom. At 1350-feet above sea level, it is also the summit of the storied West Highland Line, and the highest mainline station in all of the UK. All that being said, there’s no good reason you would want to visit. Unless, of course, you’re an ardent fan of Trainspotting (the film, not the hobby), or happen to be aware of the wilderness opportunities that abound in these parts.

The Great Marquess, along with the none-too-shabbily-named Lord of the Isles and Maccaillin Mor are all located within Corrour’s former signalbox, one that dates from 1894 and which was repurposed for its present day use in 2016. They occupy what was once the signalman’s quarters, the store room, and in the case of The Great Marquess, the mechanical interlocking plant that enabled the operation of signals here. The lookout tower of the signal box, where signal levers were drawn with much clanking and gusto up to 1985, now serves as the common area for guests. A sun room to some, a lounge for others, the place for a cuppa, maybe a spot of reading, or just plain ole down time.

At dinner, I order the sweet potato and chickpea curry, which arrives with a generous portion of papadams, and some Scottish cider to wash it all down. Everything is delicious. The station house menu is succinct but well thought out and I’ve already made a mental note of what I’m getting for lunch and dinner tomorrow.

It’s a lot busier this evening than I’d imagined it to be. Other than us overnight boarders, there’s a group of mountain bikers on the large center table, and over by the counter, a couple of hikers getting in a pint before the last service out to Fort William. My nightcap arrives – a malt who’s name I’d rather not attempt to pronounce – and in good time too. The southbound Caledonian is expected any minute now and I really should be outside. Dram in hand, I step into the chilly night to witness the passage of the Sleeper.

Before turning in, I crack open my window to let the draft in and soak in some crisp highland air. Up above, the sky is as clear as can be, and I soon realize I’m staring at the milky way – only the second time in my life I’ve seen it with my naked eyes.

From the warm and cozy confines of The Great Marquess, a gloomy, damp and cold day unfolds outside. It couldn’t be more different to when I arrived. I’d rather just lounge in bed but the West Highland Line beckons. The first arrival of the day is due, so I don some layers, put on some boots and trudge out into the wild. I had recce’d a location on my walk the previous evening and now its just a matter of waiting it out in gale-like conditions. The tiny two-car train is on time, thankfully, and despite its diminutive size, is a sight to behold as it comes speeding around the bend, through the cutting and past the summit marker on its way to a brief halt at Corrour.

Breakfast is included in the price of a stay at the signal box, giving legitimacy to the oft forgotten B in AirBnB. Scottish salmon and scrambled eggs it is this morning, as I decide to save the best for last. I finish up just in time to see off the northbound Sleeper. Corrour is a request stop for the Caledonian Sleeper so the train doesn’t always stop there. Regardless, it is the main event at Corrour, the northbound and southbound trains perfectly bookending the day. This morning it does make a brief stop, and after depositing a couple of passengers who’d traveled overnight from London Euston, disappears once again into the highland wilderness.

Located on the edge of Rannoch Moor, Corrour was a wilderness area before a hunting estate was established here in 1891. The West Highland Line opened only three years later but not until 1934 did the station at Corrour open to the public. And while the sprawling 57,000-acre highland estate remains private land today, it is accessible to hikers, most of whom arrive by train. Across the estate, a network of well thought out paths affords one access to all that spectacular wilderness. Most of these paths simply cut right through the bog, with only a handful being wider gravel roads, or Land Rover tracks as they’re known in these parts. I set out on one such gravel path towards Loch Ossian, a little over a mile away.

As lakes go in the area, Loch Ossian is not particularly large. A narrow lake, ringed in by several munros, it does make for a stunning scene though, even amidst all the gloominess. Tucked away amongst a thicket on its west bank lies a youth hostel – a locale that’s pretty hard to beat. It’s where that group of mountain bikers are holed up, literally so given the weather today.

The rain has been persistent all day and there’s not a whole lot one can do between lunch and dinner. Probably just as well. I watch some trains – there’s a total of 8 that passes through here each day, and if you’re lucky, the occasional freight. I read a bit. I take a nap. I make myself several cups of tea. I watch the rain. I marvel at the howling winds. Occasionally, I’m distracted by the whirring of the wind turbine outside. All from the comfort of the signal box. The 1825 to Glasgow Queen Street shows up and it’s just about time for dinner.

Tonight, I’ve ordered the venison burger, and ditched the pints for some more hard-to-pronounce and hitherto unheard of malts. I’ve also, serendipitously, passed on any extras for the burger. As it turns out, the meat is perfectly cooked and every bit flavorful – anything more would have ruined it. It is also the closest I’ve ever gotten to authentic farm-to-table dining. The Corrour estate has, for a few years now, been actively controlling the numbers of deer on their acreage, an important balancing act given the total absence of natural predators. As a result, the meat is – with no offense to any vegetarians reading this – as fresh as it gets. As I leave the station house, the rain has turned to light misting, or spitting as the English refer to it. I retire to the signal box to imbibe the last of my malts for the evening.

As dawn gradually breaks over the highlands, I’m already a quarter mile removed from the snugness of the Great Marquess, making tracks in the direction of Loch Treig. It’s a crisp 3C outside, with a stiff highland wind blowing, but also an incredibly clear day in the making. The early morning light – a dazzling display of colors on the eastern and western horizon – providing quite the spectacle. That soggy last 24-hours, now a very distant memory. A few hundred yards forward, a little more light, and some squinting reveals Ben Nevis in the distant north – a sight that had eluded me on my previous visit to Scotland.

My boots are definitely not cut out for a hike through the bog, and I’m already dreading all the dampness I’m going to have to put up with for the rest of the day. After over a mile’s trudge through the moor, am glad to finally sight a Land Rover track. With less than a mile to go and making brisk progress now along that dry path, I spot the first bit of life – two stags and a hind. They’re as startled at my sight as I am at theirs and scamper away in a matter of seconds. By the time I reach the bottom of the path, close to the south shore of the lake, the first rays of sunlight begin to illuminate the hills framing Loch Treig, my destination for this morning’s hike.

On the return, I heed the advice of a fellow boarder, and take the longer but drier gravel road back. I have my work cut out for me though. It’s already a little past 0830 and I have to hike along a route that’s almost a mile longer, then shower, pack, and breakfast upon my return, before meeting my onward connection at 1121. But my decision pays off handsomely, and rather quickly too. As I crest the highest point on the new route, I glance at my watch and its just about 9 am. If the Sleeper is on time this morning, it should be passing by this spot any minute now…

In the spring of ’22, I passed through Corrour for the first time, on that very train, and I was instantly smitten. I promised myself I’d be back there someday and here I was, perched at a suitable vantage at just the right time, framing a memory that one could only hope to choreograph. The highlands unfolding beneath me; the country’s tallest mountain providing a fitting backdrop, and the much coveted train completing the rest of the scene, on what could only be described as a truly spectacular day. One which, I was informed later, was most uncharacteristic for this time of year.

The rest of my hike back is a blur, filled mostly with elation at what I just witnessed. That, and keeping regular tabs on time. Ever so often though, I can’t help but stop in my tracks and stare.

I’m back in the nick of time, all chores done, and all that’s left now is breakfast. A full Scottish it shall be, a fitting reward following my spirited 6-mile hike to Loch Treig and back.

I came to Corrour at probably the most difficult time in my life, and while travel has always provided me with a worthy distraction, I value it more now than ever before. There were some trains, of course. There was a lot of wilderness. And there was plenty of time to myself. There was succour in Corrour.

Soaking up the sunshine on the platform and lost in my thoughts, I hear my name being called from a distance. It’s Emma wishing me a safe onward journey. It’s her day off today and she’s taking the dogs on a long walk – to the top of the very munro that’s visible from the Great Marquess. As I watch them make their way up through the bog, the distant hum of an underslung diesel signals the arrival of my train to Mallaig. This time around, I’m the only one boarding.

More photos from my second visit to Scotland can be seen on my Flickr.

2 thoughts on “A day in the life of Corrour

  1. Grace

    Oh gee. Pack a bag Grace.. whatareya waitin’ for? How could it be that you have only ever seen the Milky Way twice? Canna be! As always, the photography is mind-blowing. I hope you get a discount for all the PR you have done here. (Wink haha) Thank you for this. Winter is dragging on here and this wee vacation was a lift.

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