Having survived more than five years of loosely dramatized Scottish history with TV’s Outlander, and suffered through the historical inaccuracies of Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart, we felt it was time for a reality check. Would it be anything like the scenes depicted? TV and films tend to exaggerate not only the characters and the actual history, but make everything look so beautiful that your bucket list suddenly has a new entry…right at the top.
This is what we thought when planning a trip to Scotland. But the mode of transport? Rent a car? Take a bus tour? A cruise around the coast? How could we combine scenery, history, cuisine, people, whisky tasting (important) and a large dose of luxury pampering in one complete package?
The answer was obvious: The Royal Scotsman, a luxury train operated by Belmond (previously the Orient Express company) which runs tours from Edinburgh for three to seven days around the most attractive parts of Scotland, just like the movies you’ve seen but in real-time. And without Mel Gibson.
On track for luxury
First impressions are always important. So it’s a pleasant surprise to meet the tour host Ian Gardiner and the other 31 guests for afternoon tea at The Balmoral Hotel, right next door to Edinburgh’s Waverley Station; then walk down to the glistening train to the sound of a piper in full Scottish regalia…and with a monster moustache. Champagne on boarding, of course, setting the tone for the whole trip. Alex, the train manager and his smiling team of 15 are clearly going to be lots of fun.
It’s hard to believe you’re on a train, given the obvious limitations of width and height which represent a challenge in creating luxury accommodation. Six sleeper carriages embrace 22 cleverly designed cabins with twin or double beds, a neat ensuite bathroom with an excellent rain shower, and even a desk and wardrobe. Furnishings are softly toned with a special Royal Scotsman tartan, a theme that’s followed through in the public areas. Bedding and duvets are of the highest quality (there’s a bit of Irish in everything!) and if this is to be your cave for a few days, it couldn’t be more warmly comfortable. Baby, it’s (sometimes) cold outside!
Equally warm is the Observation Car with its bar and lounge where we mingle daily with other guests for pre-dinner cocktails and canapés…smoked Scottish salmon of course, roast duck and other goodies. The complimentary bar is the standout feature and if you like whisky, you’ve arrived in heaven…no fewer than 60 top Scotch drops to try, and the friendly bar staff can tell you the provenance of each one. One guest, who shall remain nameless, tells us that his reason for taking this trip is to sample as many as possible…and he survived!
Ah, the two dining cars. No buffets here…these are set up as if for a royal occasion with the finest crystal, crockery and cutlery matching the superb cuisine, a miracle of Michelin proportions. Try entrées like seared Mallaig scallops with a sweet corn purée and curry oil; or mains such as fillet of Gigha halibut with crayfish and chervil beurre blanc…formidable! Then the coup de grâce…French and British cheeses, a key lime pie with marscapone or berries galore, the healthy choice. How on earth would we face a full Scottish breakfast the next day? Or a ‘light lunch’ of cherry tomato & basil risotto with roasted asparagus?
Needless to say, lunch and dinner are cleverly paired with matching wines from all around Europe, including an old friend from the Côtes du Rhône…a curvy grenache/mourvèdre from Gigondas, where we once lived. And a Swiss pinot noir! Bliss.
As if that’s not enough, there’s a whole carriage devoted to a spa with two excellent massage therapists on hand to soothe the tired body after a day of walking and/or indulging in supine pleasures. A unique Royal Scotsman feature, so we’re told.
Having a Highland Fling
Avoiding the temptation to catch up on sleep for a few days, we decide to join our fellow travellers on the daily excursions. These are carefully curated, with a luxury coach shadowing the train and whisking us off to explore the Highlands from overnight stops in Aviemore, Kyle of Lochalsh, Boat of Garten and Dundee.
Over our four days, the redoubtable Ian (a retired Brigadier of the Royal Marines) treats us to anecdotes of his colourful past as well as Scottish history, pretty grim in many ways when you begin to understand the country’s long-standing ‘differences’ with the English, and the wars fought in the name of religion and power.
Tours and walks provide further treats with morning and afternoon tea in places like the picture-postcard Eilean Donan Castle, Ballindalloch Castle, Rothiemurchus Estate and Glamis Castle (the previous Queen Mother’s estate). Another highlight is a visit to Glen Ord Distillery which, even if you’re not a whisky fanatic, is both educational and tasty… a few wee drams ensure that we now appreciate the subtle differences between Spanish and American oak barrels, and single malts as opposed to blends. Each to his/her own taste!
To compensate for any possible over-indulgence we also sign up for an early morning walk at ‘Brigadier pace’ across the bridge to the Isle of Skye, evoking memories of Bonnie Prince Charlie and that song we learned at school, wondering then what it was all about.
Speed bonnie boat like a bird on the wing, onward the sailors cry
Carry the lad that’s born to be king, over the sea to Skye
Now, we do understand… Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite rebels escaping after the disastrous 1746 battle of Culloden. Another history lesson, thanks to Ian Gardiner.
Other daytime activities include trout fishing including instructions from an expert, clay pigeon shooting and healthy forest walks, good for working up the necessary appetite.
On our last night, the ‘excursion’ goes no further than the platform at Dundee station, where we learn the not-so-subtle art of Highland dancing. It’s all jolly fun with our new-found friends, except when I miss linking up with an oncoming partner and end up with her husband.
The characters from an Agatha Christie novel
The great joy of a trip like this is the people you meet. Many appear to be in escape mode, but that’s probably because they’re getting away from work…or something else. Then there’s a man of mystery travelling alone, watching discreetly. Others, like a couple we befriended from Palm Springs, California, are the life of the party and are great raconteurs. Most are couples up for a good time, which is not hard to achieve. Americans and Canadians predominate; sadly there was no sign of M.Poirot or any crime to solve. Probably just as well.
Here’s how we celebrated our last night, dancing on the platform at Dundee:
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne!
Pre- and post-tour accommodation
The start and finish point for every Royal Scotsman tour is Edinburgh’s classy Balmoral Hotel. This is without a doubt one of the finest city hotels in the UK, with a 5-star service culture and superb attention to detail in every aspect from rooms to restaurants. For example, evening turndown service delights with nightcap bottles of Scotch whisky, chocolate selection and whisky fudge. Super comfortable beds, a huge bathroom (with a bath), vanity alcove, plenty of power points and a charger for all devices, a large TV and a desk are just some features. Number One Restaurant is arguably top of the class in the city, and the Prince Brasserie by Alain Roux is a lively scene with amazing breakfasts and a menu offering Scottish produce and seafood (there’s a very good vegetarian selection as well).
Another attraction of the hotel is its underground Spa with a 25-metre heated pool and a comprehensive spa menu, hammam and sauna. The Balmoral is the complete Edinburgh package, and a credit to the Rocco Forte Group.
The Royal Scotsman – belmond.com
Balmoral Hotel – roccofortehotels.com
Visit Scotland – visitscotland.com