Wullie Davidson’s Bus Pass Ramblings – West Highland Railway, Mallaig and Ferry to Armadale
he 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.
Ferry returning to Mallaig
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.
Armadale ferry terminal
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