Exploring Scotland by rail on the West Highland Line
Scotland's West Highland Line hugs the rugged foothills of the southern wilderness. As we glide by, deep pine forests and distant castles appear, then vanish behind the misty mountains. And from the left side of the train, trees from the valley below reach toward us, making it look like we're coasting through the top of the forest canopy.
A rail line that begins in Glasgow, the West Highland Line connects the towns, villages and parks of the western highlands to the rest of Scotland and the UK. It serves as a major transit corridor for people throughout the region.
But it also happens to be among the most striking places in the world, with seemingly endless stretches of farmland, forests and ancient dry stone walls or hedgerow-like stacks of stones held together by gravity rather than mortar. The larger towns on the line Oban, Fort William and Mallaig are major tourist destinations and the route is so scenic that the readers of independent travel magazine Wanderlust have named it the top rail journey in the world.
Tickets for part or all of the journey can be purchased in advance or on the spot at Glasgow's Queen Street station, but with my BritRail pass I simply showed up late one morning and hopped on the next train headed north.
Heading North • After about a half an hour the train emerged from Glasgow's relatively gritty suburbs and, from the left side, I watched as the terrain gradually became more rugged. The hills grew into mountains, the forests became denser and the impressionistic green pastures swirled into an expressionistic palette of brown, green, purple, and yellow.
Before long the train chugged up the hills, apparently taking the very high road past the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond and its neighboring precipice, Ben Lomond which of course lent its name to one of our own mountains in Utah. And soon afterward, we inched around a bend and by a slate-roofed cottage with fresh laundry dripping from a clothesline.
The Highlands are famous for their rugged terrain, but for a visitor like myself from the American West where there are wildernesses larger than the entirety of Scotland the most fascinating thing to see was the deep and ancient traces of human civilization. The old stone walls and intermittent cottages are older than much of anything I can see back home. And after a nagging feeling that the forests looked a little too perfect I realized it was because they are: from what I could tell most pine trees on the trip had been planted. The result is entire forests planted in rows with trees all of uniform heights. It's something I'd never seen to that extent in the U.S. and it was awe-inspiring to think of people cultivating the land for generation after generation, planting forests before the stories and myths of my own people even began.
A home base in Oban • My train split up mid-trip at a small station and, after running the length of the train to get to the correct car, I managed to make it to the small sea-side resort town of Oban. I had hoped to stop in one of the even smaller towns along the rail line, but could find so little specific information on the West Highland Line that I decided to go for the safer option where I knew I could arrive without a reservation and find somewhere to stay.
Oban apparently has a tourism-based economy along with everything that comes with that but as night falls the congestion disappears and the harbor shimmers in the light from bobbing yachts and docking ferries. After arriving, I walked passed the hotels in the center of town to Oban Backpackers, a hostel with a big kitchen, a welcoming common room and a delightfully warm staff that answered my questions before I even knew I had them. That night, as I climbed a sheep path to a castle ruin, my only regret was not bringing swim trunks for the pebbly beaches far below.
The island of Kerrera • The next morning, on the advice of the hostel staff, I set out for Kerrera, an island just off the coast near Oban. First, I walked south along the coast for about two miles to the Kerrera Ferry, a small open-air boat that was filled to capacity with one tractor and five hikers. Five minutes later, I disembarked and set out on stony sheep paths that wound a seven-mile loop around the island.
Kerrera is barely inhabited, with just a scattered farm here and there, but there are hundreds or probably thousands of sheep roaming more or less freely on the island. Near the beginning of the hike, I also saw a small herd of shaggy, red highland cattle grazing near the beach.
The entire area is bathed in emerald and surrounded by vast, indigo-slate seas, but the first major surprise was coming upon the Kerrera Tea Garden after about 45 minutes. The garden is in a white-washed cottage nestled between several hills and as I walked around the bend it jumped out of the green landscape like a scene from a pop-up book. Several wooden picnic tables sit out front in a garden filled with flowers and song birds. Off to the side, an old stone cow shed has been converted into a warm, rustic dining area in the style of a country living room. The entire place seemed almost mystical, like something out of a fairy tale that couldn't possibly exist but did, here, for the pilgrims willing to walk miles.
As of this year, a young couple who have given up city life and moved to Kerrera run the tea garden, which also includes a bunk house I wish I'd known about sooner. During my visit, I tried the Tea Garden Classic sandwich, homemade lemon cake, and peppermint and nettle tea, which was surprisingly minty and didn't sting. Then, the bread broken and my hunger sated, I set out on a grassy path, following wooden signs for Gylen Castle.
Just minutes later I found the castle, jutting from the black cliffs like a bowsprit toward the brooding clouds. The castle ruin is small just one tower and some scattered rocks but more than most these lonely ruins beckon like a siren from across empty harbors and beaches littered with bleached sheep bones.
The castle includes a handful of historic signs but there is no staff or facilities onsite. Instead, visitors are greeted by the cold stone and endless wind. For several quiet minutes I paced the mossy floor then pressed my eye to an ancient peephole facing the sea, imagining what it would be like to see fleet of fierce ships on approach.
From the castle, the loop wound around to the far side of the island through two farms Ardmore and Barnabuck whose names and many ruins seemed better suited for Arthurian legend than real life. Then up a cliff for views of the sea, through more sheep fields, and finally another day of aching feet and medieval dreams ended as the ferry spirited me away.
If you go
What • The West Highland Line usually leaves three times daily (and less often on Sundays) from Glasgow's Queen Street station. The Caledonian Sleeper also makes overnight trips between London and Fort William.
Where to stay • Oban Backpackers in Oban or the Kerrera Bunkhouse on Kerrera island.
Where to eat • Kerrera Tea Garden.
Don't miss • Stunning views from the train, country walks on Kerrera island.
More info • The Friends of the West Highland Lines website is the best resource on the rail journey and includes an interactive map with minimal information on each station. The helpful Oban tourist information office is located just across the harbor from the train station.