How to Explore Scotland by Rail

How to Explore Scotland by Rail

Visiting Scotland soon? Wai Kwan gives some useful advice on how to make that epic rail trip around some of the least travelled parts of British Isles.

Kyle of Lochalsh, Scotland

Scotland offers some of the world’s best travel experiences that should be included on your bucket list. Although many places in the region are rather inaccessible if don’t have the means of opting for private transport, there is, fortunately, an option of exploring such places by rail. However, rail operations and coverage can be rather limited so it’s best to do some planning before embarking on your rail trip.

1. Study the rail maps and identify places that interest you

Scotrail, the rail operator of Scotland

Scotland’s rail network is operated by ScotRail. The network (especially in the Highlands) is rather sparse due to the low population density and rugged terrain across the region. However, the number of attractions accessible by rail is still more than enough for your itinerary when time and money are concerned. Refer to the Scotrail website for the network map to find out more about the numerous scenic rail journey routes that you can take.

2. Get a Rover ticket (i.e. rail pass) best suited for your travel plan

Rover tickets unlock some of the best rail trips, including this one over the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct featured in the Harry Potter films.

A Rover ticket allows flexible travel on a number of days within a validity period. There are different kinds of Rover tickets available, and each of them covers certain areas within a specific validity period. Some tickets also include complimentary bus or ferry rides to places that are not accessible by rail. Refer here for the different types of Rover tickets available. They can be easily bought at any staffed stations. Be sure to check its validity and usage conditions before purchasing your ticket!

3. Check the timetable

Timetable for trains departing from Inverness, the capital of the Highlands region

Always consult the timetable (available here) at least a day before you plan to make your journey. I cannot emphasise this enough. Due to low demand and operating limitations (i.e. single track railways) in remote areas, it is not uncommon to have four or less departures per day in one direction. On Sundays, there could be just one departure. If you miss that train, you’ll have to wait till the next day!

4. Sit back and enjoy the journey

Landscape of lush greenery amidst the unpredictable weather

Because of harsh terrain and unpredictable weather, train journeys can sometimes be rather slow and further delayed due to unforeseen circumstances. But wait! Don’t nod off for a snooze yet! Take this opportunity to marvel at the wonderful creations of nature. Scotland’s main highlight is its unparalleled landscapes and scenery. You’ll definitely be awestruck by all the natural landforms and vegetation cover (or the lack of it), which is a rare sight for most of us back home in Singapore.

5. Consider less visited places as well

The highlight of my Scotland rail trip: Ending off my delayed journey of the day by witnessing such a beautiful sunset against the backdrop of… basically nothing!

Planning to hike around the Isle of Skye or fancy a trip to the famous Loch Ness known for its mythical monster? Such places are too well-known and over visited, and they’re bound to be overcrowded with very limited accommodation during the high season.

You don’t have to go to those “must visit” places just because everyone goes there. To me, any place near a train station is considered very convenient (even if there’s only one departure in a day). I feel that the point of visiting Scotland is to disconnect from the outside world and simply appreciate the wonder of natural beauty. Here are some photos I took on my trip:

At a natural lake. Such a phenomenal sight!

Words cannot describe this kind of sight. Never ever had I felt so humbled by the wonders of Mother Nature.

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A trek through the woods the next morning

The untouched landscape of Scottish Highlands

Or if you wish to head to the northernmost part of British mainland just for the fun of it (like I did), take the train all the way to end of the line:

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The northernmost station on the British rail network

Thurso, the northernmost town on British mainland

Rugged coastline near the neighbouring town of Wick

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Ruins of Castle Sinclair Girnigoe facing the North Sea. Best way to get there? Hitchhike from the nearby town of Wick!

The rather touristy John O’ Groats, which is right at the north-eastern point of British mainland

Even though getting around Scotland can be a challenge without private transport, it is still possible to discover gorgeous places to see by rail. Such a trip of a lifetime is definitely worth considering. Have fun!

About Author

Tang Wai Kwan
Tang Wai Kwan

Tang finds joy through immersing himself in a local environment, savouring street food and meeting new people. He finds transit maps fascinating and loves navigating through different modes of transportation. While on the streets, he's easily distracted by cats, and he often wonders if cats in different countries "meow" in different languages. When he's not travelling, he's often seen consulting maps and exploring creative ways of getting between places for his next adventure.


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