Chris, a member of the Great Rail Journeys' Marketing team, recently joined one of our groups to make one of Scotland's most spectacular train journeys: the trip along the Kyle Line on the ScotRail service to Kyle of Lochalsh. Here, he shares his experiences.
At just after 8:30am in Inverness it is still dark outside. As I wait in an almost deserted railway station, it really doesn't feel like I am about to embark on one of Britain's (and the world's) most scenic railway journeys. It's a cold morning in late January and a journey on the Kyle Line to Kyle of Lochalsh awaits. I've joined Tour Manager Liz Jackson and her intimate group of 17 for the rail highlight of a week's tour in Scotland celebrating Burns' Night.
As the group makes their way to the platform, Liz advises everyone that they should try to find themselves seats on the right hand side of the train. We have reservations on both sides of the train, but there are hardly any other passengers at this time of year - one of the reasons why this line's future has been in doubt for decades. Liz has done this trip many times and will spend most of the journey wandering up and down the coach telling everyone when to have their cameras ready.
Today's excursion does not take place on a heritage line, nor is it a private railway. We board a very 'normal' looking ScotRail sprinter train - just your average commuter carriage, but without any commuters. There are no gimmicks on the Kyle Line excursion; a seat on board is all you need to experience the magnificent beauty of this journey from Inverness in Scotland's east to the Isle of Skye on the west coast. There are no attempts made to remind you about a 'golden age of rail travel', something you will find on many historical routes and heritage lines. This journey is about what you can see out of your window.
We cross the River Ness shortly after our journey begins, and immediately the scenery has grabbed everyone's attention. We follow the south side of the Beauly Firth - every pair of eyes looking out of the right hand side of the ScotRail train at the views across to "The Black Isle". By now the sun is shining on one of the clearest, most glorious days of the entire Scottish winter.
Dingwall station is where we join the Kyle Line itself. From Dingwall you could head north to Wick or Thurso - another scenic route that I'm advised by fellow passengers is well worth the even-earlier start that is required to complete the journey from Inverness in a day (and be back in time for dinner). Our journey continues as we turn west, climbing the valley and rising above Strathpeffer, a town the line avoided due to land disputes during construction. We continue to climb, with more perfect views across open moorland to the snow-capped Liathach and Torridon Mountains.
Our ScotRail service sweeps us past Loch Garve (on our right again) and through the town of Garve. From here on, the railway line is accompanied by the road with which it competes. Although the road may be winning the competition for passenger numbers, the views from the train are unbeatable and simply could not be experienced in the same way if you were sitting in a car or coach. Shortly after Garve we reach the north shore of Loch Luichart, and the tiny lochs of Chullin and Achanalt.
Throughout this part of the journey, deer can be spotted from the train, idly grazing as we trundle past. Deer spotting is significantly less predictable than loch spotting, each sighting greeted with a shriek and a mad scramble for cameras. As we descend to the magnificent scenery of Loch Carran, Liz begins to offer advice about how to spend the 3 hours we have to enjoy in Kyle of Lochalsh, where the line terminates. We pass the idyllic, white-painted houses of Plockton, a popular fishing town, eventually arriving at the water's edge and the old Kyle station platform.
After jumping off the ScotRail train into possibly the sunniest day of the year, my first question is answered even before I've had chance to ask it. "If you are wondering where Skye is, you're looking at it." For some reason, I'd imagined I would have to work harder to see the Isle of Skye - that I'd walk down to the shore and it would be visible in the distance. Instead, the hills of Skye tower over the railway station, only a short distance away across a narrow stretch of water. The helpful voice was that of Thomas Campbell, secretary of "The Friends of the Kyle Line" - a group dedicated to the promotion and preservation of the Kyle Line.
The Kyle Line, from Dingwall to Kyle of Lochalsh, has been threatened with closure a number of times since it was built. The line has always struggled to pay its own way, only ever carrying significant passenger numbers during the two World Wars. However, its existence is essential for so many in the small settlements along its route and on the Isle of Skye. The incredible beauty of the landscape through which it passes is a huge tourist draw, ensuring its survival for well over a century. In that time, the line was officially marked for closure in 1963 and again in 1970, only to be reprieved.
Although there are no current plans to shut the Kyle Line, discussion continues into its viability, which led to the formation, in 1995, of The Friends of the Kyle Line. The charitable organisation, founded by Thomas Campbell and other Highland line enthusiasts, raises funds to promote the line and increase awareness about the plight of one of the world's most scenic railway journeys. The Rt. Honourable Charles Kennedy MP is the group's President.
Thomas shows me around the Kyle Line Museum, located within the original station building, with memorabilia and artefacts charting the history of the line, and its continued struggle for survival. There is also a gift shop, with a wonderful collection of items related to the Kyle Line. Every penny raised by the group is put to good use; the 'Friends' are currently undertaking an ambitious project to rebuild the signal box at Kyle of Lochalsh. The signal box stands across from the station building and is in a significant state of disrepair, but will soon be restored and will act as a continuation of the museum, with maps of the route and further Kyle Line memorabilia - Thomas is also planning to create a model railway.
It's not long before my host insists that I explore. "On a day like today, you have to walk over the bridge", declares Thomas, with a strong hint of pride. The Isle of Skye was originally connected to Kyle by a ferry - now a bridge connects the island to the mainland and provides a wonderful vantage point for views of Kyle of Lochalsh and Kyleakin - the town facing Kyle from the Isle of Skye. Crossing the bridge is free, which has not always been the case. For a number of years it was the most expensive (per metre) toll bridge in the UK; the same locals that fought to keep the Kyle Line open spent almost a decade fighting to close the toll booths.
The walk from the centre of town takes about 20 minutes - another 10 minutes to cross to the Isle of Skye, and it is absolutely worth it. Standing on the mid point of the bridge, in perfect sunshine, this is one of the most stunning, scenic places I have visited in the UK. The old lighthouse under the bridge looks serene, while standing on the bridge I can see two otters playing on a nearby rocky outcrop. All this and I've still got the return journey to Inverness to look forward to…equally enjoyable the second time round.
Of course, this being Scotland in winter, it is dark by the time we get back.