Things to do in the Scottish Borders Warm, sunny afternoons, empty country roads, windows down…..it sneaks up on me with alarming realisation that I can’t remember the last time I had this experience. This sense of solitude. You’ll certainly never find it in the Highlands in summer and it’s always in August that us locals…
When traveling in another country, you may not have the luxury of taking a car and just going. Cars can be rented, but can be more costly in the UK and Europe to rent and run. Of course you can have fun driving on the left side of the road, or maybe find a place in Germany that rents American Muscle Cars and drive the Autobahn (always a bucket list item). Trouble is that renting a motorcar in the UK or Europe is very expensive and you may return from your trip with additional costs for a slight car ding ranging in the £€ 1,000.00 2,000.00 range. Yes, even if you buy insurance, there will be some additional costs, and petrol is very high in Europe. So often a train ride is a better option. And trains can be fun, especially if you can get on a historic one. Many of the train options are for diesel or electric and some are well cared for, and some are not. But you need to get where you are going, and travel bus is not for everyone.
Hogwarts Express – Scotland The Jacobite Express First Class £ 59.00 £ 35.00 standard return.
This iconic train is booked well in advance as you can imagine. I couldn’t get it for my dates. If you are a train lover, start planning your vacation around the trains and trips months in advance. This train encompasses the Glenfinnan viaduct, Arisaig, Mallaig, Fort William areas and is a great trip across the Highlands and on a clear day you can see many of the islands from the shores. Their’s full tea service as well, and you know how fun it is to take tea on a classic train.
If you want to see Hogwart’s locations, head to University of Glasgow, and Edinburgh’s streets.
The Flying Scotsman
http://www.flyingscotsman.org.uk/ Site is very image intensive
To book, go to this site http://www.railwaytouring.net/
This train recently started touring again and has been quite a hit. However there was a performance safety issue this last season and you need to check if it is running again on the http://www.railwaytouring.net/ site. It’s a classic good run on a restored train, so keep an eye out while you make your tour plans this season to see if you can catch a ride.
Luckily, Scotrail was not on strike action this season, like it had been the summer before. The trains had showed it and I had been rerouted by bus at least once on that trip. This trip, 2017, was smooth sailing, except when I was stranded in Kyle of Lochalsh due to rocks falling on the tracks for 2 hours with a cancelled train. The rest of the trip, the trains ran on time for the most part and were cleaner than the previous year. Of course going through the Highlands is always breathtaking so it was worth the trip. Great conversations with fellow travelers.
Virgin Trains The Highland Chieftain
On my final rail around the Highlands for the 2017 tour, I got a real sweet deal on Virgin Trains for a first class in the quiet car at just a few pounds more than 2nd class. A bump of £ 4.00 per seat got me on a single side seat facing the Eastern Coast of Scotland down to Edinburgh. Very smooth ride and great scenery of Stirling and all places in between. It was a bittersweet farewell to the Highlands, but a really fabulous experience. If you time your ticket right, in the middle of the week and mid to late morning, the price is fair. The only problem was one car had no WiFi working or any of the charging ports for phones and people kept coming into our car. It wasn’t really a problem as it was half full and you get to meet more people that way. Wait, it was supposed to be a quiet car, right? But most were pretty good about it. A very good trip all round on that one.
Ireland € 16.00 -30.00
Irish Rail http://www.irishrail.ie/
Traveling in Ireland this summer I spent time on some very clean trains that kept good time. I was lucky on the two trips I had to make, plenty of room and easy storage for my cases, cars were clean and comfortable. I had booked a month in advance and got very good pricing. It was under € 20.00 to get to Galway and the return trip on to Belfast was under € 30.00. Considering the high cost of being in Dublin for 4 days, it was helpful on the budget to get the tickets in advance and pick up at the kiosks. Smooth rides on both trips.
The trip to Galway was filled with amazing green fields, passing through Athlone, the true countryside of Ireland. And there is a reason it’s called the Emerald Isle, it’s amazingly green even in the high summer. It was a record high temperature week when I was there, but the trains were comfortable and clean. Conversation was good, and trains always provide an opportunity to talk with local people about where they live and what is going on in their lives. And the Irish love to talk about their lives and where they live, and great deal about politics
But Can the Train Get Me to Where I Want to Go?
In some cases, you can take trains to some of the national parks in countries, or take a link ride with a bus. Sadly this will cut into some of your travel time and limit some places you can get to. If you have a car you can tour the Highlands for better access, get closer to a Munro for that great climb. However cars make you take on big responsibilities in other countries. Please take the time to familiarize yourself with the country’s driving laws and customs for driving country roads. Many tourists do not get the right of way on one lanes in Scotland and the rest of the UK much to the chagrin of locals. When in doubt, always err on the side of letting others pass. Then there are the smaller roads like coffin roads on some of the isles. You can get really lost on an island. In many cases, such as Isle of Skye, too many tourists are renting cars and not parking with care. Skye is boggy and loamy right off the road and if you get in the mire, the car will sink. Getting it pulled is very costly.
Walking and Hiking Tours
Really want to tour the countries and get to know them? Then walking tours and climbing in parks may be your best bet. Many of these can be accessed by public transport and many back packers go this route. It can take a bit longer to get somewhere, but is well worth it. Try joining some of the hiking and walking boards for the country you are visiting. You can check on the best climbs for a novice or find out about roadworks and diversions for trails. Most large cities like Dublin and Glasgow have rail to bus link services, it will take more time but it can be done.
Train Touring Companies
Irish Rail Strikes
Over the Sea to Skye, by way of train, taxi, and a bridge. I had reached the halfway point of my travels this season, and was dead tired. The end of the Bonnie Prince Charlie Trail. Months of gym training and still you get wiped out by the travel. It doesn’t help that the two places I stayed in Glasgow had terrible bed accommodations. Mostly it is that pure exhaustion of trying to get so much out of your travels, that another train journey has occurred and this is a long one, and your brain just seems fried. I am traveling to Inverness, then to Kyle of Lochalsh, a journey of about 6 hours, winding through the Highlands. There’s nothing better than winding through the Highlands, though, whether it’s car, bike, or train. But eventually I will be on the Isle of Skye, a destination I could not get near on my last adventure. The destination is so popular that you have to book months in advance for a place to stay.
I spent yesterday on a Rabbie’s Tour of Loch Ness and other Highland destinations, a round trip from Glasgow that encompassed a good 12 hours. It was an exhausting swing through of the area, but I had wanted to see some of the Highlands I could not see from the train ride. I was well rewarded. But the train rides are always fun, I found that this trip was just as rewarding with the views of rolling hills, then great Munros loom and you want to climb them. Realistically that will have to be the next trip, and another year of training at the gym and smaller mountains practice back home.
It was truly a Scottish summer arrival, with rain, sun, wind and more rain. But luckily the day of the trip was a good clear sun filled day. I regretted not bringing the sunscreen. The tour was with Skye Tours, and was a small group tour in a van. We travelled the route but missed a few key spots I had hoped to see, namely the castle and the Fairy Pools. There was some event going on there, a rather big one as a local funeral was taking place for an island native, and we could not get near. The tour covered some places on the island and had a knowledgeable driver. We did cover The Storr, Neist Point, Quiraing, the Cuilins Black and Red and a few other areas. I was not happy that we could not get to some of the sites, and sadly part of that had to do with a great deal of tourists using hire cars and not being prepared for the terrain of Skye and it’s boggy wet. Many a car was sunk in the muck.
All the bother aside, it was breathtaking to see some of the highest Munros in Scotland, walk around and just breath in the air of the magical island. I do recommend doing research and planning your visit well out, especially the accommodations. If I can make it back, I will be doing some training to do a hiking tour of the island instead, but must train and be with a group. I was told by locals that many people come and are not truly prepared and end up in great trouble with the bogs.
Book for your stay a year ahead. Or stay in Inverness and take a day tour. It is not suggested to do hire car, and with good reason. Sadly the island gets too many people with cars who don’t understand the driving rules or where not to park. Accommodations can be good or really bad. Really read your reviews on accommodations, once you are booked you are stuck with your decision.
Just my luck. Looks like my main hub travel plans out of Glasgow will be impeded yet again this summer. Not a rail strike, but line improvements. I just have all the luck. So the 6 hour trip turns into 7 hours. At least it’s through the Highlands and can make up for delays once I get going. Unless clouds of midges take over the tracks.
To economize on travel, I was buying my train tickets for my journeys as some of the dates had finally opened up at Scotrail booking and I could purchase two months out. I learned long ago that sometimes the rail cards just don’t help if you are coming from another country, you pay a lot of money for something that is supposed to save you fare money and during festival season, it’s hard to just walk on and get a seat. Everyone else pre-books, so do as the natives do. Set up a free account on rail lines ahead online and you can manage your journeys.
Warning, when reserving online, not all rail stations have a machine where you can retrieve your pre-bought tickets. Check the messages you get while purchasing and make note if you will need to pick up ticket at a larger station like Queen Street or Central on your way out for other trips you are taking.
Why the concern? Rail journeys are not as economical as they used to be. In some cases it is cheaper to drive by car for most residents of the UK. But if you don’t have the luxury, and that is what it is in the UK and Ireland, of having a motorcar at your disposal, you are dependent on public transit.
However, for the most part, public transit is in far superior shape in the UK and Ireland than in many parts of the US. You may not know the routes but you can figure them out with many city routes apps that are available. Printed time tables can be difficult to read coming from the US as the format is a bit different than we are used to, so grabbing a free transit App map is convenient.
The cost of train rides can get high. I did some research on buying tickets 2 weeks out on Scotrail going from Queen Street Glasgow to Inverness/Kyle of Lochhalsh, £73.00. Yikes. Adding in the trip back out to Edinburgh at around £43.00, it was getting expensive. I remembered some train chats I had last year with some frequent travelers in Scotland. They said book online 1 to 2 months out if you have set travel days, and you could get a deal. So after waiting for the schedules to get a few months out, I finally did my round of bookings and saved heaps. What was getting close to £115.00 is now about half that. I also was able to splurge on a first class in the Virgin East Coast line for less than Edinburgh usually runs on that line. Wow, I get to see what their tea trolly looks like, or do they have a bar? Hmmm, mimosas?
Bad news, there will be delays. At least the Clockwork Orange subway will be running this year I hope. Last year it was under improvements. Yeah, I geek on the weirdest things. I like subways sometimes. The Clockwork Orange is one of the oldest subway systems in the world. It runs a circle under Glasgow, making it very convenient for a hop on and off to neighborhoods. There is also a student pub crawl that uses the system for a ripping night out. Bring plenty of coin, bills don’t do so well with the public transit systems in Scotland. They have an app, so download it at Google Play or iTunes. Nice thing about a loop is you can always get back if you miss the station. Try to get a day pass if you can.
You can now buy tickets with a phone app, pilot program.
Now if Iarnród Éireann would open up their bookings a for July, I could get set.
Photo ©2011 by Greg Neate