By Candace Leslie
No matter where I plan to go when visiting Scotland, I always hope to spend at least a few days around the Kyle of Localsh. Happily, with the flexibility of a BritRail Pass or a Freedom of Scotland Pass, I can add this magical rail journey to most any itinerary. While there are many ways to reach the Kyle of Lochalsh and its gateway to the Isle of Skye, none can beat the rail journey from Inverness on the Kyle Line. The excursion takes only two-and-a-half hours, but it passes through some of the most spectacular scenery in Great Britain. As my husband and I have learned, the experience is never the same. On brilliant days, there are vistas of sun-drenched Highlands and sapphire lochs. In heavy downpours, waterfalls swell from “miniature” to full-fledged, fields become glistening lakes visited by waterfowl. Our most recent trip included a medley of soft mist and rolling clouds, gentle showers interspersed with blue sky, and even a late-afternoon rainbow. Autumn’s morning mist was a first for me, offering lovely studies in silver and green.
First the train crosses the River Ness and the Caledonian Canal, follows the shore of the Beauly Firth with the Black Isle in view, then on through gentle farmland to Dingwall. There are fifteen possible stops along the Kyle Line, some at scheduled stations, others simply “halts,” or request stops. To get off at the latter, you let the conductor know ahead of time; to board, you simply stand on the platform and wave to the approaching train.
From Dingwall the train heads west, climbing up Raven Rock, then descending through deep woods and skirting Loch Garve. The mountain scenery turns wild with great views of the Torridon Hills, their peaks often covered with snow. This is lonely country with barren wilderness, rushing burns, wild deer, and an occasional abandoned house or byre. Here and there, long dry-stone fences stretch into the distance across steep hills and valleys. Recalling how the Kyle Line had been threatened with closure more than once, I realized how devastating this would have been for the tiny isolated Highland communities.
Along the shores of Loch Carron, the rails squeeze into a minuscule space between rocks and water. An avalanche tunnel and reinforcing mesh wire run up cliff faces to prevent disaster.
The final miles of track had proved to be the most challenging to the line’s builders. It took almost four punishing years, countless engineers, and more than 80 “navvies” (laborers) to meet the daunting task of laying ten-and-a-half miles of track from Stromeferry to Kyle. The dramatic story of the construction of this part of the Kyle Line and how it has survived threatened closures is presented in a fine small museum at the Kyle Station run by the Friends of the Kyle Line.
Just across the water from the station, the Isle of Skye seems a stone’s-throw away. In the distance, the graceful Skye Bridge beckons, as do so many attractions that make this a fine destination for exploring the Highlands and islands. But for us, on this particular trip, it was the rail journey that was our focus. In just a couple of days we would board the morning train for the return to Inverness. With our Flexi-Pass we could stop along the way and catch a later run. This day we chose to stop for a pleasant lunch at the Dingwall station and spend the afternoon exploring the town. How fortunate that proved to be. Thanks to our intentional delay, we crossed the farmlands on the later train – just in time for a sensational rainbow that seemed to travel with us for the remainder of our final miles.
Scotrail operates 4 trains in each direction Mon – Sat; 1 on Sun with an extra Sun return during summer months. The BritRail Freedom of Scotland Pass provides options for travel throughout Scotland for 8-day and 15-day periods.