It is late summer, 2012. Or what passed for summer. I planned a day in Fort William, that Highland town named after William of Orange, and later Prince William, Duke of Cumberland. It is also the Outdoor Capital of the UK, and I intend to sample the mountain bike trails of the nearby Nevis Range resort. That means an early morning train, utilising the London to Fort William sleeper service, departing from Edinburgh before 5am.
And what a journey.
Catching that early morning sun. The post-industrial grime of Glasgow suburbs. The struts of rotten boat hulls arching upwards like inverted whale ribs, but black from rust; rising out of the blacker-still mud of unused docks. Passenger ferries in vast sea lochs. Rising hills, clothed in short grasses. Abandoned railway tracks, running parallel to my own, but not perfectly; the kinks and curves making me feel drowsy.
The train feels fast from Edinburgh to Glasgow, but out of Glasgow, things slow down. It’s mostly single-gauge. No need for more; the sparse highlands. The tracks here feel rickety; the train giddying from side to side.
I am looking out to the west, down a steep wooded embankment. The slope is dark, and dense. No sun on this slope, at least not ’til later. I like this view. It’s closed in since the grass-covered hills and the vast lochs earlier in the journey.
Then I see what I take to be a hut. A long building with gently-arched roof, like a stretched potting shed. But something is not quite right. Yes! It’s covered in a sheet. And why is it on such a steep slope? Is it really perched against the trees; its only support? And then finally – I can see the heavy steel wheels below the sheet. This is not stalkers’ shelter, this is a train carriage.
What happened here? A derailment, for sure. But why? Perhaps the giddying tracks have played a part, maybe it was some japery of bored teenagers, or maybe a detail was missed during the carriage’s safety check. But it’s not really the means by which it got there that intrigues me. It’s that it is there, no longer on the stretched, linear home that is the track; instead now nestled amongst the thicket of trees, cloaked in the deep forest’s clinging darkness. And that sheet. We cover our dead with cloth to hide them away, fearing the grim spectacle of the corpse’ face. And so too the carriage, a sight too unnerving, too properly uncanny for most people to see.
This scene comes close to the end of the journey. Perhaps this is one the last vestiges of that once great Forest of Caledonia. Maybe the forest has decided: enough! and attempted to capture some of that disruptive noise for itself, to silence it amongst its wood and leaves. Perhaps the giddying track is the result of tree roots literally undermining the tracks themselves: the derailed train a long-awaited fruit of its labour.
After a day of riding in the mud in the shadow of Ben Nevis, during a day too windy for bikes to be taken on the chairlift, I set back home on the evening sleeper train. By the time the train begins to depart, darkness has already begun to fall. I sit in one of the old reclining seats of my carriage, and strain to see out of the west-facing window, hoping to catch another glimpse of that spectre of efficient transport and progress. But the twilight, combined with the dense foliage, mean I don’t get a chance to see the forest’s bounty a second time. Now, that unified structure that was a derailed train carriage, and the assemblage-woods of old Scotland, blurred to one seemingly boundless morass of dark shadows.
Following that journey, I never looked into how a train came to be found propped up on a steep wooded slope, or whether efforts have been made to remove it, or if anyone was injured during its accident. And despite making that journey for a day full of adrenaline and easy thrills, it was that fleeting moment spotting a shroud-covered carriage that stayed with me.