Much of Britain is littered with the often rarely visible remains of closed railways, many of them victims of the infamous Beeching Axe.
Of course, Beeching can’t take all the blame for railway closures in this country, because many closed long before (and, in some cases, after) his efforts. One of those that closed beforehand was the Fort Augustus branch line.
Running along the southern half of the Great Glen between Fort William and the lochside at Fort Augustus, the line was opened in 1903 and closed just thirty years later.
Little remains of it, though there are a few clues at Fort Augustus itself, where you can see pillars from the old bridge across the River Oich (see the photo on the right) and the old pier where the line ended.
Another stretch of it can be found around Invergarry, along the eastern side of Loch Oich, where the path once trod by the line is now considerably muddy and overgrown.
I was out walking with a friend on Saturday, and we undertook the circuit of Loch Oich, a ten mile loop that starts and finishes at Invergarry’s tiny post office. It’s a lovely walk, and was enjoyable even with Saturday’s constantly miserable rain and blustery winds. There are nice views of the loch all round, and glimpses of Invergarry Castle, the Caledonian Canal and more, plus an abandoned old house at Letterfeirn to explore (not that you would, because the sign outside says not to…).
Part of the circuit overlaps with the Great Glen Way, and a considerable stretch involved walking the old railway line, and for a railway geek such as myself this was by far and away the most interesting part.
You can see, for instance, a modest bridge (left), or the tree-infested remains of the two platforms at Invergarry station (somewhat of a misnomer as it lies across the loch from Invergarry and quite a long walk round).
The old station (below) is quite a haunting site.
Mind you, it is one with slightly less sense of abandonment than it previously had, because work is currently underway to restore it as some form of museum (as this poster explains).
Walking further along the line, the circuit we were following took us away from the line and towards the shore, the description mentioning that we would rejoin the line after a tunnel (the only one on this line).
Not keen to miss out on an abandoned railway tunnel, however, we left the path and headed back up to the old line, walking along ground that was at times extremely muddy.
With modest cliff faces green with undergrowth, water pouring down from the hills after several days’ rain, the tunnel soon loomed ahead. It was not a long one – the literal light at the end of the tunnel easily visible from the start – but really interesting to explore.
I had no idea, except from the walk’s instructions, that the old line had a tunnel. Though there were a few tyre tracks and a sign later telling us the stretch would soon form a part of the Great Glen Cycleway, there was a pleasing sense of abandonment.
Much of the Highlands has been historically underdeveloped and under-engineered, so sizeable examples of sites for urban exploration (urbex) are few and far between up here. And perhaps they ought to be “rurex” rather than urbex. But the stretch of old line along Loch Oich was suitably atmospheric and really interesting.
When originally planned, the aim for the line was to continue north to Inverness, creating a mangificent line right through the Great Glen. It never happened, of course, and the terrain on both sides of Loch Ness would have made it a particularly tricky and expensive endeavour.
But given how rightly world famous some of Scotland’s railway lines are, such as the Kyle or Mallaig lines, and given the beauty of the Great Glen between Inverness and Fort William, it’s fair to assume that a Great Glen railway would be up there among the best. It was clear from walking the line on Saturday that the part along Loch Oich would have made for a lovely journey; to have continued along the side of Loch Ness would have been nothing short of breathtaking.
Given that we’re slowly getting into the habit of reopening old railway lines, is it too much to imagine that the Fort Augustus branch line might be a worthy candidate one day? Or that it could even continue north to Inverness?
If doesn’t, or until it does, there’s always the remains of the old line to make the most of.
See the rest of my photos from the Loch Oich circuit on Flickr.