The story of the Jacobite steam service on the West Highland Line

25 September 2019
A history of one of the Great Railway Journeys of the World – the Jacobite line between Mallaig and Fort William.

The railway came late to the West Highlands as it was not until 12 August 1889 that the West Highland Railway Bill obtained the Royal Assent, authorising a line from Craigendoran to Fort William only. The first sod was dug on 23 October 1889 but the exceptional remoteness of the area and the scarcity of even basic roadways posed especial difficulties, in particular the crossing of the boggy section of Rannoch Moor. 

By the summer of 1893 the railway company was running out of capital, and it appeared that the work would cease, but one of the directors, James Renton, gave part of his personal fortune to save the scheme. He is commemorated by a stone carving, on the platform Rannoch station, erected by the navies building the line. 

The opening of the line

When the line was completed the total cost was said to be £1.1 million (equivalent to over £122 million in 2017). The line was finally inspected by the Board of Trade on 3rd August 1894 and on 7th August authority to open the line to passenger operation was received. Trains started running on that day, although a formal opening was arranged for Saturday 11th August. The line ran from Craigendoran Junction to Fort William, with fifteen stations formed in the style of Swiss chalets.

A further  Act for the West Highland Railway in 1890 had included a short branch line from a junction near Fort William to Banavie, at a location adjacent to the Caledonian Canal. This was completed and opened on 1 June 1895. The line arched round to the north-east and there was a station, alongside the canal and some distance north-east of the present-day station. This location was near the head of the series of locks known as Neptune's Staircase by which the canal rises 20 metres. Another development around this time was the making of a connecting line with the Callander and Oban line of the Caledonian Railway at Crianlarich, where the two lines crossed. 

The original design of the WHR station at Crianlarich would have allowed through running from Glasgow to Oban via the West Highland, but the connection was not made ready until 20 December 1897.

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An extension line

Fort William was too far from the open sea to be useful as a fishing base, so the West Highland Railway reluctantly settled on Mallaig, 42 miles from Fort William. The West Highland Railway (Mallaig Extension) Act was passed on 31 July 1894, but the first sod of the extension line was not cut until 21 January 1897 at Corpach. The contractors were Robert McAlpine and Sons: although the rock was hard, it was shattered and fractured, making it unsuitable for conventional masonry construction in bridges and viaducts, and this led McAlpine to use mass concrete to build many bridges; at the time this was a revolutionary form of construction. 

Borrodale Burn bridge became the world's longest concrete span at 127 feet, and Glenfinnan Viaduct was a huge structure in concrete at 416 yards long with 21 arches.The construction of the line actually cost £540,000 (equivalent to nearly £60 million in 2017). The first trains ran to and from Mallaig on 1 April 1901. 

The West Highland Line of the North British Railway (as the WHR had become) settled down to a stable existence in the 20th century, although continuing to lose money, but in 1923 the main railway companies of Great Britain were ‘grouped’, following the Railways Act 1921, and the NBR became a constituent of the new London & North Eastern Railway. In turn, the line became part of British Railways, Scottish Region, when the railways were taken into state ownership, in 1948.

Beeching Report brings changes

The infamous Beeching Report of 1963 earmarked the West Highland line for complete closure but this was averted. Diesels replaced steam, stations became unstaffed and track and signalling was rationalised in an attempt to cut costs and make the line more sustainable, though it had to be heavily subsidised. 

A great boost to the West Highland line came in 1983, when, in response to local iniatives, the idea of steam trains returning bore fruit. In May 1984, British Rail, supported wholeheartedly by its devolved Glasgow-based ScotRail management, re-introduced a steam-hauled service over part of the line, in an effort to encourage tourism and boost income on the heavily subsidised line. 

Called the ‘West Highlander’, it immediately proved successful and was continued for subsequent years. It was later re-named ‘The Lochaber’, by the 1990s coming under the London-based Inter-City Special Trains section. Special Trains was, in 1994, one of the first sell-offs of the rail privatisation process and the new owners showed little enthusiasm to continue the steam service, at least not without subsidy, as it was now losing money. 

With the service now in doubt, Carnforth-based West Coast Railways was approached by the local councils, enterprise agency, tourism bodies and chambers of trade to take on the financial risk of operating the summer steam service between Fort William and Mallaig. So, in 1995, WCR took on the financial risk of the Fort William – Mallaig service, for an initial period of three years, with the proviso that the local funding agencies provided the marketing support. 

The Jacobite

Inspiringly re-branded as The Jacobite steam train – 1995 was the 250th anniversary of the ‘45’ uprising, when Charles Edward Stuart (‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’) raised his standard at Glenfinnan, in his unsuccessful attempt to claim the throne for the Catholic Jacobite cause. WCR made modest successes in 1995 and 1996, but since then, operating the service using its own carriages and staff, but hiring in a variety of steam locomotves over the years, the Jacobite has become increasingly successful. It now operates from Easter through to the end of October, with two trains running in the peak summer months. 

The Jacobite service has, over the years, attracted some of the U.K.'s finest photographers and in 2017 John Hunt and James Shuttleworth came up with the idea of a pictorial book to showcase not only the steam locomoives at work but the superb Scottish landscape through which they ran. The West Highland line, from the banks of the Firth of Clyde to Fort William and along the Road to the Isles to the Atlantic fishing port of Mallaig, is undoubtedly one of the most scenic in the U.K. and, indeed, the World! Add to this the romance of steam operation and the vagaries of the Scottish weather and the book is a pictorial odyssey that is arguably second to none. 

The steam trains afford countless and unbounded opportunities for photography, and in this book, 35 of the U.K.'s top railway photographers, young and not so young, have pooled their pictures to create a quite stunning pictorial record of the line. A hitherto unprecedented combination of photographic styles and breathtaking vantage points, provides a quite mesmerising mix of unforgettable images, not just of steam trains, but the majestic Scottish landscape that make this book quite unique and a 'must have' souvenir of the West Highland experience.


On the Iron Road to the Isles by James Shuttleworth and John Hunt is published by The Nostalgia Collection at £45. ISBN 9781857945632.

(image copyright Gary Mirams)