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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Over the rails to Skye

ot all my trips involve flying off to obscure corners of Europe. I’m aware of the environmental damage done by flying and of the beauty of parts of the UK. And for a long time, I’ve had a desire to travel by rail to Skye along the scenic GlasgowMallaig line and then the ferry to Armadale, and back on the train via Kyle of Lochalsh and Inverness. A bank holiday without plans and a friend who had never visited Scotland came together to provide the opportunity to do the trip in a long weekend.

It’s raining deer and cattle
We snuck off work early on the Friday afternoon and caught the crowded train from Euston to Glasgow. We arrived around 7pm and were thankful that our hotel was very close to the station, as it was bucketing down. The rain curtailed our nocturnal exploration of the city we made it as far as George Square for an excellent dinner, but failed to realise that the Polo Lounge, where we’d hoped to dance the night away, was only one block further on, and returned dripping to the hotel.
The following morning, while my friend was impressed by Glasgow’s shopping opportunities, I was depressed by some kind of Orange Order band marching through the city. We boarded the noon train for Mallaig, and headed into the world of lochs and mountains. A mixture of cloud, sunshine, and showers had replaced the previous day’s heavy rain. There was a glimpse of a deer, a Clyde steamer, and fields of Highland cattle. The wildness of Rannoch Moor and a glance at the side of Ben Nevis led to the untidy domesticity of Fort William, but we were soon on past Neptune’s Staircase (the locks on the Caledonian Canal at Banavie) and the Glenfinnan monument.
Performing seals
At Mallaig, seals in the harbour enlivened an hour’s wait for the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry. The bus was waiting for us when we arrived in Armadale. We stayed overnight near the centre of the island, in a comfortable bed and breakfast recommended by the tourist office in Glasgow (it was the one night’s stay that we hadn’t pre-booked, and I’d underestimated how full Skye could be). However, our dinner in the eponymous hotel in the place was awful listed local beers were not available and venison stew that was surely microwaved, and badly at that. I resorted to a glass of Talisker whisky as one thing that the establishment couldn’t muck up.
The next morning the Red Cuillins had disappeared behind driving rain, and we were glad of an offer of a lift as far as the bus stop from the B&B owner. My friend wanted to see Loch Ness, and it turned out that the bus to Kyle of Lochalsh continued to Urquhart Castle and Inverness. By the time we’d reached the Great Glen the weather had improved. I had never visited Urquhart on my childhood family holidays to Scotland, so this was a pleasant surprise for me, though Nessie proved as elusive as ever.

Back in Edinburgh we’d booked the George Hotel in George Street, mainly because of its convenience for Waverley station, but it seemed grand and surprisingly good value for the festival period. Our room was in a rear wing scheduled for (overdue) refurbishment. We headed out, booked a ticket for some comedy at the Assembly Rooms, and ran into a friend lurking in another queue in Rose Street. After the show, we took a nocturnal stroll around the city Princes Street, Lothian Road, down to the Grassmarket, and back up and over the Royal Mile and everything seemed familiar to me from the year I’d spent in the city in the late 80s.
Our last day in Scotland was spent running around the most visually stunning city in Europe. A trip to the top of Calton Hill allowed a panorama of the whole city, then we breakfasted on the Royal Mile observing the passing unicyclists and a diffident young man handing out flyers for a production of Hair. This was fun why had I never been to the fringe before? We marched down to Holyrood and up Arthur’s Seat, then back up to see Greyfriar’s Bobbie and thus to the castle. All cut short by 4pm when we got on another full train back to London.

I still have a dream of travelling to and from Skye by train, perhaps with the chance to climb some mountains. And I desperately want to go back to the Edinburgh festival and fringe. And another visit to Glasgow wouldn’t go amiss.