Robert Hampton

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22nd September 2013

For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Skye
Posted by at 10.08pm | 1 response | Out and About, Trains

I need to start by apologising to Logan, the guy manning the catering trolley on the 8.30 train to Mallaig. Ian and I used that train on both Wednesday and Thursday morning. On the second day, you recognised us, and tried to engage us in friendly conversation. Unfortunately Ian and I were both so struck by your good looks that we got tongue-tied and could only babble the briefest pleasantries while you pumped your hot water urn. Sorry about that, Logan. If it makes you feel better, all you missed out on was some awkward and borderline inappropriate flirting from two men who are roughly a decade older than you. Don’t take it personally. You did a good job and your hot chocolate was very nice.

Where I was I? Oh yes, travelogue…

For the second day in a row, we were heading to Mallaig. This was the last time we would travel on the West Highland Line on this trip, but I already knew I’d be back. I want to visit Arisaig (most westerly station in Britain, fact fans) and Glenfinnan (home to that-viaduct-from-the-Harry-Potter-films and a small railway museum).

Our destination was, once more, Mallaig Harbour. No tiny Knoydart Seabridge this time, however. Instead, we were going to board the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to Skye. As it was included in the validity of our Highland Rover ticket, it seemed rude not to.

Caledonian MacBrayne ferry

Our plan for the day was audacious in its scope. When Ian first suggested it to me, I thought he was mad. MAD, I tell you. Of course, I went along with it, because I am quite mad too.

First, we would take the ferry to Armadale. From there, a bus would take us to the small settlement of Broadford, where we would change to a second bus to continue over the Skye Bridge to Kyle of Lochalsh. There, we would rejoin the rail network and take a train to Inverness, where we would spend Thursday evening.

There is, of course, a direct bus from Fort William to Inverness which takes a little under two hours, but where’s the fun in that?

On paper, it looked simple. Stagecoach Highland has a decent (albeit infrequent) network of bus services across Skye. There was a bus timed to connect with our ferry, and the change between buses in Broadford seemed fairly straightforward.

On paper. Experience has showed me that bus journeys which look easy on paper can turn out to be nightmarish in practice. All it takes is for one bus to not show up, and the entire plan is ruined.

I think it’s fair to say Ian had similar doubts. In the weeks running up to our trip, we had individually spent many hours poring over Traveline Scotland‘s web site, confirming that yes, what we wanted to do was possible. A quick stopover for breakfast in Mallaig also allowed us to use the café’s wi-fi to do one further check. And then another, just for luck. And of course I had the complete timetable PDF downloaded to my iPhone.

We moseyed on over to the ferry terminal and presented our Highland Rover tickets at the CalMac ticket desk. “You can’t use them directly,” said the woman behind the counter, “You need to have a ticket printed.”

She duly presented us with a second bit of paper with “Highland Rover” printed on it. We then queued up on the quayside with about fifty or so other people, as the crew prepared the ferry for boarding.

Ferry Ticket

As we boarded, a ticket inspector took the tickets from us – and kept them. In total, I think they were in our possession for less than 10 minutes. That seems like a massive waste of paper; even more so when you factor in the return portion we were given (without asking for it) and never used.

When it comes to travel over water, I am more familiar with the Mersey Ferries, which long ago stopped being proper public transport and now chiefly operate as a tourist attraction. There’s still a token “commuter” service provided during the morning and evening peaks, but otherwise the service is strictly geared towards people looking to keep their brats entertained – sorry, I meant to say, enjoy a family day out. “Yes, sir, you can buy a ticket to cross from Liverpool to Birkenhead, but are you sure you wouldn’t prefer a combined River Explorer, U-Boat Story and Spaceport ticket instead? That’ll be £15 please (ker-ching).”

The Mallaig-Skye ferry, on the other hand, is definitely a fully-fledged part of the public transport system – i.e., most people were using it to get somewhere. That’s not to say there were no tourists aboard, of course. In fact, as we took up our position on a windswept outside deck, I could see several coaches from far-flung parts of the country being loaded onto the vehicle deck below us. I could guess at the type of visitors they were carrying – Americans who probably said “gee whizz” at every sheep and boulder they saw in Scotland; doddery old dears from the South who were moaning about it being cold; and people who, like Ian and me, were here simply for the novelty value.

Robert on the Ferry

Of course, we could have sat inside. The passenger accommodation was well-appointed, with a little café and a shop selling souvenirs. However, Ian and I are hearty, red-blooded outdoorsmen, so we stayed outside, leaning against the railings and feeling the wind in our faces as Mallaig slowly receded into the distance.

Mallaig Harbour

With relatively calm waters, the crossing was straightforward enough. The most entertaining part of the 30 minute voyage was the car alarms on the vehicle deck below, which went off every time the ship rocked slightly too much. Really, how hard would it have been for the owners to turn them off?

I did my best to ignore the racket, and instead focused on the forward view from the ship. I watched with growing excitement, as Skye got closer and closer.

Skye in the distance

Before long, we were tying up at Armadale ferry terminal. Ian and I, not quite sure how to get off the boat, ended up following the people in front of us. We ended up on the vehicle deck and had to hastily backtrack. Oops. I’m just glad we realised our mistake before we climbed into their car.

Armadale ferry terminal

Armadale’s ferry terminal is fairly basic – just a small ticket office with a bus stop outside. Our bus was waiting for us at the terminal and we clambered aboard, but not before I took a photo for the record. I thought I’d managed to do it unnoticed, but on closer examination of the picture, it seems that the driver is staring right at me, and rather disapprovingly to boot. Oh dear.

Stagecoach bus at Armadale ferry terminal

I was momentarily impressed that Stagecoach Highlands run this route using a coach, but this favourable impression soon evaporated when I saw the seating, which had been crammed in using a 3+2 arrangement, and with incredibly poor legroom. I am not a large man – I can fit reasonably comfortably in the typical budget airline seating – but on this coach I had to sit diagonally to be comfortable at all.

Stagecoach bus interior

We set off along narrow country roads, passing through Armadale village itself. It’s tiny, with a handful of houses and one or two B&B’s, and not much else. I didn’t see any other amenities, apart from a shop at the ferry terminal itself, which sold sporrans.

Soon we were in open country. Every so often, the bus would stop at the side of the road, to allow someone to board or alight. Each time this happened, Ian and I looked around for signs of possible civilisation; a reason for someone to get on or off a bus here. Each and every time we drew a blank.

View from the bus

We pulled into Broadford, where the bus dropped us off outside the Post Office before continuing on its merry way. There was a connecting bus to Kyle due in just a few minutes, but Ian and I agreed to spend some time here first, and so we let that bus go in favour of the next one an hour or so later.

We took stock for a few minutes by sitting in a small park. This turned out to be a memorial garden for Calum Robertson – “a Skyeman who loved his island and served its people well.”

Calum Robertson Memorial

I can see why Mr Robertson loved this place – breathtaking views all around. I had thought that by this point, three days into the trip, I’d be inured against Scotland’s beauty, but no – it still has the ability to wow me.

Broadford Broadford

Broadford is a fairly small settlement. There is a Co-op supermarket, a petrol station, and some small hotels. We saw adverts for a glass-bottomed boat tour – never quite understood the appeal of these, myself. Surely there are better ways to see fish than to stare at them through a small square of glass in the floor of a boat?


There is also a collection of quirky shops, including this one: “Skye Home Entertainment”. At first, I thought it was just a video rental place, but closer inspection revealed a bewildering array of toys, souvenirs, tools, fishing equipment and electrical goods. Mary Portas wouldn’t have approved of the haphazard window display, that’s for sure.

Skye Home Entertainment Skye Home Entertainment

I was pleased to see that the presence of a supermarket had not killed off the local village store. True, it was now an outpost of the far-flung Spar empire, but at least the new owners had left the old wooden sign intact. I had no idea you needed a licence to be a grocer.

Licensed Grocer and Newsagent

The community noticeboard outside was filled with overlapping posters, such as this one inviting people to “Drop Everything and Come Dancing!”. Don’t drop everything if you’ve just been shopping in Spar. You’d break your box of eggs, for a start.


Elsewhere, another shop offered us “Magic Handspun Sweaters”. We didn’t venture in, so not sure exactly what form the magic takes. Perhaps they use wool that doesn’t shrink in the wash – now that would genuinely astound me.


Just beyond the magic sweater shop was the Old Pier. A sign warned that the surface was “uneven”. That seemed like an understatement:

Broadford pier

It did, however, allow Ian to indulge in some shenanigans:

SKYE-FALL. Do you see?

We found a café to have some lunch and rest. Not to cast aspersions on the café’s regular clientele, but I think we did bring the average age down by about 15 years when we walked in. I found myself ordering yet another burger (I need to start getting more adventurous).

While we were inside, the light drizzle, which we had been experiencing on-and-off all day, turned into a full-fledged deluge. We finished our meal and hurried to the bus stop, which fortunately was just across the road.

The bus was already there, but we had to wait behind a group of Japanese tourists, who were attempting to ascertain if this was the bus they needed to get. Between their Japanese accents and the driver’s Scottish accent, communication proved near-impossible. Eventually they got off again, and Ian and I gratefully climbed aboard.

This bus was another cramped coach, but the journey to Kyle was fairly quick. We reached Kyleakin and were soon heading for the impressive Skye Bridge, opened in the mid-1990s to replace a ferry crossing which proved increasingly unable to cope with the crowds.

Skye Bridge

I’ve done some research (i.e. I looked it up on Wikipedia) and discovered that this bridge originally cost £11 to cross. In response to this high cost, a campaign was set up by a group calling themselves Skye and Kyle Against Tolls. As it turned out, lots of politicians are really into SKAT, because the campaign was successful and the bridge is now free to cross.

We alighted from the bus in Kyle of Lochalsh. There was no time to explore (and it was still raining heavily), so we headed straight for the station. It is in a rather lovely location, with Skye itself forming an imposing backdrop for the train as it waited to depart.

Kyle of Lochalsh station

I just hope the train always manages to stop in time – any further past the buffers and the front coach will end up in Loch Alsh.

Train at buffers at Kyle of Lochalsh

Kyle of Lochalsh station advertised a small railway museum. Our ambitious itinerary left no time to visit it, sadly. There was just time to get the customary “gimp under sign” picture, before we joined the train.

Robert at Kyle of Lochalsh

The train was busy, but we managed to find a table seat for the two-and-a-half hour journey to Inverness. It felt good to be back on the rails again after a day on water and roads, and I slumped in my seat contentedly.

My phone battery was down to 10% and subsequently died altogether. Ian’s phone, meanwhile, proved incapable of receiving a signal anywhere. This had been a recurring feature of the trip – even in the centre of Fort William, it seemed there was only a faltering 2G signal to be had on Ian’s Vodafone handset, even when my phone was getting a strong 3G signal from Three.

A long train journey with no mobile telephone. For a scary couple of hours, we were back in the 1990s. Without access to Instagram or Twitter, we ended up having to talk to each other.

More picturesque scenery flashed past the window. By this point, however, I was a bit too tired for it to register. There were a couple of waterfalls, and some trees and mountains and stuff. It was all very beautiful, but frankly, I think nothing – short of Gareth Bale doing naked “keepy-uppy” on the platform at Strathcarron station – could have aroused my interest.

We arrived in Inverness at 5pm, tired but ultimately happy. Our plan had worked perfectly. The only downside was that this was our last day in Scotland – it seems Skye really is the limit.

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One Response
  1. Pingback by High land, hard rain | A railway runs through it
    11th October 2013 at 10:12 pm

    […] But in its own way this view was intensely reassuring. We’d just completed a tricky journey from Fort William by rail, sea and road via the Isle of Skye. […]