The Caledonian Sleeper has something of a reputation for socialising, or so I had heard before boarding it myself one evening in early March. Sure enough, as the 16-carriage-long train eases its way out of Euston station at 21.15 sharp, there is not a seat to be had in the bar car. Here, regular travellers catch up on the latest news, greeting each other like old friends and enjoying a dram (or several) from the train’s admirable selection of single malts. Our steward, Jim, has already shown me to my single cabin. It’s a vision from the heyday of British Rail, a pod-hotel before its time, with a fold-away table and hidden washbasin to assure you all you needed for a good night’s sleep. Despite a dinky little travel washbag courtesy of Scotrail (now Serco under the latest franchise), the glamour was slightly underwhelming, but who wants everything to be shiny and new in this world? The sheets were crisp and white and the blanket tartan – more than enough nostalgia for me for a night’s journey.
Jim has a tip for us too: by Crewe the bar will be emptying out, as the regulars head for their cabins. Luke, my partner, and I recline in the generously wide seats in the adjoining carriage, then make our way into the bar as seats open up. It isn’t long before we’re chatting to Iain and Veronique, a Scottish-Spanish couple on one of their regular trips up to Skye to join in the fiddle sessions and visit family. “We’re on a cat-rescue mission”, they tell us, confirming the conviviality of regular travellers in this moving world that links the country from top to toe.
I dreamed of rolling waves and woke to misty glens and a knock at the door announcing the arrival of my breakfast tray. The train splits just north of the border, with one section heading to Aberdeen and another to Edinburgh, so by the time we pull into Inverness the train is a fraction of its former self. It’s cold and wet on this winter morning, so warming up around the roaring fire in Leakey’s bookshop is a perfect first stop in town. There’s something disturbingly sacrilegious about a wood-fired stove in a bookshop, but the smell of woodsmoke charms this book-lover’s gem. Towering around the walls and along the balcony is a cornucopia of antiquarian delights, from maps to prints and books old and older.
Having missed most of the view up to Scotland snoozing through the night on my little sleeper-pillow, I was eager to take in the Kyle line across the midriff of the Highlands towards Skye. One of the great world railways, it enticed Michael Palin to film a tv documentary back in 1980, long before he ventured from pole to pole. In his day, the BR trains had windows that opened, but the view is spectacular even from the sealed glazing of the spluttering little sprinter trains that ply this route today. We’re soon well away from Inverness’s quiet bustle, taking in vistas of grazing deer and glimpses of grand stone houses nestled between wooded slopes. Winding up out of Inverness through dinky Dingwall, the snowy crags rise out of the blue mist, dwarfing the rustic stone shacks along the river plains. Several of the stops we pass are barely shelters along the track, where a few hardy walkers ask the cheery conductor for the train to stop and let them off and into the mossy hills.
We hop off the train before reaching Kyle, as we have a table booked at the Plockton Inn, known for home-smoking their seafood – salmon, mussels, oysters, or anything else brought into the bay go into the smoking shed in the back yard. It’s obvious why the inn is packed: the food is exquisitely tasty and generous, a delicate tang of wood smoke seasoning the freshest of mussels, prawns, oysters, clams and salmon. After a brilliant sticky toffee pudding, we staggered across the road like stuffed geese to our beds in the homely luxury of the Plockton Gallery.
The following morning a generous breakfast awaits with home-made breads, and a surprise delivery of duck eggs. The brightly painted walls are bedecked with a fascinating collection of contemporary paintings by leading Scottish artists, and the wondrous forms of sea-creatures and corals inspired two visiting German artist to create the ravishing ceramic sculptures that rest on the windowsill. An accomplished artist herself, our host Marion Drysdale has held summer exhibitions and run art-courses here for some years, but there’s always something new. As well as hosting creative writing retreats, Marion tells us she is currently following a new passion with a Bridge week in this spacious former Manse.
Marion explains that this whole peninsula is owned and managed by the Scottish National Trust, and there are miles of paths and beaches to explore. At low tide she takes us to the coral beach near Dubhaird to forage for seaweed, but low-tide doesn’t last long. Gazing in fascinating for a few moments at the water spurting through the sand from razor clams underneath, I didn’t hear Luke calling increasingly frantically that the waters were rising. Suddenly emerging from my reverie, I found myself splashing through ankle-deep seawater back to the shore as the tide raced in over the causeway. There’s a little station by the level crossing at Dubhaird where we pick up the train again and wind around the rocky coast to Kyle, looking out for otters along the shore, and the grey curve of porpoises playing out to sea. From Kyle, the Hebrides stretch out ahead beckoning you first to Skye and beyond. It’s the end of the line for my journey, though, and I’m already looking forward to getting back on the train and wondering if I’ll meet Iain and Veronique’s cat on the way home.
The Caledonian sleeper runs day and night services from London Euston to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Fort William, Inverness, Dundee and Aberdeen, and is about to embark on a major upgrade. Visit sleeper.scot for information and booking.
From 12 January to 31 March you can make a return trip between any of over 345 stations across Scotland for just £19 return; if you are a Senior or Disabled Railcard holder over the age of 55 you are entitled to a further £2 discount. For more details visit ScotRail.
Plockton Gallery: B&B two rooms £70 – £100 per night inclusive of full Scottish breakfast. Self-catering, sleeps 10: £1400 per week or £300 per night, min. 3 nights.
Plockton Inn: From Easter, tariff is £55 per person per night for bed and breakfast. Live traditional music played every Thursday night.
For something different, book the quirky Kyle station box and stay under a scale model of the Kyle line.
National Trust for Scotland have limited accommodation on offer. The website includes details of facilties and the countryside code.
Great Rail Journeys put together tailored rail packages as well as offering escorted group rail holidays.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Great Rail Journeys