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Issue 30 - Planes, trains and automobiles

Scotland Magazine Issue 30
December 2006


This article is 11 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Planes, trains and automobiles

Visiting some of the most remote and beautiful spots in the world remains a challenge. But as Dominic Roskrow reports, the options are much better than they were

Whatever your views on the rights and wrongs of cheap airline travel, there can be no doubting that for small and more remote countries such as Scotland, they have been a Godsend.

Where once a journey to Edinburgh, Glasgow or beyond had to be prepared like it was a military campaign, now direct flights from across the world have opened up the country like never before. It’s pay-back time for a country that has for three decades lost out to the discount European package holiday market, which tempted holiday markets away from countries such as Scotland with the promise of a two hour flight to sun-kissed paradise rather than a lengthy trek north to warm woolly jumpers even in summer.

Many of us might not endorse the concept of passengers popping on and off planes like they were buses but for a country such as Scotland such travel isn’t a luxury but a necessity. Without such a service Caledonia would, quite frankly, be a step too far for many of the tourists who are enjoying short breaks across the country and pumping much-needed revenue in to an economy that took something of a battering post 9/11.

The effect of budget airlines is obvious wherever you look. Take Glasgow’s second airport, Prestwick, for instance. Situated some 20 miles to the south west of the city, it was, until a year or so ago, a pretty sorry place to go, a shell of an international airport whose glory days were behind it, clinging to memories such as the visit in the late 50s of Elvis Presley on his way to national service in Germany. It was the only time or place The King set foot in Britain.

But a few years back Ryanair made it its main Scottish destination airport and the effect of the increased traffic, both bringing people to Scotland and opening a raft of new destinations in Europe to Glaswegians, is on display for all to see, with refurbishment, a splash of glamour and improved retail franchises.

It’s a similar story up at Inverness, too. The airport little more than an airfield with a glorified Nissan hut for a terminal building, has become a bustling hub for a new wave of tourists keen to experience the delights of some of Scotland’s furthest points. And particularly in the remote north west the new trade is acting as a lifeline.

So great is the new footfall – the flight from London Luton is rarely anything but full – Inverness is struggling to cope and parking at the airport can be a challenge. But the town of Inverness is benefiting, and there seems to be a healthy upward spiral taking place, with stylish bars, restaurants and hotels in turn attracting more people to the town.

Let’s not get too carried away here.

Some parts of Scotland remain a serious challenge; but that remoteness, of course is why they are so special. No-one who cared about these stunningly beautiful destinations would want it any other way.

Even simple journeys such as driving north on the A9 can be frustratingly slow.

Inclement weather, the large volume of seasonal traffic and the lack of motorways can all conspire to ensure you have no choice but to take in the imposing scenery.

Now more than ever, though, Scotland is open for business and travel to and within Scotland is no longer the organisational nightmare it once was. And not just by plane, either.

Unsurprisingly the bulk of long haul international flights arrive in to Edinburgh and Glasgow. But vastly improved coach and train services mean that even the furthest parts of Scotland can be reached in comfort.

To reach Scotland by train from Europe the best way to go is by Eurostar to London and connect.

Both Virgin Trains and Great North Eastern Railways run direct and comfortable services. Be warned, though, British trains are neither cheap nor reliable. You are strongly advised to book travel well in advance because while this restricts your flexibility (you have to travel as booked) you will guarantee seats for you and your family together, and you’re much more likely to be able to book discounted tickets.

If you haven’t travelled by coach for many years and have bad memories then reconsider.

National Express offers state of the art coach travel with on-board facilities such as television, snacks and refreshments and toilets. Bear in mind that there are overnight services for both coach and train travel and it’s certainly no more of an ordeal travelling this way than it is flying over the Atlantic economy class.

Once you reach Scotland the train and coach options remain good. First Scotrail offers services to a large number of destinations and Citylink does exactly what it says on the tin – only by road.

If, like me, your favourite parts of Scotland lie off-shore, then the travel options become just that bit more complicated. Flights to the islands aren’t cheap and are relatively limited, so it may be that ferries are the best option.

There are two broad groups of islands: those that run up the West coast from Arran, opposite Prestwick, to Skye in the far north west; and the Orkney Isles and the Shetland isles, north of Scotland’s eastern tip.

To reach the first group you need look no further than Caledonian MacBrayne, or Calmac, something of a Scottish institution known affectionately for its rugged roll-on roll-off ferries and its somewhat average cuisine. Calmac operates services to 22 islands and four peninsulas, which means that as well as serving the obvious destinations such as Lewis, Mull, Skye and Islay, ferries also go to more remote ones such as Coll, Cowal, Bute, and Iona.

Calmac runs services from a number of ports along Scotland’s west coast, including Ardrossan, Oban and Tarbert on the Campbeltown Peninsula.

Reaching The Shetlands or the Orkney Isles means travelling to the most northerly points of mainland Scotland to Scrabster, John O’ Groats or Gills Bay. John O’ Groats offers only a summer passenger service so the main car ferry port is Scrabster. Alternatively there is a longer crossing from Aberdeen. By train you can travel to Thurso and then pick up a coach link to Scrabster.

There are flights from Wick and Aberdeen to Orkney and The Shetlands, too.

Whatever journey you’re considering there is plenty of help at hand through dedicated travel bodies or through your own research on the internet. The best advice is to plan carefully in advance and make sure you have organised an itinerary properly.

To do this you really need do no more than take a look at the outstanding VisitScotland website. It offers a one-click map linking the user to any area of Scotland and has close links with a wide range of travel companies and provides links with their websites.

Getting to Scotland from the United States
Delta Airlines – Atlanta to Edinburgh
American Airlines – Chicago to Glasgow
Continental Airline – New York to Edinburgh/Glasgow
US Airways – Philadelphia to Edinburgh

Main European airlines with links to Scotland
Aer Arran – From Ireland to Inverness, Glasgow and Edinburgh
Aer Lingus – From Dublin to Glasgow and Edinburgh
BMI – Various British airports to Scotland
British Airways – Flights to Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness
Eastern Airways – Flights to Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Inverness
Easyjet – Flights from all over Britain
Jet2 – Flights from Manchester to Scotland
Ryanair – Flights to Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness
Scot Airways – London City Airport to Dundee and Edinburgh
Zoom – Budget flights from Canada

Coach companies and trains
Citylink – Bus and coach travel within Scotland and UK
First Scotland – Train links within Scotland
National Express - Coaches to most Scottish destinations
Virgin Trains - From London Euston to major Scottish cities
Great North Eastern – Train tickets for whole of UK