My current commute is longer than some, not as long as others. I don’t relish the 5am starts to get into the city, but the journey is quite lovely, and I suspect, quite unlike most other journeys from suburb to city.
I live on a hill overlooking the Cromarty Firth (the hill to be exact, is the North Sutor, and the Moray Firth runs alongside), 10 miles from the nearest train station, and even further from the bus route. Although the drive into town takes about the same time as the train, on the train I get to look at the changing scenery rather than someone elses bumper. It’s true that in the winter the journey is dark, and the train is often delayed or cancelled, and when it does turn up the heating is very often broken, but for nine months of the year commuting is a joy!
I don’t commute to Edinburgh or Glasgow – a four hour jaunt at a ridiculously early time of the morning- but into Inverness, the highland capital. The rail line, mostly single track, traces the peninsulas from the Cromarty Firth, across the Black Isle, and up through the Beauly Firth into Inverness. The Kessock bridge, spanning the Beauly and Moray Firths, was only built relatively recently, in 1982, and the Conon Bridge, across the Cromarty Firth in 1969. The line was active long before both bridges were opened, although if the Beeching Report had been acted upon it would have been closed in 1963, and there would have been no rail services north of Inverness. Thank goodness for the protestors who put pressure on politicians of the day to keep the line open.
The line follows the east coast, along the Moray Firth for much of the way north, and at times runs very close to the shore. Along the Firths, from Invergordon to Dingwall and Beauly into Inverness, the carriages feel more like sea-faring vessels, so close does the track run to the water’s edge. It gives a fantastic view of the sunrises and sunsets across the water, at the relevant times of year and day, as well as spectacular views of wildlife, especially migrant birds, herons, oyster catchers, cormorants, northern divers, and common seals: the colony at Foulis can often be seen when the tide is right, hauled out on the shore, or banana-shaped, relaxing on partially submerged rocks. Buzzards are a common sight, and red kites are often seen on the Black-Isle stretch. In the summer evenings, and autumn mornings, deer – both red and roe- are a common sight along the route, and the ubiquitous sheep are everywhere. The route also boasts some goats, donkeys, and the iconic red-haired highland cow.
Whatever the weather, the scenery is stunning: Struy Hill, Fyrish, Mount Gerald, Mount Eagle, and the Ben Wyvis range, ever present, brooding over the market town of Dingwall; visible at various points on the journey, and covered in snow for part of the year.
Michael Portillo travelled the route, from Invergordon to John O’Groats, in Series 4 of his Great British Railway Journeys, and my fellow commuters recall the filming. It may not be classed as the most spectacular rail journey in Scotland -Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh, I believe has that honour- but it is certainly up there with the best of them.
I won’t be travelling by train into the city after the end of next month, and although I won’t miss the 5am starts, in many ways I will miss my long commute. Apart from the scenery and wildlife, there’s the conviviality and banter, often absent from the silent, impersonal commuter trains of the UK’s capital city. Instead I will have a short drive to the cathedral town of Dornoch to look forward to, and although I’m sure there will still be plenty to see, I’ll need to keep my eyes on the road, and not on the scenery!
Photo Credit D Ruppenthal, all rights reserved. View to end of the Caledonian Canal and into the Beauly Firth, Ben Wyvis in the distance, taken from the train.