WE’VE just left Edinburgh’s Waverley station and the train is chugging along at a Victorian pace over the world’s first major steel bridge. Yes, I am on the Royal Scotsman, champagne flute in hand, crossing Edinburgh’s Forth Bridge.
It’s a bono fide do-before-you-die travel moment. Committed to nostalgia even as it happens. As iconic as tea at the Ritz, a stroll along Paris’s Left Bank with a lover, a ride through Mumbai in an autorickshaw, or, erm, a murder on the Orient Express.
Some of us watch from the observation car, which feels a bit like a moving Edwardian country house. The reassuringly old smells of whisky and polish mingle with the comfortingly expensive sounds of padded footsteps, whispers and tinkling glass. Gleaming wood panelling, soft lighting, tartan upholstery and fanned-out magazines.
Others, like me, head out to the viewing platform for a more bracing experience. This is an ideal place to abandon a hangover to the elements.
Out here, on a small, perfectly formed deck, all is sound and fury. This is Scotland as high-definition cinema. Salted wind rages through russet cantilevers. The cry of gulls makes a discordant symphony of the rhythm the train beats upon the tracks. Further down still, the firth is whipped into angry grey peaks.
Behind us, Edinburgh. Ahead, the Kingdom of Fife, the Highlands, the north of both mind and map. And here we are, moving through a tunnel forged in steel, witnessing a marvel of Victorian engineering at closer hand than anyone except the people who have to keep painting the damn thing. ScotRail, this is not.
Our four-night, 720-mile Classic Journey, taking in Arbroath, Kyle of Lochalsh, the Black Isle, Spey Valley, Cairngorms and back through Dundee, begins at Waverley. A station I dash through countless times a week becomes, in this context, a setting for a romantic rendez-vous, a short story waiting to be written. We convene over tea and shortbread in the first-class waiting lounge: behind a door I had never noticed, up a flight of stairs I had no idea existed. We are then marched bombastically on to the train by a piper in full regalia, forming an unlikely procession past M&S, Café Nero, and the Pastry Shop.
This is the disorientating thing about holidaying on your own doorstep. It’s like going on a tour bus in your home city (albeit a tour bus with as much malt whisky as you can stomach). On the one hand, you’ve seen it all before. On the other, everything looks different. And, like the past, the Scotland of the Royal Scotsman really is a different country.
It doesn’t take long to get chatting to our fellow voyagers, most of whom come in twos. This is a holiday where the people-watching is every bit as fascinating as the scenery. There are Americans, Canadians, Australians, Belgians, Scotophiles, whisky lovers, trainspotters, golfers, a retired English couple who have been saving up for years (you need deep pockets for this train ride), a small TV crew and a glamorous Texan woman who runs the family oil company and is accompanied by an older lover who shoots from the hip. Just the intriguing mix you would hope for on a luxury Orient Express train snaking through Scotland. The train itself doesn’t move as much as you would expect. During the day we meander along new and old and private and public stretches of railway, stopping not for delays as is the way of your average disappointing train journey, but for meals.
The food appears out of a tiny open galley kitchen in which the likes of Andrew Fairlie and Timberyard’s Andrew Radford have cooked. It’s rich, fresh and local, consumed with eye-watering amounts of wine in the train’s oldest carriage, Victory, which dates from 1945. Dinners are formal one night – hired kilts and cocktail dresses – and informal the next.
The food? Think hand-dived scallops from Kyle of Lochalsh and Aberdeen Angus beef from the magnificently rectangular ebony cattle we see on a visit to Ballindalloch Castle, home of the world’s oldest herd.
We eat together at tables of four, then retire to the observation car – where the real drinking begins. This is not a holiday for people who like to keep themselves to themselves. Or, indeed, for people who like to look after their livers. Even the porridge for breakfast comes steeped in Glayva.
After dinner, things get even more traditional, or rather surreal. Each night we berth at a different station. One evening it’s the market town of Keith, the next it’s the end-of-the-world feel of the platform at Kyle of Lochalsh, and on our last it’s the modern commuter station of Dundee.
In all these places, intoxicated by fiddle music and the 25-year-old Islay whisky in our bellies, we take to the freezing platform where we ceilidh dance in our posh clothes into the wee hours. Who would have thought that while the rest of us sleep on in our beds, soused travellers from all over the world are leading a Gay Gordon on platforms up and down the country? It’s hilariously couthie, an outsider’s version of Scotland that is suspiciously lacking in dirt under its nails, yet there is something warm-blooded and real about it too.
I could bang on about visits to castles and distilleries and the small glamorous touches – in Plockton, we are advised to go into the pub, whisper “Royal Scotsman” to the barman and claim a dram on the house – but most of the time I was aching to return to the train. The real pleasure of the Royal Scotsman comes from bumping along the narrow, tartan-carpeted corridors to your luxury cabin, or just watching Scotland go by from the observation car with whisky in hand. No amount of tartan and shortbread can ever upstage the drama that’s unfolding outside.
The pink-hued majesty of the Torridon mountains, too old to contain fossils. Seals basking on rocks, ancient forests, heather turning a burnt autumnal red, deep lochs reminding you that you’re not on the moon.
Often the only audience to witness our stately progress is red deer. They lift their heads as the Royal Scotsman continues her journey. And back on the train, we lift our glasses in response.
• Tours aboard the Royal Scotsman (www.royalscotsman.com) run from 21 April until mid October and cost from £2,350 per person for the two-night Highland Journey. The four-night Classic Journey costs £4,330 per person. This year sees two new itineraries on offer, Classic Whisky and Classic Golf, while Country Homes & Gardens tours have also been reintroduced.