Troy Hightower

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Royal Scotsman

We’ve enjoyed multi-night train journeys in historic train cars on several occasions in the past, including the Venice-Simplon Orient Express from Venice to Paris, and the Eastern and Oriental in Southeast Asia. A run around the Scottish Highlands on the Royal Scotsman, now owned by the Belmond group, has been on Troy’s bucket list for some while, so it was time for another “cruising by rail” journey.

Belmond’s Classic journey is a 4 night/5 day loop around Scotland, beginning in Edinburgh travelling through the highlands, past its capital Inverness, and reaching Kyle of Lochalsh—which translates to "strait of the foaming loch" and which is the crossing to the Isle of Skye. After an evening at the Balmoral Hotel, where we check in for the journey, we’re escorted, underground, to Edinburgh’s main rail terminal and literally piped aboard the gleaming maroon and cream train by a kilted and fully-kitted out Scots piper, and greeted by the Train Manager for the journey, Michael Andrews, who, it turns out, is also the general manager for the Royal Scotsman operations.

The Royal Scotsman comprises observation/bar car, two dining cars, five sleeping cars, and one service car and carries a maximum of 36 passengers, so it’s a fairly intimate setting. The train cars are mostly 50’s-60’s vintage Pullmans that have been completely re-fitted by master craftsmen in Edwardian elegance with gleaming inlaid wood, elegant fabrics, and comfortable furniture. There’s an open-air platform off the end of the bar car, which rides at the rear of the train, for photo ops or fresh air.

The RS chugs out of Edinburgh across the Firth of Forth and the historic Forth Railway Bridge, which was for some years the largest iron bridge in the world and is quite something to observe from the back platform—it’s sort of like traveling through a massive iron Chinese finger puzzle. Soon we leave the suburbs behind, and begin to travel through the open countryside of farms, villages, rivers and rolling green hills. It has been said by the train travel writer Paul Theroux that the best way to experience a new country is to see it move past the windows of a train.

Our twin-bedded cabin is snug but luxurious, with small writing or dressing table, armoire, en-suite compact bathroom with shower.  Glowing dark wood paneling, rich green and plaid fabrics, and polished brass abound. We’re somewhat amazed to be able to get all of our hanging clothes in the armoire , and the rest in under-bed drawers, including our luggage.

Cocktails are at six in the observation car, with dinner following at seven in the dining cars.  A very dry, very chilled Martini seems just right in the elegant and throw-back-to-another-time setting. Between two-person loveseats, and easy chairs, there is comfortable seating for everyone in conversation groupings of four and six. We set about the business of meeting some of our fellow travellers, who we will learn over the days hail from France, Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, Italy, Canada and Britain – with only one other couple from the US. The plaid-vested staff members serve three different canapés each night on silver trays. The first night is informal dress—which means coat and tie for gentlemen. Two nights on the trip are formal, which means evening dress or kilt for men, and gowns and jewels for the ladies. I’ve elected to rent a kilt and kit from a firm in Edinburgh with which Belmond has formed an arrangement—the outfit gets delivered straight to the train, and left onboard afterward.

Food on the Royal Scotsman is excellent and varied, which is amazing considering the tiny size of the galley, and chef and two assistants, who have to prepare three meals a day for all guests and a dozen and a half staff. They even bake in-house the bread, three kinds of rolls and breakfast croissants and pastries daily.

Over the course of the trip we will down smoked salmon from Inverawe Smokehouse, which has a Royal Warrant, fresh wild salmon, prawns, langoustines, halibut, scallops, venison, foraged wild mushrooms, Angus filet of beef, rack of lamb, and more. All perfectly prepared, and elegantly served.  Lunch is only slightly lighter and less elegant than dinner. Breakfast brings coffee, espresso or cappuccino, basket for fresh pastries, juice, and choice of Scottish steel-cut oatmeal, fruit, yoghurt, eggs any way, bacon, sausage, ham, smoked salmon or eggs Benedict.

After dinner there is entertainment of some sort back in the observation car, mostly music of one sort or another, although one evening there is a spirited and brogued re-creation of 17th century Scottish life by highlander Ray Owens, who explains the evolution of the kilt as a garment. Entertainment is enjoyed with a post-prandial wee nip of something, including over 200 different malt scotch whiskeys the bar stocks. Michael says that some men have started the journey vowing to try each and every one by the end, but that no-one has ever made it. All liquor and wines are included in the price of the journey, a policy for which I am ever grateful when I run into it.

I had thought that I would fall asleep to the rhythmic clickety-clack of railway wheels, but Belmond “stables” the Scotsman each evening, finding that not moving while sleeping provides more comfort to their guests—aided of course by the down duvets in high-thread-count covers and fluffy pillows. Where possible, these stablings are in lovely small villages, or on a picturesque siding.

We headed first up the east coast to Aberdeen, and by day two we reach the Highlands, which brings dramatic scenery of verdant swaths of forest, swift cold rivers, tranquil lochs, hillsides filled with russet furry cattle and black-faced sheep backed by mountain glens and passes, with dramatic clouds lowering overhead most of the time.  

There are daily excursions from the train, by luxury motor coach. Weather controls some, but we are delighted to visit Ballindalloch Castle on beautiful Speyside, and at Dunkeld, Glamis Castle, the childhood home of the late Queen Mother. From Kyle of Lochalsh it’s a short drive to Eilean Donan Castle, one of Scotland's most iconic sights, perched on its own small island just offshore in Loch Duich. At Rothiemurchus Estate in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park, there are choices of fishing, clay pigeon shooting or a tour of the estate. Troy tours the estate, and it’s private herd of red deer, and I choose shooting, with four other fellows. It’s  looking like I’ll be skunked, when I finally get the hang of leading the clay, and am then deadeye. Afterward, we tour their distillery, and end with a tasting of 25, 26 and 17 year old whiskies.

Of the more dramatic vistas are the Cairngorm Mountains; the high, curving Glenfinnan Viaduct, which has been used as a location in several films and TV shows, most notably as setting for the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter films; the view alongside Moray Firth;, and the route through the heart of the highlands to Kyle of Lochalsh.

Even having done such train travel before, I was a bit concerned about getting bored, or not finding the other guests simpatico. The latter was far from a problem, as we got on very well with all but one or two. There was a delightful Swedish family—a couple celebrating a big anniversary, and their twenty-somethings sons and daughter—that we’ve both kept in touch with, and even had Jessica and her boyfriend from London visit us in California. As for boredom, between excursions, some reading, and relaxing and enjoying the beauty of Scotland go by, the five days fairly flew by. We left feeling we could easily have stayed to enjoy the three-day extension to the wild westlands of Scotland. The Royal Scotsman is the ultimate in cruising the rails in luxury—not to be missed if you have the chance.

Some photos courtesy Belmond Royal Scotsman

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