Escorted rail tours in Scotland

The Far North Line is the quietest train journey in Scotland – all eyes and minds are upon the land.
“For those who like high drama and view after view then I’d suggest any trip along the West Highland Line,” enthuses Ciaran, a guide at our Scotland rail holidays partner McKinlay Kidd. “And if you want a journey that unfolds like a story then the Kyle Line is the track.

“But there is another. Between the stations of Helmsdale and Thurso in the North Highlands is a lonely stretch of rail that travels through a sea of heather and bog, solitary mountains rising over the flooded plains. The Far North Line is the quietest train journey in Scotland – all eyes and minds are upon the land.”

There are many reasons to opt for an escorted rail tour in Scotland: the company of a small group of fellow travellers making the same journey; the peace of mind that comes from knowing all the arrangements are taken care of while you enjoy the ride; the welcoming, often family-run hotels that you stay in every evening.

But perhaps more than anything, it is the knowledge and passion brought by the guides accompanying you every step of the way. People like Ciaran, fired up by the history, myths and legends of the Scottish Highlands, and eager to share them with their guests. All of which leads to a deeper connection with the landscapes and communities you’re travelling through.

“Behind each legend is a real history grown with time and retelling,” says Ciaran. “There is the ruin of a small castle on Skye, cut off from the land by a gap where its drawbridge used to be. Behind is the Cuillin mountain range, rumoured to have been cut to sharp points by the swords of feuding giants. Dun Scaich, known as the Fortress of the Shadows, was once home to the famous warrior woman Scáthach. It’s said fighters would travel for miles to come and train here – most famous of all, the Ulster hero Cú Chulainn. As the evening sun stretches behind the Cuillins, it is easy to imagine ancient folk practicing their sword skills atop the castle.”

You won’t find these stories in any standard guidebook.

What are escorted rail tours in Scotland like?

Exploring Scotland by rail means passing through wild and, at times, almost hypnotically beautiful scenery that you would never see if travelling by road instead. Ciaran advises not bringing too many books with you because between the views from the windows and chatting with your guide and the rest of the group, you probably won’t get much reading done.

Group size

You’ll be travelling in a group of no more than 15, plus your guide, so that after a few days you’ll know everyone by name. Depending on the route you’re taking, you’ll meet your fellow passengers, and your guide, at a welcome dinner in Edinburgh, Glasgow or Inverness the evening before departure. It’s a good opportunity to start putting names to faces, and start the anticipation building for what’s to come.


Most escorted rail tours of Scotland are around a week long, though shorter trips are available if your timescale requires it. There are plenty of tailor made holidays available too if you’d prefer a longer journey, but a week is perfect to appreciate one of Scotland’s classic rail routes, as well as continuing beyond the end of the line for a brief sojourn in Orkney or the Inner Hebrides.


Rail holidays completely eliminate the need to get behind the wheel. You can relax throughout, watch as cities give way to lochs, mountains, fields of heather and dramatic coastal views, and enjoy the odd glass of wine or tot of whisky on the train. And because you’re escorted throughout by a tour leader, all of the thorny logistics are taken care of on your behalf. They’ll ensure you’re on the right platform, that the transfer to your hotel is waiting, and that hotels are briefed beforehand about any dietary requirements you may have. Total peace of mind, essentially.


The beauty of travelling in a small group is that you can all stay together in one hotel, and your visit will have less of an impact in often remote communities that can be overwhelmed by larger groups.

Our Scotland rail holiday partners McKinlay Kidd make a point of seeking out small, locally owned properties, often family-run. There’s a direct financial benefit for the community, plus their groups get a genuinely warm Scottish welcome at a unique accommodation a world apart from a faceless chain hotel.

One of Ciaran’s favourite places to spend a night or two is on Iona, in the Inner Hebrides off Scotland’s west coast. Just 5km long and half that wide, Iona was the site of an abbey founded by St Columba some 1,500 years ago, and has been treasured by pilgrims and kings ever since.

“Not many people get to stay on the island, which is a shame but also a blessing,” says Ciaran. “In the evening, when the summer sun goes down and candles flicker in the island temples, a quiet awe fills the little streets. The hotel we stay in is a special place, the first to open on Iona and looking over the sea to Mull. Dinner is cooked using ingredients from the organic garden behind the hotel and seafood is caught locally.”

Off the train

Daily train journeys between stop-offs are quite short. The West Highland Line, for instance, between Glasgow and Mallaig, is just 265km in total that you could travel in a little over five hours non-stop, should you wish. But where would the fun be in that? With years of experience organising these holidays, our partners weave a diverse and memorable range of activities into the itinerary that let you appreciate the sweeping beauty of the landscapes, and the inimitable culture of the communities you visit.

Depending on your route, a typical stopover might involve a walking tour of mystical Orkney led by a specialist guide taking in the Neolithic standing stones of the Ring of Brodgar and the prehistoric village of Skara Brae. It could mean a scenic cruise on famous Loch Ness, tours of ancient castles, or a tour of the spectacular Glencoe valley aboard a private mini coach. Although on an escorted rail tour the itinerary is fixed, there is always time set aside for you to explore on your own if you wish in scenic spots such as Pitlochry and Spean Bridge.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Scotland railway or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

When to go on an escorted rail tour of Scotland

Escorted rail tours of Scotland are best taken between April and October, when you’ll enjoy the most pleasant weather, especially during summer. In the winter months, many tourism businesses and hotels in remoter areas draw the shutters.

July and August are peak season, so if you’re planning to holiday along the West Highland Line or Kyle Line, which often includes a few days in the Inner Hebrides, then you should expect it to be busy in popular places such as the Isle of Skye.

Late spring and early autumn are lovely for touring the Highlands by rail, with beautiful colours in the landscapes and generally mild weather. This being Scotland, though, you should always prepare for the joys of four seasons in a day.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: B K] [Intro: Rob Faulkner] [Carriage interior: Jennifer Latuperisa-Andresen]