Tom Weir’s feature on discovering a “passport to wonder” through the West Highland Railway line, republished from a 1960s issue of The Scots Magazine
Changing Times For The West Highland Line
The other odd thing was to discover an electrical connection from an Air Ministry wind-recording instrument to Rannoch Station where I knew there to be no electricity.
Well, I was right and I was wrong.
The Air Ministry have installed their own electricity in the office of the station master so that the whirling vane on top of their pylon can record wind speed on a graph.
But British Railways, with staunch independence, ignore the electrical connection and make do with paraffin, despite the Gaur Power House at their very elbow.
An innovation to me was the magnificent observation car which plies four times a day in summer from Fort William to Mallaig, presided over by Mr John Morren, conductor and microphone commentator.
He told me that the car is fully booked during the tourist season, that you can’t get a seat on chance. I was certainly impressed by the feeling of being part of the landscape that this glass coach gives.
“Why not have more coaches if they are so popular?” I asked British Railways.
The answer again was economy, the high cost of coach building. In short, the same circumstances which prevented us from having a Forth Road Bridge until 1964.
However, Mr Morren moves with the times.
He was able to tell us that Ben Nevis was no longer 4406 ft. but 4418 ft., this being the result of the most recent trigonometrical survey; that the Glenfinnan viaduct is 100 ft. high with 21 arched spans of 50 ft. each; that at Borrodale, training area of the Commandos during the war, we were entering the biggest tunnel of eleven on the line, length 349 yards, that a camping coach by the side of the track used to be part of the Royal train . . .
To do this talking stint four times a day requires not only a good knowledge of history and geography, he told me, but a good throat as well.
However, he will be back at ticket-collecting at this time, and no doubt is enjoying the change, but he is proud of his coach, and not only was it spotless, but decorated with flowers, put there by himself.
A lone traveller is not lonely for long
All in all, that line from Craigendoran to Mallaig seems to me something of a miracle. In a world of change it still preserves an air of timeless peace.
Everything about it is friendly. Even the early hour of departure has an effect of binding the passengers together.
A lone traveller is not lonely for long, and in its carriages I have heard more good talk than anywhere else in the world.
And from its staff I have had nothing but kindness, except once when at midnight I stole into a carriage lying in a siding and was caught in the morning lying lull-stretch in my sleeping-bag.
Tinman’s anger was not so much at my taking liberties with railway stock as for covering the upholstery with eiderdown feathers from my leaking bag.
It is my sincere hope that the line will manage to keep its head clear of the Beeching axe, that the boom of industrial prosperity in Fort William will lift the freight side of it out of the doldrums, and that the growth of tourists to the town will tempt increased numbers of them to take the route to Mallaig.
It is a journey that is infinitely more exciting by rail than by road, as sea lochs, rivers, jagged peaks, white cottages, inviting bays, white sands, and blue islands succeed one upon another in the zigs and zags of that wonderful way to the west.
A train is a little world of its own, with people as well as scenery to make it interesting. And how much in life I would have missed if I had not met some of these people.
In the end that is what the West Highland means to me, and why I should be sorry to see it die, unwanted in an age of faster and faster cars, where people have more time for less and less.
We’ll have a new feature from Tom’s archives
up on the website next Friday.