Rail journeys are trending – and not just thanks to ongoing strikes. This year, there has been a spike of interest on Google for train travel within Great Britain, as well as Belmond’s luxury British Pullman train and, more specifically, Scotland. Over the past month in the UK, there has been a 56 per cent increase in searches for “train travel Scotland”.
It’s a good time to act on that interest. Firstly, you’ll avoid summer crowds, but you can also take advantage of ScotRail’s temporary suspension of peak time train fares, which runs until the end of March next year. As a guide, tickets for travel during peak times between Edinburgh and Glasgow have dropped from £28.90 to £14.90.
There’s perhaps no better journey to make use of this pilot scheme than on the Scottish Grand Tour – the four-day train journey that slices through epic mountain ranges and over remote moorland, past satin-surfaced lochs and into stately cities, taking in landmarks immortalised on screen and some of Britain’s most stunning railways. It offers a spectrum of the whole country over a long weekend.
Made up of three legs, it links Glasgow, the Isle of Skye, Inverness and Edinburgh, passing through villages, famous film locations, Britain’s highest mountain….and that viaduct.
The £89 Scottish Grand Tour train pass gives you unlimited travel on any of these lines – and between Edinburgh and Glasgow too if you want to return to where you started – including stop-offs, but travel is limited to after 9.15am on some sections. ScotRail’s peak fare-free scheme means you can hop on any train at any time – an early departure will allow you to pack in more sightseeing along the way.
Day 1 – Glasgow to Mallaig
The journey along the West Highland Line is commonly dubbed Britain’s prettiest and the early start for the 8.21am from Glasgow Queen Street was a breeze. My partner and I had overnighted at the new Sandman Signature Glasgow Hotel, a pleasant 15-minute walk away from the station, so were ready to sit back and enjoy the five-and-a-half-hour ride.
Glasgow’s suburbs gradually gave way to shimmering lochs, gentle hills and copper-tinged forests and as the Lowlands merged into Highlands, we had glorious views of the sleek cobalt of Loch Lomond and the formidable Arrochar Alps.
On the vast and isolated wilderness of Rannoch Moor, only the odd farmhouse broke up blankets of gold and ochre scrub and peat bog. Corrour, familiar as a backdrop in Trainspotting, is the UK’s highest mainline station and one of its most remote too. With no roads nearby, the only other way of getting there is via a 32km hike.
Later came the colossal Nevis mountains (hugging Britain’s highest peak, Ben Nevis), Thomas Telford’s Caledonian Canal and Neptune’s Staircase, at 500m its longest string of locks. Then came the biggie.
A mammoth 380 metres long, the curved Glenfinnan Viaduct is arguably the most famous railway track in the world, thanks to Hogwarts Express scenes in the Harry Potter films. Inside our carriage, virtually every nose was pressed to the window.
Soon, this ScotRail train could be the only way to get the Harry Potter experience, with the popular Jacobite Steam Train that carries fans over the viaduct at risk of suspension next year due to safety measures concerning its door locking mechanisms.
At Glenfinnan Station we alighted, dropped our bags in left luggage and followed an off-road trail underneath the viaduct before climbing the Glenfinnan Monument, a memorial to Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite Rising and the perfect place to watch the sun setting over Loch Shiel. The last train (there are only three a day) delivered us to Mallaig just after 5.30pm for our overnight stop.
Day 2: Mallaig to Broadford, Skye
To catch our next train in Kyle of Lochalsh further up the mainland, we had to cross the Sound of Sleat to Armadale on the Isle of Skye. Our 8.15am ferry sprung two beautiful surprises: an incredible red-pink sunrise and a pod of dolphins that swam alongside us.
At Armadale, a two-hour wait for the bus to our destination of Broadford allowed time to explore the stunning coastline, albeit with our noisy wheelie suitcase. We meekly apologised to a passing dog walker for the racket and he cheerfully replied that we could have left it by the bus stop. “There’s no crime here,” he added. “I leave the keys in my van all the time.”
Once in Broadford, we abandoned the case at our B&B and wandered up the coast to Irishman’s Point to admire the bay’s scattered islands and the mainland’s colossal mountains.
Day 3: Isle of Skye to Inverness
After catching a bus over Skye Bridge to Kyle of Lochalsh, we hopped on a train north-east towards Inverness, jumping off at the coastal village of Plockton. Another place that’s attracted screen types – the series Hamish Macbeth and movie The Wicker Man filmed here – Plockton has that Local Hero-style charm with the rather incongruous winter addition of palm trees.
Back onboard, we trundled past beautiful Loch Carron with its rocky shoreline and the mighty Torridon Peaks before catching glimpses of a mist-shrouded Ben Wyvis, from Scottish Gaelic Beinn Uais, or “awesome mountain”.
In Inverness, the recently-opened Uile-bheist Distillery and Brewery beckoned for a tour and tasting of its beers and blended whisky. There’s a wait to try the single malt; by law whisky must be matured for at least three years.
Day 4: Inverness to Edinburgh
After gliding past the Moray Firth, we arrived in Cairngorms National Park, where fields of grazing sheep flanked the meandering River Spey in the shadow of its Herculean peaks. In Aviemore, quiet outside of the ski season, we hopped off and walked a small stretch of the Speyside Way.
Later, as lochs abated and rugged peaks gave way to gentle hills and sprinklings of houses, we passed – without fanfare – the geographical centre of Scotland. Scone Palace – where Macbeth, Robert the Bruce and Charles II were crowned – peeped out from behind trees at Perth, while near Stirling the National Wallace Monument nodded down from a crag above the fields where Sir William Wallace once led troops to victory against the English.
Thanks to us being able to catch an early morning train from Inverness we arrived in Edinburgh mid-afternoon, in time to drop our bags at Native Edinburgh, an elegant new aparthotel set in a Georgian townhouse about 10 minutes’ walk from Edinburgh Waverley station, and explore the Royal Mile, the magnificent Castle at one end and the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the King’s official Scottish residence, at the other.
For a taste of Scotland, this trip is unbeatable. Although there isn’t much chance to explore, ScotRail’s current “off peak fares all day” offer allows you to eke out the most of every day.
If I were to do it again, I’d make the trip in reverse, leaving the spectacular Glenfinnan Viaduct and Loch Lomond until last. And I’d leave the suitcase at home.
How to get there and around
The Scottish Grand Tour travel pass between Glasgow, Inverness and Edinburgh, costs £89 and allows four days of travel over eight consecutive days. Coach travel to and from Skye is included (check timetables here) but you’ll need to buy ferry tickets from CalMac. A discount on the cost of the train pass is available for Railcard holders. ScotRail’s “Off-peak all day long” trial runs until 31 March 2024.
Where to stay
Double rooms at Sandman Signature Glasgow Hotel start from £89 including breakfast.
Double rooms at Native Edinburgh start from £100pn.
Where to visit
Tours and tastings at the Uile-Bheist Distillery & Brewery start from £30.