Outdoors: The route of eagles and egotists

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Continuing his series on great short railway journeys, Matthew Brace takes the train from Fort William to Mallaig

They are a tough breed up in Fort William, withstanding over the years several invasions and skirmishes, to say nothing of the atrocious weather that lashes this part of the Scottish Highlands. The town's latest battle has been to save the Deerstalker Express, the Caledonian sleeper train from London.

As Charles Moore, owner of a local guesthouse, explained: "It's our link with the south. If we want to go on holiday, Heathrow and Gatwick offer more than Glasgow or Edinburgh. We just jump on the sleeper and we're in Euston before we know it."

Thanks to the efforts of Mr Moore and friends the sleeper is still running, but they were not the first train campaigners to fight to retain services from Fort William. The track to Mallaig on the coast was under threat during Dr Beeching's time, but was saved then, too, by solid local support.

I and the elderly woman who boarded the 8.45am last week were grateful to them. We were the only two passengers on the train. She was going on from Mallaig on the two-hour ferry to the tiny island of Eigg, where she originally comes from and where her daughter still lives.

We were riding a historic route. A railway from the Scottish interior to the Atlantic coast was a dream for train buffs for decades, no more so than when the West Highland line reached Fort William in 1894. One reason was to carry the fish stocks from Mallaig to markets inland, but the egos of the rail-builders must also have played a major part.

Eventually a combination of public funds from Westminster coffers and the resources of private landowners meant that the line could be funded. However, another seven years of hard labour were needed, building viaducts, tunnels and cuttings through heavy rock and peaty soil, before the first train rolled into the dockside station at Mallaig.

You leave Fort William heading north east but the track soon swings round and runs west, with the bulk of Ben Nevis glaring down at you from behind the town. The line passes the ruins of Inverlochy Castle and crosses the River Lochy, where it empties into Loch Linnhe. At Banavie the train uses a 100-year-old swing-bridge across the Caledonian Canal, which is mysteriously drained at the moment. Looking right here you should be able to make out Neptune's Staircase, a series of eight locks leading to the higher sections of the canal.

After Corpach (or A'Chopaich in Gaelic, meaning "place of the bodies"), from where the bodies of dead Highland heroes were shipped to the holy island of Iona for burial, the train passes the Loch Eil Outward Bound centre, and then it is on to Glenfinnan.

These deserted glens are the haunt of golden eagles which soar high above the track searching for prey. Some are so powerful that they can carry off a small deer. They are hard to spot, but the station staff back at Fort William had assured me that they were out there somewhere.

The Glenfinnan Monument, topped with a statue of Bonnie Prince Charlie, was put up in 1815 on what is said to have been the spot where his standard was unfurled in 1745 as a rallying-point for the clans. You get a marvellous view of the monument and the small settlement of Glenfinnan from the 100ft- high viaduct that the train passes over before stopping at Glenfinnan station. If you are not going all the way to Mallaig, this is a good place to hop off and explore. A museum here offers a quick Scottish history lesson, which you can mull over as the train proceeds to Arisaig.

After Arisaig station the track swings north along the Atlantic coastline to the beautiful white beaches of Morar, from where the Inner Hebridean islands of Rhum, Muck and Eigg are visible. Rhum is the most distinctive, with its lofty mountains rising up out of the sea.

When you arrive in Mallaig you will doubtless be met by a chorus of giant seagulls. The station is in the heart of the small town and a short walk from the harbour, ferry terminal and the Fishermen's Mission. While taking in the beauty, spare a thought for the exhausted labourers who sweated to bring to life the dream of a Highland railway to the sea.

On the footplate

When to go: Four trains a day Monday to Saturday, one on Sunday (to 23 May). Between 22 May and 6 June, watch out for the Highland Festival, a wide variety of events across the Highlands and Islands centred on rail journeys such as Fort William-Mallaig (01463 719000)

How much: adult standard return pounds 11.50, children pounds 5.75, adult day return pounds 10.50, children pounds 5.25

Who to call: ScotRail 0345 484950, or (for disabled travellers) 01397 703791.