Another day, another chaotic train journey from Edinburgh to Glasgow. Not much poetry on the tracks right now but one fine day I think I will board the West Highland Line with a musician and film-maker to capture the sight and sound of the best rail journey in the world.
This train is for Mallaig. The rolling stock has seen better days but for those lucky enough to be heading north there’s five and a half hours of magic along the line.
Updates: December 2019/January 2020 – I wrote this for Sceptical Scot in 2016. Scottish government transport secretary Michael Mattheson has announced Abellio’s Scotrail franchise will end three years early, 31 March 2022. What happens next? BBC’s Douglas Fraser says if there’s another franchise and government preference for public sector bidder is possible “it will have to get up and running very soon”. Whoever wins, here’s hoping they invest in Britain’s best railway journey. Now back to the train…
Of course, there are already passing tributes to the trip in film. As Wikipedia notes, the Hogwarts Express carries Harry Potter over the Glenfinnan viaduct. In A Line for All Seasons, Eddie McConnell’s documentary makes poetry of the changing landscape, and, a little less romantically, Corrour station features in Trainspotting directed by Danny Boyle.
There’s room for another look through the rain-spattered windows. No need for narrative as the small Scotrail train pulls out of Glasgow Queen Street – the urban scenes sliding by almost speak for themselves.
The song, not Singer
The coming and going of industrialisation is written on the landscape. There’s history, romance, politics and polemics in feats of engineering and Jacobite causes, in lost jobs and submarine lochs. That’s already well covered. This is not a requiem for Singer, but the song of the West Highland Line.
The composer might do no more than remix the recorded voice announcing where this train is for as we leave each platform. The lyrics are in the long line of stations from Glasgow Queen Street to the final stop 99 miles away.
This train is for…
Dalmuir, Dumbarton Central, Helensburgh Upper
Garelochhead, Arrochar and Tarbet, Ardlui
Crianlarich, Tyndrum, Bridge of Orchy
Roy Bridge, Spean Bridge, Fort William
Banavie, Corpach, Locheilside
Lochailort, Beasdale, Arisaig, Morar
Note the different lilting energy when you reverse the names on the return journey. (From Mallaig this train is for Morar, Arisaig, Beasdale…) And the music would surely slow but get louder, fuller, a heavy rhythm more insistent as we emerge from the tunnel back into Glasgow Queen Street
I’m not the first to have such thoughts. There’s romance in railway stations and an emotional tug in the sound of familiar place names. A reminder, I think, of the physical links and feelings joining people in distant places: singular but shared.
Kyle of Lochalsh Line
On the wall of a bothy in the splendid Skye Museum of Island Life, I found an old poem that strikes a chord. The wistfulness of the (to me unknown) poet A M Harbord hangs in the air of a wet and blustery day with wind whipping across Kilmuir on the north west of Skye.
The framed verse (bought perhaps at this auction) is a period piece, a poignant fragment of a different era but the feelings are familiar. Mr Harbord’s longing is stirred by memories of another fine rail journey, the even longer lines which eventually connect London with Kyle of Lochalsh.
(By One Who is Not Going)
Stranger with the pile of luggage proudly labelled for Portree
how I wish, this night of August
I were you and you were me!
Think of all that lies before you
when the train goes sliding forth.
And the lines athwart the sunset
lead you swiftly to the North.
Think of breakfast at Kingussie
think of high Drumochter Pass.
Think of Highland breezes singing
through the bracken and the grass.
Scabious blue and yellow daisy
tender fern beside the train
Rowdy Tummel, falling brawling, seen and lost and glimpsed again
You will pass my golden roadway
of the days of long ago.
Will you realise the magic of the
names I used to know:
Clachnaharry, Achnashellach, Achnasheen and Duirinish?
Every moor alive with covers, every
pool aboil with fish.
Every well remembered vista more
exciting mile by mile
Till the wheeling gulls are screaming
round the engine at The Kyle.
Think of cloud in Bheinn na Cailleach, jagged Cuillins
Scent of peat and all the glamour
of the misty Isle of Skye!
Rods and guncase in the carriage
wise retriever in the van;
Go, and good luck travel with you!
(Wish I’d half your luck, my man!)
Image: Glenfinnan Viaduct by Martin Deutsch [CC by-NC-ND 2.0]