It was announced in late 2010 that the Isle of Mull Railway would cease operating, as the sale of Torosay Castle made the future viability of the railway unclear. It has since closed permanently. See website, linked from the visitor information section. For the moment the remainder of this page is as written before the railway closed.
In the early 1970s the Laird of Torosay had a problem. The family had decided that the future of Torosay Castle and its gardens could only be secured by sharing them with the public, and using the funds generated to restore both the castle and the gardens.
The problem was that Torosay Castle is around a mile and a half from the Oban Ferry terminus at Craignure, a little too far for most people to walk, especially along Mull's roads: and the Oban to Craignure ferry route has always carried a high proportion of foot passengers. How could these visitors be transported between the ferry terminus on the one hand, and the castle and its gardens on the other?
The solution arrived at was not an obvious one: it was to build a narrow gauge railway from a station a short distance west of Torosay Castle to another on the headland at the south side of Craignure Bay. So was born the slightly oddly named Mull & West Highland Narrow Gauge Railway: which is more usually, and more conveniently, just called the Isle of Mull Railway.
A railway on a Scottish island is not an entirely novel idea. In the past there have been industrial or military railways built on a number of islands including Skye, Lewis and Hoy. But the Isle of Mull Railway does have a unique claim to fame in being the only passenger railway ever to have run on a Scottish island.
Although the idea was first floated in 1975, it took a little while for it to come to fruition. Work finally began in 1982, and the Isle of Mull Railway carried its first passengers on 22 June 1984. Parts of the route took advantage of a drive the builders of Torosay Castle had intended should go all the way to Craignure in the 1850s. In the event there were problems obtaining permission for the final stretch into Craignure, so the idea of a direct drive was abandoned after much of it had been constructed.
Rediscovering the line of the partly-completed drive gave the builders of the Mull Railway a start. But the landscape of Mull is never simple, and the problems the builders had to overcome included rocky outcrops and a peat bog deep enough to swallow a caterpillar-driven tractor.
Weekend loans of heavy earth-moving equipment, the judicious use of explosives, and a huge amount of hard work by enthusiastic volunteers eventually won through. By the time it was finished the railway had consumed 23 tonnes of rails; 3,000 sleepers made from Mull timber; 12,000 dog spikes and fishplates plus the nuts and bolts to secure them; and 1,500 tonnes of ballast.
The Isle of Mull Railway operates from Easter to the end of October. Details of the current fares and timetable can be found on the railway's own website. Today between 25,000 and 30,000 people make the journey every year, not counting many small children and dogs.
The railway currently operates four engines. The star of the show is the heavy duty steam engine, Victoria. She was built in 1993 specifically for the railway and to pull heavier loads than could be managed by the railway's original steam engine, Lady of the Isles, (or "LOTI" for short).
A pair of diesel locomotives, again with one capable of pulling heavier loads than the other, complete the foursome. The romance of steam is undeniable, and the railway tries to run steam services whenever possible: but if you do find yourself behind a diesel, at least you can be assured of views uninterrupted by smoke!
And the views are well worth seeing, because the Isle of Mull Railway was always intended to be an attraction in its own right, and not just a means of getting from Craignure to Torosay Castle and back. From the station at the Craignure end of the track the first half of the journey takes you south along the coast, offering superb views over the Sound of Mull to Morvern and to the Isle of Lismore, and over Duart Bay to the to the superbly located Duart Castle. The second half of the journey is largely through Torosay's lovely woodland, with scenery that changes throughout the year.