18 Apr West Highland lines
The train creeps past squat pebble-dash semis and unlovely high-rise blocks, style staples of inter- and post-war Glasgow. A match for the grey skies.
Trackside a fox sits licking his lips. There’s plenty of rubbish lying around. Perhaps he’s had his fill and is digesting at leisure. Litter abounds on the edges of the city, trapped in the hollow where the track runs.
Off on a simple journey aboard a basic Scotrail train. No frills, minimal comfort, touches of grime here and there. Never mind. It feels good to be on a slow train to Mallaig.
The Clyde. Wide, working river looking old and tired in its dull winter costume of browns and greys. Dilapidated wharves speak of a past that’s long gone. Muddy margins between the river and the railway. Out there in the estuary big green markers steer ships to the deeper, safer waters. Across on the south side, a thin shaft of light leaks from the clouds onto the docks of Port Glasgow? or Gourock? I don’t know which.
The tide is low. Seaweed clutters the river’s edge. Clings to rocks smoothed by years and tides; fastens itself to plastic debris. Gulls stand imperiously, looking out to sea. Oystercatchers gad about, bothering and chattering, never still.
Gorse announces spring with bright yellow; a different gorse saw out the autumn.
We climb now, turning away from the river heading north along Gareloch. The train strains to haul itself up the slope. No gentle chugging or rhythmic clipping across the rails; this is hard work.
On the far side of the loch, low clouds seize the hilltops in a clammy caress. After Garelochhead with its old houses by the shore and new ones reaching up the hill, its handful of mean modern three-storey flats with their graffiti scrawls, we reach another loch. I’m tested on the names.
We cruise high above Loch Long (?) among leafless trees and narrow crevices hewn from ancient rock. Here and there a gentle valley where baby conifers mark a small river’s course. Managed forest, the stumps of a recent harvest scar the slopes on one side while new plantings promise restoration on the other.
A slow hour out of Glasgow and we’re already deep among the high hills, brooding bulks of rock softened under a skin of pale vegetation. From the carriage it looks like light, evenly mown grass, mottled here and there with the russet residue of withered ferns or the dull brown of hibernating heather. This colour of the Scottish hills at the end of winter and the start of spring is beyond describing with a single adjective. How to decipher it? Winter green, yet not quite green. Faded blonde. Damp hay. Old gold that’s lost its lustre, tarnished. Does gold tarnish? I don’t know but if it does it would be this colour, a colour that changes with the constantly shifting light.
Loch Lomond now. Near Ardlui. I look across the loch to where water streaks the rock face with pure white as if a tub of paint had been spilled. Snow fills little hollows high up. Wild country: silver, white, blonde, red, auburn, all strewn with nature’s leavings: fallen branches, last year’s ferns, stale heather, abandoned nests, moss and lichen.
After Tyndrum with its two stations, we leave the woods and narrow stone chases, emerging into big country. Enormous hills shaped by time and weather intersect one another, meeting and folding into valleys where the light gets lost. Climbing more. We’re near the snow line, snow that sometimes stays all year. Rannoch, Corrour, distant stations high up and hidden away to be discovered only on this incredible journey, five hours and countless centuries. All the way to the sea.
And when you reach it, at Arisaig, there are islands and headlands laid gently on the sea as if they had been put down delicately, barely touching its surface. The sky is lighter, a western light, not golden but luminous grey like a watercolour wash. The sea, the light, white sand and a sense of the forever.