Scotland: Iron road to bonny isles

Anthony Dennis braves the chill of Scotland's own outback and the warmth of its beer, riding the rails of Hogwarts.

I'm aboard a train travelling along one of Britain's most scenic and wildest railway routes, with the forbidding near-winter weather outside misty, damp and cold enough to turn a kilt-wearer's knees as blue as the Scottish ensign itself. But am I complaining? Of course not, since, really, who wants to experience the highlands of Scotland in brilliantly sunny weather? It would be akin to haggis for vegans. Just not right.

A section of this line through the West Highlands, with the journey beginning in Glasgow and ending in seaside Mallaig is famously featured in three of the Harry Potter films. It's the sequence in which the celebrated Hogwarts Express, under full steam, travels across a 19th-century railway bridge too fairytale-like to be real, even though it is.

In the warmer months, it's possible to take the Hogwarts-like Jacobite Express steam train, a little like the one in the movies, between Fort William and Mallaig. But I'd much rather travel on this authentic, more prosaic scheduled service, full of real Scots and a few foreigners like me, than travel on one targeted at tourists wanting to relive a flick.

Earlier in the day, I'd departed at dawn from Edinburgh's Waverley Street Station for the short trip to Glasgow's Queen Street Station, both all tangles of 19th-century wrought iron and glass. It was from Queen Street Station that I began my four-hour trip along West Highland Line to Fort William, where I planned to overnight before pushing on to Mallaig, a journey in total of just under 265 kilometres. It's not so far by world standards but the trip encompasses a plethora of superlatives - the highest mountain in Britain (Ben Nevis); the largest loch (Loch Lomond); the longest loch (Loch Awe); the deepest loch (Loch Morar); the highest mainline railway station (Corrour); and the most westerly station (Arisaig).

Not long after leaving Glasgow, the train weaves around and passes high above famed Loch Lomond with grand hotels at its shoreline, the views frequently obscured by birch forests. Eventually, as we climb higher, the lochs and the forests are replaced by stark, defoliated peaks, their sides streaked, tear-like, with waterfalls.

The train passes solitary stone farmhouses beside fast-flowing streams on lonely moors studded with ancient rambling rock fences cascading up and down hillsides. There's the odd Land Rover bouncing and splashing along muddy, unsealed byways. Further on, the view ahead looks like some displaced water-soaked traditional Chinese scroll painting; I can see suitably brooding, snow-dusted mountains, giant puddings crowned with boarding-school treacle, and forbidding flinty-coloured clouds indicating even poorer weather ahead. Perfect.

Below us, between the pockets of peat bogs, are sheep with dyed identity markings on their backs. A graveyard on the side of a hill is ringed by an ancient stone fence. It's utterly forbidding, with the sheep copping a drenching from the rain as the train is enveloped by a copybook Scottish gloom. The temperature in the airconditioned carriage hasn't changed, but just looking out the window makes me want to draw my scarf tighter.

Right out there is the nearest you get in Britain to the outback - except it feels wholly foreign with signage on the platforms in both English and unpronounceable Gaelic. "A wearier looking desert man never saw" was how the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson described moors like these in his novel Kidnapped.

It's about halfway along the journey that the train separates into two - one set of carriages heads to Fort William and Mallaig, my ultimate destination, with the others tethered to an engine bound for the seaside town of Oban.

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Closer to Fort William at Roy Bridge, a woman in a blue sweater waves at the train from her kitchen window, one of those expressions of goodwill to trains, bringers of continuity and reassurance, that you see all over the world. Later, I can feel the train clawing its way a little higher through a desolate landscape strewn with fields of moss-coloured boulders intersected with peat bogs and dotted by the occasional ruins of a long abandoned farmhouse. Eventually, we reach Fort William, billed as "Britain's outdoor capital", but in this weather I can't wait to get indoors at the Lime Tree Hotel.

The town is overlooked by Ben Nevis, Britain's highest point at 1344 metres. During my visit it never emerges from its sheath of fog and mist. Elsewhere, there's a historic 17th-century stone fort beside Loch Linnhe, built after Oliver Cromwell's invasion during the English Civil War to suppress the Scots uprisings. It has been clumsily dissected by a main road beside a shopping centre, making it regrettably difficult to access.

The next day, after my brief stay in Fort William and an excellent meal at the Lime Tree's restaurant, I'm off on the final, and even more scenic, leg of my journey to the remote fishing town of Mallaig, from where ferries depart for the Isle of Skye. Even if it hadn't been immortalised by the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter films (and, for that matter, TV series such as Monarch of the Glen), the Glenfinnan Viaduct, with its lovely gentle curve, would still be one of the highlights of the journey between Fort William and Maillag.

With its 21 arches, the viaduct was opened in 1898 and forms part of the Mallaig extension of the West Highland Railway constructed between 1897 and 1901. Nearer to Mallaig, the silvery lochs beside the train are drained of colour and seem to merge with the distant monochrome sea. It's not until later that I realise that I'd been looking at "sea lochs", tidal sea inlets that extend for kilometres, here along Scotland's western coast.

It's lunchtime by the time we reach Mallaig, where there is a two-hour or so wait before the train heads south again to Fort William and then on to Glasgow by early evening. It's much too wet, windy and cold for sightseeing, and my first act is to find a decent pub, where I plan to ensconce myself before an open fireplace, tucking into classic fish and chips and a pint. And I find it in the form of the Chlachain Inn, a place where the welcome is as warm as the beer itself. Me complain? Not likely. Rotten weather, after all, as Harry Potter himself would know, is an essential part of the Scottish experience.

Anthony Dennis is Fairfax Media's national travel editor. He travelled as a guest of Railbookers, China South Airlines and Visit Britain.

FIVE MORE GREAT BRITISH RAIL JOURNEYS

SETTLE TO CARLISLE RAILWAY

One of England's most cherished railways, traversing the Yorkshire Dales, the Pennines, Lake District and the spectacular Ribblehead Viaduct, has been lovingly restored by train enthusiasts. Look out for the beautifully refurbished wrought-iron stations along the route.

See settle-carlisle.co.uk.

THE ROYAL SCOTSMAN

Tackle the Scottish Highlands in five-star luxury and style on this multiple night journey from Edinburgh. The Royal Scotsman is run by the operators of the Venice Simplon Orient Express and aims to replicate the comforts of a Scottish country house.

See royalscotsman.com.

EXETER TO PENZANCE

This route travels close to Cornwall's great beaches and fishing villages. You can take the branch line to St Erth and St Ives, the location of the annexe the Tate Gallery while St Michael's Mount, a small, historic fortified tidal island is near Penzance.

See firstgreatwestern.co.uk.

EAST COAST MAINLINE

London's Kings Cross Station to Edinburgh's Waverley Street Station is a regular inter-city service that hugs the stunning English and Scottish coastlines after passing through the cathedral town of York.

See eastcoast.co.uk.

FFESTINIOG & WELSH HIGHLAND RAILWAYS

Don't even try and pronounce the names along these lovingly restored narrow gauge steam railways that traverse the beautiful and oft-overlooked Welsh countryside.

See festrail.co.uk.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

China Southern Airlines has regular flights to London, via Guangzhou, from Sydney and Melbourne. Australians on the Canton Route to other destinations can now opt for a Guangzhou stopover with a visa-free stay for up to 72 hours. See csair.com, phone 1300 889 628.

GETTING AROUND

Railbookers tailors rail holidays throughout Europe. "Highland Fling" starts in Edinburgh then via Glasgow to Mallaig. Prices from $875 a person include four nights in landmark railway hotels with breakfast daily. Book before April 30, 2014 for a 5 per cent discount. Railbookers also offers an 11-night grand railway hotel tour of Britain from $3095 a person including all first-class rail travel. See railbookers.com.au, phone 1300 550 973.

WHERE TO STAY

Through Railbookers, the Grand Central Hotel is attached to Glasgow's Central Station, grandcentralglasgow.co.uk. En route to Mallaig at Fort William, the Lime Tree Hotel has standard bed and breakfast en suite rooms but excellent food and a small art gallery. See limetreefortwilliam.co.uk.

MORE INFORMATION

railbookers.com.auvisitbritain.com.

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