The Glorious Days of the Highland train and the Steamer

The pictures on this page come from “Mountain Moor and Loch” Illustrated by Pen and Pencil on the route of the West Highland Railway, published in 1894.

We tend to believe that Queen Victoria instigated tourism in the Scottish Highlands but her interest was sparked by literary figures.  In 1803, William Wordsworth, accompanied by his sister Dorothy, and by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, first visited the Trossachs and other parts of Scotland.  They were soon followed by Sir Walter Scott, who published ‘The Lady of the Lake’ in 1810.  Not only did Scott become more famous, but so did the Highlands.

But it was the opening of the West Highland Railway line in 1894 which prompted this book.  Running from Craigendoran Junction to Fort William, with fifteen stations formed in the style of Swiss chalets, it is, in my opinion, the most beautiful 100 mile journey in Britain.  I do have to admit bias, since I was born on this route!

Craigendoran was just a hamlet at the east end of Helensburgh where the Gareloch meets the River Clyde, but in 1882 it became an important 5 platform station, partly because of the pier which was built there by the North British Steam Packet Company.  From here you could board a steamer and go “doon the watter” to places such as Dunoon or Rothesay on the Isle of Bute.  I remember fondly our yearly boat trips from Craigendoran which sadly stopped in the early 1960s.  By 1972 the pier was closed and the station buildings demolished.

The railway arrived too late for passengers wishing to travel on Bell’s Comet from Helensburgh pier to Greenock.  Henry Bell was an engineer and a man of ideas, who owned the Baths Inn but had ambitions to build the first commercial steamship in Britain.  In 1800 and 1803, he was unsuccessful in persuading the government to fund this enterprise so he oversaw the building of his design, The Comet, himself.  Completed in 1812, it was 30 tons, 3 horsepower and travelled at 5 miles per hour.  Later lengthened, its speed increased to 6 mph.  Unfortunately, it was shipwrecked in 1820.

Accurately, the anonymous writer of the book describes the Gareloch thus,

All along the course of the Loch it is a fairy retreat, silent, secluded well sheltered and glowing with colour, the many tinted trees and the heather-clad slopes being reflected in the glassy water as in a mirror.

Soon the scene changes as the train skirts the edge of Loch Long, narrow, deep and impressive.  At Arrochar and Tarbet station, the traveller has the choice of alighting to stay by Loch Lomond side, perhaps boarding a steamer for a circumnavigation of the Loch.

There are many interesting tales in this book of the massacres at Glencoe  and Glen Fruin and other stories of how Rob Roy and Robert the Bruce hid in the nearby countryside. 

Although the author and illustrator are unnamed, there is an essay at the end of the book written by Rev. Norman Macleod, D. D with pictures by Joseph Adam.  It includes this amusing passage,

One old Highlander spoke to us frankly of the changes which had taken place in his day. "I and my father," he said, "used to guide the few travellers who came here up Ben Lomond. But no one will take my road now. And that is very curious, because it is the best! But the fact is," he added, with a peculiar smile; "more men are fools than I once believed. And what have you of it now but this—that a Lowlander--one of the name of Scott, or Sir Walter Scott, who knew nothing about the country—wrote a heap of lies on the Trossachs. I do assure you he told stories that neither I nor my father ever heard about this person and that who never lived here —about an Eelen and a FitzJames, and trash of that sort: Of course, ignorant Sassenachs take all that for gospel, and make new roads and build new hotels, and get new boats, and even steamboats and new guides, who laugh at the tourists and get their money. And so, you see, no one comes my old way to Ben Lomond now. But och! it's a sad sight, most lamentable, to see decent folk believing lies, lies, nothing but lies."

For more information about the North British Steam Packet Company and wonderful photographs see


  1. Love all the pictures!I can remember the Flying Scotsman passing under the railway bridge in Welwyn when I was growing up. Steam trains were beautiful and this looks like a gorgeous route!

    1. I have vivid memories from the 1950s of climbing into the steam train at Kings Cross excited because we were sleeping on the train to Scotland. They even stopped the Fort William train at our wee village station especially for us because we had applied in advance. Of course later Dr Beeching closed the station.