Greatest Train Journey in the World

Published: 8th November 2010

One of the selling points of Lochaber is the famous Highland train journey from Fort William to Mallaig, passing over the Glenfinnan viaduct. Further romance is added to the trip by taking the Jacobite Express, latterly synonymous with Harry Potter and the Hogwarts Express. The journey is noted for its breathtaking scenery, but until recently we hadn't considered it as a wildlife excursion in its own right. Having made the trip by road many times we had neglected to go by train, so found a good excuse to do so at the beginning of November, possibly an unlikely time to see the route at its best. After an unpromising misty and wet morning the skies cleared in the afternoon, and we were blessed with sunshine and flat calm waters. The autumnal colours were spectacular, the oranges and golds of the hills vying to outdo the reds, oranges and yellows of the trees, mostly still in leaf at this late date.
The train passes close by the side of Loch Eil, a long sea loch that is an extension of Loch Linnhe. There were several herons fishing along the margins, along with ducks and waders (mostly identifiable from the train) that included small parties of wigeon. We did a double take, however, when we saw a white-tailed eagle sat on a rock close to the head of the loch. A visitor had told us that he had seen one around here from the train, so we shouldn't have been surprised, and indeed there is a pair that appears to be hunting in the Loch Eil area this winter. Nevertheless, to actually see one close to the train as it passed was a fantastic bonus. The next section of track continues through wet fields close to the River Callop, and one often sees deer here, both red and roe, and indeed we were rewarded with a pair of red hinds. The train then winds its way slowly over the viaduct – too far to make out water fowl, but perfect for admiring the view up Loch Shiel.
The hills between Glenfinnan and Arisaig are golden eagle country, and are well worth scouring for distant specks. The only other raptors we saw on this trip were buzzards, but we have seen both golden eagle and peregrine from the road in this stretch this year, so there are good possibilities. Our sharp-eyed visitor also saw grouse from the train in this area, and again we have seen coveys from the road. One of the highlights of the train journey is that it passes on the opposite side of a large freshwater loch, Loch Eilt, from the road. The traveller is able to get a completely different perspective of this loch, as the train skirts the edge slowly, whilst the road only allows frustratingly brief glimpses. The wooded islands are much clearer fromm the train, and in season, there must be a great chance of seeing black-throated divers from the carriage – sometimes seen from the road, but much harder to spot.
Shortly afterwards the coast is approached, the train passing over the head of Loch nan Uamh, through the stunning oakwoods of
Beasdale, and high above Arisaig Bay, with glorious views across to Eigg, Rum and Muck (the latter not visible from lower elevations). We then traverse a long flat area of bogland between Arisaig and Morar, which could hold wintering geese or hunting raptors. On the return leg the deer had moved down into the bogland fringes, small groups of hinds still being shepherded by single dominant stags. There is further opportunity for sea-spotting on the final leg to Mallaig. The harbour itself is well worth a look at. One of the resident grey seals was obligingly hauling itself vertically out of the water to beg for discards from a fishing boat. A party of eider cruised up and down the channels between the bouys, whilst a shag fished amongst the boats.Other wildlife of interest include occasional otters, even in the harbour itself and great northern divers wintering off the sea wall. In summer, porpoises and even, this year, basking sharks might be seen offshore. Young shearwaters, attracted by the town lights are regulalry stranded here in the autumn, and have to be rescued.
Although a train may not be the ideal platform for wildlife watching we were surprised just what might be seen – and each time it will be possible to see something different. Even on a quiet day the senery is well worth the trip. We may not have seen any flying cars but we will certainly be recommending this trip to all our guests at Glenloy Lodge.