Mallaig lies at the end of the evocatively named "Road to the Isles." It is also the terminus for the West Highland Railway from Fort William and the focus for a network of ferry services to Skye, to the Small Isles, and to the Knoydart peninsula. It is somewhere that will be visited sooner or later by most travellers to the Highlands, and whether you arrive by road, rail or boat, you find a large village of great character in a simply stunning setting.
Despite its importance today, Mallaig is rather less than two centuries old. In 1841 all that stood at this extreme north western corner of North Morar was a farmstead known as Mallaigvaig with a population of 23. The owner of the North Morar Estate at the time was Lord Lovat, and he divided the farm here into a series of plots with a view to attracting his tenants from the (then) more populated parts of the estate along Loch Morar and Loch Nevis to settle here and take up fishing as an occupation. By 1851 the population of Mallaig had grown to 134, making it the largest village in the area, with many households earning a living at least partly from the sea.
By 1861, 18 heads of household earned their living primarily from fishing, relying on small inshore boats to catch herring. This was a fairly precarious existence, as was proved in November 1881 when a great storm destroyed many of Mallaig's boats pulled up on the shore in its fairly primitive harbour, and a number of houses in the village. Then the size of the shoals of herring were much smaller than usual in 1885-7. By 1891 the population had fallen to 133 from 170 a decade previously, while the number of houses reduced over the same period from 31 to 28.
The fortunes of the fishing industry in Oban had been transformed by the arrival there of the Callander & Oban Railway in 1880, and it was clear that securing a railway terminus would be critical to Mallaig's future fortunes. It nearly didn't happen, however. As originally planned, what became known the Mallaig Extension of the West Highland Line was meant to take a left turn at Lochailort and finish at a new fishing port planned on the southern shore of Loch Ailort at a place called Roshven Farm. But the the landowner at Roshven wouldn't agree terms, while Lord Lovat was very keen indeed to bring the railway to Mallaig.
The railway was duly built to Mallaig, and the line opened in 1901. The transformation of Mallaig was immediate and lasting. A steamer pier was built to coincide with the arrival of the railway and Mallaig became the obvious place to board steamers bound for Skye and the Hebrides having travelled from Edinburgh and Glasgow by rail. Another result was a hugely increased fishing fleet, with larger boats fishing the waters of the Minch and Atlantic coming in to Mallaig to transfer their catches to the railway for transport to all corners of the UK and to Europe. A new fishing harbour had been built in anticipation of the impact of the arrival of the railway, but it had to be significantly expanded in 1908, and again in 1915.
Mallaig subsequently acquired two boatyards, one of which continues in business, and a large number of kippering sheds. In 1932 a local boatbuilder launched the first car ferry service from Mallaig to Armadale on Skye, a small vessel called Road to the Isles capable of carrying just two cars. Mallaig became a military training area during World War II, but the local economy rapidly got back into its stride in the years that followed. In the 1960s it became the busiest herring port in Europe, with huge catches being landed for transport by road or rail to distant destinations: or simply transferred to large Norwegian vessels for transport by sea.
After the boom of the 1960s came the bust of the 1970s. Ovefishing led to quotas and other restrictions on the fishing fleet, while the future of the railway from Fort William was cast into uncertainty. Meanwhile the pattern of ferry routes changed to reflect the much greater importance of vehicle ferries, and Mallaig became displaced by Ullapool as the main ferry terminus for Stornoway; by Oban as the ferry terminus for services to Barra and South Uist; and by Kyle of Lochalsh as the main ferry terminus for the Isle of Skye.
On the other hand, tourism was becoming more important, and in 1984 the Jacobite Steam Train started summer operations linking Mallaig with Fort William, a spectacular success that continues today. The introduction of a roll-on roll-off ferry service to Armadale on Skye in 1984 brought Mallaig back into the running as a significant ferry port. This has been complemented by the major improvements in recent decades to the A830 "Road to the Isles" from Fort William, which since its completion is virtually unrecognisable (and, in places, takes a completely different route) from the very challenging single track road that had to be tackled by anyone coming to Mallaig in the 1970s.
Today's Mallaig is once again bustling and thriving. The primary school has been replaced, and the building of a secondary school had ended the need for pupils from across western Lochaber to board on a weekly basis in Fort William. Meanwhile, the continuing success of the port led to the building of a new outer harbour in 1998 to relieve pressure on the inner harbour.
For the visitor, Mallaig is a fascinating place. It is a working port, and it is the port rather than the tourist that forms the main focus of the activity of the town. It makes a refreshing change to find a Highland town that still has this option. But if you have a soft spot for the sea and for boats (and if you don't, what are you doing in western Scotland?) then Mallaig is one of the most attractive and interesting places you'll see. And while you are here, the Mallaig Heritage Centre is well worth a visit.
Mallaig is well catered for in terms of places to stay, ranging from accommodation for backpackers right through to rather more upmarket options like the West Highland Hotel. There are likewise plenty of options for those wanting to eat or drink, including the Mallaig Visitor Centre on the pier, which serves excellent coffee and snacks whilst also providing local Tourist Information services and Internet access.
Mallaig is also the main hopping off point for those wanting to catch a ferry to the islands of Rum, Eigg and Muck (though summer sailings are also available from Arisaig). And it is from Mallaig that you can catch a boat to the village of Inverie, on the southern side of the Knoydart peninsula and said to be the only village in Scotland with no link to the road network.
While in Mallaig it is worth exploring the housing development built on the hillside on the far side of the harbour. This gives some stunning views back across the town, and beyond to Eigg, Rum and the Small Isles.