By Margaret M. Johnson

Touring Scotland On Board the Royal Scotsman - The Royal Scotsman takes guests straight to the heart of The Highlands on journeys from April to October commencing in Edinburgh.
The Royal Scotsman

The Royal Scotsman takes guests straight to the heart of The Highlands on journeys from April to October commencing in Edinburgh

There are trains, and then there are trains -- classic, old-fashioned, romantic, and luxurious -- like The Royal Scotsman, a nine-car rolling hotel that takes guests straight to the heart of the Highlands through landscapes of pine-clad mountains reflected in mirror-clad lochs. If you think you'd like to see Scotland from the comfort of a classic Pullman train, then this is an adventure worth waiting for.

My husband and I were booked on a four-night "classic" voyage that departed Edinburgh last October. If you've never visited Scotland, Edinburgh is the perfect place to start, not only as its capital city, but also as one with stunning medieval and Georgian architecture, great museums, and renowned nightlife -- to say nothing of the International Festival held here each August in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle, the city's centerpiece. Spend at least two nights here, if you can, before or after your train journey.

A piper led our 34 fellow guests from the waiting lounge at Waverley Station to the train, and it was all uphill from there -- champagne, canapes, introductions, and the slow chug out of the station north across the Firth of Forth via the Forth Railway Bridge. Considered one of the greatest achievements of the Victorian Age, the bridge is known as the eighth wonder of the world. After afternoon tea, we continued heading up the east coast of Scotland through Arbroath (famous for its "smokies," a type of smoked haddock) and Aberdeen. Our first off-board excursion was a traditional Scottish ceilidh at Strathisla (, the oldest working distillery in the Highlands, and the first of many "wee drams" to get us in the swing of things.

After we were warmed up, we returned to the train for our welcoming gourmet dinner, prepared -- amazingly enough -- by three young chefs working in a space smaller than that of an average walk-in closet. Obviously kitchen size was never a factor, as meal after meal we were treated to Scottish specialties ranging from Cullen Skink (a delicious smoked haddock soup), to Perthshire lamb, Aberdeen beef, Haggis (the Scottish national dish made with spiced sheep's innards and oatmeal), Cranachan (a traditional dessert made with pureed fruit and oatmeal), homemade biscuits and cheeses from The Isle of Mull and Orkney.

Next day we headed west toward Inverness, capital of the Highlands, and then north to the village of Tain for a visit to Glenmorangie Distillery (, a tour of its whisky-making process, and a tasting of its spirits. For the uninformed, Scotland is home to about 100 malt and grain distilleries, making it the greatest concentration in the world. Many Scotch whisky distilleries, such as Glenmorangie, bottle some of their production for sale as coveted Single Malt Scotch (the product of one distillery). Highland Malts, in particular, are particularly desirable, and are considered well rounded, robust, and dry with a hint of smokiness. Those located near the sea also carry a salty tang.

Returning to the train, we enjoyed a fabulous lunch en route to Kyle of Lochalsh on what is arguably the most scenic route in Britain. We passed through Dingwall and Garve, towns that lie under the shadow of Cnoc na h-Iolaire, and past the Torridon mountains, which are so old they contain no fossils. After Achnasheen, the train hugged the edge of Loch Carron on way to the picturesque Highland village of Plockton, where we enjoyed a boat trip to see a colony of wild seals. That night, we donned formal attire -- including several gents who opted for formal Scottish kilt and coat -- and enjoyed post-dinner musical entertainment from a fiddler from the nearby Isle of Skye.

Photo opportunities were everywhere on the next part of our journey, including the dramatic scenery of Beauly Firth at the northern end of the Caledonian Canal, and the gardens and grounds of Ballindalloch (, Banffshire, one of the Spey Valley's most romantic castles. Lady Clare MacPherson-Grant, whose family has owned the castle since 1546, officially greeted us, and told us stories of her family's history -- including her friendship with Queen Elizabeth -- and the trials and tribulations that come with restoration and preservation of such properties (with no Home Depot in sight!). Now an elegant and comfortable working estate, you can tour the house, walk the gardens, golf on its own course, or check out the herd of Aberdeen Angus cattle, whose presence in the northeast of Scotland dates to the 12th century.

But if you're in Scotland, you're never far away from incredible wildlife, and our next morning's excursion to Rothiemurchus Estate (, near Aviemore, Inverness-shire, offered activities ranging from trout fishing and clay pigeon shooting to a guided walk through some of its 25,000 acres. Located in the heart of the Caringorms National Park, the privately owned estate is carefully managed as a sustainable landscape with herds of deer and irresistible Highland Cattle that have apparently learned to pose for visitors when the park ranger brings them food. Smart cows! And at the estate's Drumintoul Lodge, we enjoyed yet another cup of tea and Scotland's quintessential shortbread.

Our last off-train excursion was to renowned Glamis Castle (, seat of the Earl of Strathmore and childhood home of the late HM Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother. The Bowes-Lyon family has lived at Glamis since 1372, when King Robert II granted Sir John Lyon the thaneage of Glamis. Since then, the castle, which was the birthplace of the late Princess Margaret, has been visited and lived in by many members of the Royal Family.

During our last night onboard, we exchanged addresses and emails with our newfound friends, some of whom traveled from as far away as Cape Town, South Africa and Melbourne, Australia, to tour Scotland by train. We made promises to meet again somewhere in the world, and hoped -- just by chance -- it might again be aboard The Royal Scotsman.


The Royal Scotsman has nine cars (carriages), including the open-ended Observation Car, where guests meet for drinks, conversation, photo opportunities, and post-dinner entertainment; two dining cars named "Raven" and "Victory" that also include the kitchen; five stateroom cars; and one crew car. All 16 twin and four single staterooms have fixed lower beds, dressing table, full-length wardrobe, and private baths.

Originally launched in May 1985, the train, in its current form, dates from May 1990. The luxurious Pullman carriages are fitted with wood paneling, inlaid with intricate marquetry, mahogany veneer cupboards, and specially made dining chairs and tables. Marquetry panels with intricate designs of thistles, flowing ribbons, and butterflies line the walls, and an inlaid frieze of several different woods runs along the corridor. Everyone's favorite spot on the train, the open-ended Observation Car, is a comfortable mix of sofas, club chairs, and coffee tables, and it can comfortably hold all 36 guests at any time. The train operates journeys ranging from two to seven nights from April to the end of October. Per person, all-inclusive fares $3,410 to $10,090 (

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© Margaret M. Johnson

Travel | Touring Scotland On Board the Royal Scotsman