Written by Vivien Devlin
“My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I'll not be knowing,
Yet there isn't a train I wouldn't take,
No matter where it's going.”
Edna St.Vincent Millais
A journey by train offers scope for a different perspective and sense of adventure; it's a totally relaxing way to travel, eliminating the stress when touring around a strange country with no problems in following a map - while someone else takes care of the driving.
And if you are going to travel by train then why not do it in glamorous style. Discerning travellers today welcome the renaissance of deluxe rail journeys worldwide.
On a visit to Scotland, the most romantic way to tour the Highlands is to experience a journey on The Royal Scotsman. Step aboard to mix and mingle with just 36 like-minded, international guests on this classic Country House Hotel-on rails.
Life on Board
“Ever since childhood, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.”
With 14 twin, 2 double and 4 single cabins sleeping thirty six guests, The Royal Scotsman offers a choice of 2 – 7 night itineraries, each well-planned with daily excursions.
The theme of each journey is to embrace Scottish history, culture and Highland outdoor life, with visits to Castles, Highland estates (wildlife, fishing, shooting) and Distillery tours.
I recently experienced the four day, 720 mile Classic Journey to the Heart of the Highlands and over to the North West coastline. At Waverley Station, Edinburgh the start of our Scottish adventure begins as a kilted Piper leads the procession of guests from the 1st class waiting room to the gleaming maroon and gold liveried train. The design is marvellously evocative - nostalgic images of old steam engines, the regular beat of pistons, discipline of timetables, and arrival at unknown stations.
On board we are shown into the Observation Car, the "drawing room", with sofas and armchairs, tables piled with magazines, reading lamps, prints and maps on the walls. At 2.05 pm precisely, as we sip the ice-chilled bubbly, the train slowly departs the station, past Princes Street Gardens, through meandering tracks and tunnels, leaving the city behind, and heads northwards to the Firth of Forth. As we cross the Forth Rail Bridge - one of the Wonders of the World - a few of us brave the outdoor deck to see the track lines and the massive brick-red girders above on this magnificent Victorian construction.
Before traditional Afternoon Tea is served, (scones & jam, cucumber sandwiches, cakes) we are taken along the corridor to our compact but cosy stateroom, furnished in dark wood, tweed fabrics, with private shower room, twin beds, wardrobe, dressing table, efficient heating, cooling fan and window for fresh air.
Around 7pm each evening, guests gather in the Observation Car for an aperitif and canapés. The appreciation and consumption of whisky is seriously encouraged. During his welcome talk, Michael Andrews the train manager, boasts that the Bar offers over 50 Malts, suggesting we sample “two for breakfast, lunch and dinner with a few nightcaps!.”
"The Royal Scotsman has one of the very best restaurants in Britain - moving or stationary"
Travel & Leisure
Dining on board is a grand occasion. There are two traditional Dining Cars, Raven and Victory (dating from 1945), furnished with mahogany marquetry- panelled walls. Tables are formally laid with white linen tablecloths, fresh flowers, Royal Worcester china, silverware and crystal glasses.
A set menu for lunch and dinner showcases fine Scottish meat, game, and seafood. Local produce may be sourced en route, such as a crate of langoustines direct from a fishing boat. Head chef Mark Tamburrini previously worked at L’Escargot, London and Rococco, Glasgow and now creates 5 star restaurant meals in the tiny Galley with just one sous chef and a pantry assistant.
Expect a feast of good food: fresh baked bread, oak-smoked salmon, organic asparagus, wild mushrooms, Shetland Island beef, West Coast Scallops and Halibut; Raspberry and White chocolate tart – all complemented with delicious wines. During each season, 160 salmon, 1 kg of truffles, four tins of Beluga caviar and 10kg of Scotch beef will be consumed.
Be sure to pack your tuxedo and evening gown as there will be a couple of formal black tie dinners during the journey. On this trip, most impressively, two Australian gentlemen wore Highland Dress to celebrate their Scottish ancestry. (Kilt hire or Tailor-Made Highland Dress can be arranged and delivered to the train).
Over a post-prandial nightcap, (another Scotch perhaps), we are entertained each night by local musicians, as we get to know new friends from the USA, Australia and Europe, including a honeymoon couple from Holland on their first visit to Scotland.
Day 2: After a gourmet breakfast (porridge drizzled with Glayva liqueur, Arbroath smokie, eggs, bacon, toast, coffee), we disembark at Muir of Ord and driven by coach to Glen Ord “Singleton” Distillery. Founded in 1838, it’s one of the largest of Diageo Classic Malts. The rural Ross-shire location is ideal with pure spring water from the White Burn creating the whisky’s character, while sherry and bourbon casks produce a unique flavour, blending scents of tobacco and vanilla. This thriving distillery produces over five million litres a year - Singleton is the fastest growing single malt in Asia, with more than 100,000 cases exported to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.
Arriving back at the train, two stewards stand at the carriage door with trays of pink Sangria cocktail - “Welcome home!”
Over lunch, we follow the historic Kyle Line, built between 1860 and 1897, from Inverness to the West Coast. It is said that it’s a miracle the railway was built at all. It needed business entrepreneurs, capital, the acceptance of landowners and sheer engineering skills to construct the track across this wild terrain. It was (and still is) an important route to and from Lochalsh, due to the fish trade, and cruises to the Hebrides for tourists.
The train picks up speed through the scenic Strathcarron, a rugged, windswept glen. As we gaze out of the window, there’s an occasional shout of “Deer!,” “a Stag!” and keen photographers rush out to the open-air deck for close up shots. We skirt around the Torridon Mountains before our next stop, Plockton, a white-washed conservation village on the shores of Loch Carron.
Here we are treated to a trip on Calum’s seal-spotting boat, Sula Mhor. This award winning tourist venture has been running for 30 years and it’s great fun, especially on this warm summer’s day.
Stabled at the fishing port of Kyle of Lochalsh overnight, after dinner, we step on to the platform, in formal dress, to dance the night away at our own wee ceilidh with music from two young local fiddlers. Beyond the train, in the distance are the dramatic peaks of the Cuillins, just over the sea on Skye. Breathtaking.
“The Journey, not the arrival matters”.
Next morning, dawn freshens as we set off again traveling east again along the Kyle Line to Cairngorm National Park, famous for sports activities and winter skiing
We disembark at Carrbridge to visit Ballindalloch Castle, the ancestral home of the Macpherson-Grant family. While the castle has been extended over the years, the original tower dates from 1546. The present Laird of Ballindalloch is Lady Clare Macpherson-Grant, (daughter of the late Sir Ewan, 6th Baronet), who lives here with her husband Oliver Russell and their family.
Hospitality both on and off the train is simply first class. The team of young stewards is most attentive, topping up your wine and champagne, refreshing your gin or dram, and serving meals with friendly charm. When on daily excursions, coffee, tea and cakes are offered, at no extra charge.
As this is Scotland, whisky is well promoted on the train. The list of Scotch is divided by region, Lowland to Island, and Distillers Editions. The knowledgeable Ben the barman is happy to advise. For the novice, he suggests getting under steam with a mellow honeyed Isle of Jura, and a sweet, fruity Mannochmore; for the mature palate, Glenmorangie Lasanta, described by an American guest as warm and spicy which “left my tongue tingling.”
I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.
On the final morning over another superb breakfast (Fruit compote, scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, pain au raisin), we head south along the Fife Coast and back over the Forth Bridge.
As we bid our farewells and exchange addresses, we agree that it feels like a week rather than four days since we left Edinburgh. Our mini United Nations group of guests created a fantastic House Party, with lively conversation amongst new travel friends each night, often to the wee small hours. We have experienced, heard, seen, smelt, tasted and learnt so much, cosseted in luxury and pampered day and night with fine Scottish hospitality.
This is no ordinary train journey. To witness the wild beauty of the Highlands, with its ancient tapestry of mountains, glens, lochs, rivers and moors, flash by the window, is so magical.
This is authentic, enriching, romantic travel at its best - no wonder The Royal Scotsman is listed in Patricia Shultz’s book, “1,000 Places to See before you Die.”
The Royal Scotsman - Quick Facts
Choice of 2 – 7 night Itineraries around Scotland.
Signature Grand Tour of Great Britain (annual)
Private Charters for Weddings and family celebrations.
Corporate Charters for dinners and events.
Tel. 0845 077 2222 (UK)
Int. Tel. +44  3117 1585