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– and the West Highland Railway

Visitors to Scotland approaching Crianlarich for the first time might be misled into thinking it is a place of some size, judging by the frequency it seems to turn up on road signs. But this village is just a nice wee place set in a big ring of hills. It’s got a shop and hotel and a youth hostel, plus other accommodation, but most importantly, this little route-centre settlement has got a railway station and is a railway junction. Trains from Glasgow that arrive here go either west to Oban or north for Fort William.

Historically, the first rails to reach Crianlarich were on their way west for the seaboard at Oban by 1880. The line was worked by the Caledonian Railway. Their rivals, the North British, then arrived at Crianlarich about fourteen years later, en route to Fort William.

Crianlarich Station, looking south

Crianlarich Station, looking south.

Crianlarich station position
The North British line reached Crianlarich heading north at right angles to, and a bit higher up from, the earlier Oban-bound track. While the Caledonian ran east-west through Glen Dochart and into Strath Fillan, the North British built their line by Loch Lomond and then steeply up Glen Falloch. A level section just south of Crianlarich became known as ‘the fireman’s rest’ – as generations of firemen shovelled coal for miles on the gradient to keep up steam, then got a short break as the train slowed for its Crianlarich stop.

Anyway, if you’ve followed this so far, with the help of another of these vivid, hi-tech, wonderfully illuminating graphics (or wee untidy sketches, as I call them) you can see above that there were then lines going to the four points of the compass here. Eventually, the two rival companies decided to join them by a curving ‘spur’ (as railway folk call it). As it turned out, when the earlier line from the east to this junction community was closed in 1965, the spur became vital – as all services to Oban had to go this way. That’s why Oban-bound trains depart north and suddenly lurch off to the left (westwards) to rumble down to the original line. You can see the connection, half-way along and to the left of the Fort William train (below).

Fort William-bound rail service leaves Crianlarich

Fort William-bound rail service leaves Crianlarich

I had time to mull all this over fairly recently, while waiting for my wife to depart on to a morning Fort William train that was timetabled for 10.21. The ScotRail man on the platform had a dire warning about making sure we didn’t get on the next train through as that was going to Oban. Sure enough, a train appeared and we watched an old couple, with their equally old greyhound, bundle themselves on to it, then bundle themselves back off again in much haste and disorder. And there were a few near disasters for other rucksack-carrying visitors, who hesitated by the platform edge. Uncertainty hung around as an unwanted travelling companion. A platform announcement would have been nice. Perhaps that pantomime goes on every day in the summer when first time visitors of all nationalities find themselves making connections here.

Crianlarich is not only where road and rail meet. Other business for the village arrives on foot, as it’s on the West Highland Way, the official Glasgow to Fort William footpath. Thirsty walkers come off the path and head for the station tearoom. This has been an institution for decades and, apparently has always been privately run. In the old days, the breakfast and luncheon baskets supplied to passengers were legendary. Today’s café is one of these places that communicates its way of doing things by lots of notices, especially about where to leave your rucksack.

Note in Crianlarich Station tearoom

Phew! Just as well I spotted this. The first thing I always do in a cafe is whip off my socks. What?

It also has this charming instruction, left.

No, I wouldn’t dream of taking my socks off in a café, would you? The shortbread was nice though. Anyway, we had time to observe all this as the 10.21 service seemed to have vanished, so there was lots of time to admire the hills all around. Eventually, a service did arrive and my wife went on her journey. No explanation was forthcoming but the scenery was stunning, and the train full of appreciative visitors.

Here’s a thought. Once, I was on a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry when the skipper announced that there were whales on the starboard bow.‘We think they’re minkes’. Everyone rushed to the rail to gawp at the cetaceans. That was a kind of engagement, an enhancing of the experience of the journey. Now imagine an announcement on the Fort William train telling visitors to look out for a large herd of deer; or maybe offering a quick quote from RL Stevenson’s ‘Kidnapped’ as the train nosed out on to Rannoch Moor…or further on, beyond Fort William, telling passengers when they were close to the actual place where Bonnie Prince Charlie first landed on mainland Scotland. But that isn’t really ScotRail’s job and maybe it would annoy the regular travellers.

Find out more about steam trains in Scotland or see more of the scenery around Crianlarich.

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