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Issue 19 - On the right side of the tracks

Scotland Magazine Issue 19
March 2005

 

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On the right side of the tracks

The Royal Scotsman is renowned across the world for class and style. And as Kate Patrick found out, it's well justified

For the Royal Scotsman’s three-day swing around the West Highlands, I took along my 75-year-old father-in-law.

As a small boy coming from the north of Ireland to his school in Wales, he regularly made the trip by steam train from Stranraer, via much of Britain, and can still recite serial numbers on carriages.

Even though the Royal Scotsman is, largely, a modern train – only one carriage is older than 30 years – and diesel rather than steampowered, he was enthusiastic to share with me and the other passengers a significant appreciation of the finer points of single-track management, of the intricacies of shunting and a general observation-platform etiquette that was second to none. What better companion could I have chosen?

We rolled away from Edinburgh Waverley, having been piped aboard, and headed west into bright sunlight. I had packed and repacked six times, eventually settling on a patriotic tartan jacket for the first day – not a great choice as it turned out, as I resembled one of the immaculately upholstered sofas in the observation car.

Besides us, there were four American couples, three English, a pair of young men from Russia, a pair of young ladies from Germany and a handful of intrepid singles.

“I just want to know,” said Debra from San Francisco, as she sat in the open-air back section of the train facing the disappearing tracks, “when Hercule Poirot is going to appear.”

Hercule was not aboard; but another literary figure,‘Q’, was – a charming, ex-naval master of logistics, full name Quentin Banting – who acted as host and guide, pointing out scenery and useful historical facts along the way, and making sure, with a touch that was both light but firm, that we were marshalled at certain times for both meals and outings.

The train manager was an obliging Frenchman called Vincent, leading a young team for whom nothing, but nothing, was too much trouble.

Glass of champagne in hand, and at a steady 40mph, we made our sedate progress through Falkirk and Dumbarton to skirt Glasgow and reach the northern bank of the Clyde, where we picked up the West Highland Line.

Afternoon tea – a smorgasbord of cold meats, bread, scones, cake – was served as we travelled along the edge of Gare Loch, a deep sapphire blue in the afternoon sun, with a few sailing boats criss-crossing its waters.

Loch Long was next, and the distinctive froth of mountain behind it known as The Cobbler, Ben Arthur; past Arrochar we had our first view of Loch Lomond, and from the water’s edge at Ardlui made the hard climb up Glen Falloch. From the rails, rather than the road, came a quite exhilarating sense of uncharted territory – of being part of a wellkept secret.

We stabled for dinner and the night at Spean Bridge, and were ushered to a table in Victory, the car dating from 1945 that had vintage-look seats, rich wood panelling with marquetry and period lights that cast a warm glow.

Dressing for dinner was in order; some people made up tables with new-found friends, and others sat in their twos or fours. My father-in-law had by now teamed up with another Irishman, and the two of them sat, without irony, discussing potato varieties and how best to boil them – “a serious business where I come from,” said the other.

Our dinner was a little better than that. The train’s new chef, Dan Hall, had previously spent two years cooking for a winery owner in California, and before that had been head chef at Nick Nairn’s two restaurants.

Royal Scotsman chefs have traditionally gone on to do spectacularly well – Andrew Fairlie (Gleneagles), Andrew Radford (Atrium) and Craig Wood (Hallion Club) are all alumni – and having seen the size of the kitchen and tasted the exquisite food that came out of it for three days, I can quite see why: nothing would seem a greater challenge in comparison. Imagine producing perfectly executed roast breast of Barbary duck with pancetta-wrapped figs for 30 demanding guests, all sitting down at once, from a space the size of a snooker table! You’d need a good sense of humour.

Victuals are one of the things the Royal Scotsman traditionally does best, and each course was accompanied by a well-chosen and unusual wine. Father-in-law, who happens also to be a Master of Wine, was impressed.

If I have a criticism, it is that the sommelier, who was German, did not have the linguistic skills to engage with us about the wines, although he may have been a conversational genius to the German lady passengers.

After-dinner entertainment was provided by a vocal Highlander demonstrating how an old-fashioned plaid was once worn and how a Jacobite used his broadsword and his bazooka.

He was good, if a bit bellicose; and his spiel could have done with more romantic celtic legend or poetry; moreover we were convinced he was actually Irish, although he said he came from the part of Invernessshire where they just sound Irish.

After a triple armagnac – all drinks are included, and the bar staff don’t actually bother with measures – I reeled to my carriage for an excessively sound night’s sleep.

I have somehow got this far without describing my compartment, one of 16 in all.

An impressive amount of facilities were jigsawed elegantly into a small space. It had two single beds – not bunks – with thick mattresses and high-gauge sheets; mellow wood panelling around the walls and a ceiling fan that, while not entirely authentic, did conjure up something of the Raj experience; the ensuite shower was surprisingly powerful, although its hot water supply was shared with the next door cabin, which meant fatherin-law and I couldn’t both shower for long at the same time; and there was a wardrobe, dressing table, writing paper and nice bottles of Molton Brown.

I found it a peaceful retreat; one couple commented that some time-and-space management were required when they were trying to get dressed.

The morning brought views of the islands and crannogs of Loch Nan Uamh, as we made our way west to Arisaig, the sands of Morar and Mallaig. The weather had turned cloudy and a little cooler, but this in no way dampened the enthusiasm of the American guests. “I like it moody,” enthused Debra, whose San Francisco weather was always so relentlessly upbeat.

A coach, done up in the Royal Scotsman’s maroon livery, took some of us to walk sedately on the beach at Traigh, and salmon and Chablis were served as we snaked slowly back over the Glenfinnan Viaduct to Fort William – a highlight of the trip for me, as we looked down at the Glenfinnan Monument at the head of Loch Shiel from a magnificent vantage point.

After Fort William, where the engine moved from one end of the train to the other and father-in-law became embroiled in an in-depth discussion about shunting, we headed south to Bridge of Orchy. Here we picked up the coach again and followed the road past Ben Cruachan, hugging Loch Awe, to Inverawe Smokehouses, the well-known family-run fish and meat smokery near Loch Etive.

They gave us a private tour, drinks and canapés made with their own produce and, refreshingly, nobody tried to sell us anything – in fact the shop was resolutely shut.

As dinner that night, stabled quietly on the branch line at Taynuilt, was a four-course black-tie affair – fillet of Aberdeen Angus with a St Emilion Grand Gru 1997 – Q informed us that we’d be allowed a lie-in in the morning, and brunch would be served at 10. This shifting of pace was well-considered; and produced the other highlight of the trip for me: the opportunity to wake slowly as the train moved off at 8am, open the curtains to the sun rising, and lie back to observe the moving pictures of burns, waterfalls, pines, hills and wildlife – some of the world’s most romantic and evocative scenery in harmony with the gentle rocking motion of the train. It was a moment I’ll never forget.

Our final full day produced another good change of pace: we thundered down to Gourock and picked up the ferry across to the Isle of Bute, for a private tour of Mount Stuart, the Marquess of Bute’s ancestral home.

The third Marquess – Roman Catholic, philanthropist, perfectionist – used the family fortune (made from mining in Wales) to build this extraordinary house. A temple to the artistry of woodcarvers, glaziers, stonemasons, tapestry-weavers and more, it is an architectural and sensual delight, well worth the detour. And again, we were not routed through the visitor centre (even though it’s apparently rather good in itself).

After a final night stabled at Stirling (salad of white and green asparagus with a black truffle vinaigrette) we skimmed down the line to Edinburgh and mutual farewells were said. Many people swapped names and addresses and promised to meet in New York, to relive their quiet adventure.

The Royal Scotsman does attract those people of a certain age who have the time and money – if not necessarily the extensive train knowledge – to go on it.

Our three-night Western tour cost £2,000 a head, but included so much, on the train and in our well-paced itinerary, and was such a masterclass in logistics, that we came to the conclusion it really did represent value for money. The price certainly would have equated to three all-in, luxury nights in London – and, in any case, for most of these passengers, it was not the money that mattered: it was the moving experience.