Scotland is a land of many different landscapes, with a great variety of nature, architecture and tradition to be seen. One of the best ways to view these is by travelling by train, where each curve in the track offers up a new and often spectacular scene. Here are six of the best such journeys.
The Borders Railway
This line re-opened in September 2015, after having been been closed since 1969. It links Edinburgh Waverley with Tweedbank, and since its re-opening has added seven new stations to the Scottish rail network. This engineering feat means it is the longest new railway to be constructed in the UK in over 100 years, and passes through forests, moorland and bountiful fields. Hop off at Eskbank to visit the mysterious Rosslyn Chapel, or continue on to Tweedbank and visit Sir Walter Scott’s home, Abbotsford House. The world’s longest tapestry, The Great Tapestry of Scotland, will be housed in a new visitor centre in Galashiels, the penultimate stop on the Borders Line.
Edinburgh to Inverness
Head north from Waverley, and you soon come to the mighty Firth of Forth, location of the iconic Forth Rail Bridge, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and extraordinary feat of engineering. As the train continues, it leaves the sea behind and the rolling fields and woodlands begin to get steeper and more rugged. Once beyond Perth, the train soon enters the Highlands, and mountains appear. Expect to see deer, mountain hare, steep gorges and thundering waterfalls, all from the comfort of your chair. The train climbs higher and higher and snow often clads the mountains. Leave the train at Aviemore to travel on the Strathspey Steam Railway, or continue on to Inverness, the capital of the Highlands.
Strathspey Steam Railway
After being closed to passengers in 1965, this preserved route was reopened by the Strathspey Railway Company in 1978 and is definitely more about the journey than the destination. Comfortable carriages are hauled by a traditional steam train, or other vintage engines, all travelling through the wonderful Cairngorm mountains and offering glimpses of eagles and ospreys. This might sound enough of a draw by itself, but this route also has excellent dining options and for the dedicated railway enthusiast, the chance to actually drive and fire the steam engine itself.
The Kyle Line
Two and a half hours of mountains and lochs, beaches and wildlife, the Kyle Line leaves Inverness and winds through some of the most stunning scenery in the UK. This is one of the best places to spot the majestic golden eagle, or the even larger white-tailed sea eagle, often referred to as a flying barn door due to its huge size. Deer abound and other treats includes the potential to spot otters from the comfort of your seat. Indeed, it may prove difficult to tear your eyes away from the views. Disembark at Kyle of Lochalsh on the west coast of Scotland and you are at the gateway to the Isle of Skye and the islands to the west.
The Far North Line
Like the Kyle line, this route heads north out of Inverness and weaves in and out of mountains and lochs, all the way to the very top of Scotland and the towns of Thurso and Wick. It is a long journey north, as the terrain means the train has to curve and twist, often doubling back on itself. There are small and picturesque towns on the route, along with request stops; often little more than a platform in the middle of rugged, empty country. Highlights along the route include the chance to see seals and dolphins in the North Sea, wild glens full of nature, and the extraordinary expanse of blanket bog that is the Flow Country. If you get off at Dunrobin Castle you gain a discount on entry if you show your ticket. Leave the train at Thurso to catch the ferry to the northern islands of Orkney, or head on to Wick and catch a bus to John o’Groats and the very top of Scotland.
The West Highland Line
Voted as the best railway journey, not just in Scotland or the UK but the world, the West Highland Line stretches from Glasgow to Mallaig on the west coast. The stupendous scenery includes the vast Rannoch Moor, some of the highest peaks in the UK, and the silver beaches of Morar. Expect children, and adults too, to excitedly exclaim, ‘this is Harry Potter bridge!’ The famous Hogwart’s Express, having left Platform 9 3/4, appeared on parts of this route in several of the films, and the ‘bridge’ is the Glenfinnan Viaduct, which gives the traveller stunning views of Loch Shiel and the Highlander’s memorial. One of the last stops on the route, with enchanting vistas out to the islands of Muck, Eigg and Rum, Arisaig is the furthest west station on the UK mainland. In summer the journey between Fort William and Mallaig can be made even more romantic by travelling on the train pulled by the steam engine, The Jacobite.