RIDING THE RAILS through Scotland is a train lover’s dream, offering an experience that magnifies the beauty of the countryside, from its Highlands to its Central Belt and the Lowlands beyond.
Forget the car. Yes, it will get you from Point A to Point B, but you’re missing so much, keeping your eyes on the road and remembering to drive on the left instead of taking in the magnificence of this land of clans and whisky.
Fortunately, Scotland has an excellent train system via ScotRail (scotrail.co.uk), so hop on board and I’ll tell you about some spectacular rides, starting with the Jacobite steam train, a favorite for train enthusiasts and a must for fans of Harry Potter.
Riding The Jacobite Express
I arranged the Jacobite experience through McKinlay Kidd (mckinlaykidd.com), a tour guide company based in the UK that specializes in bucket-list excursions like this one, touted to be one of the top-10 train rides in the world.
The tour, priced around $500 (based on double occupancy), includes two nights at a bed-and-breakfast, such as the lovely Moyness House (moynesshouse.co.uk), an inn serving a full Scottish breakfast after a cozy night’s sleep.
The tour begins on Day Two with a tour guide from Inverness Tours (invernesstours.com) who picks you up for a tour around Inverness and up to Mallaig, a 90-minute drive that takes riders by Loch Ness, the hauntingly beautiful ruins of Urquhart Castle and other sites before stopping for lunch.
In our case, The Old Library in the tiny waterfront village of Arisaig.
After lunch, it’s a short drive to Mallaig where you take a seat in the comfort of the first-class cabin and are ready for a 2-hour excursion on the amazing Jacobite Express steam engine, a.k.a. The Harry Potter Train Ride to fans of the books and movies.
A Dream of a Lifetime
The Jacobite Express is an experience that many have on their list of lifetime dreams. This ride consumed me from the moment I saw the picture of the vintage steam train crossing the Glenfinnan Viaduct.
A lunch stop to enjoy fish and chips at The Old Library, on the way to board the Jacobite Express, is included in the McKinlay Kidd experience.
There’s so much beauty to take in as you ride the rails as blackened smoke billows from the engine ahead.
The track takes you through the beauty of the Scottish Highlands, its lochs, and mountains, including Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Scotland.
At the tour’s end, you return to the inn after an experience that checks all the boxes for those who have a passion for train travel.
While In Inverness
Inverness, the capital of the Highlands, is an appealing city situated on the banks of the River Ness with Inverness Castle overlooking the town. The castle is under renovation to become a new attraction celebrating the spirit of this land of clans, its past, present, and future.
Work is scheduled for completion in 2024, but until then, visitors can walk up the hill and around its base. And there’s a nice pub on that hill, aptly named The Castle Tavern (castletavern.pub) that becomes lively when live bands send your toes tapping through the night.
The pub has a commanding view of the river and city below, and serves cold ales, fish and chips, burgers, and some good Cullen Skink, a creamy fish chowder with a name strange to non-Scots, much like clam chowder.
A Cathedral With No Spires
Also worth a walk across the river from town is Inverness Cathedral (invernesscathedral.org), the northernmost Anglican (Episcopal) cathedral in the UK.
Built in the late 1800s, the cathedral is open to the public and is one of the few Scottish Cathedrals that weren’t destroyed through all the battles and uprisings the country has suffered through the centuries.
Interestingly, the cathedral has no spires. Though original plans called for spires, there was no money to complete them. So the structure stands as it did in the 19th century — a beautiful cathedral of historical importance on the River Ness.
Day Tours in Inverness
Inverness is a good jump-off point for day trips around the Highlands. I chose a day-long tour to the Isle of Skye, a craggy isle of myth and legend, with Happy Tours (happy-tours.biz), led by Graeme MacDonald, a man quite knowledgeable about sites along our route.
This is one of the most popular places to visit in the Scottish Highlands and for good reason. It’s located in an area of the Inner Hebrides with charming little villages, such as Portree, with its handful of restaurants, and a mass of geographical wonders, such as The Old Man of Storr, a large rock pinnacle that can be seen from miles around
For you Sci-Fi fans, the rock was used in Ridley Scott’s movie, “Prometheus.”. If you want more than a day on the Isle of Skye, book at least six months in advance – and if you can get a room during the high season, you’re a lucky traveler.
Next Stop: Stirling
Time between stations: 2.5 hours
Average ticket price: 35 pounds
I always get to train stations early just to make sure there are no snafus, so if you need a place to sit, there are a couple of different lounges, as well as several restaurants close by. If the weather’s nice, sit in one of the chairs next to your platform and get ready for the ride to Stirling, a beautiful ride through the Scottish countryside.
Where to Stay in Stirling
As you approach Stirling, William Wallace National Monument looms large over the horizon. Pulling into the station, a “Welcome to Stirling” sign greets passengers to the historic complex.
Uber is available in Stirling, unlike larger towns like Inverness. So, order an Uber or grab a cab at the station entrance/exit. There are several good hotels within walking distance of the station, among them Victoria Square (victoriasquare.scot), a lovely boutique hotel just a half-mile away.
There are also a number of B&Bs, such as Castlecroft B&B (castlecroft-uk.co.uk) in the shadow of Stirling Castle with commanding views of the surrounding valley. The Uber ride was a reasonable 10 pounds, including the tip.
After settling into my room at Castlecroft with its beautiful garden views, I took off to walk the well-maintained paths into town and up the hill to Stirling Castle (stirlingcastle.scot).
It’s a good idea to buy tickets to the castle in advance, allowing you to bypass long lines. Also, audio guides can be purchased ahead of time. Just keep track of all your emails and QR codes.
Here’s a suggestion: Take screenshots of your tickets and QR codes and keep them in a separate folder on your camera app. It’s a handy way to know exactly where they are when you need them.
More Than a Castle
From the battles for Scottish independence in the 1300s to the Jacobite Rebellion four centuries later, Stirling Castle, with its imposing facade high on a rocky cliff and its commanding statue of Robert the Bruce, is an extremely popular attraction.
In fact, that’s what a majority of folks come to see. But there’s more to this small city than its famous castle.
The Old Town Jail (oldtownjail.co.uk) is a fun experience for children and adults. Actors portray jailers and inmates, and the escape room is one of the best of its kind.
Directly up the hill from the jail is the Church of the Holy Rude (holyrude.org), a church where James VI was crowned King of Scots, and from its pulpit, John Knox preached a sermon.
If you’re one who enjoys walking through graveyards, the adjoining grounds are the final resting place for a number of Stirling elites.
A Sip O’ Gin
Mention Scotland to those who imbibe in the spirits and the first thing that comes to mind are those wonderful single malts. But artisanal gins are now catching on throughout the country as distillers look to increase their profit margin by having a product that distills faster than the country’s famous whisky. Now, there are approximately 100 gin distilleries in the country.
Stirling Distillery (stirlingdistillery.com) is one. The distillery sits in the shadow of Stirling Castle and a visit is a nice way to spend an hour or two learning more about the spirits that make Scotland famous. Buy a ticket (25 pounds) and indulge in the Gin Experience, giving guests an opportunity to sample seven different gins and get a tour of the city’s first legal distillery.
An Award-Winning Eatery
Stirling is a busy place, so making reservations at area restaurants is a good idea, and in many cases, a must in restaurants around Scotland. Fortunately, I’d made reservations at Brea (brea-stirling.co.uk) a couple of weeks in advance.
Brea is an award-winning restaurant in the heart of the city and is a winner of several awards, including 2021’s Restaurant and Bar Awards’ “Best Independent Restaurant in Central Scotland,” and winner of its “Culinary Excellence in Gourmet Scottish Cuisine” award. Its burger was also voted the best in Stirling at 2020’s Restaurant Guru Awards.
Dinner at Brea is an experience you’ll want to savor, so cordon off a couple of hours and treat yourself to a meal you won’t soon forget.
Other diner favorites include The Orangery, Caffe Pompei, and The Woodside, a pub/hotel with a good beer menu and delicious Scottish seafood.
Next stop: Edinburgh.
The time between stations: 45 minutes
Average ticket price: 10 pounds
After a good night’s sleep and delicious breakfast prepared by Castlecroft’s innkeeper Laura Macpherson, it was off to Edinburgh for the final leg of my train journey around Scotland.
Edinburgh is a city filled with tourists, so much so that sometimes it’s hard to find space on the sidewalks of Old Town. The bars are crowded, as are most of the restaurants at every meal.
Of course, if it’s your first trip to Edinburgh, you’ll want to visit Edinburgh Castle (edinburghcastle.scot). Once again, you’re best advised to get your ticket online weeks in advance. I saw many people trying to buy tickets when they walked up to the ticket booth. They were turned away.
The castle is still used as a military facility so don’t be surprised if you are there at 1 p.m. and hear the guns go off. It’s something that happens every day and creates a good deal of excitement!
Other sites worth visiting are The Palace of Holyrood House (rct.uk), founded by King David I in the 12th century, and the incredible National Museum of Scotland (nms.ac.uk), where a taxidermized Dolly the Sheep is in residence, one of the thousands of items in the museum’s collection.
Happen Upon the Unexpected
It’s often worth veering off the beaten path and happening upon some incredible finds tucked away in unexpected places.
Bannerman’s Bar (bannermanslive.co.uk) is one of those wonderful dark bars on side streets in Old Town Edinburgh. During the day, this 235-year-old bar is a place for locals who want to get away from the tourist crowd to toss back a drink or two — there’s no food served here.
At night, it turns into a rowdy bar with live music from some well-known bands, including the drummer from AC/DC and members of Blue Öyster Cult, who played recently, says manager Ru Ironside.
There are a lot of fun little bars like that — the kind you find when you’re looking for a shortcut to another place. The Devil’s Advocate (devilsadvocateedinburgh.co.uk) is another one, and it has a great pub menu. You’ll find it in an old Victorian pump house tucked away in Advocate’s Close in Old Town Edinburgh.
An Outlandish Experience
Blackness Castle (historicenvironment.scot), located in the Edinburgh suburb of Queensferry, is an impressive 15th-century fortress that was the filming location used to represent Fort William, a castle where Jamie received lashes from Capt. Randall. It’s also where Jamie’s dad died after having to watch his son’s punishment.
Today, the castle is a tourist attraction – a stone’s throw from the small village of Blackness – that’s far enough outside Edinburgh to make it a less-crowded tourist venue. In fact, the day I was there, I shared the castle with no more than 10 others and was able to roam around, imagining myself living there during its heyday in the 1400s as a military stronghold along the Firth of the Forth, an estuary of several Scottish Rivers.
If you can add an extra day to your Scotland trip, it’s worth it for you Outlander fans and others who appreciate a good, less-crowded castle experience.