My first glimpse of the West Highland Line comes before I board the train. I’ve just bought a newspaper from a shop outside Glasgow Queen Street Station, and there it is, in with my change: the stately, sweeping curve of the Glenfinnan Viaduct set against a mountainous Highland background — on the back of a Scottish 10-pound note.
A good omen, surely, for a trip on which the promise of magnificent countryside will go hand in hand with the reality of looking after a 22-month-old boy on a train for five hours. My wife and I are heading to Arisaig, on Scotland’s west coast, for my brother’s wedding, and we’ve decided to take the slow train from Glasgow. Magnificent, I’d repeatedly heard from friends and family, but hard work with a toddler — especially since, rather optimistically, I’m planning to make some final amendments to my best-man’s speech en route.
As we arrive at the station, it’s buzzing with activity. It’s Friday lunchtime, and everywhere you look there are groups of people — tourists, weekenders and locals — with suitcases and bicycles and plastic bags bulging with sandwiches and beer cans. The sound of excited chatter reverberates around the station, a high-roofed shed yards from George Square, Glasgow’s huge central plaza. “Run in the station and your next stop could be [the ER],” bellows a huge billboard in front of the trains: There seems little risk of that, given the relaxed ambiance.
Aboard the train, the atmosphere is similarly bright, even if the conditions aren’t exactly Orient Express plush. The seats on this four-carriage train are small, to put it bluntly, and our carriage is very nearly full: I’m competing for leg space with the friendly Australian woman sitting opposite me. We eventually come to an accord, but for those trying to pass each other in the corridor, negotiations prove rather more protracted: Letting someone through with a bag in hand requires the flexibility of an Olympic gymnast.
No one seems to mind too much, however. My wriggling son ensconced on my knee, I stare out the window as the train moves off. Initially, there isn’t much to look at: the gray-brown brick wall of a Glasgow railway tunnel, a stern red tenement block, estates full of box-shaped houses. As the city begins to give way to lush greenery, though, there’s a foretaste of the Highlands: a warehouse owned by whisky distillers Morrison Bowmore, with barrel upon barrel piled up in the yard.
My son is less interested than I in all this. Before I can stop him, he’s in the aisle, looking for a bit more excitement, smiling and chatting with his fellow passengers. In some places, this would have meant scowls and tuts — but Glasgow, despite its formidable reputation (the city is scarred by religious sectarianism, most evident in the soccer rivalry between Catholic Celtic and Protestant Rangers), is a friendly place, and he meets mostly smiles and winks before his recapture.
Outside, the scenery is improving: the Clyde, the river that runs through Glasgow and the source of the city’s historical significance, is at low tide, and its retreat has exposed a pleasingly wide expanse of red-brown mud.