Travel News

Great Scot

The magic of the Scottish Highlands meets the mystique of the Orient Express. All aboard The Royal Scotsman for the journey of a lifetime.

By Peter Thomson
Clickety-clack, clickety-clack, along a Scottish railway track; reclined in splendid circumstance with downy pillows at my back; I'm snug and I'm rapt.
In the picture window at the end of my bed, wild Highland scenes slide by: massive flanks of land climbing to blunt skylines, heathered moorlands feathered with falling water, three deer breaking from a copse of spruce, ancient walls of mossy stone, a big bird gliding, spiralling up… I've eaten well at lunch, very well, the wines so well-matched with each course, yes, the food so good… I must not sleep, so much to see, all that beauty at my window, may never be back… clickety-clack, clickety-clack.
Eventually there's a soft knock at the door of my sumptuous State Cabin. The room's still gently rocking, so it's evident we've not yet reached our destination. There's a steward at the door letting me know afternoon tea is being served in one of the Edwardian dining cars. I rub my eyes and ease up in bed. Outside an expanse of glittering water with steep mountains in the background is moving by. Then I see from the kelp on the loch's shore that we've come to the west coast. I must have slept for hours.
There's nothing, nothing that's as sensuously soporific as a bed on a luxury train, and The Royal Scotsman is one very luxurious train. I stretch out to where my camera is resting on the writing desk, put my foot up next to the vase of fresh flowers on the window-side table, and wiggle my toe at the passing grandeur. I want permanent proof this extraordinarily pleasant experience actually happened, that I didn't just dream it. I have the resulting photo in front of me now. It fills me with content.
Yesterday, to the sound of skirling bagpipes and the stationmaster's whistle, The Royal Scotsman pulled out of Waverley Station and the shadows of Edinburgh Castle. We crossed the Firth of Forth and made our way north through rolling barley fields and granite coastal towns to spend the night at Keith. 
On a train journey, expect the unexpected. If there's an impediment to progress ahead, you can't fly or sail around it. This is part of the charm of train travel and, if you find yourself stationary for a long period of time, you learn to treat yourself to tea with freshly baked scones, strawberry jam and clotted cream. Over the clinking of china we heard the Queen was coming down the line in her very own train, which had somehow come into conflict with our own advancement. We were out-royaled. So we sat there dutifully chewing our cud in the fields of Fife, until eventually the more royal train purred slowly by. Though the blinds of the carriages were mostly drawn, I'm sure I caught a glimpse of a regal knee emerging from an armchair, balancing a cup of tea.
From Keith the train journeyed west to Elgin, where we disembarked to ride The Royal Scotsman's coach into the heart of Speyside whisky territory and the Glen Grant distillery. Having inspected many a distillery, I chose to explore Glen Grant's garden which, in a country of many beautiful gardens, is one of memorable whimsy with its burn-side walks, wooden bridges and thatched dramming hut. 
Before rejoining the train, while most of my fellow passengers were touring Johnston's famous cashmere works, I crawled over the ruins of Elgin Cathedral. It must have been a magnificent edifice before it was burnt to the ground by Alexander Stewart, the Earl of Buchan, bastard son of King Robert II until his parents eventually got hitched. This royal hellraiser was known as the Wolf of Badenoch and is said to have met a grisly end after losing a game of chess to Lucifer. Make mine a single malt.
The Stewarts have much to answer for in this part of Scotland, The Royal Scotsman's route taking us past Culloden, the culminating calamity of Bonnie Prince Charlie's distinctly unbonny bid for the British throne. Through Inverness we clattered, over the Caledonian Canal, along the shores of the Beauly Firth to make for Dingwall, where we turned westwards, threading the glens through the mountains of Ross and Cromarty.
Upon reaching the west coast, we stopped at the fishing village of Plockton and boarded the good ship Argus for a sail across Loch Carron to Duncraig Castle and a spot of seal-viewing. These activities were spiced with single malts from the vessel's well-stocked bar, a sign above it proclaiming that once we were 10 yards offshore, the bar was open from 10am until October.
Meanwhile, our train had come to rest for the night at the end of the wharf at Kyle of Lochalsh. There are few better located train termini, so I took the opportunity to stroll the wharf before dinner, puffing a Montecristo, taking in the vista of the Isle of Skye across the water. It was an unusually clear view, no clouds capping the magnificent line of the Cuillans, with even the new bridge soaring controversially over the sea to Skye looking elegant in the gloaming.
Dinner that night was formal, tuxedos at 10 paces, conversation polite but engrossing, an international perspective attained thanks to our diverse coterie of Americans, Europeans and Japanese. Once more the food was sublime, the wines just right. I indulged myself, progressing smoothly through: Chivas, Chivas, Chablis, Chablis, Medoc, Medoc, Armagnac, Armagnac and another Montecristo. So when some musicians joined us and suggested we might like to try a few reels of Highland dancing outside on the platform, I was well up for it. Our Royal Scotsman host showed the volunteers the relevant moves: bow, shimmy, hold hands, twirl, a tippy-toe kick or two, and do the fling thing. All pretty straightforward at the time. With the musicians belting away on the shores of Loch Alsh, we leapt about like manic stags and does, with bellies full of whisky and pesky summer midges in our hair.
The next morning we rose early, to visit Eilean Donan Castle while there was no one else around. As we walked over the rugged causeway that crosses to where the little fortress clasps to its rocky isle, Loch Duich was like a mirror, shimmering here and there with bright water-rings of rising fish and seals. For a visitor like me from the southern hemisphere, the memorial slab set in the castle foundations gave me pause and many a thought thereafter. It held the names of all those of the MacRae clan who'd fallen in World War I, along with the regiments in which they'd served. Sad as it was to read that elegy of names, there was also a sense of wonder at the breadth of the Scottish diaspora, for a great number of the fallen MacRaes hailed from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
In their memory I'll mention what I had for breakfast that morning, for I fancy there's not one of those braw MacRaes who, in their time of living, would not have enjoyed it as much as me: porridge of Scottish oats, a juicy Loch Fyne kipper with lots of toast, and a cup of steaming tea. 
Thinking of that fine kipper suggests to me that this is a good point at which to introduce the current head chef of The Royal Scotsman, Iain Murray.  I hear a round of applause from any who've had the privilege of taking the train with Murray in the kitchen. He's one of Scotland's home-grown talents, hailing from Largs on the Firth of Clyde. Apart from being a superb chef, Murray's a top guy and in the course of our five-day trip, most of the guests had the chance to chat with him.
His kitchen is a sliver of a galley situated between the two dining cars, giving guests ample opportunity to see him at work preparing the next meal as you pass by. I asked Murray about the challenges of the job: keeping an international clientele happy, cooking on the move, provisioning during stop-overs, and working in the space limitations of that galley.
"We have some rules," Murray replied. "For instance, no soup while we're on the move."
"Space is a massive issue," he said. "But I'm not a screamer or a shouter. I don't think it achieves anything." This must be good news for his sous chef and chef de partie who work cheek by jowl with him in that narrowest of galleys.
And on the matter of being constantly on the move: "You're in an isolated environment and you'll occasionally get guests with last-minute requests, so you have to think on your feet. As far as I'm concerned, everyone on the trip should be given the best, whether they're vegetarian, wheat-free or whatever." So it's a matter of improvising and provisioning with only the best and freshest of ingredients.
At Kyle of Lochalsh we took on board king scallops, queen scallops and langoustines straight from the sea, supplied by creel fisherman Neil MacRae. We had oysters from the coast of Sutherland, Perthshire lamb, Aberdeen Angus beef, Stornaway black pudding, wild Scottish mushrooms and salmon from Speyside. As you would hope in Scotland, there was a lot of seafood on the menu; as well as those breakfast kippers, I recall Arbroath smokies, sensuous scallops, baked haddock and line-caught sea bass. George Campbell of Leith has the responsibility of supplying The Royal Scotsman with the freshest seafood, with Mark Murphy the provedore of the best Scottish vegetables.
"This is house-party food," chef Murray told me. "I like to keep it simple so it appeals to all tastes. The food has to do the talking." All I can say is, I can hear it still: tomato consommé with pan-fried langoustine and queen scallops, the terrine of foie gras incorporating duck confit with a truffle dressing, the astoundingly delicious gnocchi with Scottish wild mushrooms, the Aberdeenshire end-of-harvest cranachan dessert of oatmeal, honey and whisky-soaked raspberries. I recall with wonder the sight of that tiny galley festooned by some 200 pieces of gnocchi being made in the morning in preparation for that evening's dinner.
There was something wistful about leaving the west coast to go back on our tracks, even though we still had two nights of our Royal Scotsman experience left. I stood out on the observation deck at the rear of the train and watched the Cuillans recede. It was dislocating; was it they or the train pulling away? We picked up speed, winding along the shores of Loch Carron, clickety-clack, clickety-clack, until the water ran out and we began our ascent back into the Highland glens. 
Ahead were more places to visit. Ballindalloch Castle and tea with the industrious Lord Lieutenant of Banffshire alongside her Aberdeen Angus cattle, the original herd of this worldwide breed. Then, when we reached the pastoral idyll of Perthshire's Glenmore, we'd visit the grandly haunted Glamis castle, where the Queen Mother spent her childhood and where Princess Margaret was born. There were scenic walks ahead along the banks of the Spey, and a tour of the Highland Wildlife Park where I'd see Scottish wildcats, polecats, pine martens and the almost fabulous capercaillie for the first time. Unlike the Loch Ness Monster, the capercaillie actually exists, though in sadly dwindling numbers.
Words like bonny and thankful come to me when I think of that Royal Scotsman experience. If only in my dreams, I must find a way to get back to that cabin of mine, so cosily sumptuous, so thoughtfully cosseted, progressing reposefully across the land, watching a wonderful world go by with a clickety-clack, clickety-clack at my back.
  • undefined: Peter Thomson