Thursday, 2 September 2021

The Royal Scotsman Classic Tour 2: Scotland's Classic Splendours

Aboard The Royal Scotsman

As we were piped aboard, everyone was offered a glass of Champagne and our coats were taken and hung away in the lobby: with so few passengers only one entrance and exit was needed for this train. We were shown through into the Observation Car which is fitted out like a lounge with armchairs and sofas with a small bar at one end and on open observation deck, like a small balcony, at the other. The observation deck was limited in usefulness for the first couple of days because the locomotive was coupled to it, but once the train was reversed it really came into its own in the scenic sections of the route. I did stand on it to cross the Forth Bridge a few minutes after departure, though, with a close view of our locomotive, Class 66 number 743, a GB RailFreight engine painted and lettered in Royal Scotsman livery to match the train.

Meanwhile our luggage had been taken to our cabins (cruise terminology is used on this train - sometimes even "staterooms" appears) and as the train left Edinburgh we were taken one cabin at a time to our accommodation. We had gained by someone else's misfortune and were changed from the twin cabin originally booked to a double one, having asked from the start if we could have a double cabin if there should happen to be a cancellation which left one free, and someone had cancelled just the night before, just as we were celebrating our negative Covid test. We were now in the very farthest cabin from the Observation Car, with just the service coach and staff quarters beyond us: we should have more exercise than any other passenger! After unpacking our clothes and hanging them in the ample wardrobe we made our way back to the other end of the train where there were drinks and canapés before an "informal" dinner as the train made its way along the east coast through Arbroath and Aberdeen to Keith, where it stabled overnight in a siding. Although a sleeper train, The Royal Scotsman does not travel at night, so no scenery is missed and no sleep is disturbed by movement. The informal dinners on this train are still fairly formal: jackets and collared shirts are recommended and the waiting staff are just as attentive as at the formal dinners. By now, three glasses of Champagne in, I began declining top-ups of wine during the meal.

Like some of the other travellers we went for a stroll around Keith as darkness fell, and we discovered Keith Town station on the "Whisky Line," a heritage railway from there to Dufftown. There was also a distillery. We were to see a lot of distilleries and could be sure that most of them would be pointed out by Les and we passed them on the train ... And so to bed at the end of the beginning.

On Tuesday morning the train reversed out of the siding in which it had spend the night and made its way during breakfast to Elgin where we were met by the Royal Scotsman road coach and our driver for the week, Andrew. We were taken by coach to visit Cawdor Castle which has been in the same family for many generations and is still home to Lady Cawdor as well as an interesting castle in a beautiful garden. Lady Cawdor greeted us over a glass of sparkling wine before we had lunch in reserved area of the public restaurant. It was a warm and sunny day and we had a great time exploring the garden before Andrew drove us to Inverness where the train had been taken to wait for us. Again there was a refreshing drink as we rejoined the train and we sat with others in the Observation Car as we departed towards the north, turning west at Dingwall onto the line to the Kyle of Lochalsh. This route is reputed to be one of the most scenic in Europe and was the reason why this particular tour was chosen from those offered by Belmond on The Royal Scotsman. We had already travelled on all the other routes out of Inverness as well as the West Highland Line to Fort William and Mallaig, so a tour that included Kyle of Lochalsh would take us on a scenic line we had yet to travel as well as taking us to places we had never been.

Odd jobs that needed doing had to be completed on the first part of this stage because we needed to be in the Observation Car through the mountains and lochs of the west. The scenery was stunning but I took few photographs because the low evening sun made effective landscape photography very difficult and I though that in the morning, with the sun from the east, I would be able to take much better pictures. As you'll see, that did not quite work out. Once arrived at the terminus and former ferry interchange at Kyle of Lochalsh we returned to our cabin to shower and change for dinner, and the locomotive was uncoupled from the Observation Car and run round to the other end of the train, giving us a splendid view of fishing vessels in the port as we enjoyed pre-dinner drinks. Dinner on the second evening was formal and I put on the requested dinner suit and bow tie along with most other men on the tour, while the ladies wore suitable cocktail dresses. It was all rather splendid, and the food and drinks were up to the standard we were beginning by now to expect. We went for a brief stroll after dinner but could not go far because it was dark. It would have been nice to walk to, or even over, the Skye Bridge which has supplanted the ferry to the Isle of Skye, but we did not have enough time for that and would not have seen much anyway. However, this may not be our last visit to this part of Scotland, so a visit to the island is still a possibility one day.

The Royal Scotsman departed from the Kyle of Lochalsh very early on the Wednesday morning, retracing our route back to Inverness. I spent much of the most scenic sections of the route standing on the open observation deck, now unencumbered by the locomotive, but photography was now hampered by the mist and low cloud that hung over land, sea and loch alike. It looked wonderful as it was, but the mountains were invisible much of the time. This was quite a long trip in one go and breakfast was served later than usual to give those who wanted a lazy start the opportunity to have one - although it was unfortunate that lunch had to be served early that day in order to fit in the afternoon's activities.

During the morning (at what would normally be coffee time in my world), Les, assisted by Sylwia, the train's own whisky-specialist, invited us to a whisky tasting in the Observation Car and introduced passengers to the world of Scotch malt whisky. Some already knew more than others, but I think we all learnt something - I know I did. The biggest lesson was the enormous difference it makes to drink whiskies from a glass that holds in the aroma rather than the conventional tumbler. So much so that we bought a pair of whisky tasting glasses from the on-board shop before we came home! The train continued through Inverness while we had lunch and then south towards the Cairngorm mountains.

After lunch we left the train at Aviemore to visit Ballindalloch Castle, shown round by Guy Macpherson-Grant the current owner of the castle which, again, had been in the same family for many centuries. The castle is still at heart a farmhouse and the centre of thriving business interests, as it has to be in order to keep going: the present owner's parents did a lot to make it the place it is now, with beautiful gardens for the public to visit. We were also shown around the interior and although some places were closed off owing to work being done to improve the heating system (important in that part of the UK!) we were given a glimpse into the life of the family as well as the history of the aristocracy in Scotland. Fortified dwellings are no longer needed to defend land holdings against enemies and are simply beautiful buildings which are great to see. Quite different from castles in England, the appearance of Scottish castles resembles those in Germany and Austria, with projecting round corner turrets with conical roofs, for example. Just in case we were too hungry to wait for dinner we were treated to tea in the castle's visitors' tea room and then we tried to walk off some of that around the grounds before it was time to move on.

The Royal Scotsman coach took us back to the train which had moved on to the station at Boat of Garten on the preserved Strathspey Railway, our own locomotive having been replaced by a restored Class 31 diesel, one of my favourite locomotives which I can remember from childhood and some of which are still going strong sixty years later. As usual we were welcomed back to the train with drinks on the platform and then before dinner we went for a short stroll around the village, and then canapés in the Observation Car were followed by an informal, but still excellent, dinner in the two Dining Cars at the platform at Boat of Garten. After dinner we were entertained with songs by Davy Holt, who also gave us a brief history of Highland life and was amusing as well as informative and quite moving even for those of us who had heard much of the story already.

In many respects the Thursday was the most exciting day of the tour with activity from the start. After breakfast we left the train at Boat of Garten and were driven by coach to the Rothemurchus Estate where a variety of country pursuits had been lined up for us. Some went for a country walk (which I gather was more of a saunter than a hike), some for a drive around the countryside, some fishing and some, including me, clay pigeon shooting. I had never fired a shotgun, although I had grown up in the countryside where many members of my family had them - fairly essential in agriculture - and I thought this would be a great thing to try. We were divided into two parties between two instructors and taken to the firing range where we were given a selection of moving targets to try to hit. I found the least difficult to be the one that was coming towards me; concentration on the job in hand, as ever, was key to doing a good job, and that was quite hard with a lot of new stuff to remember. I can imagine that this sport could easily take over ones life - I am sure that if I tried again I'd hit the target a bit more often and then keep trying to improve, and then maybe try air rifle target shooting and before you know where you are I'd never be at home ... so it is as well that I live hundreds of miles away and am unaware of anything more local (although I am sure there must be lots but don't tell me about them!).

Back at the house we reconvened with those who'd undertaken the other pursuits and by log fires (! in August) we met our host family and enjoyed some coffee and their home-made cakes (mercifully small pieces, for one is not exactly ravenous after a Royal Scotsman breakfast) and the coach returned us to the train now waiting for us at Kingussie station on the Highland Main Line. 

Lunch was served on the train as we made our way south through Blair Atholl and Pitlochry to Dunkeld. At Dunkeld we left the train again and Andrew picked us up in the coach for one last time to take us to by far the largest castle of the week, Glamis Castle, childhood home of the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and probably the most beautiful castle I have ever seen. The way the visit was arranged for us was particularly good: we drove up the main driveway with the castle ahead of us, looking like a fairy-tale; the coach took us to the front door, not the usual tourist entrance, where we were met by a piper who piped us into the castle where we all stood with a glass of whisky to toast the piper with the traditional Scots toast, "Slàinte Mhath" (pronounced "slanje-va"), we each took a sip, the piper took a gulp! During the tour of the interior we heard a lot about the supposed haunting of the castle be several ghosts but saw and heard nothing of any of them ... There was some free time to explore the grounds after we said farewell to our guide (this time we did not meet the current owner of the castle for he was away), and then the coach took us to the ancient capital city of Perth where our train was waiting for us by a side entrance. 

The finale of the final day was the formal dinner followed by more musical entertainment as the train moved on to Dundee. As ever, drinks and canapés were served before dinner and this time I swapped the endless round of Champagne and whisky for a vodka martini - I sometimes make these at home and wanted to see how a professional version compared - and could not believe it when I was asked if I wanted is shaken or stirred! I asked for shaken, of course ... I am not sure I believe in the "bruising" theory of shaken vodka and anyway when you're standing there in evening wear it just sort of seems to fit!

We woke in Dundee on the Friday morning and moved off at breakfast on the short final leg of our tour, the highlights this morning being the crossing of the Tay and Forth bridges.

From the outside platform of the Observation Car the crossing of the Forth Bridge was a whole new experience, and soon after this we were passing through Princes Street Gardens and rolling into Edinburgh. Some people stayed with the train for the next tour, some headed to hotels in Edinburgh for a few more days and some, like us, caught trains home. We had our luggage taken to the Balmoral and had a coffee break at the Scottish Royal Academy café overlooking the Gardens and then collected our luggage and waited in the First Class Lounge at Waverley for our train home to be prepared. The journey back by LNER was up to the usual standard, comfortable and on time with a light lunch from the Deli menu being served, and we made a connection to Stamford which I had not dared to hope we might make. The train to Stamford was amazingly busy; we had no seat reservations for I had reserved them on the next train thinking we wouldn't get this one, and space for holiday luggage was tight, so we stood in vestibule for the short ride to Stamford.

Having heavier luggage than usual we tried the system for crossing the line at Stamford using the barrow crossing instead of the footbridge and it worked very well: we lifted the telephone handset and spoke to a signaller who let us through the gate and across the track as soon as it was safe, and then we called back as soon as we were over to let him know that we were safely across. It had been a brilliant holiday and no other train will ever be quite the same as The Royal Scotsman. It was definitely not fast and it didn't take many passengers so the fare was definitely not low budget, but it was the opposite of "no frills"! Frills was what it was all about, ideal for the celebration of last year's ruby wedding anniversary.


Update:

My photographs are now available on Flickr for those who wish to see them!


2 comments:

  1. Thank you for your detailed and so interesting account. Congratulations on your wedding anniversary. I can just picture the pair of you looking very much the part.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks! Only a year late, but well worth waiting for.

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