Michael discovers how the railways helped train commandos at Lochailort in World War II and explores the history of the highland crofters in Skye.
Browse content similar to Lochailort to Skye. Check below for episodes and series from the same categories and more!
In 1840, one man transformed travel in Britain.
His name was George Bradshaw,
and his railway guides inspired the Victorians to take to the tracks.
Stop by stop, he told them where to travel,
what to see and where to stay.
Now, 170 years later, I'm making a series of journeys
across the length and breadth of the country
to see what of Bradshaw's Britain remains.
Still guided by my 19th century Bradshaw's handbook,
I'm completing my journey through the Scottish Highlands.
Today, I'm on the western extension of the West Highland line
that takes me to Mallaig.
This railway was built at the cost of many lives
so that others could enjoy this journey -
and what a stunning journey it is.
This is the line that reaches the places that are unreachable
and, refreshingly, it's so much more interesting than a journey by car.
It took over 3,000 navvies four years
to build this 40-mile stretch of the West Highland line
and it transformed the local economy.
It was completed at the end of the 19th century,
so I've swapped my usual Bradshaw's for a later edition
to help me trace the legacy of industries that once thrived here.
On this leg of the journey, I'll be discovering
how the railways helped to train the first generation of commandos...
This is wonderful.
A friendly agent enters and says, "I have important information -
"an enemy ammunition train will pass through Lochailort on its way
"to the naval base at Mallaig at 1115 hours. It must be wrecked."
'..visiting a coastal village,
'transformed by the trains into Britain's biggest herring port.'
Did the kippers go on the train?
There wasn't a box of fish landed here that didn't go by train.
'..and crossing the sea to Skye to find out how modern crofters make a living.'
This is a savoury smoked salmon cheesecake.
You haven't lived till you've tasted that.
I've been travelling up the West Coast of Scotland
and through the Highlands,
along a spectacular railway
that's been voted the most scenic in the world.
I'm now embarked on the final stretch of the route.
From Lochailort, I'll travel to Mallaig, where the line ends,
before taking a ferry over the sea to Skye.
As I head towards my first stop, I'm passing through scenes
that delighted Victorian visitors when the railway opened.
My Bradshaw's guide gives great descriptions of mountain countryside.
"No sooner is one defile passed over
"than a second range of hills comes into view,
"which contains another, and a strath of uninhabited country."
In the 19th century, much of this wild landscape was given over to sporting estates.
Many had private railway halts for the convenience of wealthy visitors,
like Inverailort House, my first destination.
This stunning country brings us to Lochailort,
a place which for many, many years,
people have been coming for hunting and shooting,
but in recent history, it attracted a different sort of person all together.
In 1940, this remote estate was requisitioned
to create the first ever school for guerilla warfare.
With regular forces retreating from German-occupied Europe,
it was time to think beyond conventional tactics.
Former hunting lodge, Inverailort House, was a perfect location
for an unorthodox experiment in military training,
as Stuart Allan, of National Museums Scotland, explains.
-How do you do.
-Well, there are a number of reasons.
Principally the practical reasons are that this type of environment
gave everything that was required for that kind of work.
There was tough mountain country for sending trainees out on exercise.
We're close to the sea, there's a sea loch just across from us.
They could practice boat work and landings and so on.
And also, it was remote, it was out of the way, this was secret.
The nearby railway was crucial in choosing Inverailort.
Much of the area was accessible only by train,
so the military could control who came in and out.
It also allowed a steady stream of raw trainees
to travel quickly to this wilderness.
I heard that if you were a new recruit,
you might come under live fire when you arrived.
Certainly people have told me this was one method
whereby people were unsettled on arrival.
Charges would go off and they'd be harried down here to the camp,
which was over the line.
Also, they wanted to practise blowing up railway lines?
Well, this was certainly part of the course.
Demolitions was one big element.
In the exercises, the railway was often a target, as the records show.
This is wonderful.
"A friendly agent enters and says, 'I have important information -
'an enemy train will pass through Lochailort on its way
'to the naval base at Mallaig at 11.15 hours.
'That train must be wrecked.
'The station is guarded and the railway likely to be patrolled,
'but there are no guards this side of the bridge.'
"At that, the agent takes off his beard and cloak
"and proves to be an instructor in disguise."
-It sounds a bit unlikely.
I sense the instructors were enjoying themselves while they were here.
One of the founders of the school was the powerful Highland landowner, Lord Lovat.
He saw that traditional estate skills like deer stalking
could be adapted for tracking and attacking enemies.
They were improvising, so they brought civilian stalkers
from Lovat's estates here
and used these techniques to teach those kind of skills.
The training here included knife-fighting and the kind of things
that soldiers previously would not necessarily have been expected to do.
It was considered that brutal times required brutal methods,
and the whole kind of culture of deer stalking
was brought in as a kind of sense of being professional
about the job of killing.
The recruits were taught to be on their guard at all times.
Mock combat could erupt anywhere, even inside the house,
led by a team of unorthodox instructors.
An officer who trained here told me that the first time he came in here,
he was encountered with two men.
Suddenly, they came tumbling down the stairs and came at the bottom,
and emerged in a sort of crouched position, ready to kill.
They were retired policemen from Shanghai.
They were called Fairburn and Sykes,
and their speciality was unarmed combat and knife-fighting,
because Shanghai in the '30s
was a pretty dicey place, criminal gangs and so on.
So people like that were brought in,
and polar explorers, some of whom had been with Scott in the Antartic.
Again, quite elderly men,
but they had skills which were not normal military skills at that time,
and they would teach about endurance in low temperatures, diet, that kind of thing.
So it really was a mixing place of all the talents
that could possibly be required?
Certainly at the beginning, there was enormous freedom from the War Office
to just let them get on with it and sort something out.
They pulled in people they knew and people who knew people,
and assembled this original team.
It was never quite the same after that, it became more regularised,
but the elements of field craft, of demolitions, using the country,
teaching small boats skills, all that stayed
and became the basis of what we still know as commando training.
The approach was radical in its day,
but it had support from the highest level.
Churchill always had a sympathy with this kind of special endeavour.
He was interested in its aggressive spirit.
In 1940, when everything is in crisis,
we're going to do something that's going to take the fight to the enemy,
we're not just going to sit here and wait,
and that's the kind of thinking where this type of enterprise
appealed to Churchill
and produced complete new structures like the commandos.
I find it quite a moving place.
It certainly has an atmosphere.
I'm very stirred by stories of wartime courage and ingenuity,
and the idea that young recruits arriving here at Lochailort
for special training
might be subjected to a mock-ambush using live ammunition
These are remarkable stories
and extraordinary people.
-This one is first...
I'm now on my way to Mallaig, on the coast,
travelling along some of the last tracks to be laid
in Victorian Britain.
The great railway building age
coincided with the life of Queen Victoria
and most of it was done within her reign.
I find it poignant to think that this magnificent railway,
running through her beloved Scotland,
was completed in 1901,
just as the Queen entered the last months of her life.
The aim of this new railway
was to connect the abundant fishing grounds of the West Coast
with the rest of the country.
The place eventually chosen for the terminus of the line
was the tiny hamlet of Mallaig.
"Welcome to Mallaig."
Mallaig had good reason to welcome the railways,
because before the coming of the trains,
this was a small village, a collection of cottages,
but with the railway, it was possible to start a large herring fleet
and to supply fish, through the railway,
to all parts of Scotland and further south.
The railways were the making of Mallaig.
The line converted what had been a community of just 28 houses
into a substantial herring port.
Trains took fish out and brought coal in,
enabling Mallaig to employ the newest steam ships to boost the catch.
Beside the station,
smoking sheds sprang up to turn the herring into kippers.
I'm taking a tour of the docks with Elliot Ironside,
whose family once depended on the herring trade.
So your mother was a kipper girl, Elliot?
Yes, she was, she certainly was.
I remember well going out to watch her kippering,
and one of the lasting memories was of all the women singing,
-they sang a lot of hymns.
Sang and worked all day long.
In the height of the herring season,
local kipper girls like Elliot's mother
were joined by itinerant labour,
who used the railways to follow the herring around the coast.
Did the kippers go out on the train?
There wasn't a box of fish landed here that didn't go by train, not one box.
The women had to get up at five o'clock in the morning,
pack the kippers into special boxes.
They were loaded into vans and away they went,
attached to the quarter-to-eight passenger train.
From 1948, Elliot himself worked on the railways,
which carried smoked kippers and fresh herring.
If there was just very light fishing,
they used to attach vans to the back of the passenger trains,
maybe up to ten vans,
but when the fishing was heavier, they ran special trains
made up entirely of fish.
The herring trade continued to boom
and, by the '60s, Mallaig was the biggest herring port in Europe.
But that wasn't to last. Years of overfishing took their toll
and in 1977, a ban on catching herring was imposed.
The fish trains became a thing of the past.
Does it make you sad to see the station not what it once was?
To work on the railway, it was hard work at times,
but I enjoyed working at it, it was great.
The calibre of guys that you worked with,
fantastic men. The old drivers were really something else.
Luckily for Mallaig, that wasn't the end of fishing.
These days the town is famed for langoustines.
I'm going out on one of the langoustine boats
that fishes around Mallaig with Duncan McKellick and his crew.
Very good to see you. Hi, guys.
Great pleasure. How are you doing?
Every day, they put out to sea
to check what they've caught in their traditional cages, or creels.
Langoustines thrive on the muddy beds of the nearby sea lochs.
They're also known as Norwegian lobster or Dublin Bay prawns
and their tails are made into scampi.
-You're sorting them into different sizes?
-Different sizes, yes.
-We've got large, medium and small, three grades.
-Isn't that a beauty?
-I guess that could give you quite a nasty nip?
Even through your rubber gloves?
Right through the rubber gloves.
-Right to the bone.
-So you need to take care.
Do you get bitten quite often?
Too often, I don't like it.
It's one of these things you never get used to. Very painful.
,Today a third of the world's langoustines are landed in Scotland,
worth nearly £100 million a year.
But they haven't always been so highly prized.
They used to shovel them over the side, get rid of them,
the trawlers, when they were after fish. They were just a nuisance.
-There was no market in those days?
-No market for them, no.
But it's purely changed.
Just as the railways transformed the herring trade here,
air freight has made langoustines profitable
for fishermen like Duncan.
These will be packed tonight
and then they'll be boxed, the temperatures lowered,
and then they'll be live in the market in Barcelona tomorrow.
That's where we get really good money for them.
Does anybody eat them here in Scotland?
Not so much, no.
Some of the hotels do, but it's a very limited market.
With these, when they go to Spain, they're just sold straight away.
They can't get enough of them.
That's funny, I'd be happy to eat them here in Scotland.
I'd be a lot happier if more people did eat them,
that'd be better.
So how many langoustines would you pick up in a day, any idea?
It sort of varies between 18 to 30 stone, thereabouts.
-18 to 30 stone?
-You still use old money.
-Sounds like a lot, because they don't weigh much, do they?
The fisheries work hard to ensure that langoustines remain sustainable.
By using these traditional creels,
they can return young or pregnant langoustines to the sea.
But the cages do entice other sea creatures.
Oh you've got a nice octopus there.
He's really got a hold on you there. A lot of suction there.
It's amazing how they change colour.
If you put him on the white he'll turn white.
Or if he's threatened, he'll turn red.
-Look at the change. He's having a go at your langoustines.
They're a bit of a blight for us because they go into the creel
and they munch everything in the creel.
-They get there first, before you.
Lots of empty shells.
Hopefully, we won't see him again.
Bradshaw would certainly have written about the success
of the new langoustine industry.
He loved to trumpet the good and had a habit of not mentioning the bad,
like the appalling midges here that blight Highland holidaying.
Even Queen Victoria, in her diaries, complained of being bitten.
I'm anxious to avoid that royal fate.
Hi, have you been holidaying in the Highlands?
We arrived yesterday, in the rain.
Ah, have you not experienced the midges yet?
A few. We've got some spray on, just to try and keep them away.
Have you thought of wearing one of these nets?
That's a bit over the top. It's not that bad.
-You've just arrived, haven't you?
-Yeah, is that famous last words?
At the end of your holiday, I'll ask if you should have brought a net.
-Are you on holiday in Scotland?
Have you had any trouble with the midges?
No, luckily they leave me alone, but they love my husband.
-They love your husband!
-You mean they eat him.
But why don't they touch you, do you think?
I don't know. I eat lots of garlic.
It could be the diet, I eat lots of herbs, garlic.
Natural, organic foods.
Ian loves his fish and chips and he loves cooked breakfasts.
So you think, maybe, midges like fish and chips
and don't like garlic?
That's the best tip I've heard.
I've heard you've got to use creams, you've got to wear a net,
but you've given me the answer now, eat garlic.
Well, maybe that's a repellant too far.
I'm leaving Mallaig to cross the water to Skye,
my final destination on this journey.
By the time my guidebook was written,
this island was no longer the preserve of hardy climbers
and was attracting a range of visitors
who'd toured the Highlands by rail.
My Bradshaw's guide says of Skye,
"The coast is broken up into several wild bays,
"some edged by cliffs 400 feet and 700 feet high,"
and he says, "It's an island nearly 50 miles long,
"separated by the Channel or Sound of Sleat,
"only half a mile broad at the narrowest point."
I think there's a hint there, a gleam in the Victorian eye,
the possibility of a rail bridge linking Skye,
but that was never built.
The first bridge constructed at the end of the 20th century
was a road bridge, and so the Island of Skye had to get by
without the advantages of Mallaig,
without the advantages of being linked by rail
to the rest of the United Kingdom.
There were and are no trains on Skye,
but Bradshaw's tells readers arriving by steamer
where best to admire the island's rugged beauty.
My guide describes its "wild and lonely inlets"
and "steep, dark mountains",
but says little about the island's people
and perhaps that's not surprising.
In the decades before my guidebook was published,
Skye's population had plummeted,
during what was known as the Highland Clearances.
I'm meeting historian John Norman MacLeod,
at the ruined village of Leitir Fura,
to find out more.
So we've obviously met in a desolate village.
The Highland Clearances, what were they?
Well, the term Highland Clearances
refers to a process in history from about 1750 to 1880,
when the people were removed from their ancestral homes.
Some of these clearances were quite violent?
Yes. In some areas, houses were obviously burnt,
their walls were knocked down,
trees were planted within the ruined steadings, as well,
to stop people coming back.
This ruthless policy was carried out by Highland landlords
and their agents.
Short of money, they'd decided that sheep farming offered the best option.
Large sheep farms, they were introduced round about the 1780s to the Highlands.
The best land was given over to the sheep farm,
the people were moved to the less profitable, less fertile areas.
People across the Highlands were forced onto small,
barely fertile patches of land, known as crofts,
while others were left with no choice
but to move to the cities or emigrate.
Immigration ships came in and took the people away.
There were two instances in particular, in 1837 and also in 1853,
when people from Glengarry were taken overseas to Canada.
What were conditions like on the ships?
Ah, atrocious. There was over-crowding.
There was obviously disease, typhoid.
People regarded them as "the coffin ships".
The conditions were worse than on slave ships, in many ways.
It's thought hundreds of thousands left the Highlands and Islands,
and life for those who stayed was hard.
Farming a tiny croft was barely sustainable
and the crofters lived under the constant threat of eviction.
What srikes me is that this goes on way into the Victorian era.
The Victorians were social reformers, they abolished slavery -
did they turn a blind eye to the Highlands?
Well, the Highlands were very much isolated
and certainly they weren't very much on the conscience of the nation at the time.
But in later years, certainly, more was written about the Highlands.
There were journalist arriving
and giving accounts of actual clearances, as well.
In the 1880s, the crofters began to fight back
with rent strikes and protests,
and in 1886, they won legal rights to their land.
With public attention drawn to their plight,
there were calls for better transport to boost the economy -
an argument that helped to get the West Highland line built.
What's the story today?
Well, the story today is that Skye...
in Skye, the population is increasing.
In 1971, I think there were about 7,000 people,
now we're talking over 10,000 people in Skye.
In this area alone, the population had doubled...
In Sleat, the population has doubled in the last 30 years.
So it is an area which is certainly regenerating.
These days, people are migrating TO Skye,
lured by the prospect of a slower pace of life.
Traditional crofting is still protected,
and although not easy, it appeals to some -
like Kenny and Angela Scott.
-Good to see you.
-Good to see you.
-How are you doing?
Angela, what brought you here? You're an American, aren't you?
-Yes, I am. I'm born and bred in Brooklyn, New York.
Yes. Far from home, but this is home now.
And why, what made you make the change?
Well, 16 years ago, I came over on a holiday
and I just fell in love with Scotland. I felt so relaxed.
I had sort of a high-pressure lifestyle,
I was an attorney in New York,
and I just felt all the pressure sort of slide away
and thought, "This is where I need to live."
I've never looked back. 15 years and it's been the best thing I ever did.
What does it mean nowadays to be a crofter?
Well, basically, it's much the same as it used to be,
which is like subsistence farming,
small-scale subsistence farming, really.
And as I look around, I guess this is what you do, I see sheep,
an awful lot of hens.
-What else do you do?
-Well, we grow a few potatoes.
We're planning for polytunnels to grow more of our own vegetables,
and hopefully sell surplus in a little farm shop setting, as well.
-You've got a smokehouse too?
What are you smoking there?
We smoke venison, which is usually local, wild venison.
We smoke salmon, a variety of cheeses and nuts
and a few other bits and pieces as they come to us.
-Mackerel, kippers, things like that.
-You've got me salivating.
Things have moved on since Bradshaw's time
and now some crofters manage to go beyond subsistence farming.
Kenny and Angela's smokehouse is a profitable small business.
Where are you getting your lovely salmon from?
This is Wester Ross salmon.
Basically, it's freedom food salmon
where they've got more room in their cages.
Just pop that in that brine there.
So, you put the salmon in the brine, what happens next?
We leave this in here to brine for a certain period of time.
Then it goes into the other fridge there to dry off
before it goes into the smoker.
The secret is controlling the temperature.
The smoke is cooled to below 30 degrees
before it's piped into the smoker.
-This is really business in miniature, isn't it?
A tiny little smoker. Look at that!
-The finished article there.
-That looks fabulous.
Kenny and Angela sell their smoked products across the United Kingdom.
Angela, you're the slicer?
I am indeed. Usually trim off all the edges first,
so that it's not too tough or too smoky
We just take a long slice
There we go.
-There you go.
Oh, thank you very much.
Look at that.
-Thank you, we do our best.
The salmon's superb,
and Angela's also brought a little bit of Brooklyn to the Highlands.
-You can't be serious?
-Made with our own smoked cream cheese.
Smoked salmon cheesecake. with smoked cheese.
-You haven't lived till you've tasted that.
As my journey up Scotland's West Coast draws to an end,
it strikes me that the advent of the railways
started a process that continues to this day.
Successive technological advances,
from trains to aeroplanes to the internet,
have done no harm to these starkly beautiful places,
but they've made them less remote.
This journey has been different from my others.
I haven't just been jumping on and off trains
following my Bradshaw's guide.
I've been absorbed by the story of the extraordinary West Highland line
threading its way through wild terrain,
connecting tiny, but vibrant communities.
Following it has introduced me to some dark history
of battles and Highland Clearances,
but thanks to that magnificent achievement of Victorian engineering,
the sumptuous beauty of Scotland is open to any one of us
for the price of a train ticket.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media
Email [email protected]
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 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 discovers how the railways helped train the first generation of commandos at Lochailort in World War II, finds out why langoustines have replaced herrings as the top catch in the fishing port of Mallaig and sails across the sea to Skye to explore the history of the highland crofters.