Of the few named trains still in service around the globe, the Royal Scotsman is one of the elite group operating in old Europe. It may not be surrounded by quite the aura of legend that encompasses the Orient Express, but in terms of comfort, service and price, it's well up there, with the shortest – two-night – route costing around 2,600 € – over ￡2,000 – per person. Mind you, once the ticket's been paid for, all the organised visits – to distilleries, castles, stately homes etc. – the exquisite table d'hote meals and the fine wines that accompany them, are all included, as is the entertainment by artists and story-tellers who board each evening to enliven the proceedings.
If the Orient Express is the Ritz among trains, the Royal Scotsman might better be thought of as an exclusive country house where a group of friends get together with the undeniable intention of self-indulgence. A maximum of 36 passengers enjoy each journey, attended by a dozen crew members who provide the perfect service to be expected of a fine stately home. Meals are served in the superbly refurbished restaurant car, and the Observation Car is the perfect setting for enjoying the evening entertainment while savouring a dram of fine malt whisky. The wooden-panelled sleeping cars are surprisingly spacious and the trip around some of the finest Highland scenery takes place at the slow speeds of yesteryear, imbuing the experience with a romanticism impossible to find in the immediacy we've come to expect from modern air travel.
Inspired by the Highland Belle, the two-car vintage train where, back in the Eighties, Sir Bill McAlpine used to indulge and entrance a handful of privileged guests with private excursions, the brains behind the Royal Scotsman, Michael Ryan and Fergus Hobbs, began to make plans for their own exclusive train service. In 1985 they hired a set of carriages, in a number of different styles, and with these they set about seducing the first passengers. Five years later, the convoy was replaced by a second allocation of Pullman cars from the Sixties, incorporating many improvements in terms of space and services.
Since then, the Royal Scotsman has set out on its journeys from Edinburgh station to the strains of the bagpipes expertly played by a tartan-clad band of pipers in perfect formation, and, between April and October offers short trips, from two to seven nights, around the glorious Scottish countryside. There are several different options available, but, frankly, the itinerary is not perhaps as important as the sheer pleasure of the journey. What could be better than to attend a full gala dinner – where the men wear either a tux or the kilt – and enjoy a fine Angus steak in the company of the most cosmopolitan of travellers with conversation to match? This is indeed a chance to rediscover the pure joy of travelling without the anxiety of timetables and missed connections.
The Royal Scotsman offers two, three, four, five and seven night journeys throughout Scotland, and in 2011 there is also a seven-night Grand Tour of Great Britain available. The shortest trip is the two-night Highland journey, a round trip of the Eastern Highlands leaving from Edinburgh and passing through Dundee, Aberdeen, Inverness and Dalwhinnie, while the full seven-night luxury of the Grand North Western journey is a comprehensive tour which also includes the Western Highlands. It's too late to join the four-night Homes and Gardens journey this year, but it will run again in 2011, with a single departure date in June. This 720-mile itinerary offers the chance to tour some of Scotland's finest homes and gardens in the company of respected British gardening writer Sue Chivers and photographer Patsy Floyd.
At the time of writing, there is a special offer available from the Royal Scotsman website on five separate departure dates in September and October 2010, with the three-night Western Journey available for 2630 €, the price of the two-night Highland journey, for bookings made before the end of September.