A magical trip through the Highlands
Sitting across the aisle from us is an angler off for a weekend’s loch fishing, a box of tackle resting on the seat beside him. He’s a handsome older Scotsman, with a wind-blasted complexion and eyes such a transparent blue they could be made of ice. He looks like my father and his family, with their craggy Viking faces, comb-resistant, insulating thatches of hair and beetling brows as steep as bluffs. They came from the bleak and treeless Orkney Islands north of here; my aunts and uncles bearing archaic names such as Elfrieda and Ethelbert, watered down in Australia, naturally, to Freda and Bert.
So I feel a certain kinship with this man, although not enough to want to make conversation. He’s showing a puppy-like eagerness to engage, but there are windows to be looked out of, views to be absorbed, preferably uninterrupted.
On this fine spring morning, an early mist having risen, we’re setting out on one of the loveliest train journeys in the world, running from Glasgow through the wild west coast and up to the small fishing port of Mallaig in the Scottish Highlands. The final, 65-kilometre leg – from Fort William to Mallaig – is renowned for its scenery, but it is more famous, in some circles, as the route to Hogwarts School in the film versions of Harry Potter. Potter aficionados will recall the Hogwarts Express steaming elegantly over the long, curving Glenfinnan Viaduct, a leggy concrete masterpiece constructed as part of the rail line between Fort William and Mallaig between 1897 and 1901, one of the last big rail lines to be built in Britain, back when Mallaig was a herring port and nobody thought about putting its lonely environs in a film and adding CGI.
Glenfinnan, as more serious history buffs will know, was also where Charles Stuart – “Bonnie Prince Charlie” – launched the Jacobite rising of 1745, part of his ongoing attempt to wrest back the British throne for the House of Stuart.
It’s a five-and-a-half-hour trip from Glasgow to Mallaig and the start of the journey passes through a few commuter towns, including Helensburgh, which we’d visited a day earlier to see the Hill House, perched above the town in the posh bit, where premier league footballers buy privacy in the form of high-walled mansions.
The Hill House was built in the early 1900s, when Glasgow was booming, by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Mackintosh, of course, is now one of Scotland’s most celebrated architects and designers, even if he was largely ignored in his day, possibly dyslexic, and died in penury and, in all likelihood, as an alcoholic, aged 60. But that sorry end was to come. Working closely with him on Hill House in that more promising period was his bohemian artist wife, Margaret Macdonald. Their client was publisher Walter Blackie and his family.
The house seemed frightfully radical back then, with its grey, rough-cast walls (now posing a terrible rising-damp problem for the National Trust of Scotland), asymmetrical forms, and airy Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts-influenced interiors. It shrieked of the new.
Mackintosh, who also supervised and designed much of the furniture and fittings, was clearly a man with an eye for detail. He reportedly specified even the colour of cut flowers the Blackies might be permitted to put on a table in the living room. It seems accommodations had to be made if one were to live in a work of art, as German architect Hermann Muthesius reverentially noted after visiting Mackintosh in his flat in Glasgow about the same period.
Wrote Muthesius: “Mackintosh’s rooms are refined to a degree which the lives of even the artistically educated are still a long way from matching. The delicacy and austerity of their artistic atmosphere would tolerate no admixture of the ordinariness which fills our lives. Even a book in an unsuitable binding would disturb the atmosphere simply by lying on the table ...”
In Glasgow itself, Mackintosh’s work lives on in a dozen or so well-known buildings, including the Willow Tea Rooms, with its characteristic outsized chairs, the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, the Glasgow School of Art, the Hunterian Museum and Gallery and the charmingly named House for an Art Lover. There are Mackintosh tours, books, tote bags, tea towels. Glasgow now makes much of its once despairing son.
On the train, Helensburgh drops behind us and soon there’s nothing out the window but nature, doing a sterling job of being unwaveringly magnificent. Cloud shadows race across gunmetal lochs, the darkness gliding over their still surfaces like a divine hand, pierced from time to time by sunbeams that set the water glittering furiously. High, razored hills, emerald and black, plunge down to sandy shores or finish abruptly in crisp borders of crag and clear water. The stately lochs give way to mauve and russet stretches of heather and bracken and melancholy moorland. Groups of hikers appear now and again, heads bent over maps or dodging icy streams. A herd of deer stands in postcard magnificence in the distance. It’s as if the tourist board has raced ahead and arranged all the wares of the Highlands.
It’s my first trip to Scotland and yet, like the face of the man opposite, it all seems familiar. There are now few places in the world we haven’t seen in one way or another before we arrive, but it isn’t just that. It’s some deep and powerful resonance with a place of your ancestry. An atavistic echo, a trace memory, of this landscape; home and no longer home.
We don’t take our train all the way to Mallaig but get off at Fort William to drive to the lodge we’ve booked. Fort William is a rather ordinary resort town but it only takes about 15 minutes to get out of there and back into Highland scenery, the road ribboning its way between flatland and loch and mountain, through the occasional dripping avenue of overhanging trees. The temperature has dropped, the sky is lowering and it’s soon sheeting with rain, as if Scotland has remembered its Calvinist side and parsimoniously packed away the sunshine.
Two days later – the blue sky back – we drive to Mallaig. If the train trip is sublime, the road trip holds its own, and driving means we can stop along the way. The sudden glimpse of a calm, turquoise sea, as we crest a hill and sweep under the tail of the viaduct near Mallaig, is as surprising as it is breathtaking.
It’s about the journey, however, not the destination. Mallaig, the most westerly point on mainland Britain and once the largest herring port in Europe, is a pleasant harbour town but unremarkable. Even so, in season, tourists ply its few streets in their hundreds, partly because it’s two hours until the steam train – the alternative to the ordinary train – goes back. The Hogwarts Express is, in reality, The Jacobite steam train, which runs two return trains a day in high season, its velour seats packed with both steam enthusiasts and Potterati.
Harry Potter has been the great hope of modern Mallaig, reduced to something of a kipper-scented backwater before it lucked into its junior wizard connection. Still, some visitors have complained there is nothing very Harry Potter to see on arrival. No, erm, actual Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Indeed, as we watch the train offload that morning’s passengers, it’s as if the youthful pupils of Hogwarts have been transformed into the kind of ageing hopefuls more usually associated with tours to Lourdes. Children are wildly outnumbered by the infirm, ancients in wheelchairs, the snowy-haired and slow of foot, packing not a wand but sandwiches and seniors cards.
If there’s magic here, it’s back in those wild, wild stretches of Highland beauty.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 9, 2018 as "Weaving magic". Subscribe here.