For my husband’s birthday, I booked us on a Scottish Highlands train tour. Not just any train, either. THE ROYAL SCOTSMAN, a Belmond train.
Am I the best wife, or what?
If someone says “The Scottish Highlands” and your first reaction is to sigh longingly as you think about all the landscapes and architecture from Outlander. . .then I’d like you to know, it’s exactly as dreamy as you’re imagining. Probably also you could meet the love of your life there. It’s that kind of place. The very air whispers of magic.
Yes. The Scottish Highlands are wistfully romantic, starkly rugged, and ephemeral in atmospheric temperament.
What could possibly be more romantic than the landscape? How about. . .watching it all roll past you while you gaze in wonder from the gilded splendor of an Edwardian-styled luxury train? Doesn’t that just sound like the most amazing Scottish Highlands train tour?
We spent 3 days in Edinburgh prior to boarding the train. It was a rather wistful farewell to The Balmoral hotel. But a quick walk around the corner to Waverley station, and here is the main event of our UK adventure!
You know this is going to be a top-notch Scottish Highlands tour when you begin it by following a kilted-out Drum Major and his lilting bagpipe tune through Waverley Station and onto a red carpet rolled out on the platform just for this train.
A little about the luxury train at the heart of this incredible Scottish Highlands train tour
The Royal Scotsman has been delighting guests on since the 1980s but the cars are actually older than that! Like a kid collecting train cars for a model set, the train carriages were found, acquired, then kitted out into their current plush styles. I think it is so cool that the two dining cars–originally Pullman train cars–retained their original 1960s Pullman names: Raven and Swift.
Another fun fact: Belmond joined LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton in April 2019. So it really is on that next-level of luxury and service standards.
On the subject of service: the team on board The Royal Scotsman is absolutely top-notch.
Warm and welcoming, knowledgeable and often times anticipating your needs before you even voice them. Truly, the staff of the Royal Scotsman has my undying love and gratitude.
Head chef since 2010, Glasgow native Mark Tamburrini gets a special mention too! He heads the team in a kitchen smaller than the one in my last apartment. And somehow they turn out the most incredible food– for 40 people! Literally every single meal we had on board was a multi-course ode to the best of Scotland’s land and sea fare. Every single dish was as delightful to look at as it was to savor! So pretty you almost didn’t want to spoon or slice into it. But then of course the aromas wafting up from the plate start to tempt you. And then you can’t stop because all these incredible individual flavors are coming together to make the most perfect bite. Bites. You really can’t have just one.
The food is that good. Add in the crisp white linens, fine china, royal red velvet or soft green tweed seating…
If you’re a foodie like we are, the dining experience alone could justify booking a tour on The Royal Scotsman. All the meals and beverages (alcoholic and non) are included!
Traveling with Inspirato
You can book directly with Belmond, and they have several Scottish Highlands train tour options. But I actually booked this trip through luxury vacation group Inspirato. It was part of their Inspirato Only Experiences, and I just knew this was going to be the perfect “gift” for Mark’s birthday. I mean, really–isn’t time spent doing something together the most lasting gift? And way cooler than another sweater.
This was an incredible experience in a lot of ways. One of the best things for me was having every single detail already planned out for us. All we had to do was show up! And WOW did we see and do A LOT in 5 days!
I hope Inspirato ladies Taylor and Megan know we couldn’t be more appreciative of all the time, effort, and precision planning that went into crafting this experience.
If you’re planning your own Scottish Highlands adventure, here are 5 places to explore:
- Departing Inverness in the wee hours, the train arrived in Kyle of Lochalsh and a motor coach drove us about 40 minutes to picturesque Silgachan, in the southwest of Skye.
- The drive across the Skye Bridge and along the coast of the Inner Sound was gray and rain was spitting but the views were still incredible!
- At the Silgachan Hotel we met with guides, and did a hilly hike away from Loch Silgachan and towards the pointy peaks of the black Cuillin mountains.
- The moors were so lovely, with tiny native flowers blooming and little streams appearing and disappearing, turning into waterfalls tumbling into blue topaz pools.
- Bog myrtle keeps the midges at bay! We didn’t have any issues with bugs at all but our guide mentioned this when I asked about the pleasantly sweet smelling shrub.
- The iridescent film in the boggy areas is the peat! I had to ask about this too. I love walking with guides – no matter where you are you are going to learn so much more about the place.
- The weather was remarkably favorable (it didn’t rain and the wind didn’t pick up until we were heading back down). Apparently this is something of a rarity, so checking the weather reports might be a good idea before you actually head out on a hike.
- My Ryka walking shoes were successful in the terrain but hiking boots would have been better.
- Our pub lunch at Sligachan Hotel (opened in the 1830s!) was accompanied by a group playing bagpipes for the perfect Highlands touch.
- This is just as remote as one could possibly wish to be – the population census in 2001 listed 192 people. There is a 25-minute ferry ride from Sconser. Post up at the top of the ferry because there are breathtaking views of the Cuillin mountain range, east coast of the Isle of Skye, and on the Scottish mainland, the “Five Sisters of Kintail”
- As you approach the island, you start to make out the grand and imposing Raasay House, once the home of the Macleod clan chief and now a 20-room hotel and outdoor “activity center”.
- We weren’t able to visit as it was rented out for a wedding. . .and I wasn’t allowed time to crash it because we were there with a group and on a schedule. Darn.
- Our actual destination is the next thing you can see from the ferry, perched above the grand house: Raasay Distillery.
- The first legal distillery on the island, Raasay Distillery opened in 2017 and is co-founded by master distiller Alasdair Day. So right off the bat you know this distillery might be young but it’s hit the ground sprinting.
- I’m not a whisky connoisseur at all. And sometimes the earthy smoky flavors of the peat is a little much for me. But I think over a big cube I could get down with their single malt. I’m not a huge fan of gin either, but Raasay’s double-distilled offering went down pretty smooth, even without being chilled. I’d like to have a souvenir bottle on the bar just for the bottle! It’s an artful glass mould of juniper, rocks and fossils found on the island.
The passion for the land and for bringing jobs and people back to Raasay is admirable
- You can even stay here. The historic Victorian villa Borodale House is now a 6-suite “state-of-the-art whisky hotel”. I wish we had had the time to take a peek.
- In the heart of the Cairngorms National Park, Rothiemurchus has been the home to eighteen generations of Grants. They have been dedicated stewards of the land for over four hundred and fifty years.
- Profits from activities, car parking, shops, etc go towards caring for the wildlife and the land. So you’re having fun and doing good too. They’ve got tons of activities! One more reason I need to go back.
- We LOVED Johnny and his birds! Armando the Harris Hawk, Loco the Caracara, Steorra the Sea Eagle and Glen the Barn Owl will forever have a special place in our hearts.
- In other words…Falconry. Just do it.
- After the most delicious lunch put on by our Royal Scotsman team, we opted to take a drive around the estate. It was chilly and damp and we had already been out in the elements with the birds.
- The weather cleared up enough to get out a few times and oh my gosh! Feeding the red deer made me feel like a Disney princess!
- Seeing the Scottish Highland cows or “hairy coos” up close was also pretty fantastic. I’m not sure why those shaggy coats make them cuter than regular cows but it definitely does. I wanted to hug them and brush them and weave flower crowns for them.
- The house had all the Country Estate cozy vibes. I can just imagine spending a week up there. Country pursuits during the days, settling under a soft wool tartan blanket around the fireplace in the evenings, sipping whisky and recounting adventures. Love, Love, Love Rothiemurchus.
- It’s not a proper trip to the Scottish Highlands if you don’t tour a castle, right? I loved that our Scottish Highlands train tour introduced us to Glamis Castle. The earliest parts of the castle date to the 14th century; most of it was built in the 17th century. The castle inspired Shakespeare, who placed his fictional Macbeth as the “Thane of Glamis”. It has been the home of royals. The seat of the Earls of Strathmore and Kinghorne it continues to be a residence for the Lyon family! Talk about succession. Our current and 19th Earl needs to play a little less snooker and do a little more dating. I know some great single ladies, Simon!
- I love a good ghost story. Glamis of course is home to many ghost stories. Some benign, some terrifying. My favorite was the story of Earl Beardie, who played cards with the Devil and gambled away his soul. They say you can still hear the sounds of the game being played as the Earl is cursed to do for eternity, in a walled-up room of the castle.
- We didn’t have a lot of time after the castle tour, but from what I was able to see of the grounds they are incredible, diverse, and lovingly maintained. I love the formal knot garden at the front of the castle! It really reinforces my own front garden ambitions for a formal boxwood pattern.
The town of St. Andrews
- After a morning at Glamis, we drove to the town of St. Andrews.
- Lunch at the Old Course was in an expansive room of windows with views to the golf course and the town beyond. This was the Inspirato ladies making our Scottish Highlands train tour Extra. And again–we are soooo appreciative!
- We aren’t really golf people. Not at all, actually: it’s hard and therefore frustrating and I don’t consider this feeling to be fun so I avoid it. I don’t even like putt-putt. Lucky for me my hubby feels similar. So! For the afternoon, we opted to stroll around the town.
- It’s the most charming seaside place and I am absolutely planning to go back and spend a few days there!
- Some of the highlights we saw on our stroll:
- Ruins of the Cathedral of Saint Andrew
- St Andrews Castle
- West Sands beach
- Jannettas Gelateria – yes I was stuffed from lunch. Yes dessert was one of the many courses we enjoyed. However. Jannettas is famous! So you know we had to get some gelato! In Scotland! (It was glorious in texture and flavor so I feel the hype is completely legit.)
What an incredible journey! Next is a quick flight into London. . .
If you want to see the Scottish Highlands in style and have someone else do all the planning and transportation, look into a train tour.
If you’d rather hit more points of interest along the way, maybe driving is the better option.
However you do it, whatever your interests–the Scottish Highlands are sure to charm and captivate you.