The West Highlands Rail Journey


This month we took a ride on the West Highlands railway, spending five enjoyable hours meandering through spectacular and dramatic highlands scenery before reaching the village of Morar. After spending the night there and enjoying a stroll around its beautiful sandy bay, we hopped back on the train and headed back down to Fort William where we relaxed in the swimming pool and hot tub at the Ben Nevis hotel.

We were unlucky with the weather on the way up. A stubborn layer of thick cloud reduced the visibility of mountains and valley sides to little more than misty glimpses. That was disappointing, naturally, but the low mist did bring a sense of drama and mystery to the landscape (particularly when we went over the Glen Finnan viaduct, which Harry potter fans will recognise from the movies).

The view of the Silver Sands of Morar from our hotel room was sometimes limited, but it was still fascinating to watch and photograph the morphing scene as the tide came and went and sand bars emerged and vanished. The shallow water resembled silk as it was brushed by a gentle sea breeze. There were some nice colour shades in the water, which weren't noticeable with the naked eye, but which I managed to bring out in post-processing.

The next morning, we walked around the bay and strolled along the beaches and rocky outcrops. The skies brightened up and I was able to get some nice shots of this photogenic spot. We also recorded some audio as we stood on the rocks overlooking the sea, so if you'd like to hear the soothing soundscape of the Silver Sands of Morar - trickling water, tweeting birds etc - then do check that out. Also, there's some random and somewhat rambling conversation from us, which is never very far from amusing.

Thankfully, on the way back better weather meant we got to see in all their sweeping glory the lush and craggy landscapes that earned this railway journey the reputation of being the most scenic in the world.

As you gaze out of the train window, the foreground is a blur, but the sweeping mountain, moor and valley landscapes beyond are so vast and distant that movement is beyond perception. They seem still, like frozen moments in time, as if you're staring at impossibly large 19th-century landscape paintings. It's tricky to take photos through the unclean windows of a train as it bumps its way alone, but I was happy with some of the shots I managed to get on the return journey. So I'm now glad I made the effort to switch seats with Anna and get the camera out, even though I wasn't confident of getting anything good.

Like other places where I've seen vast expanses of the planet laid out before my eyes, such as the Canadian Rockies or the Australian Outback, you're struck with that singularly humbling but strangely calming realisation of just how big is the planet and just how small you are.

Look at Scotland on the map and it seems tiny, but take the West Highlands railway and you can't fail to realise just how much land there is and just how much of it isn't even inhabited or indeed inhabitable. There are billions of human beings and yet huge swaths of the earth remain untouched and uninhabited, and will probably forever remain that way.

Just like the 2,775-mile train journey I once took from Toronto all the way across Canada to Vancouver, the West Highlands Railway line isn't just a journey from A to B, it's an existential trip too. One that picks you up out of your own little world and drops you into your very much larger context on planet Earth, like that little dangling man on Google street maps. I would say the West Highlands railway journey is a must for anyone visiting Scotland for a week or more. Edinburgh has a man-made grandeur, which we love, but there's no denying that the Scottish highlands possesses a special kind of majesty that is all nature's work. The West Highlands railway is a great way to take it all in.