Mallaig has been used as a harbour since longships brought Vikings to plunder the shores of Britain. The port’s name stems from these times, “Mallaig” being of Old Norse origin meaning “Bay of the Seabirds”. Later, however, it became known by the Gaelic name “Acarsaid na Coille Mor” (“Harbour of the Big Wood) – a name which persisted until fairly recent times and probably derived from the great forests of Scots pine which once dressed the Highland landscape.
The History of Mallaig Harbour
The development of Mallaig harbour began in 1846 when Lord Lovat, the local landlord, built the first pier to help local people made destitute by the potato famine. The Lovat Pier still stands today, although the fine stonework is now covered by a layer of concrete.
In 1879, Lord Lovat extended the road to the pier and, in 1883, built a barrel and salt store. Mallaig was beginning to take on the appearance of the fishing port which would ultimately become known throughout Europe, although Tarbet in Loch Nevis, some six miles distant, was still the main port at the time.
Those were the days in which the herring industry meant everything to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.
At Mallaig, the herring were cured aboard fleets of Dutch and British “Busses” in the same way as the “Klondyker” fleets operated in the 70s and 80s.
The Loch Nevis and Loch Hourn herring fishery became famous and as many as 600 to 700 “skiffs” from all over the west coast took part, each discharging catches of up to 30 crans (five tonnes) per landing. In 1882, two steamers a day were running supplies of fresh herring to the newly opened Oban railway.
Work commenced in 1897 on the extension of the West Highland railway line from Fort William. Controversy surrounded the location of the terminal. Both Arisaig and Roshven on Loch Ailort were favoured sites.
A deputation from Mallaig gave evidence before a Parliamentary Committee, arguing that Mallaig’s deep and sheltered harbour made it the most logical choice for the terminal. One of the delegates, Archie MacLellan, chose to give evidence in Gaelic, his first language. The success of the argument laid the foundations for Mallaig’s growth and its achievements to date. Construction of the steamer pier, at a cost of £45,000, began at the same time as the railway.
On the first day of April in 1901, the SS Clydesdale from Stornoway and SS Lovedale from Portree berthed at Mallaig with passengers for the waiting train. They made the trip to Glasgow in a time not much different from today’s schedules.
In its comparatively short life Mallaig has coped with many changes, and with the peaks and troughs of fishing activities.
It has seen the transition from sail to steam from drift net to ring net and purse seine through to the advent of the super trawlers prosecuting the deep water fisheries off the West Coast of the Hebrides.
Hebridean paddle steamers have given way to modern RO/RO ferries and Mallaig Harbour has adapted – as it has always managed to do – increasing berthing and support facilities over the years for the fishing craft and ferry’s vital to the ongoing viability of the port.
The Outer Breakwater Development with its self-fuelling system, increased fuel storage capacity, and a Flake Ice Factory has improved facilities for the fishermen using Mallaig. Other recent improvements to harbour infrastructure include a large area of resurfacing on the road down to the ferry pier, secure car parking areas and the provision of 1000 tonne storage/warehouse.
A 50 berth marina was established at the port in 2011.
A brief history of the railway serving the port of Mallaig
The Fort William to Mallaig Railway Line or the “Mallaig Extension” as it is known today was completed in 1901.
At one time over two thousand navvies worked on the line, mostly living at a work camp at Lochailort. They consisted of mostly Irish, Highland and Low-land Scots (almost separate races) and even Scandinavians.
The Line was designed by the Glasgow Engineering Firm of Simpson and Wilson and built by the “Extensions Contractors” Robert McAlpine. It is interesting to note that Robert McAlpines’ great grandson makes an annual pilgrimage to Mallaig. He still marvels at the great engineering feat that was accomplished by his family.
The prime reason for the building of the “Extension” from Fort William to Mallaig was the transportation of fish from the developing port of Mallaig. It made it possible for fresh landings of fish to be transported from Mallaig to destinations in the south, very quickly via Glasgow.
In its one hundred years the line has seen many changes of use. It luckily escaped the “Beeching Axe” of the Sixties, unlike some of the other branch lines in rural Scotland. When the fish and herring catches declined the line was in danger of closing but as it traverses some of the best and beautiful scenery in the UK so it became popular with people escaping the city life of Glasgow and Edinburgh, and taking holidays in the Arisaig, Morar and Mallaig area.
With the railway ultimately losing the fish/herring transportation battle with the articulated lorry various attempts at re-introducing freight to the line has been looked into, but it has been difficult to substantiate enough traffic to make this a viable situation. Up until the late Eighties and early Nineties oil supplies to the Port arrived by train, but this proved to be uneconomical and now road tankers arrive via the A830 every day.
The line is 42 miles long, and is mostly used by tourists visiting the Mallaig/Lochaber area. This service is operated by “First ScotRail” who currently use the Class 156 Super Sprinters (in units of 2 or 4) to carry out the mainly passenger service. Other users are “The West Coast Railway Co.” who operate “The Jacobite” Steam Train service between May and October. This has proved very popular since its re-introduction in 1985. The summer also sees the line being used by the “Royal Scotsman” land cruises. These are luxury trains that start in Edinburgh and visit Mallaig for a brief stay before returning to Edinburgh via Wemyss Bay.
Now that the “Mallaig Extension” has proved to be very popular for tourists it has possibly secured its future for another 100 years. The West Highland “Glasgow to Mallaig” Railway Line has just been voted “The ‘TOP’ railway journey in the world” by readers of Wanderlust magazine, the bible for independent-minded travellers, ahead of 400 other nominated rail journeys including such rivals as the Trans Siberian Express, the Canadian Rockies and the Orient Express trips.
Here are several web-sites that are relevant to the “Mallaig Extension”.
West Coast Railways – for information and bookings on the “Jacobite Steam Train”
Tel: 01524 732100 www.westcoastrailways.co.uk
ScotRail – for train times, up to date service information and to book tickets on line. www.scotrail.co.uk
For rail bookings by credit/debit card – ScotRail Telesales – Tel: 08457 550033
Or write to: ScotRail Customer Relations, P.O. Box 7030, Fort William. PH33 6WX.
The Royal Scotsman – for details of the on-board Grand West Highland Journey and others
Tel: 0870 161 5060 (Brochure Line) www.orient-express.com
Friends of the West Highland Lines is a society dedicated to the promotion, improvement of the rail services which serve the West Highlands of Scotland.
For more details visit www.fwhl.org.uk
Addition Information – Websites
Tours into Mallaig
www.srps.org.uk/railtours/programme.htm (Scottish Rail Preservation Society)
Spectacular Glenfinnan Viaduct with its 21 concrete arches was the first mass concrete structure in the world, and is also famous for being crossed by the “Hogwarts Express” in the Harry Potter films.
Glenfinnan is where Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his Standard on August 19th, 1745 at the start of his ill-fated attempt to regain the throne for the Stuarts. The event is commemorated by the Glenfinnan Monument on the shores of Loch Sheil. There is a Railway Museum at Glenfinnan Station.
Arisaig Station is Network Rail’s most westerly mainland station in the British Isles.
There are 11 tunnels between Fort William and Mallaig.