William in the Scottish Highlands bills itself as The Outdoor Capital
of the UK, but you don't need to be as fit as an Olympic athlete and
carry a tent on your back in order to enjoy some of the world's most
famous mountain scenery. If you're not a hiker, you an still explore
this region at your ease by car or public transportation.
visit started with a train ride from Glasgow to Fort William via the
storied West Highland Line. For three and a half hours we chugged
through the lashing rain past vast loch-filled moors populated only by
sheep and hairy cows. I sipped hot chocolate and watched streams
coursing down mossy green hills wrapped in mist that looked like candy
floss. The trip took a little longer than advertised, making an
incredible twenty stops along the way, but with a view like that, I
The scenery grew wilder and the peaks higher the further north we
climbed, and when I finally disembarked at Fort William and lugged my
suitcase uphill to the Bank St. Hotel (why are budget hotels always
located UP-hill?), I found that I could see the mountain range from my
window. Many hikers come to Fort William just to climb nearby Ben
Nevis, which at 4400 feet is Britain's highest mountain. The
circumference at the base is 24 miles, which gives you some idea of the
size of this monster.
The population of this tourist-friendly town is around 10,000. The
main shopping district consists of a few streets running parallel to
the lakeshore and about a dozen crossing those. High Street is
pedestrian-only with a wide choice of restaurants, pubs and stores. One
of the charity shops caught my eye. As the clerk kindly explained to
me, PDSA’s profits provide free veterinarian care to pets of qualified
owners who can’t afford the full fees, like elderly people on small
pensions or people with disabilities.
What a great idea, I thought, and how fitting for a nation that
seems to adore its pets, including the famous Scottish terriers that
you see everywhere.
Two flower-filled parks book-end the centre of Fort William. One of
them faces a marina, offering a bit of public access to Loch Linnhe,
which is blocked for a good stretch by an ugly highway. There’s also
another small access area where the ferry and boat tour companies have
I took one of the Crannog boat tours based on their brochures
promise of a visit to Seal Island. Being from Canada, I imagined a
colony with thousands of animals, so I was amused to learn that "seal
colony” in Scotland means a rock about the size of my living room with
a half-a-dozen seals lounging about like customers at a pub. Still, it
was fun to be out on the lake enjoying the glowering Ben Nevis,
fighting the stiff wind’s effort to yank me by my hair up into the sky.
another day I visited the West Highland Museum. This old-fashioned
treasure trove was created back in the 1920s by volunteers, and from
the look of the displays and signage, it hasn't been changed since. The
quirky collection includes Jacobite memorabilia, fancy dresses from
long-buried belles, Highland tartans and a "birching table" (a curious
apparatus of corporal punishment). I remarked to the museum guide on
duty how happy I was to see a museum that hadn't been sanitized and
modernized to the point of blandness; the loquacious lady agreed and
lamented the "dumbing down” of museums these days. "Museums used to be
for all ages," she said, "But today their only purpose is to entertain
That evening, just outside of the museum, I got a chance to see some
of the town's children, or its young adolescents at least, entertaining
the adults on bag-pipes and drums. Dressed in blue tartan kilts, they
made a pleasing picture as they led the tourists through the streets in
a curious reverse of the piped piper tale. The hotels and pubs in town
also offer live music several days a week.Glencoe
pretty much at home now in Fort William, I set out to explore the rest
of the Highlands through day trips. At first I was reluctant to visit
Glencoe because so much emphasis in the travel guides is placed on its
status as the site of the 1692 massacre, and I’m uncomfortable with
"tragedy tourism”. However, photographs of the mountains lured me and
I’m glad I went. I took a bus to Glencoe Junction then a taxi to
Glencoe Visitor Centre. The centre focuses on the region's geology,
wildlife, conservation, sustainable tourism, even the thorny issue of
the impact of mountaineering and camping on the environment (brought
home all too clearly by the large trailer park nearby). It’s worth a
short visit if only for the sight from the viewing platform out back.
If you don't want to go in, though, you can wander the scenic trails
around the centre for free.
The town of Inverness boasts a population of 60,000, and is the
capital of the Highlands. The road from Fort William skirts the edges
of steep hills and offers a variety of scenery: pretty villages, farms,
wild countryside and Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness. Alas, no sightings
of Nessie that day. The bus that took us to Inverness turned into a
commuter service on the way home, with several passengers getting off
at unmarked spots along the road and wishing the driver a good night
and "see you tomorrow".
Inverness Castle was built in 1835 but sits on the site of earlier
castles going back to the 11th century. You can’t go inside because
it’s a sheriff’s court today but I did wander around the lovely grounds
and got a grand view of the city below. Nearby are the city's art
gallery and museum. Walk along the River Ness and you'll come to an
ornate iron foot bridge. Stop in to buy art cards by local artists at
the River Gallery. If you have a (very) sweet tooth, try the Border
Cake at the River Café. For a really spoil-me-rotten lunch, the meals
at the Mustard Seed Restaurant, housed in a former church built in
1823, will make you go down on your knees to give thanks.
Kyle or Lochalsh
tried another Scottish wildlife tour one day with Seaprobe Atlantis in
Kyle of Lochalsh, a small town that has grown recently due to the
building of the controversial Skye Bridge. Having scaled down my
expectations, I enjoyed this short boat trip, even though I could see
little through the murky glass bottom of the boat besides jelly fish.
The hills, islands, lighthouse and ruins seen from deck, as well as the
odd seal or sea bird, were reward enough. The bus from Fort William
took us past the famous Eilean Donan — one of the most filmed and
photographed castles in the country.
Over the Sea to Skye
I began my journey to Skye by taking the train to Maillaig because I
wanted to see the great Glenfinnan Viaduct, today more commonly known
as the "Harry Potter Bridge". The view down into the valley from this
surprisingly elegant concrete curve to the monument honoring Prince
Charlie is nothing short of breath-taking. On the day I was there, the
train stopped right on the viaduct for several moments, while we
hovered, it seemed, 100 feet in the air. I tried desperately to take
shots through the window, but kept getting reflective glare. To my
delight, the train conductor came into the car (I was right up front)
and crooked a finger at me. I followed. In the front cab an open window
yawned. I poked the camera through and — voila — succeeded in capturing
a memory for life.
The rest of the train trip offered more delights. At one stop, a
pair of red deer stood watching the train, as if waiting to pick up
At another point, through the window a quick flash of silver caught
my eye as we whooshed past the glimmering sands of Loch Morar beach.
train I took to Mallaig was run by First Scot Rail. You can also ride
the "Hogwarts Express" (its real name is the Jacobite Steam
Locomotive), which operates summers only on a limited schedule and at
roughly double the price of the regular train. As I stood in the
station at Fort William one day I watched a man in an open-topped car
full of coal heaving shovels full of the black rock into the engine. He
was struggling to stay upright.
Despite all the nostalgia about steam trains, I bet the workers who
had to feed the beasts year round weren't that sad to see them go.
Upon arrival in Maillaig I had some time to look around this gritty
fishing little port before taking the ferry. It had its pretty aspects
— the Tea Garden café just near the water, and the lone girl playing
bag-pipes to passengers arriving by train — but its harbor is a
reminder of what a real fishing port looks like before the work dries
up and gentrifiers come in and turn it into a museum piece.
The Calmac ferry was a surprise. It was huge, for one thing, more
like a floating apartment building than a boat, and very modern. It
took less than half an hour to whisk us over the sea to Armadale.
Having only part of an afternoon, I had to limit my exploration
mainly to the port and to the ruins of Armadale Castle and its gardens.
A stroll through the paths of the extensive gardens is rewarding for
anyone with an eye for exotic trees and a nose for fragrant blossoms.
The hills and mountains, the spectacular sea views and ancient
archeological sites of Skye make the island a magnet for photographers,
artists and craftspeople, many of whom are inspired to create works
with Celtic motifs. As I boarded the ferry back to Maillaig, I resolved
to return for a more leisurely exploration of this once-remote and
still romantic Scottish island.
Practicalities in Fort William
The town offers range of hotels and B and Bs. I stayed at the Bank
Street Lodge, which has dorm rooms and private rooms with en-suite
bath, and a fully-equipped communal kitchen if you want to cook or
prepare bag lunches.
Serves casual meals in a high-ceilinged
dining room of faded grandeur. Picture deep-set windows, chandeliers
and, on the wall, framed photographs of the town from days gone by.Hot Roast Place:
Makes a hearty hot pork and apple sauce sandwich.
Guylaine Spencer is a Canadian freelance writer specializing in travel, history and the arts. She’s also the publisher of www.ontario-travel-secrets.com.