Discovering Scotland by train takes you way beyond the great cultural hubs to highlands, islands and moorlands as well as many of its most magnificent margins.
The soundtrack of one of Scotland’s most famous films, Trainspotting, features Lou Reed’s Perfect Day, and you will definitely have many perfect days travelling around it by train. Whether you are opting for a full on Scotland railway holiday, or just heading for some day trips from Edinburgh or Glasgow, you will experience some serious highs. Go cycling off the train in Pitlochry, canoeing along the Caledonian Canal from Fort William, or hiking in Cairngorms National Park from Aviemore. To travel to Scotland by train is not only a way to discover some of Scotland’s wildest places, but is also, as they say in Trainspotting, to ‘choose life’.
West Highland Line
Not only one of the most celebrated train journeys in Scotland, but also in the world. One of the joys of this route, between Glasgow and Mallaig on the west coast, is that it parts company with all roads and heads into wild spots such as Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, Rannoch Moor and Glencoe. In five hours you can travel through the Highlands to Fort William, then on to the small west coast fishing village at Mallaig. Next stop from here is the Isle of Skye, just a 35 mins ferry trip away, with the impressive and iconic Glenfinnan Viaduct en route.
As well as going to Mallaig, the West Highland Line also branches off at Crianlarich to take a route up to Oban, gateway to the Hebridean Islands. All in all, the West Highland Line covers 300km of Gaelic gorgeousness, which is why many people break the journey up into several stages. Spend time in the likes of Spean Bridge to explore Loch Lochy and the Great Glen, or tackle Grey Corries monro. Another great option is to head to the UK’s highest altitude station at Corrour (also features in Trainspotting) and stay at a remote hostel to feel the restorative powers of pure remote beauty.
The Kyle Line
Also known as the Kyle of Lochalsh to Inverness Line, this is one of Scotland’s best kept secrets, taking train travellers coast to coast on single track most of the way. Travel for 2 hrs 30mins to or from the Highland capital at Inverness through the Torridon Peaks, which boast nine of Scotland’s monros (mountains over 914.4 m). Bring your binoculars on this route, keeping an eye out for eagles soaring and deer grazing or just sit back and take in all the greatness.
Just before you hit the coast at Kyle of Lochalsh, you may want to take some time in the village of Plockton on the shores of Loch Carron. Rent a sea kayak and paddle out to coral beaches or other tiny bays, all surrounded by unspoiled moorland. We also recommend you start your journey in Dingwall, which is the official terminus or starting point of this line, often overlooked by the more famous Inverness station. On the short journey between Dingwall and Inverness, you can see the stunning isolated peak of Ben Wyvis.
The Far North Line
Few people realise just how easy it is to head to the far north of Scotland by train. Nor do they realise just how exquisite it is up there. Also starting in Inverness, this route takes you on a journey past salmon-filled rivers and peaty moors, as well as several whisky distilleries. The reason for needing your binoculars on this route is because you pass through one of Scotland’s best RSPB reserves, Forsinard Flows. In fact, the station of Forsinard is its visitor centre. The last stop of Thurso is mainland Scotland’s most northerly town and train station. With spectacular sea views out to the island of Hoy and Dunnet Head, you can take the ferry to the Orkney archipelago from nearby Scrabster, just 3km by taxi or local bus.
Aviemore and Cairngorms National Park
Aviemore station is the gateway to Cairngorms National Park, one of Scotland’s two national parks. This is the UK’s largest national park with a mountain landscape that goes on forever, boasting 52 summits over 900m. It is often snow-covered in winter, with skiing and other winter sports activities taking place at Cairngorm Mountain resort as well as many other adventure activities throughout the year. Another popular train stop for Cairngorms National Park is Kingussie on the River Spey. Both Aviemore and Kingussie are just over 2 hrs 30 mins from Edinburgh.
There really are stations in Scotland where you have to stick your hand out to get the train to stop. Similarly, you need to tell the conductor when you board a remote train that you will want to get off at one of these ‘request stops’. On the Far North Line, they have recently put in place a (slightly) more technical system where you press a button on the platform which then sends a message to the train driver. Request stops on the Far North Line are Culrain, Invershin, Rogart, Dunrobin Castle (one of Scotland’s oldest inhabited castles), Kildonan, Kinbrace, Scotscalder and Altnabreac (step off the train onto a rough path and into wilderness, 20km from the nearest road). Journeys to all these stations can be booked on Loco2.
These request stop stations are always under threat from closure. There is one stop at Duncraig, on the Kyle of Lochalsh line, that was ordered to be shut in the 1960’s but train drivers refused to acknowledge this. They just kept stopping there and, thankfully the station is still open today. Treat yourself to the charming book ‘Tiny Stations’ by Dixe Wills to read more about these remote wonders of which there are 148 in the UK to date. Then find yourself a bothy, or remote mountain shelter, to stay at and plan a real Scottish adventure. Another great way to get enthused about outdoor adventures in Scotland is to attend the Mountain Festival in Fort William, which takes place every February, with a wonderful array of films, speakers and events in the heart of the winter, and the heart of the highlands.
Blog image credits top to bottom: Ben Cruachan iStock ©Mike63, Autumn colours at Caledonian Canal iStock ©walent, Sgurr Mhic Bharraich, Scottish mist and Loch, Kyle of Lochalsh iStock ©AlasdairJames, Ben Wyvis at sunset iStock ©northlightimages, Old Man of Hoy in evening Light iStock ©northlightimages, Red deer foraging during the Scottish winter iStock ©Gannet77, The Green Bothy iStock ©Robin702, Corrour Estate, Scotland iStock ©uppy61
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