On the four night, 720 mile classic journey, we depart Waverley Station, Edinburgh, heading north and across the iconic Forth Bridge, an engineering wonder of the world. Standing on the veranda of the Observation Car, it’s an exhilarating sight.
The theme of each adventure is to embrace Scottish history and Highland outdoor life, with visits to castles and Highland estates (wildlife, fishing, shooting) and distillery tours. The appreciation and consumption of whisky is seriously encouraged. During his welcome talk Michael Andrews, the train manager, boasts that the bar offers more than 50 malts, suggesting we sample “two for breakfast, lunch and dinner with a few nightcaps.” (600 bottles are consumed each season.)
So life on board begins. Our twin bedded stateroom is furnished in dark marquetry-crafted wood, tweed fabrics, with en suite shower room, efficient heating and fan.
Around 7pm each evening, guests gather in the Observation Car for an aperitif and lively conversation with fellow travellers from around the world. The tiny bar is lined with whisky bottles including Royal Scotsman Own Label aka Highland Park, Cragganmore and Bunnahabhain.
The full list is divided by region, Lowland (e.g. Glenkinchie 12) to Island, and Distillers Editions (Clynelish 18, double matured in Oloroso casks). Ben the barman is happy to advise on taking a “whisky journey” around the Flavour Map. For the novice, he suggests getting under steam with a mellow honeyed 10 Years Old Isle of Jura, and a sweet, fruity Mannochmore; for the mature palate, Glenmorangie Lasanta, described by an American guest as warm and spicy which “left my tongue tingling.”
Dinner is a grand occasion in the original mahogany-panelled dining cars, where tables are laid with white linen, bone china, silverware and crystal. Be prepared for a feast of quality Scottish produce: oak smoked salmon, organic asparagus, Shetland Island beef, west coast scallops and halibut; raspberry and chocolate delice, cheese, all complemented with well-chosen wines.
Post prandial drinks each night are accompanied by music from local fiddle, guitar and accordion players, or a theatrical storyteller about Highland clans and poignant Jacobite battles.
After breakfast (porridge drizzled with Glayva, Arbroath smokie, eggs, haggis, bacon) the next day, we disembark at Muir of Ord and driven by coach to Glen Ord “Singleton” Distillery.
Founded in 1838, it’s one of the largest of Diageo Classic Malts. The rural Ross-shire location is ideal with pure spring water from the White Burn creating the whisky’s character, while sherry and Bourbon casks produce a unique flavour, blending scents of tobacco, orange peel, ginger and vanilla. This thriving distillery produces 5.2 million litres a year; Singleton is the fastest growing single malt in Asia, with more than 100,000 cases exported to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.
After an instructive tour, we have a tutored whisky/food tasting of Dalwhinnie, Singleton and Talisker, served with tablet, chorizo and smoked Mull cheddar, respectively.
Arriving back at the train, waiters stand at the carriage door with trays of a whisky cocktail.
“Welcome home!” Over lunch we follow the historic Kyle Line, built between 1860 and 1897, running west from Inverness across Strathcarron, a rugged, windswept glen of wild Red Deer, skirting the Torridon Mountains.
Stabled at the fishing port of Kyle of Lochalsh overnight, after dinner, with ladies in gowns, the Scots and, impressively, several Australians and Americans, in kilts we step on to the platform, to dance the night away at our own wee ceilidh. Beyond the train, in the distance are the dramatic peaks of the Cuillins, just over the sea on Skye. Breathtaking.
Next morning, dawn freshens before traveling east again to Cairngorm National Park, we disembark at Carrbridge to visit Ballindalloch Castle, the home of the Macpherson-Grant family since 1746. We tour the magnificent mansion, with its antiques, art treasures and stroll in the Rose Garden. The 3rd Baronet, Sir George, founded the famous Aberdeen Angus cattle herd in 1860, now the longest established. He also created Cragganmore distillery, today part of Diageo. With increased demand for revered Speyside whisky, a new micro distillery is being developed on the Castle estate.
On our whisky trail, we play a game of I Spy distilleries- Strathisla, Glen Ord, Cragganmore, Benromach, Tormore, Tomatin, Dalwhinnie, Blair Atholl, some right beside the railway track.
An enriching journey on the Royal Scotsman to discover the spirit of Scotland, is a truly unique, authentic experience in its celebration of Highland history, culture and of course prestigious whisky heritage.
To enhance the scheduled itineraries, a group of whisky enthusiasts could charter the train, for a tailor-made tour of distilleries with on board tastings and talks.
What could be more pleasurable than sampling a few drams – as diverse as the weather – against a glorious, ever-changing backdrop of barley fields, peat moorland, rushing rivers, heather hills across this ancient land, Scotland, birthplace of uisge beatha, the water of life.
The Royal Scotsman
4 single staterooms
Choice of 2 - 7 nights
Signature Grand Tour of Great Britain (annual), Private and Corporate Charters
Orient Express Reservations
Tel: 0845 077 2222