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Being half term, the family were away and I was free of Grandparenting duties. I ‘d searched the holiday brochures and decided on ‘Romantic Highland Railway’ with locally based Acklams Holidays. Not only are their holidays good value they also offer home pick up and drop off too - once I’ve locked the door, I’m their responsibility!

The holiday offered rides on the Kyle of Lochalsh line, Fort William to Mallaig (but NOT on the Jacobite steam train), Strathspey Steam Railway and also Newtonmore Folk Museum. It is nearly 50 years since I was last on the Kyle Line and I’ve been wanting to go on the West Highland Line for nearly as many years and I also like steam trains and folk museums. It could have been planned specially for me, and I booked up!

I had a phone call from Acklams 2-3 weeks before the holiday apologising they had had to change hotels. To compensa, we would now be offered a trip on the Cairngorm Mountain railway as well - again something else I’ve been wanting to do! Things just got better (although I was less enamoured by the inclusion of free evening entertainment...)

We were very lucky with the weather with days of blue skies with hardly a cloud in the sky and wall to wall sunshine and temperatures well into the 20˚s. In late May, the hawthorn was still in full flower and there were lots of bluebells along the verges. There was a lot of Rhododendron ponticum, covered with pink flowers, which was found growing wild, especially around settlements, where it was a garden escape. There were still patches of snow on the slopes of the highest mountains.

I was picked up by minibus and taken to Drax Golf Club which Acklams use as their main exchange point. It is close to the A1 and M62 and there is free tea, coffee and biscuits provided.

It was then up the A1 to Scotch Corner where there was a long queue of stationery traffic waiting to get on the A66. Cars were also queuing to get in and out of Scotch Corner Services too. Traffic was slow on the A66, so instead of a long stop in Moffat for lunch we had a shorter stop at Gretna Services on the A74(M). :confused:

We had another shorter stop at Cairn Lodge Services just off the M74 near Lanark. This is one of the few privately owned service stations linked with those at Tebay on the M6. They have a farm shop selling local produce and proper home cooked food. The toilets are modern, very clean and a pleasant change from the usual service station ones. This was definitely a place to stop in future.

We skirted Stirling with views of the castle, by passed Perth and Pitlochry on the A9 before turning off for The Highlander Hotel in Newtonmore.

Highlander Hotel.jpg

This is a long low building on the main road through the village. The dining room is in one building, bedrooms in another. I had a small double which would have been snug for two people stopping more than one night as there was limited storage space and little space to move around. The attached shower room was small too. It was clean but lacked character, although biscuits were provided on the hospitality tray. The hotel seems to manly cater for coach trips and the dining room is geared up for them rather than the independent traveller. Food was OK but uninspiring but service was very quick.

While there was nothing to really complain about, at the same time there was nothing to make the stay stand out as memorable. The free glass of wine with our meal on the first night was a nice gesture!

Newtonmore is a long village along what was the old A9, which now bypasses it to the south. Like many Scottish villages it is made up of a long row of stone terraced cottages along the road.


There is a small Co-op (useful for buying supplies for lunch), a Harris Tweed shop and small gift shop. As well as the Highland Folk Museum at one end of the village, there is the Clan Macpherson House and Museum at the other end. There are also several walking trails in the village

I did the short walk around Loch Imrich one morning. This is signposted down a footpath off the main street. Surrounded by coniferous trees, the lake is a kettle hall formed during the last ice Age. There is a very easy path around the lake with lots of seats. The lake used to be used for curling during very cold winters. (The model cat on a small island in the lake is part of the Wild Cat Trail.)


Another evening, I did the Strone Trail, taking the road north from the Balavil Hotel which swings round the mountainside above Newtonmore before dropping down to the main road near the Highlander Hotel. It was a steep climb up out of the village, but well worth it for views looking down on the village and surrounding mountains.



Tuesday - Kyle of Lochalsh Line

1. The drive from Newtonmore to Kyle of Lochalsh

Kyle map.jpg

It is nearly fifty years since I last did a trip on the Kyle of Lochalsh line, so was really looking froward to the day. In the morning we drove to Kyle of Lochasl and then did a short trip to see something of Skye. As the coach driver told us “after all you can’t go to Kyle of Lochalsh and not go to Skye can you?”. We then caught the train from Kyle of Lochaslh back to Inverness where we were met bu the coach for the drive back to Newtonmore.

It was a lovely run up the Spey Valley on the A86 passed small lochans, which don’t even justify a name on large scale OS maps.




Loch Laggan is one of the longer lochs and could be glimpsed through the trees.


Beyond Loch Laggan, we got our first sight of the Ben Nevis range, still with patches of snow.



From Spean Bridge we took the A82 up the Great Glen, along the shores of Loch Lochy and the Caledonian Canal.


At Invergary we then took the A87 for Kyle of Lochalsh, with views of Loch Gary and the surrounding mountains.



There is a view of Loch Loynne with its dam which feeds water to Loch Clunie further down the valley, which was part of the Hydro Electric Schemes of the mid C20th.


After Loch Clunie (again with a dam ), the road drops steeply down through Glen Shiel with views of the Five Sisters of Kintail.


It then runs along the shores of Loch Duich with views of Eilean Donan Castle.




We had a short coffee break and photo stop there.

Eilean Donan Castle is one of the iconic images of Scotland, set in a small island reached by a bridge and appears on shortbread tins as well as calendars. It is always busy and today was no exception. There is a cafe and gift shop here, again both very busy.

Although there was a medieval castle here, it was ruined and abandoned by the C18th. The ruins were bought in 1911 by Lt Colonel John Macrae-Gilstrap who had a contested claim to the Chiefship of the Macrae Clan. He rebuilt the castle according to a surviving ground plan of the earlier castle.

For those not having time to visit the castle, it is possible to buy a £3 ticket to cross the bridge and explore the outside.



Tuesday - Kyle of Lochalsh Line cont...

2. Isle of Skye and the railway back to Inverness

From Kyle of Lochalsh we crossed the Skye Bridge onto the Isle of Skye (with much singing of the Skye Boat Song...)


We followed the A87 up the east coast of Skye as an out and back, which meant everyone got good views of the Cuillin Ridge.


and the Red Cuillins to the south.



To the north, there were views back to the mainland



And Raasay, reached by ferry from Sconser.


We drove along the shores of Loch Ainort through the pass to Loch Sligachan, turning round at the Sligachan Inn to return to Kyle of Lochalsh.



With the arrival of the railway in 1897, Kyle of Lochalsh rapidly grew from a small fishing village into an important busy rail and sea terminal, with ferries to Skye as well as isolated parts of the Highlands. The ferries have long gone and there is now a bridge across to Skye, but Kyle remains the centre for the surrounding area.


We caught the 13.46 train from Kyle of Lochalsh which got us back to Inverness at 16.27. It was busy with day trippers and also passengers with luggage.

We had reserved seats and I managed to get a window seat on the left side which was best for views.

It is a lovely run, following the coast past Plockton and Loch Carron.




The line then climbs up through the mountains with small lochs and isolated settlements to Achnasheen, which is one of the few passing points on the line.




More lochs and bare mountains follow as the line heads to the equally small settlement of Garve with another passing loop.


After the summit the summit at Raven Rock, the line drops steeply through Dingwall and the junction with the Far North Line. It was then along the Beauly Firth to Inverness where the coach was waiting to take us back to Newtonmore.


It had been a long, but very worth while day.
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Wednesday - Cairngorm Mountain Railway, Strathspey Steam Railway and Newtonmore Folk Museum

We didn’t cover as much distance today, but it was definitely an action packed day.

Cairngorm Map.jpg

We woke to low cloud, although the weather forecast assured us it would burn off by 10am.

Leaving Newtonmore we drove through Kingussie which is larger with more shops and picked up the B9152, the old A9 down the Spey Valley, to the outskirts of Aviemore.

At Coylumbridge we turned up a narrow unclassified road that climbed up through Rothiemurchus Forest, pass Loch Morlich and Glenmore Forest Park to the Cairngorm Mountain Railway Base Station.


This is the only funicular mountain railway in Britain. The line climbs 453m (just under 1500’) in just under 2km, with a maximum gradient of 42.8%. The two metre gauge track is on stilts raised above the ground surface. The two cars
are joined by a steel cable and the weight of the descending car hauls up the lower car.

Being early in the day, the railway was busy but I was lucky and managed to set a seat at the bottom compartment with a view back down the line.


The cloud was still well down when we arrived, but we watched it roll off the tops of the mountains and settle in the valley before burning off completely.


There were still patches of snow left in late May


It only takes a few minutes to the Top Station, reached through a short tunnel. To protect the fragile environment there is no access onto the mountain from here. Having seen the damage passenger numbers do at the top of Snowden, this is very understandable. (There are recognised walking routes on the mountain which are very well defined tracks with stone steps in places to try and reduce further erosion.)


There are good views from the Ptarmigan Restaurant with its large windows and also from the two viewing areas. There is also a 270˚ visual experience which I watched. The photography was superb, although I did find the way the camera panned across the screen left me feeling seasick... I had a quick look in the shop which had some very nice but very expensive and high quality clothing and a good range of equally expensive gifts. There is no tat here. I didn’t buy anything in the restaurant although the cakes looked nice and prices did seem very reasonable.

It is very much a different experience and I’m glad I’ve done it.

Leaving the railway, the road drops down through several hair pin bends. It leaves the bare mountain tops with views down to Loch Morlich before entering the Caledonian pine forest. Dropping down, the trees become taller and more dense.




We had plenty of time before our train on the Strathspey Railway was due to depart at 12.30, so the coach driver took us for a drive down the main street in Aviemore. This is very much the main tourist destination of the area with a lot of hotels, shops and cafes. It is always busy. It is probably 4o years since I last drove through, and I hadn’t liked it much then...

Aviemore station is still the original station building and painted in the LMS colours of cream and red. The Strathspey Railway shares the station with Network Rail.


After a long hot spell with no rain, there was a severe fire risk. The train had a steam loco at the front with a diesel loco at the back. The diesel provided extra power, so reducing the risk of sparks from the steam locomotive setting off track side fires. The railway uses traditional Mark 2 coaches with opening windows on the doors. I spent the trip standing looking out of the window taking pictures. Unfortunately the line had few curves and I was too far back to be able to get good views of the steam loco., There is no 'best' side to sit.

It is a very gentle ride following the River Spey. The line runs through mixed deciduous and coniferous woodland as far as Boat of Garten Station, with a few glimpses of the Cairngorms above the trees.


The line then runs through attractive pastoral landscape with cows and sheep to Broomhill Station.


This is the current terminus, although there are plans to rebuild the line to Grantown on Spey.


Again I enjoyed the ride, mainly because it was behind a steam train. Scenically it didn’t live up to the other railways travelled on during the week.

We were met by the coach and taken back to Aviemore where the shopaholics on the group got off for the afternoon. The rest of us were taken back to Aviemore to visit the Highland Folk Museum. What I originally had expected to be a full afternoon, turned out to be just under two hours after the Cairngorm Mountain Railway had been added as an extra to the itinerary. It was very much a rushed visit.

The Museum occupies a large site on the edge of Newtonmore and has over 35 buildings depicting rural life in the Highlands from the 1700s to the mid 1900s. The Aultlaire Croft are the only original buildings here and date from the mid C19th. They represent a working 1930s farm.


Buildings in the Middle Village have been brought and reassembled here include workshops as well as a school, church and houses.

Folk. MUseum general .jpg

The 1700s township is a reconstruction of the small settlement on one of the old drove roads above the River Spey. It is popular with visitors to the Museum as it was used in filming scenes from the TV series Outlander.


It is worth buying the guide book as there are few signs around the museum and there were few members of staff around to talk to when I visited. There is no set route, you just wander. I began with the township and worked my way to the Aultlarie Croft.

The only natural lighting in the turf building of the Township was through the door or the tiny windows. In fact it was so dark inside the buildings, the camera was able to ‘see’ more than my eyes. It was very interesting listening to comments as people went inside - most expressed considerable surprise about the lack of electric lights. Fortunately they weren’t aware of the lack of sanitation...

I managed to see nearly all the different buildings and was one of the last to leave the site. The custodian was following behind me shutting up the buildings as I left them. The coach had collected everyone else earlier, so I walked the five minutes back to the hotel. It had been another long day and busy day. At least I hadn’t been sitting for as long!
Thursday - West Highland Line, Fort William to Mallaig

1. The Drive from Newtonmore to the Commando Monument and Fort William

FW:Mallaig map.jpg

This was another long day with a lot of sitting. We took the same route to Spean Bridge as on Tuesday. I managed to get a pictures of the tiny Laggan Church which was built in 1785.


After the long dry spell, the water level was quite low in Loch Laggan and there was a large area of sandy beach at its head.



The dam at the bottom end of the loch was built in 1934 as part of a hydro electric power scheme to provide electricity for aluminium production at Fort William.


The cloud was just catching the tops of the Ben Nevis range


We did a short detour to the Commando Memorial above Spean Bridge, having driven straight past it on Tuesday. The memorial remembers the British Commandos who trained all around the Lochaber region from their base at Achnacarry Castle.

In the summer of 1940 when enemy invasion was threatened, Winston Churchill ordered the raising of an elite force to raid the enemy-held coastline of Europe and regain the initiative. Known as the Commandos, this initially consisted of volunteers from the regiments and corps of the British Army.

The Commando Basic Training Centre opened in Achnacarry Castle in 1942. Prospective Commandos would arrive at Spean Bridge Railway Station after a fourteen hour journey, load their kit bags onto waiting trucks and then speed-march the seven miles Achnacarry Castle to the training centre in full kit weighing 36lb and carrying their weapons, Anyone not completing it within 60 minutes was immediately RTU'd (returned to unit.)

It is estimated 25,000 Commandos completed their training here, including a final opposed landing exercise by Loch Lochy that used live ammunition. Training was highly intensive and anyone failing any part of the course caught the next train south, back to his unit.

1,700 Commando soldiers lost their lives and others were seriously wounded.

In 1947 it was felt a memorial was needed and a competition opened to Scottish sculptors to design a fitting memorial. This was opened by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 1952.

The Memorial is impressive featuring three commandos as they would normally have been dressed, above the words ‘UNITED WE CONQUER’.



Nearby is the Garden of Remembrance, surrounded by a low stone wall used for private memorials for Commandos serving in World War Two but also of those killed in the Falklands War, Afghanistan and Iraq.



The Commando Monument is a popular stop on the tourist itinerary. It was deserted when we arrived but, by the time the driver had finished telling us about it, another coach had arrived and you could hardly see the monument for people. For the photographer, fortunately many don’t stay long.

On a clear day it is a wonderful view point and many just stop for the views. To the south are views of Ben Nevis still with some snow at the start of June. The Ski slopes can be seen on Aonach Mor.


To the west are views down the Great Glen to Fort William.


To the north are views of the mountains up the Great Glen


Back in the coach, we headed to Fort William, passing the Glen Nevis Distillery.


There are good views of the harbour and pier from the A82 coming into the town.

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Thursday - West Highland Line, Fort William to Mallaig

2. Fort William

Fort William is the main transport, commercial and visitor hub for the area, with shops, cafes, accommodation and excellent transport links. It is a popular base to explore the surrounding area.

Traffic is kept well away from the town centre. The High Street is pedestrianised and reached by an underpass from the railway station beneath the very busy A82.


Fort William is a fairly ‘new’ settlement and didn’t exist before a wooden fort was built here in 1654 to keep peace in the Highlands and control the Clans. Most of the old fort was demolished when the railway arrived.

There is little else to note of its history except this was the first town in Britain to light its streets using hydroelectricity.

The West Highland Museum on Cameron Square on High Street covers the history of the area and particularly the Jacobite risings with a good collection of exhibits.

The Parade is the large attractive green area in front of the 1881 Church of Scotland building (sometimes referred to as the Duncansburgh Macintosh Church) and the impressive Alexandra Hotel.


The war memorial is here along with a statue to Donald Cameron of Locheil, the chief of clan who died in 1905. He was a Conservative politician, diplomat and for a short time was a Groom in Waiting to Queen Victoria. It was erected by his friends and supporters.



The Peace Bell is one of many erected around the World. Hundreds of Budhist bells were destroyed in Japan during WW2 to make ship propellors and other military items. After the war, when the bells were replaced, many were referred to a ‘peace bells’. Many bells have been made since and the one here in Fort William.



There is also a slab of stone commemorating the Commandos in Lochaber.


St Andrew’s Episcopalian Church with its tall spire, overlooks the Parade. Surrounded by its graveyard, it is set back from the High Street through the lych gate. It was consecrated in 1880.



There are few ‘attractions’ in Fort William, so the church does get a lot of visitors, even though there is limited information about it on the internet.

The first impression on entering is of bare stone walls and the rather forbidding appearance of the nave.


Looking closer once eyes have got used to the dark after very bright sunlight outside, there is a lot to see and admire. The carved stone and marble font is in the Baptistry at the back of the church.


On the floor is a lovely mosaic of Mary holding the Christ Child, with Joseph.


Set in the floor in front of the Baptistry is a brass memorial.


The chancel is stunning with its stone altar set with golden mosaics depicting the crucifixion.



The three seater sedilia on the south wall is equally impressive.


And don’t forget to look up at the painted wooden ceiling...


Thursday - West Highland Line, Fort William to Mallaig cont...

Fort William to Mallaig by train and back to Newtonmore

We were all asked to be back at Fort William Station in good time to catch the train to Mallaig that left just after midday. We were on the normal service train and not the Jacobite Steam Train, although we did see that pull into the opposite platform.


The platform was busy and the four car unit was fully ticketed. Fortunately someone had the brilliant idea to mark our seat reservations with a pink squiggle so we could easily identify them. I managed to get a window seat on the left side of the train. There wasn’t a spare seat and there were people standing. As well as those out for a day trip, there were a lot of people with luggage heading to the Isle of Skye.

It has been a standing joke for a long time that I’ve wanted to do this line, but the opportunity has never arisen. ( I did actually think at one point of asking ‘Jim’ll Fix it’....)

The West Highland Line more than lived up to expectation and was a superb run. The left side was also the best for views of coastal scenery as well as Glenfinnan viaduct. It was the 'wrong' side for Neptune’s Staircase, but I did see that coming back on the coach.

The line soon left Fort William behind and followed the shores of Loch Eil before heading through a pass to Glenfinnan.



The line curves round the head of the valley so there is a marvellous view of Glenfinnan Viaduct. Looking down to the head of Loch Shiel, it is just possible to make out the Glenfinnan Monument marking where Bonnie Prince Charlie landed in 1745.


The line climbs through the mountains and past lochs to reach the coast again at Loch Ailort and Loch nan Uamh. This is wild and desolate moorland with virtually no settlement until Arisaig and Morar are reached.




The Small islands of Rhum, Much and Eigg can now be seen along with the mountains of Skye and the white sands of Morar.


Mallaig is little more than a village built around the harbour and terminal for the Armadale Ferry. In 1840, Lord Lovat encouraged his tenants to move there and take up fishing rather than crofting, as he wanted to clear the land for sheep grazing.

The arrival of the railway in 1901 really put Mallaig in the map as a steamer pier was built along with a new fishing harbour. In the 1960s, it was busiest herring fishing port in Europe. There is still some fishing, but it is mainly prawns and shellfish.




The remains of slipways used in ship building can still be seen.


The Mallaig Heritage Centre next to station covers the history of the area.

We had about an hour to wander round the town before being picked by the coach for the drive back to Newtonmore. The road basically follows the same route as the railway, so views are similar. However I was sitting on the opposite side of the coach, so did get slightly different views.

There was a good view of the stone built railway bridge over the head of Loch Morar.


The flat marsh area just before Arisaig was covered with the white heads of cotton grass.


It was a lovely run through the mountains with bare rock faces rising above the road.



There were a lot of rhododendrons, all covered with purple flowers. These were usually around settlement and are probably Victorian garden escapes. They do look attractive in May and June, but it is a pity they are so invasive.


There was a distant view of Glenfinnan Viaduct across the huge and very busy car park.


At Corpach, road and rail cross the Caledonian Canal with the impressive flight of eight locks known as Neptune’s Staircase. These were built by Thomas Telford at the start of the C19th and is the longest staircase of locks in Britain lifting boats a height of 64’


It was then back to Newtonmore again. A long day with a lot of sitting but again very enjoyable with some superb scenery
Friday - Back Home

At one stage we did really wonder just when we would get home... A journey that should have taken seven hours took nearly twelve...

It was a good run south to Carlisle and we had a lunch stop at Houghton Hall Garden Centre, just off the M6 to the north of Carlisle. We were told had a very good cafe, but having food with me, I don’t know. It was a large attractive building with a lot of space. The farm shop was good and prices were reasonable. The fruit and Veg stall was amazing with all sorts of itmes I’ve never heard of. Quality was excellent but prices were high. There was also gifts and clothes. Looking at the plants, they were all in good condition and well cared for. prices seemed reasonable too compared with many other garden centres.

Sat nav informed the driver traffic was queuing and stationary on the M6 at the junction for Penrith. So, we did the scenic detour along the old A6 which took us through the centre of Penrith. The High Street was nose to tail with very slow moving traffic, but at least we were moving.

The A66 is always busy and today was no exception. However Sat Nav again highlighted a problem with stationary traffic and diverted us off through Barnard Castle instead. (Apparently a lorry had shed a load of live chickens...)

About a mile and a half from Barnard Castle, everything came to a stop. We would move forward about 100 yards and then stop again for another 5-10 minutes. It was a few days before the Appleby Horse fair and we had seen several encampments earlier in the day. At one point coming towards us was a horse drawn Romany caravan with a queue of at least 150 vehicles behind it (I lost count at that point).

It took us nearly two hours to cover the mile and a half into Barnard Castle - the problem being a right hand turn into the town and traffic lights across the bridge. We did get a good view of the castle though...


By then, it was getting late so most of the holiday traffic had cleared, and it was a straight run to Drax Golf Club and the feeder minibus waiting to bring me home.

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