One summer morning last July, I boarded The Jacobite, a locomotive that chugs along from Fort William to Mallaig and back, gliding like a leisurely iron missile through the most wonderful Scottish scenery, twice daily. The train seemed exceedingly charming with its steam engine and old-fashioned coaches and retro paint scheme, making me wonder why all modern trains are painted like the inside of fast food restaurants. The Jacobite, on the other hand, was decorated in the black and brown tones you find inside museums of industry or the turbine halls of old dams. It was a beguiling if dissonant presence at Fort William, a station that is otherwise utterly unremarkable.
The platform was buzzing with activity. There were families, many of them American, and one large group of Asian tourists. The vast majority of them were there, I suspected, because of the train’s Harry Potter association. You see, both The Jacobite train itself and the route it takes, especially the portion along the Glenfinnan Viaduct, was used by the filmmakers to depict the fictional (maybe) Hogwarts Express train that ferries budding wizards to their education at the great school of magic.
It was all very delightful. And I desperately needed the bonhomie. My train journey up from London had not been particularly enjoyable. I had regrettably assumed that the chair cars on the Caledonian Sleeper that I took to Fort William would be at least half as enjoyable as the sleeper berths. I have rarely been more wrong in a life replete with errors. I boarded the train at around 9 p.m. the previous night and arrived half an hour or so before The Jacobite set off. I slept very upright and very badly and was gagging for some good cheer. The Jacobite provided it in ample amounts. I flashed my tickets at a staff member and took my designated seat opposite a friendly looking American couple. Then I sat back, looked out of the window, and felt my chair car anxieties evaporate.
Is there a better way to travel than trains? I doubt it. Planes are plasticky and impatient and impolite and devoid of a sense of… locomotion. You board in Amsterdam and then suddenly you are in Paris. Where is the subtlety? Where is that sense of in-betweenness that is crucial to all good travel? Cars have plenty of in-betweenness. But they are also full of pain-in-assness. All cars are uncomfortable. Some cars have more legroom and reading lights. But that is about it.
I love trains. Not in the way that those guys at train fan club like trains. That is not normal. With their locomotive identification madness and bogey serial number obsessions. What nonsense. Do you watch a football match between Barcelona and Real Madrid wondering what percentage of Messi’s shirt is lycra? No of course not.
I like trains for what it feels like to travel in them. There is a certain timelessness to train travel. It evokes memories of caravans and galleons that are perhaps latent in all human beings. Generations of ancestors have left this yearning for gradual group travel in our genes. And few trains fulfil these bone-deep yearnings like the The Jacobite.
It sets off from Fort William and sets due west, across lochs and valleys, before kinking up northwards and arriving, two hours and ten minutes later, at Mallaig on the west coast. Along the way, the steam locomotive chugs past crisp air, clear skies, and the occasional piece of heritage civil engineering that defies belief.
There is something about the Scottish Highlands. It is difficult to explain. But I am yet to meet someone who is not instantly entranced by it. It doesn’t matter if you witness it during a cold rain or a warm summer or through parting mists. There is a certain primal majesty to the Highlands of Scotlands with its crags and crests and troughs and that astonishing palette of colours. Whenever I am in the Highlands I am reminded of the Christmas Cards my father used to buy when I was a kid in Abu Dhabi. (My dad was a very conscientious sender of Christmas cards. Once I think he even sent one to the chief minister of Kerala.)
These cards always had these little seasonal landscapes on them. A little valley somewhere. A few houses, curlicues of chimney smoke, glimpses of families in the tiny windows, every light a glowing, celebratory yellow. And snow fell on the greeting card in little spots of paint or particles of glitter. The Highlands were much like these landscapes complete with splendidly isolated little houses, little silver slivers of lake, and mountains and hills that tumbled and tossed.
Usually The Jacobite only makes one stop between Fort William and Mallaig—at Glenfinnan station. Just before this station however, the train makes a bell-shaped loop over an inlet of water, over the Glenfinnan Viaduct, which caused a great uproar in the train. Cameras and smartphones were whipped out of bags and snatched from the hands of small children. Both spectacular to look at and from, the viaduct made many appearances in the Harry Potter films and my co-passengers all rushed to the left side of the train to get the best perspectives for their pictures. It is really quite a beautiful scene, the curve of the viaduct being sharp enough to create quite pretty shots of the curling train.
There was once a legend that a horse had fallen into one of the piers of the viaduct during its construction in the late 1890s. Recently one Professor Roland Paxton used some complicated radar technology to investigate this. He eventually found a horse and cart but inside another bridge on Lock nan Uamh some 15 miles away.
Back on the train I broke ice with the American couple in front. A couple of teachers from Portland, they were exceedingly friendly and we exchanged email addresses. However I made it a point to not socialize overly. That would wreak havoc with my plans to thoroughly enjoy solitary travel.
I love my family and I do not hate my friends excessively. But I really do enjoy travelling alone. The lack of expectations is what I enjoy most. I can make plans and unmake them knowing fully well that I am prepared to suffer the consequences. But most of all I can be quiet and contemplative and meditate upon the scenes outside the window. It is ironic really. That sometimes we travel long distance to finally be able to stay still for a few hours. This is the kind of profundity the Scottish Highlands can evoke in an otherwise brutish man.
Shortly after the stop at Glenfinnan I went for a brisk walk up and down the train, a task I achieved in around three minutes. This is because The Jacobite is not a particularly lavish affair in terms of length or breadth. Everything is creaky and made of timber and while there isn’t a pantry car, there is a tiny little gift shop on the train well stocked with postcards, souvenirs, little self-published history books that are the very life-force of British tourism, and dubious sweets. But just imagine that. A gift shop on a creaky little steam train. It makes no sense but it makes me very happy indeed.
I arrived in Mallaig Bay a little after noon, and a brisk walk later I was standing outside a bed and breakfast looking very grim. “No sir,” the woman in front of me said, “we have absolutely no booking in your name.”
“But my virtual digital assistant double checked…”
“So there is no room?”
“Not at all.”
“I just want to take a shower and change into some fresh clothes. I came on the train from London you see…”
“You can try at one of the other B&Bs. But I doubt you will find any place now…”
So I slung my bag back over my shoulder and briskly walked back to the Mallaig town centre in a foul mood. Lunch made things better and then the waitress at The Cornerstone restaurant improved things immeasurably. She directed me to the Fishermen’s Mission, barely a minute down the road, where I could pay a few pounds for a clean shower and a room to change in. It was the kind of thing that only ever happens to solo travellers. I showered luxuriously at the Fisherman’s Mission, also bought a few second-hand books that I have never seen since, and then got down to the business of looking around Mallaig.
Mallaig, a fishing village that is now increasingly dependent on tourism, has a wonderful location and despite being quite tiny—with a population of less than 1,000—seemed well stocked with most modern amenities and services. It was, in short, the kind of place I could very much spend many weeks or even months in, writing books featuring a terrible B&B establishment that harvests organs from customers.
By this point you are wondering why I haven’t boarded my return trip on The Jacobite back to Fort William. Because I am travelling alone and can do what I want. So I bought an ice-cream, sat by the sea and felt very content with life in general. I was briefly tempted to Instagram everything. Mallaig is that sort of place. Everything in the foreground is quirky and everything in the background is majestic. Instead, I ate my ice cream slowly, overhearing conversations, topping up on good cheer, until it was time to catch the last train, a regular non-steam variety, back to Fort William.
I have since sent an email to the friendly couple from Portland. They have not replied.
Updated in December 2017.
The Jacobite steam train runs through the Scottish Highlands, connecting Fort William to the seaside town of Mallaig in the summer; from March-October 2018. The closest airports to Fort William are in Glasgow (160km/2.5hr) and Edinburgh (233km/3hr).
The two-hour train ride (one-way) winds through the beautiful Scottish Highlands, past craggy peaks, rolling vales, and glittering water bodies. There are morning and afternoon services, which vary by month. The Jacobite halts at Mallaig for about 90 minutes before heading back to Fort William. Return tickets for adults are from £35/₹3,052; children from £20/₹1,720. Discounts are available for groups of 10 or more. More details here.