Islands in the Clouds

This is another piece that I wrote for “Direct Current”, published in 1992. Of all the rail journeys I’ve made over the years, this is the one that I look back to with the most fondness.

I don’t believe this is happening. Someone tell me it is. Brief flash of lights in the dark on the other side of the window. Must be Winsford. This is really happening. After having the idea only a week ago, here I am. It was David Craig reading his poems at College that had done it: talking about the Highland Clearances; the scenery of Caithness and the islands; how it’s the playground of the rich and their tax-free trees. Yes, I said, I’ll go. And here I am, still in disbelief. I opened my wallet to look at the ticket. Yes, it was there: Alsager to Thurso, out and return. More lights flash by. Hartford. I adjusted my headphones and leant back.

As the tape played, I stared into the back of the seat in front. There’s something about travelling at night that sets it apart. The succession of towns blur into uniformity: lines of neons, white glare of factories, and the shimmering light of distant places. In remoter areas, just the odd light here and there; a farmhouse, perhaps. The titanic shapes of hills brooding in the darkness; the night sky a lighter shade of black above them.

The tape had finished, but I didn’t change it straight away. I closed my eyes and listened to the roar of the tracks below, and the clatter of the odd point, muffled by the air conditioning. The only sensation of speed was a slight swaying, which was more startling if you looked down the gangway into the next coach as it rocked from side to side and bounced up and down alarmingly. I looked up, and decided on something to eat. I resumed my thoughts a little later as I munched a donut and sipped coffee from a paper cup. I listened again to the voice of the tracks; their usual steady, comforting hum. It was alright, they were saying, just relax and enjoy the next thirty hours. It was good advice. I finished the coffee, wiped my hands and changed the tape. We were at Carlisle. Soon be in Scotland.

Glasgow Central, just after quarter past nine. I had plenty of time to cross to Queen Street, so I looked around before descending to the low level platforms. I cast my mind back a couple of months to when I’d been here last. I’d planned to spend a week travelling on various Scottish lines while they were still loco-hauled. It wasn’t to be, however, for I was compelled by illness to return. And that seemed to be the end of my hopes. That is until I heard David Craig…

I reached Queen Street by ten, and had just under two hours to wait. I stood at the platform ends and watched anonymous headlamps appear from the Cowlairs tunnel, and listened to locomotives as they roared up the gradient; the sound reverberated back even after the red tail lamp had disappeared. I saw the distinctive push-pull sets arrive and depart, various locals to and from Dunblane or Cumbernauld. After a class 37, Loch Rannoch, had taken out the Fort William – London sleeper, I boarded my train, the overnight to Inverness. I soon came to the conclusion that I would sleep very little, so I decided to stay awake. Curling up on the seat proved too uncomfortable in any case. I must have snatched some sleep, however. After the Perth stop, where the Edinburgh portion of the train was attached, I remember little until four am.

The train had stopped at a signal in the middle of nowhere. I later found out it was probably Tomatin loop. I went to the door and looked out. A strong smell of pine greeted me, and the sharp morning air woke me with a start. Not far away, I could hear a stream rustling, invisible in the darkness. Above, the sky was cloudless, the crescent moon impassively grey, while nearby Venus glittered a dazzling blue. After ten minutes, a freight passed the other way, and we were off again. The long descent from over 1000 feet to sea level at Inverness and a two hour wait for the next stage of the adventure.

I was glad to find that the stock for the train was already in the platform. Adjacent were two others: one for Aberdeen, and the three coach train for Kyle. Snug in my thick jacket, wedged into a corner, headphones on, the time passed more quickly than I thought. About quarter past six, the Kyle loco arrived, followed closely by the Wick/Thurso: a local class 37 diesel named Highland Region.

At 06.35 the four hour trek up to the railway John ‘O’ Groats began. The train was still cold, and despite being on the move took some time to warm up. It was early November, and wouldn’t be light until about eight; so for the first ninety minutes or so, I was travelling blind. I saw the lights on the new A9 bridge, and recall the 10mph restriction over the swing bridge at Clachnaharry. A brief glimpse of the lights in the cosy box and it was on into the darkness. Dawn was beginning to show herself; overhead, the sky was still dark blue, tinted orange by the sleeping city.

Drizzle at Dingwall had subsided by Invergordon, where I was surprised to see several oil platforms standing together in the estuary; strange giant machines waiting patiently for some command. Mist had enveloped us after Ardgay, and by Invershin, the scenery was hinting at what was to come. The open fields and distant hills of Alness had closed in. The hilltops stood above the mist, floating islands, with their lower slopes hidden. After a rock cutting, we reached Lairg and a fifteen minute stop to cross the 06.00 from Wick/Thurso. I stepped on to the frosty platform to photograph it as it came to a stop, glad to let the cold air revive me. Sleep was catching up.

The sun showed itself for the first time at Brora, followed by a run alongside the North Sea for several miles. At Helmsdale the line swings inland into a great loop to reach Wick via Forsinard and Altnabreac. I felt wistful, sad almost, as I looked out. Helmsdale was one of the places I’d planned to stop on my earlier abortive trip: the vast expanse of the sea on the one hand, and the mountains on the other…Between here and Georgemas the scenery is at its best. The line winds between mountains, for the most part bare, bleak, almost. I much prefer this, though I saw signs of change in several fir plantations. The trees were still small, but in ten years, the place will look totally different. Forsinard. There were about two houses and a building that looked like a hotel or pub; a scattering of leafless trees behind. The disused signal box on the platform was still in good condition, albeit without its lever frame.

The summit of the line is at County March, 708 feet above sea level and marked by a blue and white board. Just before it, I noticed a crumbling stone cottage whose roof timbers had collapsed into the shell. We were passing through open moorlands covered in heather. A few yards from the line, was a long fence that appeared to be made of old sleepers, some rotten; we followed it for a several miles.

At Georgemas Junction, the train divided. Highland Region took the front two coaches on to Wick, while Scottish Hosteller the rest to Thurso. Then, at 10.43 on a Wedenesday morning, four minutes early, I finally arrived. Some eighteen hours and 600 miles after I’d set out the afternoon before. And I still had to get back.

Not a particularly good photo technically, but one I love as it strongly evokes that whole journey. Taken on the return journey, near Kildonan.



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One Response to “Islands in the Clouds”

  1. Jacki Says:

    I was with you all the way with that wonderful description, Andy! 🙂

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