Rail tours through the
Scottish Highlands

“Rail is hardly the fastest way to travel the Highlands. But then, that’s not the point.” Robert Kidd, co-founder of our Scotland train vacations partner, McKinlay Kidd, is a strong advocate for slow travel, in not trying to fit in too much to your journey. Focus instead on a handful of memorable experiences, whether that’s a jaunt on the historic Jacobite steam train, or a morning out with a local fisherman pulling in creel baskets loaded with crab and lobster. “Take your time, don’t think of it just as a way to get from A to B. And do add a stop somewhere, even if it’s just a night, because it’s well worth it.”

One of the main advantages to going by train is that you can relax and enjoy the journey all the way. “There aren’t many routes but the most well-known – Edinburgh to Inverness via Glasgow, the North Highland Line and the West Highland Line – are different to any other in Britain. And they often veer away from the road, giving you a completely different perspective on the landscapes.”

But rather than picking through the timetables yourself, and only getting a skin-deep appreciation of the places you’ll see along the way, you’re far better off opting for an organised rail vacation in Scotland, whether an escorted small group trip or a tailor made tour where you’re traveling alone to a pre-agreed itinerary. These routes use locally-owned accommodations, while guides have been handpicked for their knowledge of the region.
Whether you’re disembarking for a few hours to tour a historic castle or spending a few days in the Hebrides, getting around with the help of taxis or public transport, every experience is curated to ensure you’re getting a sense of the Highlands beyond the brochure.

Our traveler Pete Small took a tour on the West Highland Line in 2019. He says: “Our Highland train experience was fantastic, from beginning to end... The steam train ride was a sweet taste of history, with beautiful scenery along the way, seasoned with a bit of coal smoke aroma, taking me back to UK trips as a lad. Skye was quiet, romantic and scenic, and we couldn’t have had a better guide than Ronnie, who was knowledgeable and blessed with a great sense of humour. While one could undertake booking each piece (which we usually do when we travel), this trip calls for so many bits and pieces to be coordinated, it would be quite a challenge, and we are so glad we went with this trip, which made the journey seamless.”

West Highland Line

Considered by many to be one of the finest rail journeys in the world, the West Highland Line departs from Glasgow and finishes at the small fishing port of Mallaig on the west coast. During the summer, you can also take the Jacobite steam train between Fort William and Mallaig. And it’s just ridiculously scenic. Robert Kidd is a fan: “The West Highland Line, once it gets beyond Loch Lomond, is basically floating on the bog. It was built by hand and carves through some truly awe-inspiring landscapes, stopping at very remote places. There’s something quite fabulous about that.”

Out of Glasgow, you pass Glencoe and the Bridge of Orchy. It’s all waterfalls and streams, hills and forests, and about as wild and romantic as you can get. The sort of scenery that sends Hollywood location scouts into a frenzy. A typical West Highland Line rail vacation might also take you to the foot of Ben Nevis where you can pause for a couple of days to climb the UK’s highest mountain.
Approaching Fort William, you cross the boggy moorland of Rannoch Moor, and then boarding the Jacobite steam train, you cross over the iconic Glenfinnan viaduct overlooking Loch Shiel. Why iconic? Well, besides appearing on several Scottish bank notes, the bridge has also turned up in the Harry Potter films. You are riding the Hogwarts Express – be sure to purchase your Potter products in the gift shop; those mansions don’t maintain themselves.
Once you arrive in Mallaig, you’ve reached the end of the line. Or have you? Robert Kidd and his team pioneered the extension of rail vacations over to Skye and other Hebrides islands such as Mull and Iona. “At first people thought we were mad, but it works very well to get the boat over, and then have a taxi waiting and get around like that. You can get pretty much anywhere, though some islands are better set up than others. On larger islands, like Mull and Skye, you need to be careful to stay somewhere with activities nearby. It needs planning, but it’s very doable. We also get travelers taking the public bus sometimes in the Hebrides islands and Orkney, which is a lovely way to meet local people. I’ve done it myself several times; it’s quite liberating.”
So, say that you pop “over the sea to Skye”. Now you can have a few days in a waterfront hotel, touring the island with an expert local guide. You could walk up the famous Old Man of Storr or around the Fairy Glen, sink a wee dram at the Talisker distillery, or sail out on a wildlife cruise in search of whales, dolphins, eagles and seals. There’s absolutely no need to have your own vehicle to explore Skye.

Our top Scottish Highlands Vacation

Scotland by railway vacation

Scotland by railway vacation

Experience authentic Scotland independently and car-free

From £1275 to £1345 8 days ex flights
Tailor made:
This trip can be tailor made from April to the end of October.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Scottish Highlands or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

Far North Line

“The Inverness to Thurso route is a quirky one,” says Robert Kidd. “Rail lines north of Inverness are very much slower, meandering along and stopping in the middle of nowhere, and so the North Highland line, often forgotten about, is a lovely vacation experience.”
A rail vacation through the Northern Highlands will likely take you past Loch Ness as well as the Naver Valley, which was emptied out in the Highland Clearances. And Dunrobin Castle, the work of Sir Charles Barry, the architect who also built the Houses of Parliament. Once you reach the very top of the mainland at the lighthouse at Duncansby Head, you can take the short ferry journey over from John O’ Groats to Orkney. The Romans and Vikings both had a foothold in this achingly attractive archipelago before it became part of Scotland in the 15th century, and there are several UNESCO-protected Neolithic sites to admire, including Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar.
Local guides fluent in the islands’ history might escort you around Stromness on The Mainland, the confusingly named main island in Orkney. Another treat you could request from one of our travel partners might be an afternoon out with a fisherman to learn about creel fishing. With luck, you’ll bring in some crabs, langoustines or lobster that can be cooked up for you back on land. Lucky for you, anyway; less so for the crustaceans.
Photo credits: [Page banner: Bjorn Snelders] [Topbox: Katia De Juan] [Glenfinnan Viaduct: Jack Anstey] [Far North Line: Connor Mollison]