Even if you have travelled all across the globe and can do a really unbiased comparative analysis… you will agree that Scotland has the most scenic train journeys ever. The new Scottish Rail operator Abellio is providing some amazing train journeys into the crevices and nooks of Scotland that are interspersed with insights into the Scottish culture and heritage.
Scotland is famously known as the inspiration behind Harry Potter… you can actually have a full Hogwarts train experience here. Besides this, there are 6 other amazing journeys that are an attraction in themselves. These are routes you should embark on when the journey is more important than the destination….keep your camera handy!!
The Harry Potter Train Journey
(Route: Fort William to Mallaig)
The Jacobite Steam Engine is not the prime inspiration between Harry Potter’s mythical train that took him and a legion of budding magicians to Hogwarts. It is in fact the very same train…the rail company of Scotland gave Warner Brothers free use of a train locomotive and the route for filming Harry Potter.
The locomotive used in the movie was then given a place at the Warner Brothers Studio Tour. You can however experience the real thing…the very same train journey ….all of 84 miles round trip will take you across all terrain extremities of the country.
First you will pass Ben Navis i.e. Britain’s highest mountain peak and then the western most railway station in Britain (Airsaig) and then you can see the startling blue waters of the deepest freshwater loch in Britain (Loch Morar). The steam engine chugs forward rhythmically and then takes you to River Morar (shortest river in Britain) and Loch Nevis (deepest seawater Loch).
The journey is punctuated by lovely breaks …the first stop is Glenfinnan and then the train stops by request at Arisaig. This is where you can get down to explore Arisaig village before taking a boat to the small isles (Rum, Muck, Eigg, Canna and the tip of Skye). While in Glenfinnan you can also explore the West Highland museum.
If you are a Harry Potter fan then Glennfinnan viaduct with its 21 arches (if you are lucky the train will pause here) and the Jacobite monument in the background will be familiar to you (it was shown in several potter movies). The train will also pass Morar where you can glimpse the extraordinarily beautiful silver beaches seen in movies like “Highlander”.
The world’s most scenic train journey begins at Fort William that’s the biggest town of the Scottish highlands right at the south end of great Glen. In fact Fort Williams is a great base if you want to explore the western highlands.
Station address: Tom-na-Faire, Station Square, Fort William
The journey ends at Mallaig which is a rather busy port town….walk around and breathe in the atmosphere while munching on fish and chips at any of the umpteen pubs around.
Station address: Main Street, Mallaig,
The Jacobite has a standard class and a first class. An intelligent use of chocolate frogs for sale inside the train will delight Potterheads. Even the menu has “potions” and “poisons” on it apart from the famous dialogue “anything off the trolley dear?”
The first Class is all about golden upholstered seats, champagne on ice and curated cookie platters. For a more economical ride the standard class seats are a better option…choose to sit on the left side of the train (when facing transport direction to Mallaig) and you will get the most magical views of the Viaduct.
Morning service (Departure 10.15 a.m. Arrival 12.15 p.m.) from April to September and Afternoon service from May to Mid-September
You can prebook tickets from the UK WestCoast railways official website…there is a separate page dedicated to the Jacobite. Tickets are also sold on the platform starting from 9 a.m….be early or seats will run out.
P.S: this is a heritage train service that charges more than double the standard train fare on the same route (national rail).
West Highlands Line
(Route: Glasgow to Mallaig/ Oban)
The original Western Highlands Line actually commences at Glasgow and then runs off deep into the wild Scottish coasts (The Jacobite experience covers a part of the journey). You can either choose to travel via the Glenfinnan viaduct and then Mallaig (this will take 5 hours 30 minutes)…. however this journey is done more beautifully by the Jacobite.
Or you can go past the Loch Awe to Oban (this will take 3 hours 40 minutes)… the train line will split at Crianlarich. Stunning points to look out for are the Glenfinnan Viaduct (Malliag line), views of the mighty pinnacles of the Cobbler and the picturesque Ben Lui (Oban Line). Also don’t miss the Monessie gorge that opens up to the River Spean.
The urban jungle of Glasgow melts away as the train runs west to Helensburgh and north to Loch Long via Garelochead. After this it’s all mystical forests, craggy mounts and shimmering lochs. If you do go towards Oban then you will meet the 15th century ruins of the Kilchurn castle on the way.
The train snakes along the River Awe and moves towards Loch Etive and passing by the hissing Falls of Lora around Connell. Once you reach Oban you can choose to explore further by taking a ferry to the islands of outer Hebrides and Iona.
The Kyle Lines
(Route: Inverness to Kyle of Lochlash)
If the Scottish Coasts fascinate you then hop on a train from the Inverness station to the Kyle of Lochalsh (time of journey is 2 hours 40 minutes). This journey is basically a spread of forests and Mountains and unending moors in a wide arc with the lovely views of Skye served as a dessert.
Right after you leave Inverness the train stops at Dingwall post – a lovely glide across the south bank of beauty Firth. Stop here to shop for handicrafts, sip on some beer and then if you want you can catch the North Line. Or if you want to continue through the original route there are lots of lochs to cross before you ride up to Ben Wyis ( a rather lonely mountain).
Soon you will also reach the magnificent Torridon Peaks before the train stops on the borders of the magical Achnashellach forest. Once you cross the Loch Luiart herds of deer will greet you and then once you cross Loch Carron (there is some spectacular scenery here)… and then there is Plocktorn (another cinematic location). Here is where the BBC series Wicker man was shot.
Plockton in itself is an interesting town with shops and cafes and a startling abundance of palm trees. Another interesting stopover is the Attadale Gardens with its unique array of wild plants and a profusion of Rhodenderons flanked by a lovely little café.
As the train inches towards the Isle of Skye…you get your dessert of the loveliest views ever.
The Far North Lines
(Route: Inverness to Thurso/ Wick)
Inverness is again the commencement point of this scenic route. The destination is Thurso journey takes 4 hours) or Wick (journey takes 4 hours 30 minutes). The far north line is for the jaded solitude hungry traveller whose eyes yearn to explore areas that are yet unspoilt by the vagaries of mankind. There are vast expanses of peat bogs and the train stops at some very unlikely stations like Invergordon, Tain and the special Dunrobin Castle station.
Like the Kyle line, the Far North continues till Dingwall and then you have an option of going North or west. If you continue towards North then you will go into the sparsely populated Ross and Cromarty areas… there are ruins of yet another castle here (Foulis) right before the train’s first stop. Post that you will pass many whiskey distilleries like Teannich, Whyte and Mackays, Glenmorangie etc.
At Invergordon you will see fascinating murals that narrate the stories of the Scottish highlands and its peoples. At Tain you can get off to cross over to Domoch Firth… there is a well preserved 13th century cathedral here plus some nice golf courses. You need to show your train ticket at Dunrobin castle station to get discounted entry and then you get to see the inner world of the erstwhile Scottish royalty (the actual seat of the Sutherland Duke is present here).
Post the castle station…things look eerily quiet as the train chugs to the Georgemas Junction and then into Thurso before heading east towards Wick. Many travellers choose to end their journey at Thurso that’s the northernmost station in British Isles but many like the atmospheric port town of Wick
The train doesn’t stop at the interesting looking Skio castle (you can see this right after Culrain) and neither at Balblair Wood (on the fringes of Loch Fleet) but that doesn’t stop you from marvelling at their exotic beauty.
Thurso has a few attractions like the ruins of Thurso castles, St Peters Church and Caithness Horizon museum. Wick was once the haunt of Vikings and the castle here (yes, there is a castle everywhere in Scotland) is called Old Man of Wick. There are other castles around like Sinclair and Girnigoe and you can walk up to the head lighthouse for nice views.
The Borders Line
(Route: Edinburgh Waverley to Tweedbank)
This line was extremely popular in the 1960’s post which some political issues had stopped the routes around here. Since 2015 the Borders line which connects dazzling Edinburgh to the borders is again operational. If you are short on time and still want to experience the scenic train routes then choose this line… it takes just an hour and the commencing point i.e. Edinburgh is probably on your schedule.
Post Edinburgh you will venture into the mining heart of Scotland passing by Gorebridge and Newtongrange. Then you will also see some very pretty farmlands between Gorebridge and Stow…there are opportunities for great sunset watching if you can time your trip. Post Stow the train will chug in to Galashiels that’s one of the textile hubs of Scotland
On this route you can get off at Newcraighall where there is a giant shopping park right besides Fort Kinaird. You can also stop at Newtongrange to look at the historic Scottish mining museum. If you are a rugby fan then you should know that Galashiels (towards the end of your journey) has a great scot rugby scene with their famous team Gala RFC.
Once you stop at Tweedbank venture further to Abbotsford and tour the home of the “Father of the Novel” Sir Walter Scott. You can also travel to Melrose from Tweedbank via bus…this is one of the most interesting market towns of Scotland. Taxis are more plentiful in Galashiel though.
Incidentally this is the newest railway in Scotland right now. Sir Walter Scott who eulogised the mighty rivers and luscious hills of the borders would have loved travelling on this train route. Incidentally the journey begins at Waverly station (named after one of his novels) and ends at Tweedbank (near the place where he wrote Waverly)
(Route: Glasgow to Carlisle)
If you are a lover of history and intrigue then this is the journey for you. The Carlisle line will turn the pages of time and show you the battlegrounds where Robert the Bruce once fought while winding through the Scottish lowlands of Ayrshire, Galloways and Dumfries.
You will have the option of stopping at Kilmarnock station that has a lovely tower and a flower engraved clock. The Romantic in you will rejoice at Gretna Green (another train stop) as this place sees more than 5000 weddings annually (ancient English custom of lovers eloping to get married at Gretna Green Blacksmiths Anvil).
After Gretna there is the lovely Sark River that marks the border of England Scotland. Here there is also an 11th century castle and a gateway to Lake District.
And Dumfries is where you should stop if you are a Robert Burns fan…there is the iconic Robert Burns’s house and Dumfries museum here. You can also click some photos of the Globe Inn…established in 1610, this was favoured by Robert Burns, and take a walk along the River Nith. Incidentally this is also the area where you get Dunlop Scottish cheddar cheese.
Keep looking out of the window for Loudon hill that has an actual volcanic plug (right after Kilmanrock )…this is where Robert the Bruce slayed his way to victory against the English Army. Another interesting observation (though the train won’t stop here) is the Portrack house (near Dumfries) and the garden of cosmic speculations and the Portrack Viaduct.
Just for general knowledge, the house and garden cover 30 stunning acres that are inspired from cosmology like Fractals and Black holes. This is probably one of the most unusual gardens in the whole world and is mentioned in novels like The Long Way Home (lousie Penny) and the Insanity series (Cameron Jace).
Seeing the garden is a tough call for a tourist as it’s a private property conceptualised and owned by theorist Charles Jenck who only opens it once a year for the public
This journey will also expose a different facet of Scotland…the lowlands that are gentle peaceful and dotted with the famous Galloway cows (referred to as Belties). The pretty Nith valley is the best showcase for small Scottish farms
(Route: Glasgow to Stranraer)
A great way to experience scenic Scotland and also to make the connection between Glasgow to Belfast (Stranraer is a ferry ride away), this line is now highly promoted by the Scottish Railways. This journey is a nice way to explore the west coast of Scotland and the homeland of Robert Burns i.e. Ayrn. The total journey time from Glasgow to Stranraer is 2 hours 25 minutes.
Right after leaving Glasgow central, the train winds past 3 lochs i.e. Barr, Castle Temple and Kilbimie and finds its way into Irvine. This is where the train stops for a break so you can explore the Scottish marine museum. Then the next stop is Troon that regularly hosts the open Golf championship.
Aryr is a major stopover and it has many attractions. It is a cheese production hub, it’s home to Robert Burns Birthplace museum and there is a lovely beach here too. The train will also pass by Alisa Craig bird sanctuary (this is home to 36,000 pairs of gannets) before it turns towards Barrhill.
The highest elevation point on the route is Chirmoire and nearby is Merrick (South Scotland’s highest peak). Very soon the train will sharply plunge on a downward route towards Glenluce (this is fondly called valley of light because of its beautiful setting).
Remember that Glenluce has mystical antecedents… the alchemist and wizard Michael Scott lived here for a long time and there are secret ghosts haunting the Castle of here. The Glenluce Abbey is best explored from Stranraer though…it dates back to 1192.
After this the train embarks on the last part of its journey… towards Stranraer right at the base of Loch Ryan. Once you get off at Stranraer…you can choose to cross the border to Belfast or explore the North West Castle, Stranraer museum and the Medieval tower House. This route is also ideal for exploring the Dumfries and Galloway region which is called the prettiest of Scottish lowlands.
Station Connections and Routes
When you are looking for train connections it helps to remember that Scotland is divided into certain zones. Try zeroing in on whatever zone you wish to explore and then find your ideal route… the Scottish railway website is quite user friendly.
The busiest route is the Central Scotland belt. Most commuters avail the Glasgow to Edinburgh line (you can go via North Berwick, Airdrie, Falkirk or Shotts). The suburbs like Ayrshire, Inverclyse, Stranraer, Dunbartonshire, Cumbernauld, Falkirk Grahamston, Barrhead, Carlise, Newcastle, Cathcart, newton, Neilston, East Kilbride, Maryhill, Anniesland, Paisley Canal, and Lanarkshire etc. are all accessible.
The Highlands i.e. north highlands and west highlands are fully explorable by train. If you want to explore Ayrshire, Inverclyde and the Stranraer line to get near the Ireland Scotland borders you can do that too. In case the Scottish lowlands i.e. the Kilmarnock, Dumfries and Carlisle are on your list then you get ample options on this route. The Eastern Coast i.e. Fife, NewCraighall, Tweedbank etc. is also moderately covered by the Scottish rail.