Further into the Highlands

Plockton train timetableMy mission for Thursday was to get from Inverness to Plockton and back in time for the 20:30 overnight sleeper train to London.

Why Plockton? Two words: Hamish Macbeth. If these two words mean nothing to you, then perhaps the following thirty-nine words might help:

Hamish Macbeth is a TV comedy/drama series starring Robert Carlyle (of Trainspotting and The Full Monty fame) set in a remote highlands village called Loch Dubh, but which is actually filmed in the remote highlands village of Plockton.

When I went to America a couple of years earlier, we all piled into a car and went to the remote Washington town of Roslyn, where they filmed Northern Exposure. Hamish Macbeth and Northern Exposure have a lot in common, so I thought it logical to pay a visit to Plockton. Anyway, it was a good place to aim to travel to.

The hardest bit was waking up to catch the early(ish) train. It wasn’t exactly at the crack of dawn, but pretty early considering I was on holiday. I don’t know if this is always the case at the Inverness Student Hostel, but at the startlingly early hour of 7:30am, I was the only bloke in the land of the living. All the others in my dorm were snoozing happily, and I ate breakfast chatting with a Canadian university lecturer who was bemoaning the fact that in this day and age of e-mail and Internet Cafes, her students could still send her questions even when she was in far away Scotland. Then she and a couple of Swedes raved on about the Isle of Skye for a while, almost making me regret I wasn’t planning to go there. Ah well, next trip.

I packed up my stuff and walked down the hill from the hostel. On the way down I stopped off at McDonalds, to ask them a question. The day before, I had spotted a curious item on their menu entitled “Irn Bru”. At the time, nobody had seemed to be snickering as if this was a spelling mistake, so I wondered what exactly it was. I was particularly determined to ask, because I realised that asking what something is on the menu at McDonalds is probably a once in a lifetime experience.

The McGirl at the counter chuckled and explained that it was one of Scotland’s top selling soft-drinks, a kind of orangey fizzy drink. She gave me a free sample. It tasted like a very very sweet version of Fanta, and seemed to perk me up a bit for the rest of my walk to Inverness station.

I put my pack into a locker at the station and boarded the 08:47 Kyle Of Lochalsh train, a set of two diesel railcars, one of which had a startling number of reserved seats. I found a seat in the other carriage and made myself comfortable. Soon the train was zipping out of Inverness and into the Scottish countryside.

At Dingwall a carriageload of pensioner-looking people got on, all of them heading for their mass of reserved seats. We continued on, through stations with such increasingly unpronounceable (at least to me) names such as Lochluichart and Achnashellach.

It was raining, and through the windows I could see incredible landscape – tall mountains shrouded in fog, fast and wild running rivers, endless miles of wild, inhospitable countryside, punctuated occasionally by a fence or a wall, probably built decades or centuries ago by a couple of blokes slaving away for months in hideously unfriendly weather just like this. Some kind of epiphany came to me. After years of listening to bagpipe music, I suddenly appreciated it so much more. This was the place in the world where bagpipes fit. This was where they belong. Okay, so they weren’t actually invented in Scotland, but they should have been.

As the train rumbled on, I decided to go and find the toilet. I found it in the other carriage, and examined the door. It was one of those automatic sliding ones, with a button to open or close it, and presumably another button inside to lock it. It was closed. The engaged light was not on, repeat, not on.

What follows was the single most embarrassing moment of the entire trip.

I pressed the button, and before I describe what happened, I would like to point out that in the few seconds that it took the following events to unravel, I saw nothing. Absolutely nothing, I promise on my grandmother’s grave. (The dead one, that is.)

The door opened, and a middle-aged woman was inside, not dressed, not undressed, but somewhere in between, probably roughly the state one normally is in when one uses a toilet, but I didn’t really notice the detail because I was trying to look anywhere other than there, and my brain was screaming “oh God, no, this isn’t happening, Jesus no, I’m so sorry” and my alarmed voice was gurgling “oh sorry” and my brain was still screaming and panicking and my hand leapt back onto the button to close the door and hide this poor woman’s undignified pose from the rest of the people on the train, who thankfully, were not looking this way.

I breathed in deeply, and stepped well back. I paused, then walked a few paces back and waited. The engaged light stayed off. Despite the incident, the woman had obviously still not spotted the lock.

She eventually came out, sprinted back to her seat without giving me a glance (who could blame her) and I went in. Sure enough, there was a lock, and it worked.

Part of the herd, wandering the streets of PlocktonAnyway, we rolled into Plockton and I leapt eagerly from the train. The village was a few hundred metres from the station itself, and I set off along the road, trying not to gaze up at the surrounding mountains for too long in case I walked onto the road and into the path of a rare, but nonetheless potentially lethal, oncoming car.

I got to the village, a set of a few dozen houses, all painted brilliant white. The sun was shining, the lake was silent, and there was no noise at all except for the occasional car and the shouting from kids in the nearby schoolyard. There was a sign with Robert Carlyle as Hamish Macbeth on it, welcoming people (apart from me, all I could see was a handful of other tourists) to Plockton.

I walked down the main street, I forget the name. There were mostly houses, and a couple of shops, a pub, and more houses. The street was very narrow, and went along the foreshore. On one side were the buildings, right on the footpath. On the other side of the street were little gardens next to the lake, each with a little fence, and each belonging to one of buildings.

The street turned and continued, with a branch off to the right, which I decided to follow. A few paces on, I stopped. A small herd of perhaps three or four cows were slowly strolling towards me from the far end of the street. I looked around. I couldn’t see anybody nearby. Another couple of cows came round the corner and joined the others, strolling along. I walked towards them, and they continued a little further down the street before turning into a piece of vacant land and stopping there for a little while to munch some grass.

And that summed up Plockton for me. A herd of cattle strolling around the town on their own. That to me said that this was a pretty laidback place.

A little further on, I found the post office, though to call it an “office” is probably stretching it a bit. It was more of a shed with a Royal Mail sign on it. Another sign proclaimed that it was open from 11 to 2 every weekday, and that people were welcome to come in for stamps, other postal services, or just a chat.

I sat on a rock near the lake and wrote postcards, then continued walking around to see if there was any more of the village. There was some, but not much, so, feeling hungry, I went back and found the pub and enjoyed a beer and a truly delicious serve of haddock and chips.

Then I headed back towards the station. My plan was to find the path I’d spotted near the station, the one that went to Duncraig, the previous stop on the railway. The sign said it was 1½ miles, which should be a nice walk in the sunshine.

After stopping at the shop (which was used as Rory Campbell’s Store in the show) for a gift or two and some chocolate, I set off down the path.

I followed the path around the lake, and then parallel with the railway, then it started up the side of the mountain, when I came to a branch in the path. With no sign. Straight ahead the path looked well kept, and went on climbing. To my left the path descended into a muddy mess, well covered by low trees and branches overhead. Which way should I go?

I carried on ahead, for about 15 minutes, until I reached a road. There were no signs there either, but I guessed I was now heading away from the railway line, and that this was probably not the way to go if I wanted to find it again.

So I turned around, got back to the branch, and squelched my way down the other path. It reminded me of a quite ancient videogame called Pitfall. All that was missing from the swamp-like surrounds were crocodiles to jump on and swinging vines to get across the mud.

I took one more wrong turning along the way, but I eventually found the right way to Duncraig station, which was just as well as I had no wish to get lost in the Scottish highlands with only a Twix and a Yorkie Bar to sustain me.

For anybody who ever reads this and decides to follow the same path, and doesn’t even have two chocolate bars for sustenance and therefore can’t afford to take any wrong turnings at all, the correct combination of turns is Left / Left / Right.

I eventually got to the station, and killed time until the train by exploring a bit. There wasn’t much around, apart from a farmhouse and a mysterious looking large building at the top end of a laneway, so I ended up waiting most of the time at the station.

Duncraig Station is not what you’d call one of Britain’s most major railway stations. It’s in the middle of nowhere. It consists of a platform, a sign that says “Duncraig”, and a small rotunda that serves as a waiting room. The waiting room has a notice in it with the times of the trains, and information about local services, which runs something like this:

Taxis: There are no taxi services at or near this station.

Public transport: There is no public transport at or near this station.

Phone: There is no public telephone at or near this station.

Duncraig Station was actually seen in Hamish Macbeth too, as Loch Dubh station. I sat in the waiting room, contemplating life while I waited for the train, because there was bugger all else to do. It started to rain quite hard, and I looked out of the window across the lake back at Plockton, the distinctive white houses easily visible through the rain.

The extremely picturesque Plockton

At home in Melbourne, it’s common to hail a taxi if you want one. Or a tram, or a bus.

At Duncraig, if you want to catch the train as it comes through, you have to hail it. And so at 17:21 I found myself on the platform, waving my arms up and down trying to make sure the driver had seen me. If I missed this, I’d be in the wilderness for the night. Or Plockton, I suppose, presuming I could find a bed for the night, which seemed unlikely given the events of the day before. The driver saw me, and I climbed aboard gratefully and found a seat.

Calendonian Sleepers brochureBack in Inverness a couple of hours later, I had about an hour before the London train left. I decided to find something to eat, since it hadn’t occurred to me that food would be available on the train. Then I went and found my pack, and found my carriage on the train.

The conductor looked at my ticket and announced that I (and several others) had been upgraded to first class! What a bonus! He showed me to the cabin, the benefits of first class instantly becoming apparent when I realised I wouldn’t have to share a room, that I got a complimentary breakfast snack in the morning (tea and a juice and a croissant), a travel pack with a moist towelette, shaver, soap, comb and a Joanna Trollope novella to keep me from getting bored!

And as the train pulled out of Inverness, I lay back relaxing on the bed, thinking that this, of all the ways of getting from A to B on the planet, this, travelling by sleeper train, was by far the classiest ever. It was like my own rolling hotel room. It certainly beat the crap out of going by air. Okay, so it might have been much slower, but sitting back relaxing on a fully sized bed beats the hell out of being crammed into a 747 with several hundred people in seats so small that you bump the person next to you every time you move your arms.

After a few minutes basking in the luxurious surrounds, I went for a stroll to the Lounge Car, and relaxed watching the (rapidly darkening) countryside roll by while sipping a drink and chatting to a Canadian bloke (who looked and sounded staggeringly like my brother-in-law) and a couple of jovial South Africans.

By about ten we were all pretty tired (I bet none of them had got lost bushwalking in the highlands of Scotland though) and headed back to our cabins. I lazed on the bed for a while, then changed into my pyjamas and drifted off to sleep, as the train sped on through the night, through the Scottish countryside.

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