The village of Mallaig was founded in the 1840s, when Lord Lovat, owner of North Morar Estate, divided up the farm of Mallaigvaig into seventeen parcels of land and encouraged his tenants to move to the western part of the peninsula and turn to fishing as a way of life. The population and local economy expanded rapidly in the 20th century with the arrival of the railway. Ferries operated by Caledonian MacBrayne and Bruce Watt Sea Cruises sail from the port to Armadale on the Isle of Skye, Inverie in Knoydart, and the isles of Rùm, Eigg, Muck, and Canna. Mallaig is the main commercial fishing port on the West Coast of Scotland, and during the 1960s was the busiest herring port in Europe. Mallaig prided itself at that time on its famous traditionally smoked kippers, but today only one traditional smokehouse remains, Jaffy's and Sons. Mallaig and the surrounding area is a popular area for holidays.
The majority of the community speaks English, with a minority of residents speaking both English and Gaelic. In addition, traditional Gaelic is still taught in the school to pupils who choose to learn the language.
Mallaig has extensive distance learning facilities, allowing the local population access to all forms of education from leisure classes to university degrees through Lochaber College and the UHI Millennium Institute. The College is one of the most successful of its kind in Britain, with over 8% of the local population accessing its facilities. The college has published a PDF version of the 19th century Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Condition of Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands report. Recently the Learning Centre has opened a marine-specific vocational centre and is at the forefront of developing Marine Certification courses for fishermen, as well as being a RYA certified centre.
Mallaig has its own primary school, which recently accepted the Gaelic medium schoolchildren from Lady Lovat Primary School in the nearby village of Morar, to allow that school to focus more on their English medium students.
Mallaig also has its own High School, opened in 1989 (however a secondary school had previously existed in a slightly different location) which caters for Mallaig, the villages of Morar and Arisaig, along with the nearby Small Isles of Eigg, Rùm, Muck and Canna and finally the nearby Knoydart peninsula. The school has increasing numbers of pupils from the Small Isles, and as daily travel from home to school is impossible, these pupils are boarded in the school's hostel.
Mallaig has several restaurants, cafes, and takeaways along with a community-run swimming pool and leisure centre. The main focus is on the tourist trade during the summer, however some facilities are open all year round, including the swimming pool. Mallaig has three hotels, lots of self-catering accommodation and several guest houses.
There are two banks and three pubs. The compact village centre is close to the harbour and railway station, with residential areas beyond to the south and east of the harbour. Most of the retail premises are in the main street, or on Davies Brae, which runs south from the village centre. The swimming pool is at the high point of the village on Fank Brae.
There are two minimarkets, and gift shops. An art gallery sells work by local artists. There is a small bookshop A heritage centre next to the railway station is based around old photographs of the locality, but as Mallaig has only existed during the age of photography this offers a good introduction to the history and heritage of the locality. There are Roman Catholic and Church of Scotland churches, and also a Fishermen's Mission facility run by the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen. There is a small petrol station with restricted opening times near the harbour.
The West Highland Line links Mallaig railway station by rail to Fort William, Oban and Glasgow. The line was voted the top rail journey in the world by readers of independent travel magazine Wanderlust in 2009, ahead of the iconic Trans-Siberian and the Cuzco to Machu Picchu line in Peru. The four-hour trip to Dumbarton Central railway station passes through spectacular scenery including seascapes, lochsides, mountain and moorland terrain, and offers views of Loch Lomond, the Gare Loch, Rannoch Moor, Ben Nevis, Glenfinnan and Glen Shiel, and Loch Eil. The line also runs along the Clyde between Helensburgh and Glasgow and offers views across the estuary.
In the summer the Jacobite steam train service from Fort William visits Mallaig.
Sheil Buses operate a bus service from Mallaig to Fort William. Buses also run south along the A861 to the villages of Acharacle and Strontian.
Mallaig is an important ferry port with regular Caledonian MacBrayne ferry services to Armadale on the Isle of Skye, a thirty-minute sailing. They also run a daily service to the Small Isles of Canna, Rùm, Eigg and Muck, although the timetable and itinerary differ from day to day. Calmac also offers a non-landing ticket which allows visitors to cruise the Small Isles.
In addition, a local ferry service owned by former lifeboatman Bruce Watt sails daily to Inverie in Knoydart, a very remote village, and also calls by prior arrangement at Tarbet in Morar, a location that is only accessible by sea. This service also offers a non-landing cruise through scenic Loch Nevis.
The Mallaig railway was used during the filming of the Harry Potter series of films, and the Hogwarts Express could often be seen in the summer during periods of filming. Many other local areas were used for location filming.
The 1996 film Breaking the Waves was largely filmed in Mallaig and the surrounding area, and the beach scenes of Local Hero were filmed at Morar and Arisaig, a few miles to the south.