Great Rail Journeys to the Scottish Highlands
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The Caledonian Sleeper has something of a reputation for
socialising, or so I had heard before boarding it myself one evening in early
March. Sure enough, as the 16-carriage-long train eases its way out of Euston
station at 21.15 sharp, there is not a seat to be had in the bar car. Here, regular
travellers catch up on the latest news, greeting each other like old friends
and enjoying a dram (or several) from the train’s admirable selection of single malts.
Our steward, Jim, has already shown me to my single cabin. It's a vision from the heyday of British
Rail, a pod-hotel before its time, with a fold-away table and hidden washbasin to
assure you all you needed for a good night's sleep. Despite a dinky little
travel washbag courtesy of Scotrail (now Serco under the latest franchise), the
glamour was slightly underwhelming, but who wants everything to be shiny and
new in this world? The sheets were crisp and white and the blanket tartan - more
than enough nostalgia for me for a night’s journey.
Jim has a tip for us too: by Crewe the bar will be emptying out,
as the regulars head for their cabins. Luke, my partner, and I recline in the generously
wide seats in the adjoining carriage, then make our way into the bar as seats
open up. It isn't long before we're chatting to Iain and Veronique, a Scottish-Spanish
couple on one of their regular trips up to Skye to join in the fiddle sessions
and visit family. “We’re on a cat-rescue mission”,
they tell us, confirming the conviviality of regular travellers in this moving
world that links the country from top to toe.
I dreamed of rolling waves and woke to misty glens and a knock at
the door announcing the arrival of my breakfast tray. The train splits just north
of the border, with one section heading to Aberdeen and another to Edinburgh,
so by the time we pull into Inverness the train is a fraction of its former
self. It's cold and wet on this winter morning, so warming up around the
roaring fire in Leakey's bookshop is a perfect first stop in town. There's
something disturbingly sacrilegious about a wood-fired stove in a bookshop, but
the smell of woodsmoke charms this book-lover's gem. Towering around the walls
and along the balcony is a cornucopia of antiquarian delights, from maps to
prints and books old and older.
Having missed most of the view up to Scotland snoozing through
the night on my little sleeper-pillow, I was eager to take in the Kyle line
across the midriff of the Highlands towards Skye. One of the great world railways,
it enticed Michael Palin to film a tv documentary back in 1980, long before he
ventured from pole to pole. In his day, the BR trains had windows that opened,
but the view is spectacular even from the sealed glazing of the spluttering
little sprinter trains that ply this route today. We're soon well away from
Inverness’s quiet bustle, taking in vistas of grazing deer and
glimpses of grand stone houses nestled between wooded slopes. Winding up out of
Inverness through dinky Dingwall, the snowy crags rise out of the blue mist,
dwarfing the rustic stone shacks along the river plains. Several of the stops
we pass are barely shelters along the track, where a few hardy walkers ask the
cheery conductor for the train to stop and let them off and into the mossy
We hop off the train before reaching Kyle, as we have a table
booked at the Plockton Inn, known for home-smoking their seafood - salmon,
mussels, oysters, or anything else brought into the bay go into the smoking
shed in the back yard. It’s obvious why the inn is packed: the
food is exquisitely tasty and generous, a delicate tang of wood smoke seasoning
the freshest of mussels, prawns, oysters, clams and salmon. After a brilliant
sticky toffee pudding, we staggered across the road like stuffed geese to our
beds in the homely luxury of the Plockton Gallery.
The following morning a generous breakfast awaits with home-made
breads, and a surprise delivery of duck eggs. The brightly painted walls are
bedecked with a fascinating collection of contemporary paintings by leading
Scottish artists, and the wondrous forms of sea-creatures and corals inspired
two visiting German artist to create the ravishing ceramic sculptures that rest
on the windowsill. An accomplished artist herself, our host Marion Drysdale has
held summer exhibitions and run art-courses here for some years, but there’s
always something new. As well as hosting creative writing retreats, Marion
tells us she is currently following a new passion with a Bridge week in this
spacious former Manse.
Marion explains that this whole peninsula is owned and managed by
the Scottish National Trust, and there are miles of paths and beaches to
explore. At low tide she takes us to the coral beach near Dubhaird to forage
for seaweed, but low-tide doesn’t last long. Gazing in fascinating for
a few moments at the water spurting through the sand from razor clams
underneath, I didn’t hear Luke calling increasingly
frantically that the waters were rising. Suddenly emerging from my reverie, I
found myself splashing through ankle-deep seawater back to the shore as the
tide raced in over the causeway. There's a little station by the level crossing
at Dubhaird where we pick up the train again and wind around the rocky coast to
Kyle, looking out for otters along the shore, and the grey curve of porpoises
playing out to sea. From Kyle, the Hebrides stretch out ahead beckoning you
first to Skye and beyond. It’s the end of the line for my journey,
though, and I’m already looking forward to getting
back on the train and wondering if I’ll meet Iain and Veronique’s
cat on the way home.
The Caledonian sleeper runs day and night services from London Euston to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Fort William, Inverness, Dundee and Aberdeen, and is about to embark on a major upgrade. Visit sleeper.scot for information and booking.
From 12 January to
31 March you can make a return trip
between any of over 345 stations across Scotland for just £19 return; if you are a Senior or
Disabled Railcard holder over the age of 55 you are entitled to a further £2
discount. For more details visit ScotRail.
Plockton Gallery: B&B two rooms £70 - £100 per night inclusive of full Scottish breakfast. Self-catering, sleeps 10: £1400 per week or £300 per night, min. 3 nights.
Plockton Inn: From Easter, tariff is £55 per
person per night for bed and breakfast. Live
traditional music played every Thursday night.
something different, book the quirky Kyle station box and stay under a scale
model of the Kyle line.
National Trust for Scotland have limited accommodation on offer. The website includes details of facilties and the countryside code.
Great Rail Journeys put together tailored rail packages as well
as offering escorted group rail holidays.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Great Rail Journeys
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