Back in August, I went up to Scotland for a week on the Caledonian Sleeper train. I didn’t want to go for a standard class cabin as they are for two people and I didn’t want to stay with a stranger. So I decided to compromise – on the way up I went for the super frugal option and sat in the normal carriage (which wasn’t as bad as it sounds) while on the way back I splashed out on first class!
It’s a shame the Caledonian Sleeper goes from Euston, as it’s possibly the ugliest station in London. Still, this didn’t stop me from being excited. I didn’t sleep very well on the way up, but I didn’t mind as watching the sun rise over the Highlands was amazing. I could hardly believe that I’d gone to sleep in crowded London and woken up surrounded by hills and deer.
The train got into Inverness at eight o’clock in the morning which gave me a whole day before I had to go and check in to my B&B. I left my luggage in the station lockers and decided to go on a Loch Ness cruise. This was fun but it was windy out on the loch – I’m definitely glad I took a coat! As part of the trip we also had a look around Urquhart Castle and the Loch Ness Centre, which was a kind of multimedia exhibition looking at the story of Nessie. This was surprisingly well done and fairly balanced, looking at all the possible explanations for ‘Nessie sightings’ in an interesting way. Needless to say I didn’t spot Nessie myself!
Later that day I visited Culloden, which is a short bus journey out of Inverness. It’s essentially just a field, but the visitor centre is excellent. It has an exhibition which is presented on two sides of the corridor, looking at events from the English and the Scottish points of view. There is also a room where you can stand and be surrounded by a filmed re-enactment of the battle, as if you were really there – this was rather frightening!
I walked through Inverness to reach my B&B. It’s a relatively small town and I liked it a lot. Some bits were slightly run-down but there was a Victorian market and some attractive buildings, and down by the river it was really nice. I also took the chance to go to the theatre while I was there. I found out that there was a National Theatre of Scotland/RSC co-production called Dunsinane, a sequel to Macbeth, being performed that week at the Eden Court Theatre in Inverness. I enjoyed it even though it took some liberties with the original – such as Lady Macbeth turning up alive and well.
I was hampered during my stay by not having a car. I could have explored much more of the surrounding area if I’d been able to drive around and stop at will. However I managed to see a lot via the train! I had a day trip to Aberdeen, which was very… grey. The Maritime Museum was fairly interesting and I had a look around the Tolbooth and the art gallery.
Back in Inverness, I went to the Gellions pub where William McGonagall once recited his poetry.
I went on a day trip to the Orkney Islands. This was amazing! It involved an incredibly early start and a long coach journey but it was worth it.
We visited the capital of the Orkney, Kirkwall.
I got to see the prehistoric village of Skara Brae, which was just incredible. It has been really well preserved and though you can’t walk through it (or it wouldn’t be well preserved any more) they have made a replica that you CAN walk through so you can picture how it all used to look.
Also on the tour I visited the Ring of Brodgar, which is a stone circle a bit like Stonehenge, though the setting is much more atmospheric, I think. It reminded me of Diana Gabaldon’s ‘Outlander’ books, in which the heroine goes through a stone circle in Scotland and ends up in the middle of the Jacobite rising – I could almost imagine I could travel back in time with the stones myself!
As the coach went past some of the lagoons which lie between the islands, I could see rusty skeletons of old ships poking out of the water.
Our guide told us that they were old WWI ships that had been decommissioned and brought here during WWII in order to create a barrier preventing German U-boats from getting through. Only, one did manage to get through and sunk a ship, killing hundreds of seamen. Apparently, years later, the widow of one of the men who died was granted her last wish on her death – to be buried with her husband. So her ashes were taken down into the sea. It’s a sweet, but very sad story.
The tour also found time to stop at the Italian chapel. This was a beautiful little Catholic church built by Italian prisoners of war during the 1940s.
I travelled on a lot of trains during my trip. As well as taking the train to the west coast and going on to Skye, I had a ride on the Strathspey steam railway. It stopped at the station which was used on the BBC drama Monarch of the Glen.
The same day, I also went up the Cairngorm Mountain on the furnicular railway. It was freezing on the top, but there were some spectacular views.
I also went to Dundee for the day. It took about three hours on the train, but I was dying to go for two reasons. Firstly, because it was the hometown of William McGonagall. I saw the Tay Bridge (Mark 2) with my own eyes – it was so long and the river so wide that it really brought home just how terrifying it must have been for the passengers who died when it collapsed.
The second reason was to visit Discovery Point, where Captain Scott’s Antarctic exploration ship RSS Discovery is kept. I’m really interested in Antarctica and especially the ‘heroic age’ of exploration. I loved the museum – the ship itself has been sympathetically restored and the exhibitions inside the building have been really well thought out.
I also found time to visit the Verdant Works.
You can’t go to Scotland without visiting a whisky distillery. I chose to visit Glen Moray, mainly because it was the only one I could reach via train.
I came back with a lot of alcohol, particularly beer.
I had a great time on the way back in my first class cabin – sadly grey and modern rather than the wood-panelled warmth I always associate in my mind with sleeper trains – but it was great having my breakfast brought to me in the morning!
I didn’t get a chance to go to Glasgow or Fort William, or travel on the famous West Highland Line, but I may be going back next year with my mam. I hope so – I had a brilliant time and I’d love to see some more of Scotland.