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Pat's Guide to Glasgow West End

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The West Highland Railway from Mallaig to Glasgow via Fort William, has been a 'bucket list' ambition for me for a long time. Saturday was predicted to be a fine day, so I decided to get out and do it. It's also on the bucket list of many tourists who come to Scotland, and this could cause a problem in the height of the tourist season. You want to get a window seat, facing the front, but if the train is packed with tourists, you might end up with an aisle seat, and your back to the engine.  Hopefully, there would be far fewer tourists in late September.
The bus pass allows you to get half price train travel, but only in Strathclyde region. So, you can use it for the train to  Oban, which is in Strathclyde, but not to Fort William and Mallaig, which are in Highland region. So, this was going to be the most expensive outing yet. I'd get free travel between my home and Glasgow, and also on the bus from Glasgow to Fort William, but then I'd be paying full fare for the rest. There's a bus service between Mallaig and Fort William, but it's pretty restricted, and didn't fit in with the itinerary. So, I'd get the train to Mallaig.
I expected that I'd just spend a couple of hours or so in Mallaig, before catching the West Highland Railway train back to Glasgow, but as I was idly thumbing through the Cal-Mac ferry timetables  one day, I noticed that there was actually a ferry from Mallaig to Armadale in Skye. Now, my travels around Scotland have turned me  into something of a 'ferry bagger'. I 'bag' ferries the way some folk bag Munros. It's easier on the hips. I've done five since June, and this would be number six, if it was doable, and it was - just. The ferry leaves Mallaig at 1400, arriving at Armadale at 1445. I could disembark, and spend a few minutes of my first visit to Skye taking a couple of photos, before joining the back of the queue to board the ship again. The ferry would arrive back in Mallaig at 1545, with 20 minutes to spare before catching the 1605 train to Glasgow. Cost of return trip, just £6.
It was going to be a day of 'firsts'. First time in Mallaig, on the Armadale ferry, and isle of Skye. First time on the West Highland line, including twice across the Glenfinnan viaduct, between Mallaig and Fort William. Glenfinnan is the viaduct made famous in  Harry Potter films. It would be my first time across Rannoch Moor, one of the wildest places in Scotland, with no roads or villages for many miles. I'd heard that red deer were often seen from the train on the moor. That would be another first, if I saw one. I've seen nine roe deer on my travels, this year. Five individuals, plus a group of two adults and two fawns in a field of sheep, in Mull. Since they're mainly nocturnal, and mainly woodland dwelling, making it hard to spot them, you're left with the impression that there must be an awful lot of roe deer in Scotland. But, I've yet to see a red deer.
It was my first time through Glen Coe from the south, and it was just as spectacular as when I traveled through it from the north earlier in the year. I took a few pics through the window of the bus, but wasn't optimistic about the results. I made a mental note of the relative positions of the chair lift, visitors' centre and Glencoe village for next year. The 0830 Fort William bus from Buchanan Street was 10 minutes late leaving, and lost another 10 minutes en route, due to a lot of passengers getting off and on along the way. So, it arrived in Fort William at 1156, which left no time for any  sightseeing. It was straight to the railway station to get the 1212 train to Mallaig, arriving at 1334.
On approaching the Glenfinnan viaduct, half the passengers got their cameras out, and started snapping away. I took a few pics, one of which turned out half decent. After Glenfinnan, the train passed by Scotland's deepest loch, Loch Morar. I'd expected it to be larger, for a body of water over 1,000 ft deep. The schedule was tight - too tight, maybe. I was trying to cram a lot in. I had just 15 minutes in Mallaig, before catching the 1400 ferry to Armadale, in Skye. It took 45 minutes to do the crossing, and I had 5 minutes on Skye to take a few photos, before boarding for the return trip. The weather was just about perfect, and there were a lot of tourists taking photos. There seemed to be a lot of Germans and Americans, but very few Chinese, compared to early summer.
On the train back from Fort William, through Rannoch Moor, the sun began to flirt with the mountain tops, and the gloaming seemed to add to the ethereal magic of the place. I had thought that Rannoch Moor was my best chance of getting my first sighting of wild red deer, and so it turned out.  About half a mile before Rannoch station, a group of four red deer hinds came into view, about 200 yards away. So, that's another bucket list item ticked off. By the time the train reached Ardlui, it was pitch black. October sees the start of the winter timetables. With far fewer bus, train and ferry services, and fewer daylight hours,  there won't be any opportunities to do long distance outings with multiple connections  like today's itinerary.  It's a summer thing, really.




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Mallaig to Armadale (Skye) ferry from returning ferry

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Ferry approaching slipway at Armadale

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Armadale harbour

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Glenfinnan viaduct


Mallaig harbour

harbour wullie .jpg

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  • 1 month later...
I'd three days of my annual leave left, so took Wed-Fri off, as the forecast looked promising for a short excursion. Decided on Moffat and Dumfries, but when I looked out the window this morning, it was well below zero, and the frost didn't melt later, like it usually does. I'm okay working outdoors in those temperatures, but it dampens the enthusiasm for bus rambling, even if it is a nice sunny day. Saturday is predicted to be only a degree or two higher, so I'll be staying in.
I'd thought about doing the winter only ferry from Lochranza in Arran to Tarbert at the northern end of the Mull of Kintyre, then getting another ferry across Loch Fyne to Portavadie on the Cowal penisula, before catching a bus to Dunoon. But winter buses and ferries aren't synchronised like the summer ones, and there are fewer services, so it isn't doable. Pity.  I'll just wait until next spring, and do a return trip across the Cowal peninsula to Tarbert. 
Thought I'd make a list of the bestest favourites journeys this year, so here it is:
1) Train from Mallaig to Fort William. 
The Mallaig to Glasgow West Highland railway journey has been called the most scenic rail journey in the world, and the Mallaig to Fort William section is probably the best bit. The vistas are breathtaking. I was very lucky to get lots of sunny days that were in the low 70s in my travels, and that was the case when I did the West Highland trip. There are not many days in the year in Scotland when the lochs and sea are Caribbean blue and glistening yellow. 'Almost mystical' describes it well enough.
2) Fort William to Glencoe bus. 
I traveled through Glencoe twice on the bus. Once from the north, and once from the south. The mountains are truly majestic, and surprisingly green. Many of the comments on the Tripadvisor page remark on how green the mountains are. That's probably just because they're not as high as the Rockies or the Alps, but the copious rain they get probably helps, too. Apparently, the magical environment is a combination of a volcanic caldera ground and scoured by ice age glaciers. So, now you know.
3) Train through Rannoch moor. 
Part of the West Highland rail trip, only doable by train, and since it's outside Strathclyde region, you can't get a half price fare. But worth every penny. Rannoch moor is one of the wildest places in Britain, with no roads or villages for many miles. It has the highest railway station in Britain (Corrour). I traveled through it when the sun was beginning to set behind the mountains and the twilight upped the mystical factor big time. Got my first ever sighting of wild red deer, four hinds about 200 yards from the train, just before Rannoch station.
4) Oban to Glasgow bus.
The bus from Glasgow to Oban goes up the west side of Loch Lomond, through the Trossachs, then through Crianlarich and Tyndrum, en route to Oban. It's a very scenic trip, but the return journey through Inveraray and Arrochar, taking in lochs Fyne and Long, is even better.
5) The Great Glen
Inverness to Fort William, taking in the Caledonian canal, Loch Ness, Urquhart castle, Fort Augustus, Loch Lochy and Ben Nevis. What's not to like?
6) Rothesay to Dunoon.
The bus gets on a ferry at the northern tip of Bute, to travel the 440 yards to Colintraive, on the Cowal peninsula. The hills are very rugged, and look like better mountaineering practice than the Highlands, although  smaller. It's a very scenic journey, spoiled by the desolation left by the clearfelled plantations.
7) Inveraray to Tarbert.
Down the west coast of Loch Fyne, going through the 'hidden gem' villages of Inveraray, Lochgilphead, Ardrishaig and Tarbert.
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Well, it looks like I'm scuppered for excursions this summer. The clocks go forward on Sat 28 March, and that's when bus and ferry services change to their summer timetablesI was looking forward to getting out and about, but the government's advice not to travel unless necessary, plus the travel firms cutting their services due to decreased demand means that I'm reluctantly going to be staying put. Also, tourist attractions, such as museums, have closed their doors until further notice, so it's a no brainer.

I've spent some time during the winter, working out what trips I'd like to go on, so I'll post the gist of them here.

Three of the trips involved travel to Inverness. One then went to Ullapool, and returned the same route back to Inverness, before getting the bus back to Glasgow. Another went from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh, then another bus down the coast to Fort William, then either a bus to Glasgow via Glencoe, or a train through Rannoch moor. The last was a trip from Inverness to Aberdeen going through several towns, including Elgin, Keith, Huntly and Inverurie, before getting a bus from Aberdeen to Glasgow. I'd have stopped off at Elgin for a couple of hours.

Several trips took in the Mull of Kintyre. One involved getting a ferry from Gourock to Dunoon, then a trip across the Cowal peninsula and Kyle of Bute along Argyllshire's 'secret coast', through Tighnabruaich to Portavadie, on Loch Fyne.   I'd get another ferry from Portavadie across the loch to Tarbert, at the northern end of the Mull of Kintyre, before returning the same way.

Another involved a ferry to Brodick, on Arran, bus from Brodick to Lochranza, then ferry to Claonaig, on the Mull of Kintyre. After disembarking at Claonaig, I'd walk half way across the Mull (3 miles), before a bus arrived which I'd take to Ardrishaig, at the start of the Crinan canal. Then, I'd walk for two miles along the canal towpath to Lochgilphead, before getting the Campbeltown bus back to Glasgow. 

There's three ferries a week from Ardrossan to Campbeltown. They're intended for locals, rather than day trippers, but there's one on a Sunday that gets into Campbeltown half an hour before the last bus (1700) to Glasgow. I know it sounds a bit mental to get a 2.5 hour ferry just to spend half an hour in town, but I've become a ferry bagger, and it's on my bucket list. I'd have enough time to check out the Linda McCartney memorial garden, take a few pics, and get a hot pie before boarding the bus back. (Edit: the Sunday ferry leaves Campbeltown at 1655, arriving back at Ardrossan at 1935, so you could get an early bus from Glasgow to Campbeltown, spend a few hours in town, before returning on the ferry. Costs £8 for the single.)

Another trip would have been to the small ferry terminal of Tayinloan, half way down the Mull of Kintyre, to get a 20 minute ferry to the island of Gigha. Gigha is a small island, just 3 miles from the coast, and it's just 6 miles long, with a road the same length. It's quite fertile, and its name derives from the Viking for 'good' island. Despite being so small, there are two bike hire businesses, a general store, a kayak and rowing boat hire, golf course, and two restaurants that get almost 5 stars each on Tripadvisor. The island was bought from the owner by the inhabitants, and the main attraction (for some) is Achamore gardens, which were created by a previous owner. Achamore house is now a B&B establishment.

However, the most ambitious trip that I had planned was to Islay. It involved getting an early morning taxi from Strathaven to Buchanan Street bus station, in order to get the first bus from Glasgow to Campbeltown at 0615. This would have got me into Kennacraig ferry terminal on the Mull of Kintyre in time to get the 10.00 am ferry to Port Ellen, taking 2 hours 20 minutes to get there. I'd spend 55 minutes in Port Ellen, before getting a bus to the island's administrative capital, Bowmore. I'd have 1 hour and 6 minutes in Bowmore, before getting the bus to Port Askaig. Then, I'd have just 20 minutes in Port Askaig, before getting the 1 hour 55 minutes ferry back to Kennacraig. Within half an hour, the last bus from Campbeltown to Glasgow would show up. I was really looking forward to that one.

Other trips involved Oban. I fancied travelling north up the west coast from Oban to Fort William, connecting with the Glasgow to Fort William route at Ballachulish. It was only a 30 mile trip that I hadn't been on, but seemed well worth doing. Another was a trip from Tarbert up the west coast through a few hamlets, arriving at Oban. I was surprised that there was actually a bus service for that area. Again, not very long, but worth the effort. A third trip involved taking the ferry from Oban to Craignure, on Mull, then a 34 mile bus trip along Mull's long southern peninsula, to Fionnhphort, the ferry terminal for Iona. That would be the last bus back, so I could take the short ferry trip to Iona, get off for 5 minutes to take some pics, then hop back on, to catch the bus back.

One more trip I had planned was from Edinburgh, getting off at Peebles, then continuing through Galashiels to Melrose, taking in the abbey, then returning to Edinburgh on the recently revived Borders rail line.

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On 4/14/2020 at 1:44 PM, Pat said:

Hope you will get back on the buses and ferries before the summer is over,  Yonza.   You've got plenty of opportunity to plan.

That would be great, but I'm not optimistic. I just don't see any exit strategy. We're still at well over 700 deaths a day. Even if there were an easing of the lockdown, it would be piecemeal, and the last thing that would be allowed would be tourist bus trips.

In addition, the timetables for the skeleton services aren't the regular summer timetables, so useless for planning.

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With news accounts of day trippers to England's south coast beaches being packed like sardines into trains, and the story of the Millport ferry turning turtle due to the sheer weight of passengers (maybe some exaggeration there), I was beginning to feel left out. I hadn't actually heard an official announcement that tourist travel on public transport was now permitted, so I emailed Citylink, and got the reply that it was, so decided to resume excursions.

Bus services to many key destinations have been restricted, and the Fort William and Inverness trips are now not doable. The Glasgow to Campbeltown bus service seems to have escaped the cuts, with still five buses on a Saturday and four on weekdays, according to the online timetable. But that may have changed recently, without the website being updated, as I was to find out today. More on that later.

Today's trip would take me back to Arran, this time getting the 'back door' ferry from Lochranza to Claonaig, on the Mull of Kintyre, where I'd get the bus to Lochgilphead, getting off at Ardrishaig, at the start of the Crinan canal, to walk two miles along the canal towpath to Lochgilphead. From there, I'd get the Campbeltown bus returning to Glasgow at 1603.

The 0945 ferry from Ardrossan arrived in Brodick at 1040. Cost of single fare, £4. It wasn't as crowded as last year, but that was a Saturday trip with expected sunny weather. Today's Wednesday trip, with cloudy skies, still had a fair amount of tourists on board. Masks had to be worn below deck, and there was no catering.  The 1055 Brodick to Lochranza bus had the same thirty something Italian driver as last year. He obviously likes the job. Can't say I blame him. The bus was a little more than half full leaving Brodick, but was only about a third full by the time it reached Lochranza at 1138. Most had got off for the hiking trails up Goat Fell. Three young guys who had been sitting on the seats next to me, got off at the whisky distillery. Their conversation the whole way had been about whisky, the cost of whisky collections, and the distilleries they'd visited. I didn't know that 'distillery bagging' was even a thing, and I'm temperamentally unsuited to be trusted with a whisky collection.

The 1200 ferry from Lochranza to Claonaig cost £3 for the single, and took 30 minutes to make the crossing. Strangely, the passengers on deck were all wearing masks. None of the Brodick ferry passengers had been wearing masks on deck. As we sailed across, the sun made valiant efforts to break through the clouds, but the clouds weren't giving up. Of the nine foot passengers who got off at Claonaig, I was the only one who got the Lochgilphead bus. The others headed along the coast on foot to the nearby tiny village of Skipness, which has a well preserved castle, a beautiful beach, and other attractions.

The bus travelled across the peninsula to Kennacraig ferry terminal, which services Islay and Colonsay. Timetables are different from last year, making the Islay trip I had planned a non starter now. The bus continued north through the village of Tarbert, before arriving at Ardrishaig, 55 minutes after leaving Claonaig. Ardrishaig sits at the start of the Crinan canal. It's much smaller than Lochgilphead, but far more photogenic. By this time, the sun had finally won the battle with the clouds, and the rest of the day was a scorcher. 

I walked the two miles along the canal towpath to Lochgilphead, passing about half a dozen other walkers coming the other way, and about a dozen cyclists. That was just a wee 'snapshot' of the towpath, which is 9 miles long, from Ardrishaig to Crinan. Lochgilphead's a fine looking place, but strangely lacking in photo opportunities. Walking around, I noticed three cafes, and an Indian restaurant, but no fish and chip shop. It's not some sleepy little backwater, and I was surprised at the amount of non stop through traffic, so there seems to be a gap in the market for a chippy.

The 1603 bus from Lochgilphead to Glasgow didn't show up, so I sat on a bench on the main street for almost three hours, before one finally arrived at 1840. The timetable in the bus shelter stated that bus times were subject to change, due to the coronavirus. I checked the online timetable the next day, and found that the 1603 bus now only runs on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. That's a lesson learnt. I'll be double checking times before leaving the house in future. Apart from that, and the coronavirus issues, it was a cracking day out.

Ferry approaching Lochranza

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On board the Lochranza to Claonaig ferry

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Kelpies at Ardrishaig

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Arran from Lochranza ferry

mountains sea from boat.jpg

Crinan canal and towpath

crinan canal towpath.jpg

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Another brilliant day out, Yonza. Takes a lot of planning to get round all those places and super value.  Love the photos. It was a shame you had that long wait on the way home. Glad it was such a nice day.  You make it sound very tempting. I think I need my new hip though.  Then there will be no stopping me.

We went through to North Berwick and stopped off at Gullane Beach.  I had never been to either places before. Very nice. Scotland is braw. 

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