The Royal Scotsman: Through the Highlands on a Rolling House Party
By Ian Keown
That first sight of the Royal Scotsman’s burnished mahogany and burled walnuts, its marquetry panels and etched glass thistles instantly downloads memories of Hercules Poirot or James Bond high-tailing it across Europe on the Orient-Express. So I was not at all surprised when, on my first night aboard, edging along corridors trimmed with gleaming brass hand-rails, a soignee, tanned and slightly exotic lady stepped from her cabin and asked if I would be so kind as to help her open her window. Sure, lady, sure. But this being Presbyterian Scotland rather than the voluptuous East it turned out that what the lady expected of me was no more than a quick tug to part a pair of ventilation panels.
Just as well, because I was traveling with my wife and teenage daughter, showing off the beauty and history of my homeland on a railroad experience I had dreamed of for years – riding one of the world’s most luxurious touring trains from Edinburgh through magical landscapes of glens and craggy peaks, along the pebbled shores of lochs and across the gorse-covered moors. For someone who grew up in Scotland, riding the Royal Scotsman for four days is something of a giggle – I could almost drive the same route in one day. But then I’d be seeing little but trucks carting fresh fish from the isles to the markets of London, whereas our stately train was tootling along at a stately 50 mph and I was ensconced in a clubby Observation Car watching these storied landscapes unfurl. For American visitors, of course, the train is a godsend, eliminating the stress of driving on the left, or trying to remember who gets priority in roundabouts, or confronting a flock of highland sheep on a one-lane road. As one passenger from the States put it: “When I saw the opportunity to tour Scotland by train it seemed so effortless I leaped at the chance.”
Appropriately, the trip began with a Scottish swagger: a sturdy piper caparisoned in full kilted regalia lead the passengers from Waverly Station’s first-class lounge, where we had all assembled, to Platform 10, where we got our first glimpse of the gleaming gold-and-burgundy livery of The Great Scotland and Western Railway Company, emblazoned with its own escutcheon of “railway engine wheel Proper surmounted by a lion rampant issuant from a Crown pallisado.” It looks for all the world like a royal train and if Her Majesty herself had stepped onto the platform she would not have looked out of place.
As we left the station, passing beneath Princes Street Gardens and the towering Castle then crossing that cantilevered marvel known as the Forth Bridge, champagne and expectations encouraged everyone to mingle and get to know their fellow passengers, two dozen on this trip, predominantly American, including some families and grandparents hosting teenagers on graduation trips. The welcome party also gave us time to take the measure of our “home” for the next four nights.
The Royal Scotsman has been around since 1990 but it was acquired in 2007 by the Orient-Express company, which promptly pumped in some much-needed funds for extra perks like bathrobes and slippers for guests, tailored uniforms for the staff of 16 and 35 brands of single malts in the bar (served with the company’s compliments). It consists of nine brilliantly restored and refurbished Pullman carriages – five State Cars (or sleeping cars), two dining cars, the 36-seater Observation Car, and a Service Car for the 16 members of the youthful crew (and emptied suitcases not required by passengers during the trip). The State Cars have sleeping cabins for a total of 36 passengers, including four singles. The twins, measuring 85 square feet, are reminiscent of cabins on a sizeable yacht with their cozy wood paneling and dusky red plaids; each is fitted with a desk, a small full-length closet and twin beds in a head-to-toe L configuration. Climate control relies on overhead ventilation outlets, ceiling fans and small ventilation panels above a picture window – perfectly adequate in most circumstances (this is, after all, Scotland, not the Mediterranean); but since our trip enjoyed four days of sunshine with temperatures in the high 70s, there were times when air conditioning would have been welcome (hence the soignée lady’s request to open her ventilation windows).
Two features distinguish the Royal Scotsman from most other touring trains. First, every cabin comes with its own toilet, 24 square feet of ingenious design with space for a shower, six fluffy towels and two bathrobes. Second, the passengers sleep on board while the train is “stabled” (meaning, in this case, pulling into a quiet siding for the night) so that guests can dream on undisturbed by stops and starts or having to undergo the inconvenience, as they must do on some trains, of checking into a hotel each night.
All of which makes a perfect game plan: in the evenings we socialized and by day we fanned out on sightseeing trips in the Royal Scotsman’s private motor coach, which followed us from station to station. Our itinerary took us north through Whisky Country all the way to Dornoch in the north, then via Loch Luichart and the Forest of Achnashellach to Kyle of Lochalsh in the west, then south through the Cairngorm Mountains back to Edinburgh
Along the way, we sampled a splendid tapestry of castles and gardens, monuments and museums. In Speyside, the home of many acclaimed whisky distilleries, we stopped for an exclusive after-hours single malt tasting and ceilidh, a traditional Gaelic party with dancing, singing and poetry. At the most dolorous spot in Scotland, the battlefield of Culloden, a private guide dressed as one of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobites, showed us where each clan fought and died and demonstrated how one large swatch of plaid wool could become a soldier’s tunic, knapsack, blanket and raincoat all in one. We toured a trio of grand castles where the owners still lived among endless salons of ancestral portraits –Dunrobin, home of the Dukes of Sutherland, with its acres of terraced gardens; Cawdor, the centuries-old seat of the thanes immortalized by Macbeth; and Glamis, the childhood home of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. At Rothiemurchis, a 25,000-acre wilderness estate that has been in the same family for 400 years, we had tea with the present lady of the manor; and at the picture-pretty fishing village of Plockton, we joined Captain Callum MacKenzie on his sturdy launch Argus for an hour of seal spotting — and whisky tasting. Along the way, we could try out our skills at falconry, clay shooting and fly fishing. Although the days’ schedules were quite full some guests managed to fit in spontaneous side trips: one family of five from California skipped an afternoon of sightseeing for a round of golf on a classic Donald Ross-designed course.
All these activities gave everyone material for conversation over dinner but the dining experience itself was a constant topic of conversation. Evenings began with cocktails and canapés in the Observation Car at 7:30 followed by dinner at 8 in a pair of classic dining cars elegantly fitted out with brocade fabrics, tie-back curtains and high-backed padded chairs, and topped off with nightcaps, strathspeys and folksongs performed by rosy-cheeked fiddlers and singers who came aboard for the occasion. We were a moveable feast, a country-house dinner party without the tuxedos and gowns (at least on this trip) but with an appropriate frisson of exclusiveness. When, we wondered, had we last enjoyed meals served on Staffordshire and Royal Worcester china at tables set with Achnasheen silverware and Dartington glassware — on a train? Certainly none of us had expected cuisine of such high caliber, given that the two chefs, Iain Murray and Paul Middleton, had to perform their choreography three times a day in a cramped galley measuring just “eight steps from wall to the wall” at its widest point. But here they managed to perform miracles from breakfast through dinner, serving local fare at most meals — Buccleuch beef (“Hung 5 days, 8 minutes in the oven”), organic Speyside salmon and langoustines and scallops bought direct from the fishing boats moored next to the train in Kyle of Lochalsh.
The Royal Scotsman experience is not without minor disappointments. Anyone hoping to see the train puffing smoke and being hauled by a Harry Potterish locomotive will be dismayed to learn that today’s enviro-rules decree diesel, a workmanlike but unprepossessing alternative. And since there is no facility along the route to turn the train around the Observation Car is, on some stretches, at the front of the train and harnessed directly to the diesel, detracting from the panoramic, fresh-air spirit of an open viewing platform.
In one notable aspect, the Royal Scotsman belies its heritage: it is not thrifty. But the hefty price tag, roughly $2,000 per passenger per day double occupancy, is offset by the glamorous time-warp of luxury rail travel, the bonhomie of urbane traveling companions, the unexpected refinement of the cuisine, the enriching private tours and the sheer convenience of seeing so much with so little effort. Also, the virtually all-inclusive fare includes the selection of single malts.
And let’s face it, you can’t savor 35 of Scotland’s grandest malts when you’re driving.
The Royal Scotsman offers more than 50 two-day, three-day and four-day itineraries from April through October. The all-inclusive prices vary slightly but count on $2,000 per day per passenger sharing a cabin. Several of the departures are private charters that often have cabins available for travelers who are not affiliated with the groups. The trip we took had been chartered by the Manhattan-based organization Academic Arrangements Abroad on behalf of members of the Harvard Alumni Association, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Royal Oak Foundation, hence the congenial and cultivated fellow passengers with whom we spent five days. Academic Arrangements Abroad has been organizing these custom-designed, high-end group tours by land and sea for more than 30 years; their trips are noted for being meticulously planned and always feature gifted lecturers to match the special interests (art, gardening, history, culture) of the groups, like members of the Metropolitan Museum of Art or alumni of Princeton, Dartmouth or Phillips Exeter Academy.
www.royalscotsman.com (tel 800-524-2420)
www.arrangementsabroad.com (tel 800-221-1944.
Ian Keown is currently a contributing writer for Caribbean Travel & Life. Over the past 30-odd years his byline has appeared in Travel & Leisure (as a contributing editor), Gourmet (as contributing editor), Diversion (as contributing columnist), Departures, ForbesFYI, San Francisco Examiner, Worth and Opera. His guidebooks include his own series of lovers’ guides: Guide to France for Loving Couples, Very Special Places: A Lover’s Guide to America, European Hideaways and Caribbean Hideaways (which the Miami Herald called “the bible.”). He is the recipient of the first Marcia Vickery Award for Travel Writing and the first Anguilla 40 Award for in Recognition of Outstanding Contributions to Anguilla Tourism.