In 1986 Miles made a series of films for the BBC called Steam Days. In 1990 Steaming Through Britain, (photographs by Alain Le Garsmeur) was published. The West Highland Extension was one of the lines he re-visited for the book.
Mallaig is not just at the end of the line, it is beyond the end of the line. The West Highland Line proper ends at Fort William, a hundred miles north of Glasgow, a hundred miles of the bleakest and most beautiful scenery you’ll find anywhere. It passes along the sides of Loch Lomond, soon after leaving Glasgow, but you are far more likely to remember the desolate heights of Rannoch Moor and the weaving of the line round the flanks of the bare mountains.
Once, driving across Rannoch Moor, I stopped the car when there was no traffic about to fill my ears with the sounds of the moor: the distant birds, the whispering of the wind in the grass and so on. There was not even that to be heard. On a summer afternoon, when nature is supposedly getting on with things, there was literally nothing to be heard, only blank emptiness, like a ghost town after the ghosts have departed. So it comes as a delicious relief to descend the last twenty or thirty miles through wooded glens, alongside rushing rivers, to Fort William at the head of Loch Linnhe.
And that might always have been the end of the line, were it not that a hundred years ago parliament was much concerned about the terrible plight of the crofters who lived beyond Fort William, down to the coast. They received reports of their starvation and hopelessness much as Britain hears about famine in the Third World today. In 1890, the Third World was in north-west Scotland. Parliament wrung its hands and asked what it could do. Build a railway line to the coast, came one answer, and let the fishing folk get their produce down south and make some money. So the West Highland Extension Line, as it was unromantically called, was constructed in the 1890s, the first railway line ever to get a government subsidy.
The big problem, apart from blasting it through the hills, was where to build it to. There was no town on the coast opposite Fort William, hardly a village. So they found a dot on the map which seemed to have a nice bit of anchorage by it, discovered that it was called Mallaig and built the line to it. The day before the line opened, it took seven or eight hours to get to Arsaig and Mallaig by horse and wagon. The day after it opened, it took an hour by train…
Outwardly not much has changed on the line. Ben Nevis still frowns hugely on Fort William at one end, and the sea spreads out from Mallaig at the other, full of islands like a war fleet getting ready for inspection. I can’t help feeling that Ben Nevis has been put in the wrong place, though. The largest mountain in Scotland should not be beside the sea; it should be the highest peak in a series of peaks, so that it looks as tall as it really is. Poised over Fort William with no fellow peaks standing by, it gives no sense of its true height, like a 6’7” rugby forward standing in a room all by himself. Still, it’s far too late to move it now and it is undeniably impressive to move away from Fort William with that great mass of green and brown hanging over you. The first few times I travelled out to Fort William I was goggling out of the window so much that I failed to notice the flight of locks which marks the start of the Caledonian Canal, the great waterway across Scotland which was out of date before it was even finished.
There were two sterling people in the film (Steam days – The Fishing Line BBC2 1986). One was the driver, Willie Corrigan, whose soft Scottish voice on the sound-track insisted that the Mallaig line was the finest in the world, that he never got tired of it and that it was different every time. No matter that, in my experience, every driver tells you the same about his line; they always patently mean it and it is always moving to hear them say it.
The other was William McAlpine, well-known as a railway enthusiast and member for the McAlpine engineering family. On any other line he would have been quite interesting; here, he was in his element, because the line had been built by his family. Robert McAlpine, who was so in love with concrete they called him ’Concrete Bob’, had made this the first major exercise in concrete anywhere in the world, and even today, when Bill McAlpine stood patting Glenfinnan Viaduct the concrete pride of the line, as if he were patting a family horse, and said:’ When we built this,’ the pride was as touching as that of Willie Corrigan.
Here come tourists by the coachload. It is not, however, to see the viaduct. They come because the Scots have a curious habit of ignoring their great achievements and dwelling on their glorious defeats, and the tall memorial and visitor centre to which they come are there to commemorate the landing of Bonnie Prince Charlie prior to his disastrous 1745 attempt to corner the market for the Stuart family.
In 1986 Glenfinnan station and signal box were thriving, and we were able to film the signal man at work in his gleaming box. I noticed that as the signal man left his box prior to filming, he smeared a thick layer of cream on his face. I couldn’t think why. Minutes later when a thick river of insects landed on my face and stared crawling everywhere they could find an entry, I understood. One of the best-selling books in Scotland in 1989 was “Midges in Scotland” by Professor George Hendry, and any Englishman who has encountered the little beast will not find them funny. They are, apparently worse at Glenfinnan than almost anywhere.
What you have to bear in mind when you’re setting off from Fort William to Mallaig is that you’re going from sea level to sea level. Loch Linnhe, the water from which the town is separated by a dangerous dual carriageway, is the tip of a twenty-mile finger from the sea which is not quite useful enough to support a thriving ferry service. The trip to Mallaig is like going across the back of a glove – you go a long way up and a long way down but every now and then you glimpse a long finger of water snaking down to the sea which gives the Mallaig line a special flavour that you don’t get on the line up from Glasgow or indeed the Settle – Carlisle line, which are upland lines pure and simple. The Mallaig line gives you the same feeling that you get when about to break out of mist into sunshine, the same sensation of being on the edge of a surprise.