WHERE Scotland’s most scenic train rides are concerned, it’s not where you’re going, it’s how you get there, finds Alison Campsie
Glasgow to Fort William
Rolling out of Queen Street, past the estates and suburbs of north Glasgow, you can’t help but feel excited. And this is some journey, on the world-famous West Highland Line.
The houses will eventually give way to green space and more open views as you head west towards Helensburgh before cutting north towards Ardlui. This is really the journey’s beginning, where the lush drama of Argyll rolls into the majesty of the Highlands.
Within 20 minutes or so, the train will pull into Crianlarich, a great junction of the north where half the train will split to the west on the Oban line. You, meanwhile, will keep forging ahead, next calling at Upper Tyndrum, high on the hillside. From here you will dip down to the famous horseshoe curve where the train enters, circles and leaves the glen at the foot of Beinn Dorain, Beinn a’ Chaisteil and Beinn Odhar. Breathtaking stuff.
You’ll then be pulled through Rannoch Moor, with the train line stretching over 23 miles of peat and bog land.
Corrour – one of Britain’s most remote station – is next. It was the setting for a scene in Trainspotting where the characters sought respite from their normal routine. The Caledonian Sleeper from London Euston stops here. (There is now a restaurant in the station.)
In the final stages of your journey you’ll pass by Loch Treig and Monessie Gorge, where the River Spean flows below. Pull into Fort William and you will be riding high on the journey just past – and now standing in the shadows of Britain’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis,
Fort William to Mallaig
Stay on the West Highland Line at Fort William to Mallaig and you will find yourself on one of the world’s most stunning stretches of rail. From Fort William, you’ll journey deep through some of Scotland’s most historic sites, such as Glenfinnan, where Bonnie Prince Charlie rallied his Jacobite troops ahead of the 1745 rising. More recently, this section of the route has also been made famous by the Harry Potter film franchise.
After leaving Fort William, the first stop will be Corpach, a village which lies at the western end of the Caledonian Canal. Moving on, you’ll pass by Loch Eil before emerging at the Glenfinnan Viaduct, where the train slows to a polite pace to allow passengers a moment to take in the view. Ahead, glorious Loch Shiel will unfold with Glenfinnan Monument marking the spot where the Young Pretender gathered his men for the final time. Even through the windows of a train carriage, it’s a moving sight. Slowly, the train will continue its trail to the coast, in the direction the prince took to leave the mainland at Loch Nan Uamh following the slaughter of Culloden.
Arisaig is well worth a stop, where the yachts bob at the waterside and the views to Rum and Eigg will stop you in your tracks. The Silver Sands of Morar nearby is a sight unlike any other. At Mallaig, your journey will have ended. Celebrate with a fish supper at the harbour, where the seals will bob up to say hello. If you fancy travelling further, take a ferry over the sea to Skye.
Leuchars to Aberdeen
This trip may not have the romance of a Jacobean escape plot but here you will see the east coast of Scotland in its simple splendour, where the never-ending skies merge with the North Sea in a palette of silvers, pinks and blues.
Start at Leuchars and you will arrive in Dundee over the Tay Bridge, the scene of the rail disaster of 1879 but now an admired platform over the river which separates Fife and Angus. From here, you’ll get a great view of Dundee, a city enjoying a grand cultural revival.
Heading north from there, you will pass through the little towns of Broughty Ferry, Monifieth and Carnoustie, the train skimming the shoreline in places. These were all great holiday towns in the day – affectionately known as the Angus Riviera – with the blonde sands and once-towering dunes the setting for many a childhood. This was also true of Arbroath, your next stop, which features the long seaside promenade and Kerr’s Miniature Railway.
Draw into the town and you’ll be at the home of the abbey where the Scottish declaration of independence was signed in 1320. The abbey is a partial ruin, yet it remains impressive.
Next stop Montrose, and you’ll reach the town after crossing the Basin, home to some 80,000 migrating geese in the winter and some sublime sunsets, with the Angus Glens cusping this tidal basin to the east. From here you will journey to Stonehaven through some fairly unremarkable agricultural land, but the stretch between the town and Aberdeen will have you pass over some dramatic clifftop tracks, with the sea churning below.
Forth Rail Bridge
Many Scots may take this trip across the Firth of Forth for granted, given the rail bridge is an everyday link in and out of Edinburgh.
But the sublime views across the Firth of Forth are a treat as the train slides through the historic structure.
The rail bridge, which runs across the Forth estuary between South Queensferry and North Queensferry, was built between 1883 and 1890 and is 1.5 miles long.
For around £5.50, travellers can go from Edinburgh to North Queensferry and back again and experience up close this World Heritage Site, which was inscribed by Unesco in July 2015.
That accolade made the bridge Scotland’s sixth World Heritage Site and enjoys the same status as the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China.
Passengers can see the industrial beat of Rosyth, Grangemouth and Leith Docks, with the island-bound Inchcolm Abbey also on show. It was established in 1235 and is now the best-preserved group of monastic buildings in Scotland.
Edinburgh Waverley to Tweedbank
The new Borders Railway takes travellers from Edinburgh Waverley to a short distance away from his 19th century home, Abbotsford House.
Leaving Edinburgh to the east, you will pass the commuter stops of Brunstane and Newcraighall before emerging into the green fields of Dalkeith and beyond. This will take you deep into a part of Scotland perhaps lesser ventured but as beautiful and historically rich as parts of the Highlands.
You’ll pass by the old industrial heartlands surrounding Newtongrange and Gorebridge before moving into the lush valleys surrounding Stow.
Ahead is Galashiels, home of much of Scotland’s textile industry with the final stop of Tweedbank just a few minutes further down the track across the River Tweed.
The line, opened last year for the first time in 50 years, will bring many attractions closer to visitors, such as the William Adam-designed Mellerstain House, and Floors Castle.
Inverness to Thurso/Wick
The most northerly line in the country is possible its wildest, with passengers taken on a four-hour journey through largely untouched landscapes.
This line was scheduled for closure by Richard Beeching during the 1960s but was saved by a highly effective protest campaign that has preserved one of the nation’s true lifeline railways.
Leaving Inverness, you’ll soon be coasting along the scenic southern bank of the Beauly Firth on the way to Muir of Ord and Dingwall, where the main line splits.
Travellers can head west here towards Kyle and Lochalsh but stay on and you’ll see the most northerly reaches of Scotland, through Ross and Cromarty, Sutherland and then Caithness beyond.
You’ll see Foulis Castle by the town of Invergordon, where you can stop for a strictly pre-arranged tour led by the 90-year-old mother of the current Clan Chief of Munro.
At Tain, you will find the home of the Glenmorangie distillery before the train presses on up the Dornoch Firth and then the Kyle of Sutherland, before heading inland and north to Lairg at the southern end of Loch Shin.
You’ll end back at the coast, passing Balblair Wood on the way to Golspie and then Dunrobin Castle Station, where you can stop for a wander to the impressive seat of the Earl of Sutherland.
Back on track and it’s not far to Georgemas Junction, where you can head directly north to Thurso – Britain’s most northerly station – or stay put and head east to Wick, a former herring port.