Oban to Corrour Great British Railway Journeys


Oban to Corrour

Michael Portillo discovers how trains spread the word about Oban whisky, hears about the struggle to build a railway across Rannoch Moor and visits Corrour.


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Transcript


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In 1840, one man transformed travel in Britain.

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His name was George Bradshaw, and his railway guides inspired the Victorians to take to the tracks.

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Stop by stop, he told them where to travel, what to see, and where to stay.

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Now, 170 years later, I'm making a series of journeys across the length

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and breadth of the country to see what of Bradshaw's Britain remains.

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I've travelled almost halfway along

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the stunning West Highland Line.

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Using a late 19th century Bradshaw's guide, I'm continuing my journey

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up the west coast of Scotland from Ayr to Skye.

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The Scots have been blessed with beautiful coasts, with rivers of sweet water, with wonderful rolling

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countryside, and today I'll discover

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how the Scots have managed to harvest the best from each.

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The line was completed only at the end of the 19th century,

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so I've exchanged my usual 1860s Bradshaw's for a later edition.

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I'll be using it to plan my route and trace how the railways brought

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a new generation of traveller to Scotland.

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On this leg of the journey, I'll be discovering how Victorian

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railway engineers conquered Britain's most desolate wilderness...

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The bogs on the moor

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sucked everything up that the engineers laid.

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Part of the railway you see here, north of the station has been floated on brushwood and turf.

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..visiting a shooting estate that was a favourite of the political elite...

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These guys, they were tough.

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There was a whole sort of cult of course amongst very many of these people of being tough.

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And deer stalking was part of that.

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..and learning how the railways helped make whisky world famous.

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This is from pretty much the exact time of the railways arriving in Oban.

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I can see the railway here, can't I?

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Here's the station, here's the train, puffing along.

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Yes, that would be one of the first pictures of the railway.

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Starting in Ayr,

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I've now covered almost 140 miles

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of the route, heading north.

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Now the West Highland line is taking me through some

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of Scotland's wildest terrain, from boggy moors to towering peaks, on my way to the isle of Skye.

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Today's route begins in coastal Oban, then shifts inland to the

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wilderness of Rannoch Moor, before climbing up to Corrour,

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Britain's highest mainline station.

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My journey passes through rough country that posed challenges to the hardy folk who dwelled here.

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As we move into Argyllshire, my Bradshaw's guide is as helpful as ever.

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"Oats, potatoes and black cattle are the chief products

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"of this backward district, which has a mossy soil and wet climate unfavourable to agriculture."

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Oh, dear, that's not very positive, is it?

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Bradshaw's may have thought the countryside backward.

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But Scotland's rain was key to a booming business.

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My first stop is Oban, a town that grew up on the back of a thriving whisky trade.

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Isn't it grand that this stuff is made in Scotland?

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Aye, that's true.

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Before the railways arrived, this was an isolated place, difficult to reach except by boat.

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It was the ideal location to make whisky.

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I'm meeting distillery manager Brendan McCarron.

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I notice distilleries in Scotland are quite often

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spread around in remote places, what's the historic reason for that?

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Yeah, the distilleries are spread out remotely.

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There were various reasons of water and raw materials, but the main one was to avoid paying tax.

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-Avoid paying tax?

-Yeah, it started off as an illicit industry.

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Tax costs you money so if you make it where no-one sees you, you don't pay the tax.

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Here at Oban you've been established a couple of hundred years at least?

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We were established in 1794, so we were one of the very first distilleries to become legal.

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As business grew, the distillery owners invested in Oban,

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turning it into a busy town.

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When the railways arrived in 1880, trains linked with steamships to

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the Inner Hebrides, and Oban became a major tourist hub.

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The whisky trade received another boost.

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All our raw materials came in by train over different periods, in different amounts.

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But I suppose the really huge one that came in for us was people.

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People flocked to Oban after the railway opened and that's what gets people understanding your whisky,

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knowing how good your whisky is, and that's what sells it. It was massive actually.

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In the 1880s, Oban whisky was in such demand that the distillery's owner, J Walter Higgin, rebuilt

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the plant, carefully preserving the old stills that guaranteed quality.

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This is from pretty much the exact time of the railways arriving in Oban

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and you can tell that because of the signature...

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-that's J Walter Higgin.

-J Walter Higgin's signature.

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And a lovely engraving of the harbour at Oban.

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And I actually I can see the railway here can't I?

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Here's the station, here's a train puffing along.

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Yeah, that'll be one of the first pictures of the railway.

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Oh, that's wonderful.

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And obviously you don't drink that?

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No, definitely not. It's far too old!

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The Oban whisky that we make in the main is matured for 14 years, so it's a long time.

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And it's always matured in an ex-American bourbon cask.

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So we buy them off the bourbon makers

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and we use their old casks to make our whisky.

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Bourbon used to be imported from America through Oban

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and canny Scottish distillers would reuse the empty casks.

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They discovered that the barrels enhanced the whisky's flavour.

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Oh, the fumes, Brendan!

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Yeah, this hasn't been reduced with water, so this is about 58% alcohol.

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-Right. That's why it's knocking me out, is it?

-It's got a real kick.

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So, you really wouldn't want to be tasting this, would you?

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You can taste it at that strength, you just wouldn't want to.

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You wouldn't want to go out for the night on it.

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You wouldn't. And you want to know it's cask strength before you drink it,

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but it's worth trying at that strength.

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Yep...

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Very smoky, orangey.

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It's got a slight smokiness to it and it has got oranges in it also.

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Some people pick up salt. And also because it's been in a cask, in the 14 you will pick up a

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a kind of sweetness, honeyness, which is influenced by the cask.

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Well, I think I've just not drunk enough yet. Let me see if I can find the honey and the salt!

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Help yourself.

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Silly old me, there they are!

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-Honey and salt. I just needed the second sample.

-Excellent.

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A man knows his limits, and I must leave to investigate

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another of Oban's 19th century industries.

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The Bradshaw's guide says that "From the great abundance

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"of seaweed which is cast ashore vast quantities of kelp is made,"

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and I'm wondering what Victorians did with vast quantities of kelp.

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I'll have to find out.

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I'm heading for Oban's dramatic and rocky coastline,

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the perfect habitat for seaweed, to meet Professor Laurence Mee,

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director of the Scottish Association for Marine Science.

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-How are you?

-All right, Michael.

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Now, my Bradshaw's guide, written in the middle/late 19th century,

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-talks about a vast abundance of seaweed...

-Yes.

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..and enormous quantities of kelp being harvested, but for what purpose?

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Well, that's right. Kelp was harvested even from the middle ages along the coast of Scotland.

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The soils here are very poor and to eke out an existence, crofters,

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the local farmers, soon discovered that harvesting kelp and mixing it with the poor soils just by basically

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turning over the turf, adding kelp, they could grow vegetables and have a much better existence.

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So kelp was a primary source of fertilisers for them from very early on.

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And then at the latter part of the 18th century

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they discovered that by burning kelp you can produce these

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chemicals, sodium carbonate is one of them, which are primary constituents in glass.

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And it became a major source for the glass industry of its primary chemicals.

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Sodium carbonate or potash extracted from seaweed helps make

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glass transparent and lowers the temperature at which it melts.

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By 1800, Scotland was producing 20,000 tonnes of kelp per year.

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Suddenly the entire industry collapsed in about 1820, when potash

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mines were discovered in Germany and a cheap substitute became

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available, and the entire population became destitute as a result in a very short time.

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Later on, kelp again became useful.

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A new industry grew up using seaweed

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to produce iodine and food additives.

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Now, scientists like Laurence believe it could contribute to a greener future.

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What we're seeing now is it's potential as a biofuel.

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Just to give an example, an area about half the size of

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a football pitch of cultivated laminaria, that is these long gooey ones,

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can be converted into enough fuel to fuel a household for a year.

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Or, with higher technology it is possible perhaps to even go to the holy grail of transport fuels.

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But in contrast to Bradshaw's time,

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future harvests will come from farmed rather than wild seaweed.

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I can't help noticing that you are carrying

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a very strange piece of equipment.

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What is that for?

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What we do is we grow the tiny larvae and we get them to settle on these strings.

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And once they are growing, after about a month,

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the string can be unwound, wound on to a rope and

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lowered into the sea and then we have a cultivar

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and a way of producing our own seaweed without disturbing

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-the natural environment to collect it.

-That is very cunning.

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It's clever stuff really.

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-It looks very Heath Robinson, doesn't it?

-It does.

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If you don't mind me saying so.

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It is very Heath Robinson, but it works

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and that's the most important thing about it.

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Who knows, perhaps one day our trains will be powered by seaweed?

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I'm now quitting the coast and moving inland.

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I'm travelling towards Rannoch Moor, 1,000 feet above sea level, and as

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the route steadily climbs, I'm anticipating breathtaking scenery.

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Bradshaw's says that the landscape,

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"is mountainous throughout, on rocks of mica slate

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"and granite, covered with heath.

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"Glens of much picturesque beauty are met with."

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This wilderness is truly beautiful,

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but it posed innumerable difficulties

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for the railway's builders,

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not least here where the line

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diverts around the horse shoe curve.

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It snakes along the contour,

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spanning the glens

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on spectacular viaducts.

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Yet the greatest test

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for the Victorian engineers lay ahead -

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how to cross the soggy expanse of Rannoch Moor.

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Well, Rannoch Moor really is a forbidding, wind blown, desolate

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sort of place and the interesting thing is that the railway station is right in the heart of it.

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And actually, Rannoch is much more accessible by rail than it is by road.

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It just makes you wonder what they must have gone through

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to build a railway line across this rock and this peat bog.

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Despite being one of the bleakest spots in Britain,

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railway mania demanded that the engineers

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of the West Highland Line find a means to traverse it.

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Doug Carmichael knows the story.

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-Hello, Doug.

-Hello, Michael, pleased to meet you.

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Welcome to the Moor of Rannoch, the great table land of Scotland.

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It's an amazing moor.

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I imagine it must have been hellish to build a railway across it.

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It certainly was. Thomas Telford, the road builder,

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decided he might be able to get a road to Fort William via the moor, but he gave up - too hard.

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Rannoch Moor is a 50 square mile plateau of granite, topped with peat bogs up to 20 feet deep.

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In 1889, a small party of men was sent to inspect the route across this hostile environment.

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There were seven gentlemen set out quite far north of here, to walk 40 miles in January.

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They were all just businessmen in normal business attire.

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No big boots, anything like that.

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They found that the weather was against them all the way.

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The darkness came down, they were lighting matches in the middle of a moor to see where they were going.

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They were falling into the bogs continually and things weren't very good.

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Their near-death experience on the moor didn't discourage the engineers.

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They persevered and devised a technique to master the bog.

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Part of the railway you see here, north of the station has been floated on brushwood and turf.

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The bogs on the moor,

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sucked everything up that the engineers laid,

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but they kept putting more and more brushwood, more and more turf and finally hundreds of wagon loads

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of ash from the industrial south were brought up, laid on top and finally,

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they had a track bed across the moor.

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It must have been terrible when the navvies came to build the line?

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Yes, indeed, 5,000 navvies were employed between Craigendoran and Fort William.

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They had to go through exceedingly hard rock as you'd expect in the Scottish Highlands,

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and of course didn't have the equipment at the end of the 19th century

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as we expect now, as we accept now, indeed.

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There was a lot blasting, there was some loss of life actually because of blasting.

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What had been the importance of this railway historically in more than 100 years it has now existed?

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The importance of it was that it took a railway into a land,

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which had never seen civilisation, let alone a railway.

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There were no roads, there were hardly any tracks.

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People from the Highlands could never get down to the Central Belt in Scotland for any reason.

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When the railway came, all of a sudden they found they could come out

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of Fort William, go down to Glasgow, albeit on quite a long trip,

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but of course to them it was luxury sitting in a train, as opposed to a horse and cart or walking.

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Our ideas of luxury may have moved on since then, but we recognise it when we see it and,

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occasionally, we see it in the Highlands.

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So here on the bridge at Rannoch,

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with literally not another human being in sight,

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I can hear the sound of...

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a locomotive powering up the slope towards the station.

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Here comes...

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a very special train.

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The Royal Scotsman.

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Car after car of luxury

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and great food and comfy beds.

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The Royal Scotsman was launched in 1990 to recreate the elegant travel of the Edwardian era.

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It attracts guests from around the globe, and while it makes

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a brief stop at Rannoch Moor, I'm gate-crashing pre-dinner cocktails.

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May I join you just for a moment?

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Certainly!

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-So, are you enjoying your trip on this luxurious train?

-Very much so.

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And what about you, are you a railway enthusiast?

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This is my first time, I actually spent a day on the British Pullman

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and loved it and every time Mum sees a piece of tartan or a bagpipe she bursts into tears.

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So basically we decided to come and do Scotland.

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This was the best way to do it. So we're doing the whole week.

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We sort of do one side and then we go back and then reload and then do the other.

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-Would that be a glass of champagne in your hand?

-Yes, that's right.

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Whenever you want one, you just put your finger up, they look after you very well here.

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As the party continues, I feel like the poor relation, peering in to the family feast.

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They've left me behind!

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No exclusive cabin on board for me tonight, but even in this lonely

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spot, I've found somewhere warm and cosy to lay my head.

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A hotel that was originally built to house men labouring to construct the railway.

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Well, I've come about 50 metres from the railway station

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and it seems that almost the only thing in Rannoch, other than the station, is this charming hotel.

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I'm really excited by the idea of staying somewhere inaccessible,

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somewhere that's really difficult to reach except by train,

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so this is where I'm staying!

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-Hello.

-Well, hello.

-Michael Portillo.

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-Liz Conway, lovely to meet you.

-Checking in if I can.

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Yes, I've got your key all ready. I've got everything ready for you.

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Even in summer, I feel cut off here but hotel owner, Liz Conway, must cope in every season.

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We're in this splendid isolation but we have had the worst winter up here in 50 years.

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We had, we were cut off for three days and some of our neighbours had no water for up to three months.

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You don't have any neighbours, what are you talking about?!

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We do, we have a couple of neighbours, there's five of us live in Rannoch.

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-Five?

-Five of us.

-In the metropolitan borough of Rannoch!

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Yes, five. But as I said,

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we're in this splendid isolation because although we're in the middle of nowhere, we have our trains.

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And we can get to anywhere here.

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I'm feeling really excited about staying in such an isolated spot,

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particularly that you reach best by railway.

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Well, 50% of our business comes from the railway.

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So it's very much a part of our lives.

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We hardly ever use a car, only to go to the vets.

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That's the time we use the car.

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We use the railway for everything.

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Your dogs don't like the train?!

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No, it's cats actually, it's cats!

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Morning. It's time for me to resume my journey, and I'm going to enjoy being plucked from this remoteness,

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by a train that's come directly from London.

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The first train of day for those headed north is the sleeper, which left Euston last night,

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here it is at 8.45.

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Anybody who gets off here

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can expect a very nice breakfast if they just go into the hotel,

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but tacked on the end of the sleeper is a car of seats,

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which is very useful for local residents and local journeys.

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Morning.

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(Very comfortable.)

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(I'm whispering because everyone's asleep.)

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This Caledonian sleeper will take me, as no road can, just seven miles along the track to Corrour.

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We're passing through a forbidding landscape, but one

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in which Victorians nonetheless created a lucrative industry.

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My Bradshaw's guide says that the deer shooting of this county are worth £70,000 a year.

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"Vast tracks are preserved for deer stalking."

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Well, the sums of money may well have changed, but this is still deer stalking country.

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I've quite often been out with deer stalkers. I don't shoot deer myself, but even if you are not one

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shooting, the walk, when you have to follow the deer over the hills, the walk is absolutely amazing.

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At over 1,300 feet, Corrour is the highest mainline station in the UK.

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It was built to serve the nearby estate, so despite its remoteness,

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the rich and powerful could enjoy the king of sports.

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Estate owner Sir John Stirling Maxwell took advantage of the new line

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to create with his hunting lodge, a rural paradise for the ruling class.

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Professor Jim Hunter is an expert on Highland history.

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-Hi, Jim, good to see you.

-Good to meet you.

0:22:160:22:18

As a former politician, even in this lovely fresh air, I get the smell of power.

0:22:180:22:25

This was a place where powerful people used to come, wasn't it?

0:22:250:22:28

Very much so, yes. And in the late 19th, early 20th century, just about

0:22:280:22:33

everybody who was anybody, not just politically but financially, industrially as it were,

0:22:330:22:39

this was where they gravitated around this time of year.

0:22:390:22:42

And of course many of them would have come from Westminster or from

0:22:420:22:47

manufactories in Birmingham or wherever to these estates by train.

0:22:470:22:51

Oh, absolutely, in fact the arrival of the railways in the Highlands here

0:22:510:22:55

round about the 1890s, some other parts of the Highlands a bit earlier,

0:22:550:22:59

that was critical in opening up the area to these kinds of people from the south.

0:22:590:23:04

And they would come mob-handed, they would come with an entire entourage

0:23:040:23:08

of servants and perhaps take a shooting lodge or a big house here and be here for two or three weeks.

0:23:080:23:15

Hunting, shooting and stalking were so integral to the life cycle of

0:23:170:23:21

the good and the great, that they dictated the political calendar.

0:23:210:23:25

In the period we're talking for much of that period anyway,

0:23:250:23:29

typically Parliament wouldn't sit at all during what we would regard

0:23:290:23:33

as the autumn and winter, from July to February,

0:23:330:23:35

there was to be no interference with the hunting season, is that right?

0:23:350:23:39

Yeah, the hunting, the whole deer stalking thing was very much a big thing for many of these people.

0:23:390:23:46

And I think it's worth emphasising that these guys, they were tough.

0:23:460:23:50

There was a whole sort of cult of course amongst very many of these people of being tough.

0:23:500:23:55

It was the era of big game hunting and all that kind of thing. And deer stalking was part of that.

0:23:550:24:00

By the late 19th century, the demand for sporting estates far exceeded supply.

0:24:020:24:08

The wealthy from south of the border paid up to £5,000 per season

0:24:080:24:13

for a Scottish lodge, from which they could shoot grouse, hook salmon and stalk deer.

0:24:130:24:19

So the rugged pleasures of a terrain like Corrour's could command £200,000 in today's money.

0:24:190:24:26

What a fantastic, tranquil spot.

0:24:260:24:29

Beautiful, isn't it.

0:24:290:24:32

-Gorgeous. Loch Ossian?

-Yeah.

0:24:320:24:34

I'm following in the footsteps of Victorian sportsmen with head stalker Donald Rowantree.

0:24:340:24:39

I'm a late 19th traveller and I've just arrived on the train and I'm on my way to the shooting lodge.

0:24:390:24:47

How do I make my journey?

0:24:470:24:49

Well, you're going to come off the train, which is a beautiful journey as well in itself,

0:24:490:24:53

meet the horse and cart at the station, your pony man, he'll take you in there, day or night.

0:24:530:24:58

Trek just over a mile journey from the train station behind us here,

0:24:580:25:02

right down to the loch side where you'll meet the paddle steamer.

0:25:020:25:04

-It will take you down to Loch Ossian.

-Paddle steamer?

0:25:040:25:07

A paddle steamer indeed.

0:25:070:25:09

It's quite impressive.

0:25:090:25:12

Alas, the paddle steamer is long gone, replaced by a newer form of transport.

0:25:120:25:19

Not designed for comfort.

0:25:190:25:22

The estate stretches across 57,000 acres of splendid Scottish countryside.

0:25:220:25:29

Donald regularly patrols this huge area to monitor the deer

0:25:290:25:32

and has brought me to a spot where I can appreciate the grandeur of this wilderness.

0:25:320:25:39

-Wonderful view.

-Beautiful.

0:25:390:25:41

-In the 19th, no vehicles, all of this would have been done by pony?

-This would be pony, yes.

0:25:410:25:45

We'd have walked right from lodge, all the way up to the hill

0:25:450:25:48

with the pony man in tow and come out here for a spy and select our beast and then move on from there.

0:25:480:25:54

And once you had your beast, he would just be slung on the pony would he?

0:25:540:25:57

He'd signal the pony man. They used to have little signal fires and flags and if you left a stone

0:25:570:26:01

on a certain knoll here, that would mean keep coming forward or we've shot a beast.

0:26:010:26:05

There was all little signals they'd leave.

0:26:050:26:07

So yeah, we'd move the pony in, sling him on the back of the pony.

0:26:070:26:11

Then take him on back down to the larder.

0:26:110:26:13

As the estates flourished, Victorian landowners began to

0:26:130:26:16

import new species of deer like the Japanese Sika to vary their herds.

0:26:160:26:22

These days, deer numbers are on the rise, and although some object to stalking,

0:26:220:26:28

the estate believes it's the best way to control the population, which might otherwise harm the ecology.

0:26:280:26:34

Donald takes the responsibility very seriously.

0:26:340:26:38

How long have you been a stalker and how long has your family been stalking?

0:26:380:26:42

I've been stalking with my father since I was about nine.

0:26:420:26:45

He's been stalking with his father and his father's father,

0:26:450:26:48

so I'm fourth generation of stalker, or ghillie as we like to call it.

0:26:480:26:52

I've got an attachment, I've been brought up, it's in the blood.

0:26:520:26:55

The day I lose respect for the animals is the day I've done enough.

0:26:550:26:58

When the first Bradshaw's guide was published, the Highlands were a world away from industrial Britain.

0:27:000:27:07

But the West Highland Line abolished distance.

0:27:070:27:10

Whisky flowed down its tracks to the south and overnight sleepers disgorged stalkers and anglers.

0:27:100:27:18

I enjoy the paradox that these remote hills and valleys, which are

0:27:220:27:27

almost unreachable by car, have a daily direct rail service to London.

0:27:270:27:33

The trains that bring now hardy walkers, used to bring men of power and indeed still do.

0:27:330:27:41

So that the Highlands, whilst quiet, are certainly not any kind of backwater.

0:27:410:27:46

On my next journey, I'll be unravelling one of

0:27:530:27:56

the 19th century's great geological mysteries.

0:27:560:27:59

So Charles Darwin who got so much right, actually got this wrong?

0:27:590:28:04

Yeah, he sees it as a blunder.

0:28:040:28:05

Experiencing one of Britain's most stunning journeys by steam train.

0:28:050:28:10

The Jacobite has panted its way up the steep incline,

0:28:100:28:13

somehow the wheels gripping the wet rails and now we're on the wonderful Glenfinnan viaduct.

0:28:130:28:19

And admiring Ben Nevis, where Victorian scientists went

0:28:190:28:22

to extraordinary lengths in their quest for knowledge.

0:28:220:28:26

We're talking about people going up to take readings. Is that right?

0:28:260:28:29

They didn't have to go up there, they actually had to live up there.

0:28:290:28:33

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:520:28:55

E-mail [email protected]

0:28:550:28:58

Michael Portillo takes to the tracks with a copy of George Bradshaw's Victorian Railway Guidebook. Portillo travels the length and breadth of the country to see how the railways changed us, and what of Bradshaw's Britain remains, as he journeys up the west coast of Scotland from Ayr to Skye.

Michael discovers how trains spread the word about Oban whisky, hears about the heroic struggle to build a railway across the desolate Rannoch Moor and visits Corrour, one of the favourite shooting estates of the Victorian political elite.


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