One of the lasting memories I have of the Isle of Skye is the ubiquity of the English accent. I spoke to more English people on this island in six days than I have in Glasgow in six months. My guidebook warned of a peninsula that was sometimes referred to as ‘Little England’ by native locals, being so full of those southerners who chosen to relocate here in the last twenty years.
I considered this early one morning during our five night stay on the island. A vaguely circular itinerary was taking us around the northern part of Skye, and that morning an hour long ride on a school bus was our only possible form of public transport to make the journey without a longer backtrack through landscapes we had already seen. I had found the bus listed in the island’s timetable, and had checked and re-checked the footnotes to make sure that it was actually running that morning. It was still a relief to see a bus pull up, though. Departing from Dunvegan, in the north-west of Skye, it follows a very leisurely route down the west coast of the island, pulling off the main road on several occasions to follow narrow winding lanes closer to the sea to pick up dejected looking school kids from junctions and driveways. After leaving us at the junction for Carbost (and a fruitless wait for another bus in torrential rain) the schoolbus would head inland and then turn back north towards the High School in Portree. I heard some English accents among the schoolboys and schoolgirls on that bus. I wondered whether their parents had chosen to ‘downshift’ to Skye to escape tedious commutes to and from England’s larger cities, only to commit their offspring to daily journeys of equal length just to get to school.
But what a bus ride. I know that those schoolchildren might disagree, but it’s worth getting up at six-thirty to see (although maybe not every day).
Visiting Skye in late March, we took a big chance on the weather. But then a trip to Skye at any time of the year seems to take a big chance on the weather: the Atlantic is right there; the Western Isles are too small and too tiny to offer any protection. Layer upon layer of clothing beneath a rigourous waterproof outer coat is the only way to maintain your body heat and sanity beneath skies that shift in a matter of minutes.
But when the sun shines, it shines on spectacular scenery. The day before that bus journey we had struck out from Dunvegan towards the relatively remote community on and around the Orbost estate. Not being well experienced or well equipped walkers, we stuck to roads and tracks, rarely being passed by other cars but always receiving a friendly wave when we were. One (a bus driver who had a few days earlier driven us from Sleat to Portree) even offered a lift, presuming that anyone walking at this time of year would appreciate a ride.
Only one day of our visit to Skye was completely lost to rainstorms. But it was also the day we visited the aforementioned Talisker Distillery and found one of the best pubs on the island. Skye supports a year-round tourist industry thanks to its fixed bridge connection to mainland Scotland and busy through traffic for the ferries to the Western Isles. We witnessed several tour buses, including the dreadful looking mini-coaches offering chaperoned backpacker tours of Scotland in 3, 5 or 7 days. But in March we were there on the shoulder between winter and spring, long before the real crowds arrived. During six nights in hostels, only one was in a room with someone else. In Dunvegan a local even professed that we were ‘the first tourists’ of the year and that the lambing season therefore couldn’t be far off.
It was not difficult to escape the English, therefore. We walked miles and breathed deeper than we might normally in Glasgow, and thanks to low off-season prices spent very little for the best part of a week. As a full-stop on a seven month period of unemployment, it was a fitting pause before work begins. More photos here.
Every journey has a beginning, and regrettably in Glasgow that usually involves an overpriced bus. Allowing for some traveller’s artistic license, I could happily remember a journey to the Isle of Skye beginning here, at the tranquil Helensburgh Upper railway station. Maybe twenty miles from Glasgow, Helensburgh has two stations, one with a regular service on the electric line into Glasgow and the other a modest single platform in a cutting on the northern fringe of the town. Having skirted along the shores of the Clyde for half an hour or so, the West Highland Line begins here. We have left behind the grey tower blocks, littered streets and urbanised horizons of the city, and suddenly find ourselves rattling through rolling rural landscapes.
I have taken this train many times before, although not since moving to Glasgow last year. This line is no longer a component of a much longer journey from England to the remote west coast of Scotland, but a practical escape hatch from the city to the countryside. A couple of times a day an unassuming train of railcars departs Queen Street station for Fort William and Mallaig, normally with a portion to Oban detaching en route. After winding up steep hills past suspicious looking military bases, the train approaches Loch Lomond and begins a sharper and more screeching series of curves. Above us, only mountain. Below us, only trees, glimpses of a road and water. At Ardlui we’re held up for a short while, waiting for a southbound train to leave the single track ahead.
Being so remote, the West Highland Line has no traditional railway signals to control access to its portions of single track. A team of doubtless charming British Rail boffins developed a system in the nineteen-eighties that could satisfactorily replace the traditional tokens. Until then (and to this day on other remote British railway lines) an actual physical token, normally a large coin or loop that could easily be scooped from a signalman by the driver of a passing train, must be held by a driver before he or she can lead a train onto a section of single track. With only one token, it’s a relatively failsafe system to ensure that only one train enters a section of track at any one time.
The solution of the dynamic and pre-portable computer nineteen-eighties is a radio-controlled system. The token is virtual, transmitted by radio to an ungainly metal box in the cab of the train. On clearing a section of single track (normally at a station with a passing loop) the driver releases the token for the previous section of track and then awaits reception of the new token.
Don’t ask me how it works, but it does. And it permits an archaic but astonishingly beautiful railway to continue to exist, with daily passenger service and popular summertime tourist trains winding through the mountains of the West Highlands, perfectly framing any escape from the city with a rolling landscape of beautiful scenery and wildlife.
On journeys to the northernmost extremities of the countries I’ve lived in or visited, I have always travelled by train. In the early winter of 1997 or 1998 (I have very little documentary evidence to remind me) I pushed further north than I’ve ever been since, arriving in St. Petersburg (59º 56’N) on a stiflingly hot sleeper train from Moscow. Then in May 2006 I travelled north from Winnipeg in Manitoba to the remote town of Churchill on the frozen shore of the Hudson Bay (58º 74’N). The journey took about forty hours, snaking up through prairie farmland towards thick forests and remote native settlements, before striking the bleak tundra that rolled on for hours until we reached the end of the line. The pair of locomotives that hauled me there (in the thrice-weekly rake of refurbished fifties passenger carriages) are seen above, rumbling away during their twelve hour layover before the return journey south. The engines of these trains always idle when stationed in Churchill in case the sub-zero temperatures seize them up and they can’t be restarted. And they always pull the train in tandem, no matter how short or lightly loaded the train is, since breakdowns cannot easily be rescued.
On Saturday I pushed further north in the British Isles than I’ve ever managed before, and unsurprisingly enough I did it by train, riding on Britain’s most northerly railway.
It should be considered a national disgrace that British trains don’t have the same majesty, sophistication or drama of Russian or American locomotives. The Far North Line from Inverness to Thurso (58º 59’N) and Wick (58º 45’N) traverses some of Britain’s remotest and most beautiful landscapes, taking four and a half hours to cover some 280-odd miles. But it now does so under the almost exclusive service of frankly piddly little two-carriage Sprinter railcars, the noisy, rattly, overcrowded and cramped scourge of my old cross country commute between East Anglia and Sheffield.
But then again, the scenery more than makes up for the discomfort of the journey. This was perhaps the coldest weekend of the winter so far, with the BBC expecting inland temperatures in the Highlands to drop as low as -15ºC. On Saturday only a light frost had touched the remote moorland seen from the train (above); my relatively busy train from Glasgow to Inverness had earlier crossed the Drumochter Pass in thick snow.
But by Sunday afternoon and the return journey, a heavy snowfall had covered the northern Highlands. We rattled across unwelded track (that’s what makes the clickety-clack, don’t you know?) and I sank into the seat, recalling Glen Gould and endless wintry skies.