Roybridge to Glenfinnan Great British Railway Journeys


Roybridge to Glenfinnan

Michael investigates the mysterious parallel roads of Glenroy and finds out how the Victorians put a weather observatory on the top of Ben Nevis.


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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

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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

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and where to stay.

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

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

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I'm continuing my journey through the Scottish highlands, steered by my 19th-century Bradshaw's guide.

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Anyone who comes to visit these marvellous hills and valleys

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must be awestruck by this fantastic landscape.

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But in all the decades that I've been visiting these parts

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it never struck me that the Victorians,

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in their quest to understand how the world came to be what it is,

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made breakthrough discoveries in this remarkable geology.

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When the railways reached the Highlands,

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they opened the eyes of Victorian scientists and adventurers

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to striking natural phenomena.

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Now, my guidebook is helping me to appreciate

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how their understanding advanced.

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On this leg of the journey,

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I'll be unravelling one of the great 19th century geological mysteries...

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

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Yeah, he sees it as a blunder.

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

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The Jacobite has panted its way up the steep incline,

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somehow the wheels gripping the wet rails,

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and now we're on the wonderful Glenfinnan Viaduct.

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And admiring Ben Nevis, where Victorian scientists

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went to extraordinary lengths in their quest for knowledge...

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People had to go up there and take readings. Is that right?

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

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I'm well into a journey that began in Ayr

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and has carried me north along the historic West Highland Line.

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Now my route veers West, tracing a path through mountains and lochs

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on the way to the coast and my final destination,

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the isle of Skye.

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My first stop today is Roybridge,

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before I move on to the garrison town of Fort William,

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then cross Scotland's most famous viaduct to Glenfinnan.

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As I head through the Highlands,

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the train window offers a scene of wild natural beauty.

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This is Invernesshire. My Bradshaw's guide is eloquent.

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"Vast ranges of mountains, separated from each other

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"by narrow and deep valleys.

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"These mountains stretch across the whole country from one end of the island to another

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"and lie parallel to every valley,

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"rising like immense walls on both sides,

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"while the intersected country sinks deep between them,

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"with a lake or rapid river or an arm of the sea."

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Wonderful description.

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To look closely at this dramatic terrain,

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I'm getting off at the next village.

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Roybridge and my Bradshaw's Guide says,

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"You may visit the heads of the Spey River

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"and the Parallel Roads of Glenroy in Lochaber."

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Sounds intriguing.

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My Bradshaw's gives a single line

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to what was a great geological mystery of the 19th century.

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How had three parallel roads been etched onto these mountains?

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Their precision suggested human intervention

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and highlanders once believed them to be the work of Fingal, the Celtic warrior king.

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In fact they're a natural phenomenon which puzzled great Victorian minds.

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-Adrian, good morning.

-Good morning.

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'Physical geographer, Dr Adrian Palmer, knows the story.'

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I saw in my Bradshaw's Guide a reference to Parallel Roads.

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Now, I'm quite intrigued that it gets a mention in the guidebooks.

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What was the understanding in the middle 19th century of what caused this?

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It was a phenomenon that had obviously been recorded in the landscape

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and it attracted huge amounts of interest.

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Even to the extent of attracting a young geologist by the name of Darwin.

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He'd seen similar features in Chile, whilst on the Beagle.

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He suggested these were formed by marine processes,

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so all this valley would have been inundated by marine water.

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-By sea?

-By sea.

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Charles Darwin believed that the lines indicated the positions of ancient seashores.

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Others agreed, although their precise cause was disputed.

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There were other people that considered them to be developed

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as freshwater phenomena, freshwater lakes.

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There was this big debate.

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What they couldn't quite understand was,

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if they were freshwater lakes, how they were dammed up.

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How did they actually form if you can't actually see the barrier?

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Then, a Swiss Geologist named Louis Agassiz came to cast his eye

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over the Glenroy landscape.

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He was working on a controversial new theory that,

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just a few thousand years ago, much of Europe had been covered in ice.

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He believed that this "ice age" could explain the Parallel Roads.

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He suggested that these elusive barriers that no longer existed

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were formed by ice.

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The modern interpretation of these lake systems themselves

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is that ice formed somewhere in the Rannoch Moor area

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and it advanced into the Great Glen.

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That ice blocked the natural drainage systems of the Roy River and also the Spean River,

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forcing the levels to rise so it's effectively like a bath

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with an overflow plug at 260m in the landscape.

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As well as solving a local mystery, Agassiz's work on the Parallel Roads

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lent weight to his ice age theory and laid the foundation of modern geology.

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

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Yeah he does...

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..he sees it as a blunder. He writes...

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..that he gradually becomes more persuaded

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by the ideas of Louis Agassiz and he does actually refer to it as a massive blunder.

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I'm now leaving the Parallel Roads behind, as it's time to continue my journey.

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I'm travelling 12 miles down the line to Fort William.

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Built on the shores of Loch Linnhe, today this town is a tourist hub.

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But it first developed as a military outpost.

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This is Fort William.

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And the name says it all.

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It's a garrison town that was built by William of Orange,

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who was a Protestant king, who was fighting against supporters

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of the deposed Catholic-leaning King James II.

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Those supporters were the Jacobites.

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And indeed before the railway line arrived in Fort William in 1894,

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probably the best way of getting here

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would have been on the military roads built by various armies

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fighting recalcitrant Highlanders.

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The original 17th-century fort was an important stronghold,

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used for over a century to subdue the Highland clans.

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In the 19th century it fell into disuse and, when the railway came,

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it was largely demolished to make way for the new line.

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With Highland history in my mind,

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I'm following up an interesting reference in my guide.

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My Bradshaw's guide mentions Lochiel, the seat of the Camerons,

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and this is Achnacarry,

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the present seat of the Cameron clan.

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It's not surprising that Bradshaw's mentions this clan.

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In the 19th century its chief, Cameron of Lochiel,

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was an influential advocate of the new West Highland railway line.

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I've come to the ancestral seat, Achnacarry Castle,

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to meet current chief, Donald Cameron,

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and hear how his predecessors helped to shape Highland history.

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-Donald, what a pleasure.

-Hi. Very nice to meet you.

-Good to see you.

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-You brought some lovely weather.

-Absolutely.

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How far back does the clan Cameron go?

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About early 15th century. 14...something.

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The first ten chiefs are slightly lost in the mists of time

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but we number from ten, really.

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And I'm 27, so we've had 17 generations that we know of.

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Would it be true that most people called Cameron

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could ultimately trace their origins to the highland clan?

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I mean, let's take at random the example of the Prime Minister.

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I have been told, whether it's right or wrong,

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that the Prime Minister is my 9th cousin once removed.

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And the genealogy looks quite strong but I...

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Pinch of salt but, no, possibly.

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I met him once, introduced to him.

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I said, "Very pleased to meet you, I'm your clan chief."

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He took it very well.

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Is there a reason why the clans come into existence?

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I think it was probably a way of combining a little army

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to hold your territory in which you found yourself

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and gradually other people would probably take the name of Cameron

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so as to protect themselves from other clans nearby.

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The Camerons' big moment came in the 1740s.

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They were Jacobites,

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supporters of the deposed Catholic Stuart pretenders to the throne,

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who'd lived in exile for decades.

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In 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie landed in the Highlands

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and called on the clans to support his bid for the crown.

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My ancestor, I think, probably thought it was a forlorn chance

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of anything being achieved so went to see him to put him off.

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When he discovered the French ships had left

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and the prince was alone in what is almost clan land here,

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I think he felt he couldn't desert him.

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so when he raised his standard at Glenfinnan, in August 1745,

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700 Camerons came marching over the hill.

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The decision to support Bonnie Prince Charlie

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had terrible consequences for the clan.

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In 1746, Charles was defeated at the battle of Culloden,

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and around 225 Camerons were amongst the dead.

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The victorious Duke of Cumberland, on behalf of the king,

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then set about brutally crushing the rebels.

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Thousands of highlanders were imprisoned or killed

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and their families driven off the land.

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Their way of life was all but destroyed.

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Cumberland was pretty awful. Butcher Cumberland.

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I think what he did after the '45 was horrific and violent.

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He destroyed the clan system.

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In our case it was about the 1880s when clansfolk began saying,

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"Come on, let's re-establish ourselves as a clan."

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Since then there's been a huge amount of interest.

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And you now do this on a global basis, do you?

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It's very much bottom up now.

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It's the clansfolk who want to be part of the clan.

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And the chief, I think, is a focal point.

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We have gatherings every seven, eight years

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and last year we had 800 Camerons come

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from mostly North America, New Zealand, Australia and, of course, Scotland.

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For 27 generations, the Cameron Clan has helped to shape the land where they live,

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including the building of the railway.

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It was presented to my grandmother by Concrete Bob McAlpine

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when she cut the first sod of the Mallaig Extension to the West Highland railway.

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My goodness, that is a trophy, isn't it? 21st January, 1897.

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"On the occasion of cutting the first sod of the Mallaig Extension of the West Highland Railway."

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Wonderful. That is a splendid memento.

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Some of the earliest visitors to Fort William

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after the new railway was built

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were plucky mountaineers, aiming to scale its most famous landmark,

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Ben Nevis.

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Britain's tallest mountain is spectacular.

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It towers over the town and the loch,

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and even in the height of summer, snow clings to its north face.

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The Victorians were captivated by it.

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My Bradshaw's guide says, "The highest peak in Scotland or the United Kingdom

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"is 4,406 feet above the sea and 20 miles around the base.

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"The ascent takes three to four hours to the top,

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"from which there is a grand prospect in clear weather."

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And, in an age of scientific discovery,

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some Victorians used Ben Nevis to find out more about that great British talking point,

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the weather.

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I'm hoping weather expert Marjory Roy can explain.

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-Hello, Marjory.

-Hello, Michael. Nice to meet you.

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We're very lucky with our view of Ben Nevis today.

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It held quite a fascination for Victorians, didn't it?

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It did indeed because, of course,

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it was the highest mountain in Scotland.

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And it so happened that they wanted to have somewhere to put

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a weather observatory so they could actually observe

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higher levels in the atmosphere.

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Ben Nevis was ideally located in the path of Atlantic storms

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and in 1877, the Scottish Meteorological Society

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decided to build a cutting edge observatory

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on top of the mountain.

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When they couldn't find funding, one man offered to record the weather the hard way.

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A very flamboyant character, called Clement Wragge,

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volunteered to climb the Ben each day during the summer months,

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between June and October,

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and do observations on the way up and then for two hours at the summit

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and then again on the way down.

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Apparently he went up on days when the weather was absolutely atrocious.

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-Because, even in summer, it can be.

-It can be.

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There are some conditions in summer

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where you're actually having to hang on

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and crawl over the summit plateau in order to get to it.

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Clement Wragge's gruelling daily treks

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were the first attempt to document the weather at Ben Nevis.

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His dedication made front page news

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and the society launched a fresh appeal for funds.

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The public interest was so great that the money came flooding in

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and in 1883 they actually managed to start building

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the pathway up to the top and the observatory

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and it was actually finished more or less by October 1883.

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Obviously, at the end of the 19th century,

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we're not talking about an automatic weather station that's sending readings down.

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We're talking people having to go up there and take the readings. Is that right?

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

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In the winter, it's quite impossible to get up and down the path on many of the days

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and the path is completely covered in snow.

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Also, the conditions were so bad they couldn't use automatic recording instruments.

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If you ever see the photographs of the period,

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everything is completely encased in ice.

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So they had to go and chip it all away in order to make the readings.

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Despite those hardships, the team succeeded in creating

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one of the earliest systematic records of British weather.

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It remains one of the best sets of data that scientists have about mountain conditions.

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It lasted almost 21 years,

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so you've got a full 20 years of hourly weather observations.

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With very few gaps.

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It's very difficult, even with modern automatic weather stations,

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to have a continuous record.

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It certainly showed how severe the conditions are at the summit.

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The extraordinarily detailed weather records

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weren't the only legacy left by the observatory.

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The path to the summit made climbing Ben Nevis much easier.

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Pony trips became fashionable, and after the railways came in 1894,

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a hotel was established at the peak.

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In 1904, lack of money forced the observatory to close.

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But the mountain still attracts visitors

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and today more than 100,000 people ascend it every year.

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There were, in fact, two observatories built in the late Victorian era,

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one on the top of the mountain and the other one here

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to take weather readings at sea level

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and the lower observatory is now a bed and breakfast

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and the place where I'm staying the night.

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There could be no better place to reflect

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on the Victorians' thirst for knowledge.

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Having woken to a misty Highland morning,

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it's time to embark on the final stretch of my journey,

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from Fort William to Glenfinnan.

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I'm taking one of Britain's favourite heritage services.

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And so, to my great excitement, another journey by steam train.

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And this one's called, appropriately, the Jacobite.

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I once got into trouble for calling the Ribblehead Viaduct

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the best crossing over a valley in Britain and somebody said,

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"No, no you've got to go over the Glenfinnan Viaduct in Scotland."

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So beautiful that they put it on the Scottish £10 note.

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And this train is very popular.

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It's full of people taking its photograph.

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Why? Well, not only because it's a magnificent railway

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but also because it was once taken by a small boy called Harry Potter.

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Good morning.

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The chance to ride on the real-life Hogwarts Express is certainly entertaining.

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But, for me, the real draw is the romance of steam.

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Travelling by steam train is completely different from any other railway journey.

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That chug, chug sound at the front

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and the smoke and the vapour flying past the window.

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It's just wonderful.

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The West Highland line was originally planned

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to connect the west coast fishing ports with markets in the south

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but objections from landowners forced the line to stop short of its target.

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In 1897, after a long campaign by the railway's supporters,

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work began on an extension from Fort William to Mallaig.

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Building the line led to a landmark piece of railway engineering.

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Do you know much about this Glenfinnan Viaduct?

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I think we did pass it and we looked across...

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is it the one that looks like the Noddy books?

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It could do... what does a Noddy book look like?

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The front cover of the Noddy books always had a viaduct on it.

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It would look like that, yes. It's about... I don't know...

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-About 18 arches...

-Yes.

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..and it's in a little bit of a curve.

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-Yeah, and we go over that?

-We do.

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And you'll be able to see it out of the window.

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I've been looking forward to crossing this viaduct

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since I joined the West Highland line.

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And it doesn't disappoint.

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The Jacobite has panted its way up the steep incline,

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somehow the wheels gripping the wet rails,

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and now we're on the wonderful Glenfinnan Viaduct,

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100 feet above the valley.

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It's built in concrete, one of the last great railway engineering achievements of the Victorian age.

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The Jacobite is taking me only as far as its first stop,

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at Glenfinnan station.

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-Lovely journey, thank you.

-Glad you enjoyed it.

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Loved it, thank you.

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I'm heading down into the valley by foot to see the viaduct from underneath.

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Spanning 416 yards and towering 100 foot above the glen,

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this was the first large-scale concrete structure in Britain.

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Writer Michael Pearson has researched its history.

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It's exciting for me to be here.

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The famous Glenfinnan Viaduct.

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Why is it so special?

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Traditionally, a railway company would use

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what they could see around them.

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If you go to the Settle-Carlisle railway in the Yorkshire Dales,

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they built it from the rock around it but here the rock was so brittle

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they couldn't use it like that.

0:22:130:22:16

That's where concrete came in.

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Concrete at the end of the 19th century,

0:22:170:22:19

the beginning of the 20th... pretty novel?

0:22:190:22:21

Cutting edge you might say, yes.

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The London and South Western railway had used it in Devon and the West Country.

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But they'd used it in a traditional manner,

0:22:300:22:34

in brick form or solid, shaped form. Here, it's a mass,

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so that it's sort of like a jelly mould, you might say.

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They create a framework for it, they pour this in and it sets and they take the framework away

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and there you have, hey presto, your viaduct.

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This innovative material, concrete, was used all along the line.

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At one point it required more than 400 joiners

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just to build the wooden frames.

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It was championed by Sir Robert McAlpine,

0:23:030:23:06

earning him the nickname "Concrete Bob".

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Initial fears that the viaduct would scar the landscape proved unfounded

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and, over the last 100 years, the concrete has weathered beautifully.

0:23:140:23:18

These apparent stains on the concrete.

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What do they consist of?

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They are salts, probably, leaching out.

0:23:230:23:26

They give it an almost organic look.

0:23:260:23:28

I think they look a bit like varicose veins, don't they?

0:23:280:23:32

They've certainly got a lot of depth and texture to them.

0:23:320:23:34

Here, you'll see where the wood shuttering was.

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You can see the grain of the wood.

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When they poured the concrete in,

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-it's been, sort of, fossilised.

-Yes.

0:23:410:23:44

We tend to think of concrete as an ugly material

0:23:440:23:47

but you just see how beautiful this is.

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And people come from far and wide to see it.

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Standing beneath the viaduct's enormous arches

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makes me marvel at the achievement of the engineers.

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Round here, people have had to get used to bumping into awestruck visitors like me.

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-Good morning, sir.

-How are we?

-I'm very, very well.

0:24:030:24:07

I take it you might be a local by your attire?

0:24:070:24:10

There's a fair chance you're right there, yes. Aye.

0:24:100:24:13

Local stalker, forester, estate manager. Alastair Gibbs.

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Have you seen many people come down

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and look at the viaduct before?

0:24:180:24:21

Aye! There's a constant stream!

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What about engineers, do you get any of those?

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Oh, we get civil engineers from all over the world.

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They come and hero worship this

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because it was the largest poured concrete construction of its time

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and they just want to have a good touch and feel of it.

0:24:340:24:37

There were many folk for years coming and looking at it

0:24:370:24:41

and then Harry Potter came along

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and now we get an awful lot more with their kids.

0:24:420:24:45

Were you around when they were doing the Harry Potter film?

0:24:450:24:48

Aye. They just left in April, after nine years.

0:24:490:24:53

A pretty small production team, I imagine?

0:24:550:24:57

Well...

0:24:570:24:58

we only had the first unit once and I was glad to see them go at 400

0:24:590:25:04

but the second unit, that did most of the action shots of the train,

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was 90 people and that's a wee bit more manageable for our village of 100 people.

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Wow, it makes quite an impact when they come, then?

0:25:140:25:17

It does, it takes over but it's got to be good for the area.

0:25:170:25:20

Thank you so much. It was lovely to talk to you.

0:25:200:25:22

Thank you. Bye-bye, now. Bye-bye.

0:25:220:25:24

Before I return to the station,

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my Bradshaw's guide recommends one more sight in the glen below.

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It describes,

0:25:330:25:34

"Prince Charles' monument, where he hoisted his standard in 1745 at Glenfinnan,

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"between Loch Eil and Loch Shiel."

0:25:400:25:42

Built in 1815,

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it marks the spot where the Cameron clan joined forces

0:25:450:25:48

with Bonnie Prince Charlie in his attempt to take the throne.

0:25:480:25:53

It's not actually the Prince on top but a kilted highlander.

0:25:530:25:56

And it seems I've stumbled on a fitting accompanist for my visit.

0:25:570:26:03

Well played, sir. Well played.

0:26:100:26:12

Sound's not very good today.

0:26:130:26:16

-You're not Scottish.

-No, no. I'm German.

0:26:160:26:19

How come you play the bagpipes?

0:26:190:26:21

We've a band in the Black Forest in the very south-west of Germany

0:26:210:26:25

and this year we decided to take part in the pipe festival, which was last Saturday.

0:26:250:26:29

It was very fantastic.

0:26:290:26:32

Are there many Germans who play the bagpipes?

0:26:320:26:35

Yes, we have our own bagpipe scene in Germany.

0:26:350:26:38

I think about 30-40 bands all over Germany and really good pipers among them.

0:26:380:26:45

Forgive me, I had no idea that it was so played in Germany. Fantastic.

0:26:450:26:49

-Bagpipes are all over the world.

-All over the world?

-Yes.

0:26:490:26:52

Well, thank you. What a pleasure to talk to you.

0:26:520:26:55

-Nice to meet you.

-And good piping.

-Thank you.

-Bye-bye, now.

-Thank you.

0:26:550:26:59

On my journey today I've been struck that the ambition of the Victorians

0:27:010:27:05

was sustained till the end of the Queen's reign.

0:27:050:27:09

The West Highland Line was completed just before her death,

0:27:090:27:13

carrying her subjects into the mountains of her beloved Scotland.

0:27:130:27:17

Mountains present challenges to which Victorian geologists,

0:27:210:27:26

meteorologists and railway builders responded.

0:27:260:27:29

The Scottish Highlands have always been militarily strategic.

0:27:300:27:33

Here have been the great battles between different claimants to the British throne,

0:27:330:27:38

between Protestant and Catholic

0:27:380:27:40

and lowlander and highlander.

0:27:400:27:43

These hills have seen great heroism and great slaughter, too.

0:27:430:27:48

On my next journey,

0:27:520:27:54

I'll be finding out how the railways helped train the first generation of commandos...

0:27:540:28:00

This is wonderful.

0:28:000:28:01

"A friendly agent enters the room and says, 'I have important information.

0:28:010:28:04

"'An enemy ammunition train will pass through Loch Haillot,

0:28:040:28:07

"'on its way to the naval base at Mallaig, at 11.15 today.

0:28:070:28:10

"'That train must be wrecked.' "

0:28:100:28:11

Visiting a coastal village,

0:28:110:28:14

transformed by the trains into Britain's biggest herring port.

0:28:140:28:18

Did the kippers go on the train?

0:28:180:28:19

There wasn't a box of fish landed here that didn't go by train. Not one box.

0:28:190:28:23

And crossing the sea to Skye to find out

0:28:230:28:26

how modern crofters make a living.

0:28:260:28:28

This is a savoury smoked salmon cheesecake.

0:28:280:28:31

Mm.

0:28:310:28:32

-You haven't lived till you've tasted that!

-Thank you.

0:28:320:28:35

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:580:29:01

E-mail [email protected]

0:29:010:29:04

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

Michael investigates one of the great geological mysteries of the 19th century - the parallel roads of Glenroy. Plus, he finds out how the Victorians put a weather observatory on the top of Ben Nevis and takes a steam train across one of the most spectacular viaducts in Britain at Glenfinnan.


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