One of the great railway experiences
Adrian travels from Kyle of Lochalsh to Inverness by train and finds it to be Britain’s most scenic rail journey
That is what Michael Palin of Monty Python and countless travel programmes called the railway that meanders from the Kyle of Lochalsh to Inverness. They’re also quoted on tourist information available at the station. Is it an understatement or does it live up to this hype?
In Kyle itself, there isn’t an awful lot to see. There are gift shops and busy cafes that get bursts of business that fill them up when the trains get in, or when one of the Atlantis glass bottom boat tours return. From the harbour you can see the unappealing concrete Isle of Skye Bridge underneath which you can sometimes see otters, dolphins and seals. It is water that is the big draw of Kyle and it is water that provides the best views of the first hour or so of the ScotRail train journey.
The first two stations, Plockton and Duncraig, are so close to Kyle that you are through them in 15 minutes. But they obscure the view until you realise that the line which hugs Loch Carron as close as a mother hugs a child, is laid down in a bed hewn from the rock. You can only see the ‘V’ cutting if you look behind you from the carriage and see where you have come. In the water there will be fishing boats and cruisers, two masted sailing vessels and family run-abouts. From the train you can easily see that much of the water is crystal clear. In the May sun, the light reflects off the yellow gorse. Unafraid sheep and lambs are everywhere. Some ignore the train: others look disdainfully at you wondering why you are disturbing their snooze in the sunshine.
Houses dot the landscape in their solitude and you wonder how whoever lives there, can get to them. To a city dweller you question where they shop, go to school and where they have to travel for evening entertainment. Or do they just watch the loch and the views? Surely they aren’t just holiday homes? At the station in Plockton is a bogus clock carrying the message “Off the Rails. Where time stops still.” Presumably because everyone watches the loch and the views. And it really is so easy to just sit and watch. You can easily waste half-an-hour just gazing. Now if you had a pint in one hand and a Ploughmans in the other… And perhaps a chair and a newspaper. It would be so easy to rest your eyes for a minute or two until you were jolted by the odd rising fish or bird disturbing your slumber. But that’s what it’s like. Unhurried.
Gradually the loch narrows but even after Attadale (four stops down the line) the other side is an impressive distance away. From one seashore house a black dog goes hurtling into the loch to retrieve a stick. (That’s the quickest movement I’ve seen on this journey.) Over the seaweed it jumps before shaking itself all over the girl who threw it. That water must be pretty cold in May!
All of the views are on the left hand side. You can see little from the right as the steep cliff edges and a narrow road are all you can see. Take a right hand seat even if the sun is on you but be prepared from passengers across the aisle to lean over and take photographs of the hills across the other side of the loch. There, conifers and farmed woodlands follow the coastline. Further up the hillsides, it is rocky and bare – but for scrub. Look down into the loch here and you will see how quickly it drops away and how deep it must be. Across from Attadale, row-after-row of white houses (and one solitary red one) line the shore. Now the hills start getting taller and a Mediterranean blue can be seen in the water. And the loch gradually peters out into streams and rivulets.
As we get to Strathcarron, across the flat pasture land a woodland of conifers oddly planted on the hillside would seem to be making out letters. Or some crazy abstract living art. Did the loggers realise what they were doing?
As we leave Strathcarron, for one of the first times, there are views on either side. Scrubland, rocky escarpments and bog land can be seen along with crevices cut in the rock side where water has flown off the hillsides into the flatter lands below. On the left hand-side is Loch Dughaill.
Achnashellach is supposed to be a request stop, but it seems to be widely used by walkers some days if you are on the first trains out either from Inverness or Kyle. These hardy souls have stout shoes, poles, rucksacks and protective waterproof leggings not to mentions plastic sealed maps and strange technical equipment, whatever happened to just going for a walk? These are serious walkers! We are into deer country and, despite their size, they seem more concerned by the train than the sheep ever were. Yet some of the antlers belie their train cowardice and I wouldn’t want to get too close.
A four storey, stone mansion is oddly out of step with all the other cottages and houses that have been seen. It has a rolling garden where others just seem to have land. In the distance, some of the taller peaks are dappled with snow. And a small loch- Loch Gowan – appears on the right hand side as we head to Achnasheen. Compared to Loch Carron this is a puddle! But further on as the railway line is sandwiched between two forests, comes another large body of water, Loch Luichart. It’s soon lost as we head inland to Garve and the landscape changes significantly. It is now pastoral, flat and similar to the English countryside. It stays that way as we head up to Dingwall and the bottom of the Cromarty Firth. For the first time the train travels faster.
Up until now it has aimlessly strolled down the mostly single track . Maybe Visit Scotland has a pact with ScotRail so that passengers can take photographs all the way. Whatever the reason, this line feels more like a heritage line rather than a busy commuter service. What Visit Scotland should do is see about an on-service buffet for those of us who didn’t bring a flask. And I’d pay for a pair of earphones and a commentary throughout the journey on what we were seeing. The journey takes about two and a half hours and costs £22.50 for a day return.
Passengers seem – in the main – to be visitors; some Scots, some English but many from across the North Sea. I was surprised by the number that caught the same train back after spending just over the hour in Kyle. It was obvious that they had just come for the train ride and the views. There are few children on board. They would quickly get bored. Most are young backpackers from Europe touring around, walkers or the middle-aged out for a comfortable way of exploring the highlands.
As the train sped – in comparison with the rest of the journey – from Dingwall past the Beauly Firth and into Inverness, thermos flasks and cardigans were retrieved. Cameras were put away and ham sandwiches disposed of while uneaten food was wrapped in foil again, ready for the next adventure in the highlands by these visitors.
So does it live up to Palin’s words? The short answer is yes but with a caveat. The best views, in my view, cover the journey from Kyle to Achnashellach. That’s not to say that the rest of the journey isn’t attractive. It is in many places and a book to read in between those would be a good idea. But there’s absolutely no need for one as you pass Loch Carron.