Board the overnight sleeper, travel on one of the most scenic railways in Europe to reach the magical and mysterious Isle of Skye, take the ferry to the idyllic Knoydart peninsular and return on the line regularly voted the best railway journey in the world.
The Caledonian Sleeper:
It wasn’t quite the hissing locomotive, condensation streaming down its art deco livery, with an attentive steward helping me settle into the confined luxury of my sleeping compartment, played out to the soundtrack of Auden and Britten’s, Night Mail, but the Caledonian Sleeper that pulled into a chill and cheerless Crewe station just before midnight was on time, while the sleeping berths, if hardly luxurious, were sufficiently comfortable for me to be fast asleep by Preston.
But if the idea of an overnight train journey through Britain seems as dated as the derring-do of a John Buchan hero, think again. Six nights a week the Caledonian Sleeper leaves from Euston, picking up at stations through the Midlands and is easily the most relaxing and satisfying way to reach the Scottish Highlands, with or without boots, bikes and assorted outdoor equipment.
And, if waiting on Crewe station was one downside of the journey, waking up in Pitlochry, snow capped peaks visible through the thickly forested Tilt valley, provided a compensatory highlight. From here to Inverness, the dramatic Highland scenery banished any thoughts of dozing back into slumber.
Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh:
The sleeper arrives in Inverness just after 8.30, giving you time to pick up a newspaper, or grab a coffee before leaving for Kyle of Lochalsh at 9am: check times with www.firstscotrail.co.uk
This spectacular line heads north to Dingwall, before continuing west to Garve, along by Lochs Luichart and Achnalt, through Strath Bran and then Glen Carron. This is a bleakly beautiful vista of lochs and mountains, sparsely populated and strangely overlooked by those who confine their Highland visits to south of the Great Glen.
From Strathcarron, the line runs along the shore of the glinting Loch Carron, before heading for Kyle of Lochalsh. Threatened with closure in the 1970s, the fight to save the line attracted considerable public and celebrity support, due to the scenic beauty of the route and its importance as a line of communication in an isolated area. More details here.
Kyle of Lochalsh lies at the eastern end of the Skye Bridge. Once the subject of great controversy surrounding its tolls, it is now free and you can walk, cycle, or catch a bus across it to Broadford, Portree and the rest of Skye. Use www.travelinescotland.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org to plan travel across the island.
Savage, vertical mountains eroded by fingers of azure water, subtle, fluctuating light, a bloody and romantic history: Skye has it all and this unique combination has produced, perhaps, the most iconic of all Scotland’s islands.
It is, in fact, a diverse island – the dark, forbidding Cuillins in the north in sharp contrast to the gentle contours and fertile fields of Sleat in the south of the island – and this variance creates a wealth of opportunities to enjoy Skye.
Mountaineers, climbers and hill walkers continue to be drawn to the magnetism of the exposed ridges and peaks of the legendary Cuillins. Main roads are quiet, reasonably well-surfaced and ideal for touring the island by bike, while the rough terrain will test the best off-roaders. And, after a long, hard day in the outdoors, why not treat yourself at one of Skye’s growing number of highly-rated restaurants?
Skye’s vibrant colours and subtle shadows have always attracted artists and craftspeople. Consequently, the island has a thriving arts and crafts association. Skye & Lochalsh Arts & Crafts Association showcases a range of galleries, studios, eateries and accommodation options.
However long you spend on Skye, you will find it won’t be long enough. Promise to return and head to the south of the island to pick up the Mallaig ferry at Armadale. This area, known as Sleat, is often overlooked in favour of the more dramatic north, but it is a pleasant landscape of meandering burns, lonely coastline and ancient woodlands. Hotel Eilean Iarmain sheltering beside the lighthouse at Isleornsay, provides a warm welcome and fine food, as well as spectacular views across the Sound of Sleat to Knoydart, our next destination.
Catch the bus from Isleornsay to Armadale and, if your arrival and the ferry departure don’t quite coincide, browse away the time and keep your credit card busy among the designer knits at Ragamuffin.
It’s a short, but scenic crossing and, when you disembark in Mallaig, head for the small pier at the Public Steps to meet either the boat pre-arranged with your accommodation, or the Bruce Watt Ferry.
Knoydart is often described as the last real wilderness in the British Isles, this status preserved largely by its inaccessibility: unless you walk or bike through Kinloch Hourn, boat is the only way on to the peninsular.
Largely depopulated in the highland Clearances, Knoydart, or the Rough Bounds, is an ideal destination – no TV, no power thirsty electrical gadgets, no driving – for walkers, cyclists, divers, photographers and anyone else seeking to relax among magnificent mountains and captivating coastal scenery.
The “capital”, Inverie, is the only major settlement, but the area offers a wide range of accommodation options, from wild camping to luxury B&Bs (Knoydart Foundation and Barisdale Estate) A visit to the most remote pub on the British mainland, Old Forge Pub is obligatory for the hospitality, hearty food, good coffee and cakes and impromptu musical evenings. It’s the centre of Knoydart’s social life and provides a mine of local knowledge.
Situated on the western most tip of the peninsular is the idyllic hamlet of Doune. Doune provides the ultimate escape from the pressures of everyday life, offering a range of activities and the use of their boats to explore Knoydart and the islands beyond.
Climb any of its four Munros, or its three Corbetts, mountain bike across its rough terrain, sail round to the breathtaking Barrisdale Bay and walk back to Inverie along Gleann an Dubh-Lochain, sit in wonder as the sun sets behind the Skye coastline: Knoydart is special.
Back in Mallaig, take time to look round the visitor centre next to the railway station. It tells the story of Mallaig’s development as a fishing port after the railway from Fort William opened in 1901. The last railway to be built on the mainland, it took four years to complete, mainly because of the difficulties involved in blasting through the thickness of the rocks.
The journey to Fort William provides a wonderful finale to your trip, particularly if you travel between April and September on the steam locomotive, Jacobite (West Coast Railways). The 42 mile ride leaves Britain’s most westerly station and passes beside its deepest loch, highest mountain and shortest river. Unsurprisingly, it is regularly voted the best railway journey in the world. In recent years it has gained a legion of new fans eager to glimpse the Glenfinnan Viaduct immortalised in the Harry Potter films. Movie buffs should also look out for the beautiful silver sands at Morar, the location for the films Highlander and Local Hero.
Take the return sleeper from Fort William. It leaves just before 8pm and, daylight permitting, you can enjoy more stunning highland scenery, as the train travels along Glen Spean, Loch Traig and into Rannoch Moor. If you want to return to Inverness, Scottish Citylink services run regularly from Fort William and some of their coaches will carry cycles, subject to conditions. Better still, why not walk or cycle the 73 miles back to Inverness?