This rail tour of the Scottish Highlands has everything: steam trains and ferries, mountains and islands, highlands and lowlands, history and culture.
This is one of very few itineraries in the Highlands which can be done entirely on public transport. Public transport tours in the more remote areas of Scotland are generally tricky, but this one works well - we think it's incredible!
If you're on a self-drive tour, we can always combine it with elements of this tour - why not leave the car in Fort William and travel to Skye in style on a steam train?
The sample itinerary shown below is probably the quickest you would want to do it - ideally we would suggest taking ten days or more, allowing time for a few side trips and rest days.
This railway tour works with a wide range of accommodation - from our carefully-selected hotels and B&Bs right up to luxury castles, there are lots of options.
Day 1 - Glasgow to Fort William
- Overnight in: Fort William
- Travel time: approx 4.5 hours
From Glasgow Queen Street station, the West Highland Line (Scots Gaelic: Rathad Iarainn nan Eilean - "Iron Road to the Isles") travels out along the north coast of the Clyde, quickly passing Helensburgh and entering the wild country to the north.
Along the shores of Gareloch, you can sometimes spot nuclear submarines heading in and out of the naval base at Faslane. Further on, the line follows the shores of Loch Long with fantastic views over to the Cobbler and the hills around the Rest and Be Thankful pass.
From Arrochar, the railway line follows the shores of Loch Lomond before climbing up into the Highlands. At Crianlarich, a branch line leaves towards Oban, but the mainline (such as it is), climbs up further onto Rannoch Moor. This vast bog presented a massive engineering challenge when the line was first built - any regular foundation would quickly have sunk into the peat, so the line had to be floated on a broad wooden base: from a distance, you can see the line dipping down as the train travels along.
Corrour Station is the highest and one of the most remote in the UK. It was one of the main locations for the film Trainspotting. There's a great little restaurant here and some fantastic routes for any keen hill-walkers - if timetables allow, it's worth getting off for lunch or a hike and waiting for the next train.
From Corrour, the line drops steeply into the Great Glen at Spean Bridge, before wending its way gently on to Fort William.
As the name suggests, the town of Fort William was originally built around a castle. Back in the days of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the English built a network of roads and castles in the Highlands - with a string of them through the Great Glen: form Fort William at one end, via Fort Augustus to Inverness at the other (fans of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series will know all about this). These days the fort is long gone, and the town is now the centre of outdoor adventure tourism in Scotland.
Image: Unsplash / Stewart M
Day 2 - Fort William to Skye by Steam Train
- Distance: about 60 miles
From Fort William, The Jacobite completes the journey along the West Highland Line to Mallaig. Regular trains on this route are all diesel-powered, but The Jacobite is pulled by steam!
Heading north, you first come to Glenfinnan Viaduct. This iconic bridge is featured in almost every tourist brochure in Scotland! It has to be one of the most photogenic spots anywhere - it was also featured in the Harry Potter films.
At Glenfinnan Station, there's an excellent museum covering the history of the West Highland Line and the local area. This is also the area where Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his flag in August 1745 after landing on the west coast near Arisaig.
From Glenfinnan, the line continues past Loch Ailort, Arisaig and the silver sands of Morar. For reasons lost in the mists of time, this whole area is known as The Rough Bounds.
Mallaig is the end of the line. From here, you can take the ferry across to Armadale on the Isle of Skye. Depending on where you're staying, a bus or a private transfer will take you to your hotel on Skye.
Image: Unsplash / Jack Anstey
Day 3 - The Kyle of Lochalsh Line
- Overnight in: Inverness
- Distance: about 80 miles
The Kyle of Lochalsh Line starts back on the mainland, just across the iconic Skye Bridge. A bus or private transfer will take you to across the bridge and back to the mainland.
From Kyle, the railway route winds along picturesque lochs and down dramatic glens, crossing the whole of the Highlands from west to east. The 64 mile journey to Dingwall passes through some of the most spectacular scenery in the whole of Scotland.
At Dingwall, the line joins up with the Far North Line before heading through the fertile agricultural plain to Inverness.
Inverness is the main town in the Highlands, the headquarters of local government and boasts an international airport (this would be another option for starting your tour). There is lots of history to discover - we particularly recommend a visit to Culloden Battlefield, where Bonnie Prince Charlie was finally defeated by the English in 1746 (the last pitched battle to take place in the UK).
Image: Unsplash / Daniel Svoboda
Day 4 - The Cairngorms
- Overnight in: Aviemore
- Distance: about 40 miles
From Inverness, it's just a short journey down to Aviemore. This is the main town in the Cairngorm Mountain Range and the base for the Strathspey Steam Railway.
The steam train departs from platform 3 at Aviemore, heading to Boat of Garten and on to Broomhill. Make sure you get off the train at Broomhill, as there are incredible photo opportunities due to the surrounding scenery. You can walk up to the locomotive to meet the driver and fireman and perhaps get some photos on the footplate.
It's worth staying on in Aviemore to explore the local area - the half-tame reindeer herd nearby is a particular favourite.
At the time of writing (2020) the Cairngorm Mountain Railway is out of service for long-term maintenance. Hopefully, it will be back up and running soon - it offers by far the easiest route to climb a Munro.
Image: Unsplash / Joe Green
Day 5 - Downhill to Edinburgh
- Overnight in: Edinburgh
From Aviemore, the train climbs to the Pass of Drumochter then starts the long descent down the southern slopes of the Cairngorms towards Dundee and on to Edinburgh.
Edinburgh, the capital city of Scotland, has a huge amount to offer: a world-class arts scene, lots of history, excellent shopping and some of the best food from Scotland and the rest of the world. It's worth staying at least a couple of days to take it all in. Check out our detailed city guide for some ideas and inspiration.
Image: Unsplash / Joerg Angeli
Day 6 - Back to Glasgow
- Travel time: 50 minutes
To complete this railway tour, the recently-electrified route between Edinburgh and Glasgow takes only 50 minutes. Along the way, you might catch a glimpse of the Kelpie statues in Falkirk.
If you didn't spend time in Glasgow at the beginning of your trip, then it's worth taking at least a day to explore now.
Image: Unsplash / Crawford Jolly
All of our tours are bespoke and tailored to exactly what you want to do. This itinerary is just an example - get in touch and let us customise it for your perfect holiday.
Heading via Oban would be an easy variation - the West Highland Line splits at Crianlarich, so you just need to take the Oban branch.
From Oban, we can organise a coach or private transfer to Fort William.
By Paddle Steamer to Fort William
For the ultimate vintage travel experience, why not take the Waverley from Glasgow to Fort William? You would miss out on the West Highland Line, but you would still get to take the Jacobite Express steam train from Fort William To Mallaig.
The Waverley is the last seagoing passenger-carrying steamer in operation in the world. She was built in 1946 and still plies her trade up and down the west coast.
A side trip to the Small Isles
The Small Isles (Rum, Eigg, Canna and Muck) are always worth a detour.
You can catch a ferry out and back from Mallaig. You'd need a whole day, but it's definitely worth it.
See our blog post on Unmissable Island day trips.
The Far North Line to Thurso and Wick
The most northerly railway in the UK stretches from Inverness up to Thurso. In theory, you could change at Dingwall and head north, but the timetables mean it normally makes more sense to stop over and change in Inverness.
Built between 1862 and 1874, this line was critical in both world wars as the main supply line to the naval base in Scapa Flow on Orkney.
Thurso and Wick are both worth a visit - Wick, in particular, has a lovely castle and is home to the world's shortest street!
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