The romance of the railways has proven irresistible to generations of travelers - the lure of stunning scenery, the mystery of the unknown and the chance to meet all manner of people has cast its spell over many a tourist down the years. And in Scotland, there are few finer ways to get to know the country than to take to the rails. Here are some of the majestic routes that have entranced passengers year after year.
1. West Highland Line
A feast for the eyes, the West Highland Line is famous around the world for its stunning sea lochs, wild windswept moorland and vistas of fine peaks. Running from Glasgow to Mallaig on Scotland’s west coast, the track ventures up past the country’s largest freshwater loch - Loch Lomond - and over the wilderness of Rannoch Moor and its famously remote stations of Rannoch and Corrour - the latter of which has no road link with the outside world. From there it passes in and out of Fort William, next to Britain’s tallest mountain of Ben Nevis, and on to Glenfinnan - which is world famous not only for its monument to the Jacobite uprisings, but also for its railway viaduct. This curved structure is well known to film fans as being the bridge the Hogwarts Express passes over in the Harry Potter franchise.
The line terminates in Mallaig, which offers great ferry links to Skye and the Outer Hebrides. A branch line which splits off the main track at Crianlarich also heads to the ferry port of Oban, with its myriad of other links to the Scottish isles.
West Highland Line
Address: Runs from Glasgow Queen Street station to Oban, Fort William and Mallaig
Duration: Full journey from Glasgow to Mallaig lasts roughly five-and-a-quarter hours (one way)
Contact: +44 3448110141
2. Kyle Line
Another route famous for its stunning views of firths and sea lochs, the Kyle Line begins in the Highland capital of Inverness and winds its way westward along the shores of the Beauly Firth, through Dingwall and up past inland lochs and open moors around the station of Achnasheen. From there the route descends to sea level where it hugs mile after mile of beautiful coastline at Loch Carron, passing through the picturesque village of Plockton en route. Shortly afterwards the track terminates at the Kyle of Lochalsh, which gives the line its name. This small village was once the stopping off point for ferries to Skye and is still an important access point for those looking to head onto the island - the Skye Bridge, which opened in 1995, lies just to the north and links the isle to the mainland.
Address: Runs from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh via Dingwall
Duration: Full journey lasts roughly two hours and 35 minutes (one way)
Contact: +44 3448110141
3. Far North Line
The Far North Line snakes its way from Inverness to Thurso and Wick in the extreme far north - making it the most northerly rail route in the British Isles. On the way it offers stunning vistas across the Beauly, Cromarty, Dornoch and Moray Firths. These spectacular sea inlets offer many a mile of beautiful coastal views, with the tracks actually hugging the shoreline in places along the Beauly and Dornoch firths and up around the village of Helmsdale.
It also passes some of the most remote stations in Britain - including Altnabreac in the heart of the Flow Country. The Flow is the largest expanse of blanket bog in Europe and among the continent’s most unchanged wilderness. This remoteness, and the number of sea inlets, are partly responsible for the long journey time. By road, the journey from Inverness to Wick takes roughly two-and-a-half hours, but the winding route the train is forced to take adds a further two hours to that time. However, the beauty of the route is such that you’ll find few who object to a little ‘life in the slow lane’.
Far North Line
Address: Runs from Inverness to Thurso and Wick
Duration: Full journey lasts roughly four-and-a-half hours (one way)
Contact: +44 3448110141
4. Edinburgh to Aberdeen
If you’ve ever wanted to get up close to one of the world’s most famous bridges, then this journey is for you - as the route from Scotland’s capital to Aberdeen crosses the iconic Forth Bridge. But as spectacular as this magnificent feat of Victorian engineering is, it is by no means the only reason for taking this journey. The line hugs the coast of the Firth of Forth for much of the way between the Forth Bridge and Kirkcaldy in Fife - offering superb views across to Edinburgh.
Later the line crosses the Firth of Tay via the Tay Bridge (pictured here) - providing a spectacular vista of the city of Dundee, both day and night. Keep an eye out when crossing the bridge and you’ll see a row of stumps sticking out of the waters below. These are the remains of the original rail bridge - which opened in 1878 but collapsed in a storm the following year, sending a train and 75 passengers and crew to a watery grave. In foggy weather, the stumps make for a particularly melancholy sight as you cross - looming half hidden in the murk. The existing bridge opened in 1887 and has served continuously ever since. As well as one of Britain’s most infamous rail disasters the collapse of the original bridge also had an impact on the iconic silhouette of the Forth Bridge, which was still in the early design phase at the time and was altered and strengthened to ensure no similar disaster could befall it.
After Dundee the train once again hugs the coast, passing the world famous links golf course at Carnoustie and on past the Montrose Basin and Lunan Bay before reaching the Granite City - Aberdeen - which gets its nickname from the sparkling grey granite that makes up many of the buildings.
Edinburgh to Aberdeen
Duration: Full journey from Edinburgh to Aberdeen lasts roughly two-and-a-half hours (one way)
Contact: +44 3457225333
Website: Virgin Trains East Coast
5. Edinburgh to Inverness
Another great rail journey for those looking to cross the Forth Bridge as most services, but not all, travel along its mighty span - ScotRail services do, but Virgin Trains East Coast head via Stirling instead. There are many other reasons for taking this route though. After heading up past Perth the line travels deep into the heart of the Cairngorms and Britain’s biggest national park. Passing Pitlochry and Blair Atholl the train climbs into the mountain country via the Drumochter Pass, passing the whisky distillery at Dalwhinnie en route to the outdoor and ski resort of Aviemore, and ultimately back down to Inverness over the impressive Culloden Viaduct. Those who split their journey at Aviemore will also have the chance to enjoy the next railway route on this list…
Edinburgh to Inverness
Duration: Journey along the full route lasts roughly three-and-a-half hours (one way)
Contact: +44 3448110141
6. Strathspey Steam Railway
The Age of Steam lives on at the Strathspey Railway, which begins at Aviemore’s mainline station. It operates heritage trains on a section of preserved track along the former line, which originally ran to Forres on the Moray coast. Today the line runs for 10 miles (16 km) from Aviemore past the station at Boat of Garten to the terminus at Broomhill - which will be familiar to fans of the old BBC TV series Monarch of the Glen, as it stood in for the fictional Glenbogle station.
Plans are also underway to extend the track further to link Aviemore with the town of Grantown-on-Spey. As well as enjoying journeys in preserved steam trains, the track boasts superb views across to the Cairngorm mountains. It also offers daytime and evening dining experiences, allowing you to relive the magic and romance of the steam era in style.
Address: Aviemore Railway Station, Dalfaber Road, Aviemore, PH22 1PY
Duration: Roughly one hour 40 minutes (both ways); duration is longer on some dining experiences
Contact: +44 1479810725 or +44 1479812220 or email [email protected]
Website: Strathspey Railway
7. The Caledonian Sleeper
Speaking of the romance of train travel, those who love the idea of hunkering down in a bed on an overnight train should check out the Caledonian Sleeper - the only rail operator in the UK to offer an overnight passenger service. Beginning at London’s Euston Station, the Sleeper heads to Edinburgh where it splits into three separate trains - bound for Fort William on the West Highland Line, Inverness on the Highland mainline, and Aberdeen. So if you love the idea of boarding a train in London and waking up in the majestic Scottish Highlands, the Caledonian Sleeper is well worth checking out.
Contact: +44 3300600500 (within the UK); +44 1415550888 (from overseas)
Website: Caledonian Sleeper
8. The Borders Line
Britain’s newest mainline railway - the Borders Line opened as recently as August 2015. It follows part of the former Waverley Route between Edinburgh and Carlisle, which was a victim of the notorious Beeching cuts that closed a huge number of lesser-used branch lines on the UK’s railways in the 1960s. The resumption of scheduled services to the hitherto silent route was hailed by railway enthusiasts still smarting over the severity of the cuts, which failed to foresee the booming passenger numbers of more recent decades.
The route itself winds its way out of Edinburgh’s Waverley station and passes rural countryside on its way to the major Borders town of Galashiels and on to the terminus at Tweedbank. The route has proven such a success since it reopened that there is already talk of one day extending it all the way to Carlisle.
Address: Runs from Edinburgh to Tweedbank via Galashiels
Duration: Full journey lasts roughly one hour (one way)
Contact: +44 3448110141
Rail is a great way to explore
With these and other notable routes - such as the Stranraer Line and Carlisle Line - covering huge swathes of the country, there really are few finer ways to get to know Scotland than from the tracks. So whether you’re looking for a day trip, or wish to use the railways to get to noted landmarks or ferry crossings, there’s plenty to see and do.