By train in Scotland: 9 great reasons to travel on the West Highland Line

WHL cover

Cover photo by: Dennis Hardley Photography for

There’s nothing like a good old train adventure, and the Scottish Highland is definitely not the worst place go on one. A place where you can take in all the beauty from your comfortable train seat, and where you might even get inspired to return with hiking gear in your backpack.

I sure did, when I was following the tracks of the West Highland Line earlier this year, through the… you guessed it… West Highlands of Scotland. An unforgettable journey along ‘The Iron Road to the Isles’, as it’s called. From buzzing Glasgow to the small towns of Mallaig and Oban on the West Coast. Yes, the West Highland Line actually leads to two different ends when you set out from Glasgow. Mallaig on the most northern branch of the line and Oban further south.

I can highly recommend to embark on this incredible journey, and here are 9 reasons why…


For a chance to discover Glasgow

Let’s start from the beginning, because unless you’re Scottish or at least British, there’s a good chance that you’ve never visited the southern starting point of the line – Glasgow. Because let’s be honest, it’s famous neighbour and capital city Edinburgh seems to steal all the attention, when it comes to a city-trip to Scotland. And although Edinburgh is indeed irresistible (and one of my favourites in Europe), Glasgow deserves a chance too. A cultural hub with plenty of museums and lots of events taking place.

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To see the famous lochs

A loch is a lake in Scotland, and most of the country’s big lakes are found in the western highlands. You won’t come across the mythical Loch Ness on this journey, but the tracks will briefly run along the northern tip of the iconic Loch Lomond. The lake made famous by the song ‘The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond’, which you might have heard if you’ve ever listened to live music in a British pub. You will also be able to spot scenic lakes like Gare Loch, Loch Long and Loch Awe.


To spot a “highland coo”

You might have seen them on postcards or in marketing material from the Scottish tourism board. The red-brown, large-horned, long-fringed highland cows – and chances are great that you’ll see them standing in the fields along the tracks. Up here they’re nicknamed “highland coos”, and they’re not the only “wildlife” to spot from your train seat. So keep your eyes out for jumping deers and grazing sheep, adorning the rolling green hills.

SEE ALSO: Fabulous features in Falkirk


To get away from it all

On the West Highland Line you will travel through small towns from time to time, but for most of the journey you’re just sliding through the magnificent scenery of the Scottish Highlands, and it’s without a doubt among the most attractive railway lines in Europe – if not in the world. At times the scale of the nature surrounding you is simply awe-inspiring, and you’ll travel through wide open areas like the Rannoch Moore, where the train stops at one of the most remote train stations in the UK, Corrour. It’s 16 kilometers away from the nearest road, and an iconic scene from the movie ‘Trainspotting’ was filmed here.


To meet hikers in Fort William

Fort William is a lovely town that you’ll reach if you follow the northern branch of the West Highland Line, before heading west to Mallaig. A convenient place to stop over and spend a night or two, whether you want to hike up the nearby mountain Ben Nevis – the highest mountain in the British Isles – or you just want to visit the pub by the same name. Fort William is also the final destination for northbound hikers on the popular walking route the West Highland Way, starting in Milngavie about 155 kilometres further south. Therefore it’s a great spot to meet fellow hikers – or to upgrade your equipment in the many outdoor shops along the town’s high street.

SEE ALSO: 5 gorgeous green spots in the Scottish capital


For a bit of movie magic

‘Trainspotting’ isn’t the only movie-hit to have been filmed along the West Highland Line – so was Harry Potter, as these tracks carry the famous Hogwarts Express across the curved Glenfinnan Viaduct. Not surprisingly one of the top-attractions along the line today (on the branch to Mallaig), and it’s a spectacular view whether you’re a Potter-fan or not. The concrete viaduct stretches 380 meters across 21 arches and the train might even stop for its passengers to take in the view.


To disconnect in Mallaig

The original and oldest part of the West Highland Line is the one that ends in Mallaig. A small harbour town on the West Coast, where ferries set out to islands like the popular Isle of Skye – hence the journey’s nickname: “The Iron Road to the Isles”. Mallaig itself is not a place with lots to do, but a small town to find peace and quiet – and where you can enjoy an ice cream while overlooking the multifunctional harbour.

SEE ALSO: Live from Scotland: Travelling through the West Highlands


To hang out in Oban

To reach Oban from Mallaig you’ll have to travel back down to Crianlarich before heading out west again, but trust me – this astonishing landscape is not one to be tired off. Besides, you will discover new parts on the southern branch and your end-destination is really worth it. Oban will feel like a buzz compared to the quietness of Mallaig, and you’ll have enough entertainment to hang around for a few days. So why not visit the local whisky distillery, take a boat trip to spot wild seals or hike up to McCaig’s Tower for amazing views to the islands near the coast.

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Because it’s very affordable

If you love travelling by train and to admire great natural scenery, you will get a lot of value for your money on the West Highland Line. In difference to other great railway journeys found in Europe, this line is serviced by regular regional trains – which means that you don’t pay for an expensive panoramic train, but still get some of the best views Europe has to offer.

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By Brian Schæfer Dreyer