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Scottish Mountain Railways

Fascinating Routes Through the Lovely Highlands


A LMS express between Glasgow and Oban

ON THE UP GRADE, A LMS express between Glasgow and Oban is shown here climbing a stiff gradient with the aid of two locomotives. The Callander and Oban line, 82 miles long, leaves the main LMS line at Dunblane, and crosses the West Highland Railway at Crianlarich.

PERHAPS the most striking of the main lines through the Scottish Highlands is the West Highland Railway (LNER) from Glasgow to Fort William and Mallaig. It is, anyway, the newest, and we shall describe it first.

At the beginning of its existence, the West Highland Railway was an independent concern, but from its opening it was worked by the old North British Railway Company. When the North British, at the beginning of 1923, became one of the constituent companies of the London and North Eastern Railway, the West Highland was absorbed by the latter. The old name “West Highland Railway” has survived, while that of the North British is perhaps already unfamiliar to the rising generation.

The West Highland Line begins at Craigendoran, a pleasant outer suburb of Glasgow on the upper Firth of Clyde, and on the Clydeside suburban line from Glasgow (Queen Street) to Helensburgh. On its way to Craigendoran, however, the West Highland train has passed the important ship-building town of Dumbarton. A notable feature of Dumbarton is its Castle Rock which rises bravely out of the waters of the Clyde. There was a fortress of some kind on that rock two thousand years ago, when the allied Picts and the early Scots (who came from Ireland), were fighting the Romans to maintain independence for the Highlands. After leaving its junction at Craigendoran, the West Highland train gradually begins to mount, and passes through Helensburgh Upper Station, which, as its name implies, is situated above the older terminal station at Helensburgh.

With Helensburgh, the last of the towns surrounding Glasgow is left behind, and soon the train will have many miles of heathery waste and rough mountainside to negotiate before passing anything larger than a tiny Highland village. In view of the difficulty of the severely-graded route, and the fact that the largest locomotives cannot negotiate the hundreds of sharp curves, many of the principal trains on the West Highland line are double-headed during the height of the season. The engines used are of the 2-6-0 “Loch” class originally built at Doncaster by the Great Northern Railway and now transferred to Scotland; and the smaller but remarkably sturdy “Glen” class, built at Cowlairs by the North British. As will be gathered, these engines bear names appropriate to the country.

The West Highland train climbs steadily along a noble arm of the sea known as the Gareloch, hugging its eastern shore, but rising all the time on the steeply sloping hillside. From Garelochhead it crosses over a high neck of land and then proceeds to follow Loch Long in the same way. Loch Long is encompassed on both sides by high hills, but those on the west side - the side better observed from the train - are higher than those on the cast side, and include the mountain known as Ben Arthur or the Cobbler. The summit of the Cobbler is curiously serrated, and from one angle resembles a gigantic gnome, bending over a shoe that he is mending. From that view he is called the “Cobbler at Work”. From another he is called the “Cobbler at Rest”, for then his head seems to be thrown back as if he were asleep in his chair.

THE WESTERN TERMINUS of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway at Kyle of Lochalsh

THE WESTERN TERMINUS of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway at Kyle of Lochalsh in Ross and Cromarty. The station is 650 miles from Euston London. In the background can be seen Ben na Caillach on the Isle of Skye. The railway was extended to Kyle of Lochalsh from Strome Ferry in 1897.

At the station of Arrochar the line leaves the head of Loch Long, and after crossing a great saddle of land, begins to skirt the western shore of Loch Lomond. Far below, the waters of that great and famous loch twinkle in the sun, or pucker in a rainy squall, while Ben Lomond rises like a vast purple-green pyramid on the farther side. Ben Lomond is not one of the highest summits in Scotland, but is nevertheless one of the most beautifully formed hills to be seen anywhere. Already the line is twisting and turning along the opposite hillside in true mountain railway fashion; following a ledge cut in the rock, or, when there is no ledge, jumping the gap on a fine stone viaduct. The sharp exhaust of the climbing engine echoes among the rocks, but the innumerable twinkling streams, the birch trees and the wet heather and bracken all serve to make us forget the smoke of the Glasgow area - inseparable from any great industrial city - whence the train has come.


SCOTLAND’S MOUNTAIN LINES are shown on here. The companies concerned are the LMS and LNER.

Until Crianlarich is reached, the train, though bound for the north-west, is heading approximately north-east-by-north. Crianlarich lies in the midst of a triangle formed by the high summits of Ben Laoigh, Ben More, and Ben Chaluinn. It is finely situated, but its beauty is marred by the ugly viaduct that carries the West Highland line across Strath Fillan, the valley in which it lies. At Crianlarich, too, the West Highland crosses the Oban line of the LMS, and thence to Tyndrum the two lines run parallel, one on either side of the great Highland valley. The LMS line, however, remains fairly level, while the West Highland climbs steadily, as it has done all the way from the Firth of Clyde. After Tyndrum the two lines part company, and the West Highland turns abruptly into the wild and bare flanks of the Western Grampians. Below Ben Odhar it makes a complete and beautiful horseshoe curve, in the middle of which is a high steel viaduct. The country is wild and barren, but the railway is not completely alone yet, for on the left-hand side is the new Glencoe Road, which is used frequently by motor traffic. The line leaves the Glencoe Road at the next station, Bridge of Orchy, rail and road diverging on either side of the lonely but beautiful Loch Tulla.

From Bridge of Orchy, for the next thirty odd miles, the train passes through the bleakest and wildest country possible to imagine. It is difficult to realize that Glasgow is only a few hours’ journey away and that only a night separates the train from London. The railway seems to run over the top of the world on Rannoch Moor. But to its builders it seemed more as if they were trying to lay the permanent way on the bottom of the world. The moor proved to be a gigantic repetition of Chat Moss, between Liverpool and Manchester, where every bit of material set on it at first was immediately swallowed up. Only after apparently endless toil and half-hopeful artifice was it possible to provide a firm foundation, and to-day, though the permanent way is safe and sound, anyone sitting on the embankment will find that it trembles with the passage of even the lightest train. Rannoch Moor is really a basin set among high hills, filled with semi-fluid peat-bog and the remains of an ancient forest. All round the hummocky wilderness rise stern mountain peaks: Ben Alder, Carn Mairg, Blackmount, and the mountains of distant Glencoe. One can see also the stumps of the primeval forest protruding, iron-hard, from the soggy brown peat. The place can be either beautiful or awe-inspiring. It is a strange place to find a railway train. Save for one leading away from the isolated station of Rannoch, there is not a road to be seen; not a farm, nor a village. But a large herd of deer, fearlessly watching the passing train, is much more likely to be encountered. Near the crossing place at Corrour the line attains its summit, 1,350 ft above sea-level. Here it is forty miles from the sea.


A “BEN” CLASS ENGINE of the 4-4-0 wheel arrangement. Locomotives of this class, now belonging to the LMS, were formerly owned by the Highland Railway. The latter company named its engines after Bens, Lochs, Clans, and Castles.

Hereafter the line takes its snakelike course down through the flanking hills, past Tulloch, past Loch Treig, with its inky waters and with the great dams of the Lochaber hydro-electric works at the foot, until it reaches Roy Bridge, where the rivers Roy and Spean converge. As if to make up for the terrible bleakness of Rannoch Moor, Glen Spean, through which the line makes the rest of its way to Fort William, is lusciously verdant, thick trees overhanging the precipitous gorge of the turbulent river all the way. The railway itself twice crosses the River Spean, which resembles a long continuous waterfall. Near Spean Bridge station is the bridge whence the station takes its name, and where, in 1745, two companies of Government troops were routed by eleven Highlanders and a piper.

Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the British Isles, now comes into clear view on the left-hand side of the line.

At Fort William is the busy atmosphere of a small town contrasting strangely with the solitude through which the train has passed. The fort itself, built originally to “pacify” Highlanders such as those who held Spean Bridge, is now a flattened mound, encompassed by thick walls, and containing, together with a group of cottages, the LNER’s turntable and engine shed. The station is built on the margin of Loch Linnhe, close to the steamer pier where the connecting steamers come in from Oban and Ballachulish.

the Connel Ferry Bridge

ACROSS LOCH ETIVE: the Connel Ferry Bridge. This fine cantilever construction carries the LMS line linking Oban and Ballachulish in Argyllshire.

From Fort William, which the railway first reached in 1894, there runs the Mallaig extension, completed in 1901, that passes through country of unsurpassed beauty to the West Coast, opposite the fairy-like Isle of Skye. On leaving for Mallaig the West Highland train runs out of Fort William over the same line by which it entered as far as Mallaig Junction, whence it veers away along the northern shore of Loch Eil, a continuation of Loch Linnhe. At Banavie the Caledonian Canal is crossed, a special spur line running up to the pier for trains connecting with the canal steamer “Gondolier”, which plies between Banavie and Inverness. From the Mallaig train there is a remarkable view of the great series of locks by means of which the canal reaches the higher level of Loch Lochy. Along Loch Eil the scenery is comparatively tame and the line almost level, though there is a fine retrospective view of the usually cloud-capped shoulders of Ben Nevis.

After leaving the head of Loch Eil the line begins to mount steeply into a region of wild hills which appear to be impenetrable, except by means of a long tunnel. But by twists and turns through rock cuttings and thick birch-woods, ever climbing, the train negotiates this difficult section and reaches historic Glenfinnan, famed for the gathering of the clans in 1745, for its extraordinary beauty and for the great viaduct described and illustrated in the chapter, “Famous Viaducts”.

Fifty-Feet Snowdrifts

From Glenfinnan Station the train pushes on through increasingly grand country until it reaches the indented, rock-bound West Coast a little beyond Lochailort Station. From Arisaig we have our first glimpse of the Inner Hebrides - the weird Isle of Eigg and peaked Norwegian-looking Rum. The mountains on the Isle of Rum, indeed, have Norwegian names, relics of the Viking era. From Arisaig to Morar the train passes below a precipitous hill called Creag Mhor (the Great Rock) and crosses another peat bog.

To the west is seen part of the Isle of Skye, with the jagged summits of the Coolin Hills in the far distance. Morar, with its famous Falls and White Sands, is passed a few miles before Mallaig is reached, when the train passes through a rock cutting into the uttermost terminus of the LNER.

It is curious that, though the West Highland line abounds in heavy engineering works, there are comparatively few tunnels, the most important being a short series between Lochailort and Arisaig. Coming down from Rannoch Moor, however, it passes through a remarkably fine example of a snow-shed, built not of timber, but of steel and concrete. The gradients throughout are very steep, the worst being a stretch at 1 in 48 near Arisaig. This is additionally difficult in that it has a sharp curve near the top, just where the driver of a toiling locomotive finds it most irksome.

The other mountain line of the LNER in Scotland is remote from the West Highland excepting, of course, the Fort Augustus branch from Spean Bridge, which has one coal train a week and nothing more. The other line in question is the Speyside branch of what was formerly the Great North of Scotland Railway, far away in the east of the country. The Highlands are entered by the main Aberdeen-Inverness line through the forest-clad Glen Fiddich between Dufftown and Craigellachie. From the junction at Craigellachie the Speyside line runs up the valley of the river from which it takes its name, finally joining the Highland line of the LMS at Boat of Garten, within view of the 4,000 ft summits of the Cairngorm group.

The oldest mountain lines in Scotland are those which formerly belonged to the Highland Railway, now part of the LMS Railway. The earliest section of the former Highland Railway dates back to 1855. The mountain line from Perth to Inverness was built a little later. After a steady climb from Stanley Junction, on the Perth-Aberdeen main line, the Highland line enters the hills by way of the noble valley of the Tay, passing the station of Dunkeld and Birnam. This region is rich in reminders of ancient feuds and wars.


IN THE PASS OF KILLIECRANKIE, between Perth and Inverness. A masonry viaduct takes the line through the magnificent pass. This mountain line; now belonging to the LMS, was formerly owned by the Highland Railway. There are gradients of 1 in 70 on this route.

But all is calm and peaceful in the Vale of Atholl to-day. Between Blair Atholl and Struan are the Falls of Bruar, surrounded by woods planted by a former Duke of Atholl, following a poetical petition by Robert Burns. At Struan the line crosses the Garry on a high bridge, immediately beneath which, at a different angle, a very old road bridge also spans the foaming waters. By long gradients averaging 1 in 70, the line climbs up to the summit-level in the wild and bare Drumochter Pass, 1,484 ft above the sea. This height is exceeded on a British railway by that of Leadhills Summit (1,498 ft) on a branch line of the LMS. From Drumochter Summit, between the two mountains called the Sow of Atholl and the Boar of Badenoch, the line runs down the upper valley of the Spey, through Newtonmore and Kingussie, to the important Highland junction of Aviemore, situated between the Cairngorms and the Monadhliath Mountains. Hence the old main line strikes across Dava Moor from Boat of Garten and Grantown-on-Spey, attaining a summit level of 1,052 ft quite near the sea-level section beyond Forres. On Dava Moor terrible snow-blocks have taken place in days gone by. Once a train was buried in a drift more than 50 ft deep. On another occasion a cattle train was snowed up and every beast on board smothered.

Events such as these were among the deciding factors in the construction of the alternative and much shorter main line to Inverness from Aviemore, which crosses Slochd Mhuic Summit, 1,315 ft up, near Carr Bridge. On this section occur the great Tomatin and Culloden Moor viaducts. In the battle of Culloden Moor, the Jacobites were defeated by the Government on April 16, 1746. The battlefield is marked by a cairn. Coming down from Culloden Moor to Inverness, from the right side of the train the passenger enjoys an unforgettable view of the North Highlands, stretching away beyond the Moray Firth, and flanked on the east by the North Sea. Beyond Inverness the line does not enter the mountains again until it has passed Dingwall, whence branch lines run west to Strathpeffer and Kyle of Lochalsh.

The “Skye Line”, as it is called, climbs straight up into the Highland hills from Dingwall, passing below the great precipitous hill known as the Raven Rock. This line was opened to Strome Ferry in 1870, and extended to the Kyle of Lochalsh, opposite the Isle of Skye, in 1897. The climb from Dingwall to the Raven Rock involves four miles at 1 in 50, a formidable obstacle to a heavily-laden tourist train. Up past Garve and Loch Luichart, the train creeps into country nearly as wild as that of Rannoch Moor, though not so utterly desolate.

Britain’s Most Exposed Line

The Skye Line is, perhaps, more at the mercy of the elements than any other British line of importance. During one bad winter, it was so completely blocked by snow that its clearance was given up as a hopeless task for some time. Achnasheen Station, in the midst of this wild but beautiful desert - for a desert it is, agriculturally - had a refreshment room in the days of the Highland Railway. The old Highland trains had no restaurant cars, and very few corridor coaches. From Achnasheen a main mail-car road runs to Gairloch and Loch Maree up in Wester Ross.

Leaving Achnasheen, the train runs in a south-westerly direction down through Glencarron, where there is a private railway station, to Achnashellach. Achnashellach has one of the most remarkable situations of any station in Great Britain, for it lies so close under the mountains that they seem about to topple on to it.

From this point the line descends to the shores of Loch Carron, a fjord running in from the sea over against the Isle of Skye, and reaches first Strathcarron, and then Strome Ferry, the old terminus of the line. Beyond this, along the newer extension to the Kyle of Lochalsh, the scenery is superb. The line itself, too, was one of the most difficult to build in Great Britain. It twists and turns along the rugged coast, through deep rock cuttings and round promontories which, at a distance, would seem impassable even to a pack-horse. In the north-west, the whole rugged east coast of the Isle of Skye stretches away into blue distance, from the Red Hills and the tooth-like Coolins to the distant crags of Ben Storr. When, finally, we reach the terminus on the jetty at the Kyle of Lochalsh, we are close to Skye, and in the shadow of Ben na Caillach, one of her lesser mountains, a beautiful hill that resembles a natural pyramid.

A WEST HIGHLAND TRAIN passing below Creag Mhor (the Great Rock), between Arisaig and Morar

A WEST HIGHLAND TRAIN passing below Creag Mhor (the Great Rock), between Arisaig and Morar, Inverness-shire, on the LNER system.

The Kyle of Lochalsh is to the Outer Hebrides and Skye what Dover is to France, or Harwich to the Netherlands. But unlike an ordinary transhipment point, the port is beautifully situated. It is connected by steamer service with Mallaig as well. Mallaig is only twenty miles away as the crow flies, but if anyone were foolish enough to try to reach it by railway from Kyle of Lochalsh, he would have to travel down to Perth, then across to Balquhidder and Crianlarich, and finally up the West Highland Line - a distance equal to a journey down into England. Similarly, the towns of Tain and Dornoch are only about five miles apart, on opposite shores of the Dornoch Firth, but they are forty-five miles apart by railway.

The final section of the old Highland Railway continues northwards from Dingwall, creeping round the coast by Invergordon and Tain to Bonar Bridge. Thence it strikes inland and enters the hills at Invershin. From Invershin there is a sharp ascent to Lairg along the eastern side of the valley of the river Shin. The hillside is so steep in one place that a great shelf of masonry had to be built to take the railway. As the train travels along this shelf, it seems almost possible to drop a pebble into the foaming waters of the river, far below in the gorge. From Lairg, the line bears back to the coast again, and at the Mound Junction, it is joined by the branch line from Dornoch, which crosses Loch Fleet on Telford’s famous causeway. Then the North Highland line pursues a relatively uninteresting course along the shores of the North Sea to Helmsdale.

The final mountain section ensues when the line once more turns its sinuous course inland and makes a wide circuit over the moors of Sutherland and Caithness. The mountains here tend to be isolated rather than to run in ranges, and the country is wild and bare in the extreme. The rails reach an elevation of 708 ft between Forsinard and Altnabreac. Snow fences and queer-looking snow-blowers are frequent, for this section has the same bad reputation as Dava Moor and Rannoch. As with the line over Rannoch Moor, its construction was considerably hampered by spongy and apparently bottomless bogs. In Caithness the mountains are finally left behind, and the line runs to its termini at Wick, Lybster (the uttermost station in the country), and Thurso. Thurso, opposite Orkney, is the northernmost railway station in Great Britain.

From Callander to Oban

The remaining Scottish mountain railway runs from Callander, near Stirling, to Oban and Ballachulish. It was built by an independent company, but was always worked by the Caledonian Railway, as the predecessor of the present LMS Railway. The Callander and Oban Railway is second only to the old Highland lines in seniority; it dates back to the seventies, long before the West Highland Railway was projected. Callander is situated in a natural gateway to the Highlands, not far from the famous Trossachs district. It is a place of great antiquity, like Dumbarton and Dunkeld, and was besieged by the Romans in AD 85. It is now an eminently respectable place, but less exciting. From Callander, the line winds up the steep-sided Pass of Leny, with its brawling river and the crooked Loch Lubnaig, and reaches the first station along its route at Strathyre.

From the next station, Balquhidder, a line diverges for Perth, passing through Comrie and Crierf. The Oban train, toiling up the hillside from Balquhidder, is now in the heart of the Rob Roy country. It emerges high above Loch Earn. Far below, skirting the shores of the loch, the Crieff line with its viaduct and station at Lochearnhead, looks like a very tiny and very beautiful model railway.

Bearing north-west, the Oban line now enters wild and rocky Glen Ogle, in the midst of which, on the left-hand side, may be seen the remains of what must have been a terrific avalanche. It looks as if a part of the mountain had been scooped up and shot down the slope. Great precautions are taken against falls of rock along this section, and a system of electric contacts ensures an immediate alarm should anything endanger the railway line. At Killin Junction, for the Little Killin and Loch Tay branch line, we have passed from Glen Ogle into Glen Dochart. Both Glen Ogle and Glen Dochart have engines named after them, but curiously enough they belong to the LNER and work on the West Highland line.

The line now runs along Glen Dochart, past Loch Tubhair twinkling beneath Ben More, to the now familiar station of Crianlarich. The LMS station is below that of the LNER, and at right angles to it.

Leaving Tyndrum, the Oban line skirts the lower slopes of Ben Laoigh and runs southwest to Dalmally, a lovely place at the foot of Glen Orchy. Now, on this final stretch, as with the West Highland and Skye lines, comes the most strikingly beautiful country. The Oban line passes along a narrow strip of land bounded on the one side by the wide expanse of Loch Awe and on the other by the precipitous side of Ben Cruachan. The loch narrows into the deep Pass of Brander. The train then passes through Taynuilt and Ach-na-cloich, beside Loch Etive, and reaches the junction of Connel Ferry, whence the Ballachulish line diverges northwards. Oban is finally attained by a steeply descending horseshoe curve.

THE “ROYAL HIGHLANDER”, the famous LMS night express at Inverness

THE “ROYAL HIGHLANDER”, the famous LMS night express at Inverness, 568 miles from Euston. The Inverness portion of this express has the longest through journey run wholly on the LMS. The train is seen here headed by the 4-6-0 locomotive “Clan Munro”.


You can read more on “The Forth Bridge”, “The Highland Railway”, “The Great North of Scotland Railway” and “The Railways of Caledonia” on this website.

You can read more on “Bridges in the Highlands” in Wonders of World Engineering