With its jaw-dropping, cinematic landscapes, Scotland is a terrific place to drive around. But sometimes it's nice to be able to sit back and enjoy the scenery without worrying about navigating hairpin bends, steep mountain passes and free-roaming herds of shaggy highland cows. That's where the train comes in handy. And whether it's regular services or heritage steam trains, Scotland has an abundance of beautiful rail journeys. Here is a pick of the best.
Said to be the longest train in Britain, the Caledonian Sleeper sets off nightly from London Euston station and snakes north in the dark, arriving in Edinburgh just before 5am, then splitting in three directions. Some carriages continue up to Aberdeen and Inverness, while arguably the most scenic route travels five more hours west to Fort William, an adventure-seeker's paradise of a town that sits in the shadow of Ben Nevis, Britain's highest peak. Passengers will wake up to dreamy window views of rugged mountains, lochs and glens (valleys), and have breakfast delivered to their cabin by the tartan-tied, tweed-coated staff.
Fort William is the boarding point for this 84 mile (135km) round trip, which sees folk transported by a vintage steam locomotive that looks a bit like the Hogwarts Express from the Harry Potter movies. Operating in the northern summer (May-October), this service actually travels some of the same route as that fictional Express. The highlight? Crossing the Glenfinnan viaduct, a 21-arched marvel of Victorian engineering near Loch Shiel (CGI was used to place Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry by the waterfront here). The Jacobite finishes - and turns around - at Mallaig, a bustling fishing port from where you can see (and take ferries to) islands like Rum, Eigg and Skye.
You'll also see the jagged peaks of Skye if you take this fabulously under-rated 'regular' train, a coast-to-coast service that ploughs across the Highlands, skirting beautiful lochs, moors and beaches. The journey west from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh takes the best part of three hours, but you can break things up - and hop on a later train - by stopping at places like Dingwall, a pretty market town; Plockton, a picturesque seaside village used for the BBC series Hamish Macbeth (starring Robert Carlyle), or Attadale, which is home to the lovely Attadale Gardens (where exotic plants grow thanks to the warm microclimate generated by the Gulf Stream).
Inverness is also the launchpad for Britain's northern-most rail service, which runs four times daily and passes a diverse array of sights and scenery, from verdant glens, wild bogs and salmon-filled rivers to enchanting castles, golf courses and whisky distilleries. The mainline goes to Thurso, where you can hop on a bus to John o' Groats, Britain's northern-most hamlet, or Scrabster, where you can catch a ferry to the Orkney Islands. Alternatively, get off the train at Georgemas Junction, near Thurso, and take the branch line to Wick. Once the world's busiest herring fishing port, Wick has some nice seafood restaurants and an interesting heritage centre charting the village's topsy-turvy fortunes.
Operated by the same company behind the famed Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the Royal Scotsman is a five-star affair that's sure to induce pangs of envy from friends and family when you post your photos on social media. It departs Edinburgh several times during the northern summer on a range of 2-4 night itineraries. Routes vary, but you can expect liviered carriages, plush cabins, a fancy spa, mesmerising window views of the Scottish countryside and exquisite fine dining (think: Aberdeen Angus beef, Highland lamb, Mallaig scallops). Journeys also include side trips to historic battlefields and distilleries.
When this was unveiled in 2015, it was promoted as the longest new domestic railway in Britain for over 100 years. Threading 50 kilometres between Edinburgh Waverley station and Tweedbank, just outside Melrose, it follows the old Waverley Line, which was decommissioned in the 1960s. Flaunting the often overlooked bucolic beauty of the Borders region, in southern Scotland, this train takes in the hills and glens that inspired Sir Walter Scott, the legendary Scottish poet (and author of the historic novel, 'Waverley'). You can pay your respects to Scott at Abbotsford, his grand home by the River Tweed near Melrose. He passed away in here in 1832.
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