Grand tours of Scotland by rail

There’s no better way to appreciate Scotland by rail, and no more enjoyable way to go by rail than on a leisurely Grand tour.
“A grand tour by rail offers you the best of both worlds,” says Ciaran, a guide at our Scotland rail holidays partner McKinlay Kidd. “Your route is carefully planned to allow you to get right under the skin of places, witness spectacular scenery, and then get off the beaten track. But at the same time, it’s a holiday that can be completely unique to you. So some days you have total flexibility on how to spend your time – although we have plenty of suggestions...” 

Our Grand tours of Scotland by rail are an immensely satisfying way to see the country. Following a leisurely pace and packed with experiences chosen to illuminate Scotland’s welcoming culture, staggering natural beauty, and enthralling history, they then also take you beyond the end of the line to Hebridean Islands and Orkney.

Usually tailor made, these car-free itineraries are crafted by experts in travelling Scotland by train, and grand tours can incorporate not one but three iconic routes: the West Highland Line, the Kyle (of Lochalsh) Line, and the Far North Line.

Why take a grand tour of Scotland by rail?

Most Scotland rail holidays, whether they’re escorted small group tours or tailor made, self-guided holidays, tend to be around a week or so in length, starting and finishing in Edinburgh, Glasgow or Inverness.

A grand tour, however, typically lasts for two weeks, which allows you to see much more of Scotland’s dramatic beauty, and to better explore the places you’re passing through. While you’ll be on the move regularly, a longer trip can involve two nights in a destination where it merits the extra time.

You will be met at various stages of your journey by local guides, who will then show you around destinations such as Iona, Mull and Staffa.

“These isles are often big highlights of a grand tour,” says Ciaran, “as you have the opportunity to see magnificent creatures such as puffins (depending on the season), as well as the impressive Fingal’s Cave. Another highlight is being able to ride on the famous Jacobite Steam Train, taking in the stunning views as you pass along the northwest coast of Scotland from Fort William to Mallaig.”

But while the landscapes are frequently jaw-dropping, and ancient castles, lochs and mysterious rock formations drip with myth and legend, much of the enjoyment on a grand rail tour comes simply from meeting people on the train with you, or in the communities you visit. Striking up a conversation with the person next to you is easy when the scenery outside the window begs comment, and at every stop there will be a welcoming small hotel or a homely B&B, often family-run, where the owners love getting to know their guests.
Travel Team
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Highlights of a grand tour of Scotland by rail

Iconic rail routes

A grand tour can involve sections on three of the great Scottish rail routes. The West Highland Line extends up the north coast from Glasgow to Mallaig via some of the Highlands’ most atmospheric scenery, and connects with the charming and highly sought-after Jacobite Express steam train which crosses over the Glenfinnan Viaduct.

The Kyle Line runs coast-to-coast between Inverness and the Kyle of Lochalsh, past ancient forest and heathland. And the Far North Line runs from Inverness up to Scotland’s northernmost tip at Thurso through wild peat moors that produce some of the country’s finest whisky. A short ferry ride takes you on to Orkney.

Inner Hebrides

Scotland’s gorgeous Inner Hebrides, or the Western Isles, are a natural extension to a rail holiday, as you can get to them easily by ferry at the end of the line. Tranquil Iona is known for its ancient abbey and attracts those in search of a spiritual retreat, while Staffa boasts Fingal’s Cave, whose magnificent entrance can be viewed both from onboard your tour boat and whilst exploring the island on foot. A colony of cute puffins nests on the island between April and July. Then there is the ruggedly romantic Isle of Skye, with its pretty fishing villages and still-flourishing Gaelic culture. On each island, you’ll be escorted by local guides who’ll show you around and ensure you get the most out of your time.

Orkney

The Far North Line, which has a knack of silencing travellers with its bleakly beautiful scenery, culminates in Thurso, where dolphins can often be seen swimming. From here it’s a short hop by ferry from Orkney where you can join a small group tour led by a local guide to discover the archipelago’s UNESCO-protected wonders, from the 5,000-year-old village of Skara Brae to the Ring of Brodgar and the Italian Chapel.

City stopovers

Grand rail tours of Scotland are designed to immerse you in the landscapes and remote communities of the Highlands and islands, but given that they begin and end in the cities, it’s worth adding on two or three nights at the start or end of your trip to explore their many attractions.

Inverness, the Highland capital on the edge of the Cairngorms National Park, is close to the famous Loch Ness, while Edinburgh has its handsome castle but also many prestigious museums, art galleries and quieter neighbourhoods away from the tourist crowds. Glasgow, where a grand tour typically starts, is a friendly city with lots to admire, including the Burrell Collection art gallery, the Necropolis cemetery, and evidence of its proud shipbuilding heritage seen on all sides.

Practicalities

A grand tour of Scotland by rail usually lasts for two weeks. These are tailor made holidays though, so you’re free to alter the itinerary in line with your personal interests and requirements, perhaps staying longer in a particular place if you wish to. You’ll travel in a circular route, beginning and ending in either Glasgow or Edinburgh as your preference dictates.

If you like the idea of a grand tour but would prefer to travel as part of a guided small group, there is also the option to link two week-long escorted trips together.

You’ll be travelling car-free, independently but with all the logistics sorted out for you. All you really need to do is make sure you’re on the right platform at the right time – and your detailed trip notes will ensure that you always know where you need to be and when.

Accommodations are normally located a relatively short distance from the train station (or the port, on islands). Usually, a local taxi will meet you on arrival of your train or ferry to carry both you and your luggage to your overnight stop, such as on Skye.

While you’ll be travelling independently on a self-guided basis, you’ll be following a route crafted by experts in Scotland rail holidays such as our partner McKinlay Kidd, with every step of the way plotted to enhance the cultural experience. Holiday packs are provided, stuffed with useful notes and interesting nuggets of information to impress fellow passengers, as well as recommendations on everything from curious diversions to where to find the best seafood shacks on the coast. And naturally, there is 24/7 support available should you need it.

Best time to go

The best time to go on a grand tour of Scotland by rail is between April and October. The weather in Scotland is predictably unpredictable, but from spring through to autumn you can expect at least a fair few warm sunny days – ideal whether you’re strolling around Skara Brae in Orkney, taking a boat cruise along Loch Ness, or gazing out across the scenery from your train window.

Some points along the route, such as Edinburgh and certain attractions on the Isle of Skye, tend to get very busy during the summer months. Anticipating that, our partners will arrange day trips or provide suggestions for visiting lesser-known areas that see a fraction of the visitors.

For instance, while Edinburgh Castle is a world-renowned landmark, attracting the crowds to prove it, a little way out of the city stand the well-preserved ruins of Craigmillar Castle, whose walls and labyrinthine interiors can be explored alongside far fewer other people. You probably won’t want to miss Edinburgh Castle, but Craigmillar might make an interesting comparison the following day.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Chris Combe] [Intro: Peter Moore] [Iconic rail routes: Tim Woolliscroft] [Best time to go on a grand tour of Scotland by rail: mentrea]