Dolphins. Seals. Otters. Catching a glimpse of those was always on my wish list anytime I found myself near a loch (lake) or shore while in Scotland. That’s why my head, on auto-pilot, turned left to scan the sea as soon as I stepped out into the cool, salty air surrounding Mallaig. Disappointed, again, I hurried from the parking lot. Still, I was eager to begin my brief exploration of the small port town. Friends Dave, Debbie and I and other tourists, had left Glasgow’s Buchanan bus station in the early morning and, after a few relaxing hours watching the landscape of the western Highlands rush by outside my window, interrupted with brief rest or photo op stops at Glen Coe and Glenfinnan, it was refreshing to escape the warm but confining bus for a while.
A tall wire fence ran between the two-lane street and a train depot. A brawny black engine coasted along the tracks, plumes of pale gray smoke curling up from its stack. People, some probably wishing they were in the cab, stopped to watch as the driver deftly coupled it to a string of old-fashioned compartments. Others appeared satisfied with taking photos of it.
At a round-about, before turning right to enter the business area, I noticed that Mallaig is an end-of-the-road type of place. Drive straight, past the ferry terminal, and the A830 drops into the sea. To avoid drowning, or should you want to go farther to islands like Skye, Eigg, Muck, Rum, Canna or Oban, and not do so by testing your distance swimming skills, a better option is to sail or take one of the ferries that arrive and depart from here. But, in the words of Ratty, one of my favorite characters in the book, The Wind in the Willows, I didn’t come here simply to go “messing about in boats”. Instead, being drawn by all the Highlands offer: abundant wildlife in and above rolling hills and lakes and a long history, this was for me — the place to be that day.
Another aspect of me is that I’m still very much in touch with my inner child (as you might have guessed by some of my reading choices). I’m fond of the magic spun by J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books and movies and discovered from our driver that there was another bonus to visiting Mallaig: the town is home to its own “Diagon Alley”. I found it at the end of a narrow lane. “Hagrid’s Alley “was well-stocked –T-Shirts and ties, coasters and card, trinkets and treats. Browsing in this snug, two-room shop proved as “cozy” an experience as having lunch with Hagrid in his cabin.We had less than two hours to eat and explore. On an early August Sunday, the port town on the northwest coast of Scotland, picture-postcard-pretty, appeared used to invasions of visitors. Shops, restaurants and grocery stores quickly filled, tourists and locals alike flitting here and there.
It was lunchtime. The few restaurants were packed. Not wanting to squander precious time waiting to be seated I settled for a sandwich and chips and looked for a place to enjoy my picnic. A small deck seemed ideal, it provided a view of the harbor where boats, small yachts and dinghies were anchored. By the time I reached it others with similar ideas already took over the handful of benches.
Munching and strolling, I came to the end of the dock. Beady-eyed seagulls noticed my sandwich. Feeling generous, I offered up a nibble or two.
Soon I starred in my own version of the 1963 Alfred Hitchcock movie, the Birds. The gulls weren’t the ominous, dark sort bent on pecking out my eyes. Still, they were curious and gifted with world-class thievery skills – determined and with a lightning-quick ability to snatch any morsel.
Amusement became annoyance. Remembering the Heritage Center next to the train station I gulped down my lunch, scurried up the ramp and found shelter inside, away from bossy, demanding seagulls.
With what little time remained I fed my own curiosity. Inside the large, one-room area glimpses into the lives of locals were displayed. Black and white photos of unsmiling men and women hard at work, fishing, weaving, cutting peat; Herring girls gutting fish; children smiling for classroom photos as well as various train editions crossing the nearby viaduct. A display gave some history of the Highland clearances of the 1800s and the sad effect it had on Scottish clans. To make room for sheep or cattle and increase profit, landlords drove people from their land. Those who did not die from disease or starvation were forced to move south or sail to places like Nova Scotia, Canada or the U.S., often with only pitiful belongings.
But, as much food for thought as the center provided, truthfully, that’s not why I came here. Mallaig sits at the end of the West Highland Railway line. And, with a sentimental attachment to locomotives that dates to my childhood, I booked the tour to catch a famous train. Like a kid, I wanted to ride the Jacobite, a.k.a “Hogwarts Express”. During warmer months, the train runs from here to Fort William.
Even before Harry Potter movies showed scenes of the train speeding to the fantastic school for wizards, the train had its followers. These days it’s an even bigger draw.
My friends and I boarded and settled in. With a trail of steam, the Jacobite headed into the countryside, alongside roads and lochs (lakes), under and over bridges and occasionally blowing its whistle at groups of people who parked along the road to catch a glimpse of it passing by. Soon it traveled high above another famous Highlands sight, the Glenfinnan viaduct. It was built of concrete between 1898 and 1901. Twenty-one arches span in a semi-circle over the river Finnan. We were lucky and happened to be sitting on the side that provides a long view of the area. As the train went into the curve it slowed for photo ops of Loch Shiel and the Glenfinnan monument. In 1745, it was here that Charles Edward Stuart, “Bonnie Prince Charlie”, began his bid to regain the throne.
Attempting to take a photo, many ignored the safety warning: “Do not lean out the window.” The chance to capture the entire length of train as it travels along the curve was irresistible. That day, I was grateful we didn’t topple into the abyss from the sheer weight of everyone – kids and adults alike – hanging out on the right side of the train.
It could have been magic that prevented such tragedy. I’m sure there were many onboard channeling their inner Harry, Ron, Hermione or other Hogwarts students. Sadly, I think most of us were mere muggles. But, magic or not, without the added weight of pet rats, owls and their cages, luggage, chocolate frogs or taste-like-snot jelly beans, the train stayed upright.
A little while later, having safely made it to Fort William, the journey ended. We poured out onto the platform (no 9 ¾ here) to crowd around the engine and its drivers for one last look. Ignored, like Hogwarts’ floating candles, were the sounds of excited babble and camera clicks that filled the air. With a final belch, the engine hissed and the day’s momentary enchantment, much as wisps of steam, vanished into cool air.
Our group climbed back on board the bus.
The traces of Eau-de-coal lingered well into the evening as we traveled on winding roads, through the misty, magical and darkening highlands, back to the city.
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