Today was a travelling day on three different forms of transport. Our first journey was on the famous Jacobite Express steam train from Fort William to Mallaig. A taxi picked us up at our hotel and drove us into Fort William. The train was already at the platform, so we walked the length of the train to the first carriage. We were in First Class, Carriage A, seats 5 and 6.
Because we were seated right behind the engine we could hear and almost feel the ‘chuff, chuff’ of the steam engine and we constantly had white, fluffy clouds of smoke drifting past us. And our seating also allowed me to poke my camera out of a window and get a few shots of the train as it rounded the curve of the Glenfinnan Viaduct, but more of that later.
The rail journey from Fort William to Mallaig is about 66 km long and takes about two hours. There’s not a lot of storage space on this train, but thankfully we seemed to be the only ones in first class with really large suitcases so the train crew told us we could just stow them out of the way near the toilets at the front of the carriage. That was handy, as it’s a pretty tight squeeze in the seating area of the carriage.
One of the first things we sighted after leaving Fort William was Neptune’s Staircase on the Caledonian Canal. Neptune’s Staircase is a remarkable feat of Scottish engineering, designed by Thomas Telford during the Industrial Revolution. It is a series of eight locks which raises a canal boat by a total of 19 metres over a period of about 90 minutes. In that time the boat travels forward a distance of about 400 metres. I used to teach my Year 9 students about Telford, the canal and the locks, so I was very pleased to see it, even if it was just a passing glimpse. If you look closely at the first image below, you will see the staircase rising up the hill behind the bridge.
Five minutes into our journey the first crowd of people was standing with their phones out filming us as we chuffed past. We got used to it. Everywhere we went, phones came out – cars stopped at railway crossings, cars driving on roads running parallel to us, spectators at various points along the line – they all wanted to get a photo or shoot a video of the steam train puffing smoke.
The terrain changed from time to time. We passed Loch Linnhe and Loch Eil. At Glenfinnan, we had a distant view of Loch Shiel and the Highlander Monument. Then there was the landlocked Loch Eilt and the sea lochs Loch Ailort and Loch Nan Uamh. Approaching Mallaig we passed Loch Morar. At times we had high mountains either on one or both sides of the train and sometimes we went through tunnels when there were small hills in our path. The fields were green and we saw plenty of sheep and even a few highland cattle. Some parts of the countryside were bare and rocky, and other parts were quite well forested. From start to finish, the ride was enjoyable because the terrain was always changing but never dull.
Of course, I need to mention the section of the line that gets the most attention. The train is called the Jacobite Express, but perhaps it is better known as the Harry Potter Train. Because it is this train that appears in the Harry Potter films as it crosses the Glenfinnan Viaduct, carrying Harry to the fictitious Hogwarts School. Being seated near the front of the first carriage, I was able to get quickly to the door at the front of the carriage where another guy had pulled a window pane to one side, leaving just enough room for the two of us to hold our cameras out of the window, point in the direction of the viaduct and click. I managed to get these photos below of the train approaching the viaduct and also looking backwards to get the tail of the train still on the viaduct. As we crossed over the structure, another Industrial Revolution engineering marvel, a large crowd of spectators below were taking photos and videos.
They stopped the train at Glenfinnan for 20 minutes so we could get out and stretch our legs. I hoped there might be time to get down to the loch to have another look at the monument dedicated to the brave Jacobite highlanders who fought valiantly in a failed attempt to put Bonnie Prince Charlie on the throne. I’d visited the monument when I was last here four years ago and I found it really striking in both its construction and its location. But there really wasn’t time. There was a small museum on the station platform, but a long queue formed almost as soon as we stepped from the train so I didn’t bother trying to have a look. On the station and also on the train, they were selling Harry Potter souvenirs. Actually, there were quite a few Harry Potter fans on the train who’d come along already dressed up in their Hogwarts gear.
Our second form of transport for the day was the ferry from Mallaig to Skye. After our train arrived, we had over an hour to wait for the ferry. We found somewhere to sit. Neil and I went off in search of sandwiches and wraps. About the first three or four places we tried only sold fish and chips. Some of us have been eating fish and chips a lot over here already, but we just wanted something simpler while we were on the move. Eventually we found what we wanted in the Mallaig co-op. We sat on a bench under blue skies and ate our lunch while we waited for the ferry. A large bus, campervans, large and small cars were lining up in queues to board the ferry. There were quite a few passengers on foot, but not many of them were carting heavy suitcases like us, once again much to our relief, as it meant we’d have no problem finding somewhere to stow it on the ferry.
The ferry came in about 2 pm. We waited as the vehicles disembarked and the foot passengers left. The ferry crew then summoned those of us on foot to board first. We managed to find a good spot on the lower deck for our luggage. Marg, Janie and Neil found good seats inside, and I went up to the upper deck so I could take some photos. Luckily, I was up there before all the Germans on the tour bus came up, because by the time the ferry left the pier it was standing room only on the upper deck. I wasn’t surprised by that as the sun was shining, the sky was blue and it was not cold up there – such a difference to what we’d experienced on the Loch Linnhe cruise a day earlier.
I watched them loading on all the vehicles. The last to drive on appeared to have only centimetres to spare behind the car. The driver got out and walked off towards the passenger, while a number of the crew milled around the car. Something was wrong. They were trying to close the back gate of the ferry and it seemed that the car might have been preventing that from happening. I watched a couple of the crew call out to the driver to return to the car. There was a conversation and then she handed the keys to a crew member who got in and inched the car forward ever so slightly. The gate closed, and the rest of the ferry crossing was uneventful. After a journey of about 45 minutes, the ferry docked at Armadale, on the southern end of the Isle of Skye.
We were met at the ferry terminal by the gentleman who would provide our third form of transport for the day – Jerome, our taxi driver. He was talking to another guy when we arrived. The guy took one look at the hat I was wearing and said ‘Go Pies’. ‘Are you a Collingwood fan?’ I asked him. He told me he’d been a massive fan for the past thirty years. I imagine a Scot Pie fan would be pretty impressed that a guy with a name like McRae has them sitting on top of the AFL ladder midway through the current season.
Jerome turned out to be a pretty interesting guy. We got a bit of history, a bit of geography and a bit of comedy from him as he drove us north to Portree. We had views of the coast from time to time, but the dominant feature was the Cullin Mountains.
Jerome pulled into the car park at Sligachan pub, got out four whisky glasses and poured us each a wee dram of Skye’s own single malt, Talisker. He walked us over to the old 16th century bridge and told us the tale of an annual race that begins at the pub, involves drinking and concludes with an ascent to the peak we were looking at and back. He asked us to guess how long it might take. Our guesses ranged from 3 hours to half a day. Jerome said a guy did it last year in 57 minutes. Amazing! He took us over to the monument and told us the story of two guys, best mates, who’d spent most of their lives climbing the peaks around here. The locals erected a monument, which is quite moving. The two friends staring at their beloved mountains.
By the time we got back to the car, Jerome figured we needed another drink, so he pulled out a Torabhaig single malt, Skye’s newest whisky, and poured us each a dram. The distillery has only been fully operational since January 2017. What a pity there aren’t more taxi drivers like Jerome. He certainly knew how to put smiles on our faces.
On the outskirts of Portree, we arrived at our accommodation. Viewfield House, home to the Macdonald family since it was built in Victorian times, is a large mansion set on spacious grounds that might just as well be a museum as a guest house. Its entrance way, communal spaces and rooms are a blast from the past. There are deer antlers and stuffed animals, weapons, grandfather clocks and all sorts of unusual relics that take you back to colonial times. It’s pretty clear that Old Macdonald was a hunter, ee, aye, ee, aye oh! He even shot a tiger and had its head mounted and hung on his wall. As much as I love this place, I find the tiger pretty distasteful.
Our room has magnificent views of the garden, and our bathroom looks out over the water. They’ve reserved a breakfast table for us with a beautiful garden view. The gardens are quite stunning. A large pink rhododendron is in full flower. The bluebells are also out at the moment and they add plenty of colour. We’re very happy to be staying two nights here.
We left the property via a shaded, leafy track which brought us to the the main road into Portree. We’d been warned that most places to eat in town would be fully booked, and that was the case with the first few places we tried. Rather than joining long queues and waiting to get in, we kept walking and eventually found one where a table had just been vacated. We hit the jackpot, because the food was fantastic. Neil and I had the scallops. I don’t have the words to tell you how good they were. Plump, juicy and falling apart in your mouth might be the expressions I’m looking for. We all followed our main course with sticky date pudding with ice cream and butterscotch sauce. Yum!
Tomorrow we’re on a day tour of Skye. It should be another memorable day.