If you need a getaway this summer, try Mallaig. Where? Exactly.
If you ever find yourself with a few days to spare and without the money to jet off to exotic climes, give Mallaig a try. Where, you say? Exactly. The Highlands of Scotland might sound like the holiday from hell (unless you’re middle aged and like caravans), but you need neither of these attributes to enjoy one of the most beautiful parts of the British Isles.
Every night Britain’s longest train, the Caledonian Sleeper, leaves Euston station in London. It is one of the few sleeper services left in the UK. You fall asleep in London and wake up over five hundred miles away in a small town called Fort William.
Fort William is an apocryphal sort of place. Anyone who has stared aimlessly at the departure board at Euston station might well have seen its name up in lights. It conjures up visions of a colonial outpost; an out-lawish, wild sort of place. Out-lawish and wild it might once have been, but since England decided the “locals” needed pacifying (including effectively forcibly resettling thousands of them overseas in the Highland Clearances) it’s been a little calmer.
Having left Olympic-ridden London behind you the evening before, the train arrives at a leisurely time of 10am at a station just big enough for the coaches that have made it this far. The fresh morning breeze of Western Scotland welcomes you, the sun peeking through the clouds as you stand at the foot of Ben Nevis, the British Isles’ highest mountain. You’d be hard pushed to describe Fort William as a happening sort of place, but in truth Fort William is still a bit on the busy side. Any town with traffic lights is too busy by half. Fort William is but a staging point to a town that could not be more different to London if it tried.
At first, Mallaig – a small town with a population of just 800 souls – seems to be a God-fearing sort of place. As the train winds its way around steep hillsides and across the top of deep blue lochs (and over the viaduct used in Harry Potter), you cannot miss a cross standing proudly on top of a steep hill overlooking the sea. A few minutes later, a message neatly painted onto the side of another hill states that “the gift of God is eternal life”. Do these manifestations forewarn of a particular holiness about your destination, or did someone a few years ago simply think that they’d be a good idea? It’s hard to tell.
Mallaig is not a closed-up backwater: hundreds of tourists come and go every day, filling the special steam trains that serve the town (one of two regular steam services left in the UK). The harbour rings with the sounds of boat builders at work repairing fishing vessels. Their slipways are full, always a good sign for work. However there is, nonetheless, something of a calm about the place. When the boat builders stop, there is absolute silence. It is punctuated only by occasional snatches of various European languages and the cries of seagulls – but even they seem calm.
Is Mallaig some divine, untouched paradise? Anywhere with a 3G signal can hardly be described as paradise; emails will track you down and find you wherever you try to hide. However, if you turn off your phone, sit by the harbour and just stop- you might not get much better this side of the Pearly Gates.