OMGB > Countryside > West Highland Railway

Taking in Scottish Highlands panoramas from an iconic railway

Glenfinnan Viaduct, Scotland

The West Highland Railway has been called ‘the greatest railway journey in the world’ and it’s certainly a trip of superlatives: it starts near Britain’s highest mountain and it passes the country’s most westerly mainland railway station, its shortest river and its deepest freshwater and seawater lochs. But it’s the moment you cross the 21-arch Glenfinnan that will really stay with you. The view takes in Loch Shiel and the Glenfinnan Monument, where a single kilted Highlander stands looking over the sweeping glens in a tribute to the final Jacobite Uprising. For a truly magical experience, travel on The Jacobite steam train (May to October).

Day 1: Edinburgh

Before you head out to the beautiful landscapes of Scotland’s countryside, spend the day in its capital city, Edinburgh. It’s known for its world-class festivals and the cityscapes of its Old and New Towns form a UNESCO World Heritage site. There’s plenty of green space within the city too; at its heart is Holyrood Park with three lochs, wildlife and Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano, to explore. The Royal Botanic Garden is another green oasis in the city.

The reward as you stand at the top of 244 metre (800ft) Arthur’s Seat after a 45-minute hike through Holyrood Park is the sight of Edinburgh’s castle, crescents and spires mapped out all around you, and beyond to the Forth Bridge, the east coast and the Highlands. Pick up a picnic from one of Edinburgh’s fine food delis, and cuddle up on a woollen blanket for a lazy lunch.

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There’s no doubt that Edinburgh is a beautiful place, and you’ll admire it from all sorts of perspectives on a photography tour. As you pick the brains of a professional photographer for photography tips and techniques, you’ll be introduced to Edinburgh’s most iconic places, as well as some off-the-beaten path ones. And you’ll finish with a frame-worthy selection of prints of the Scottish capital that will beat your friends’ efforts hands-down.

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Before JK Rowling became a multi-millionaire author, she was a struggling single mum. She wrote the first pages of Harry Potter in the back room of The Elephant Café, overlooking Edinburgh Castle. Take a notebook and hope to start your blockbuster over a cup of tea here too. If the words don’t flow, follow in Rowling’s footsteps to nearby Greyfriars Kirkyard where she found inspiration in plaques to Thomas Riddell Esq and William McGonagall…

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Day 2: Scottish Highlands

Big skies, majestic mountains and shimmering lochs – the Scottish Highlands, around a three-hour drive from Edinburgh, is the stuff of dreams. From Loch Ness to Loch Shiel, there’s a good chance you’ll already recognise some of it from fairy tales and the big screen. For an unbeatably filmic experience, board the legendary Jacobite Steam Train and chug across the world-famous 21-arched Glenfinnan Viaduct and through some of the most beautiful and storied countryside in the world.

You won’t be able to stop gazing out of the windows when you stay in the luxurious Eilean Donan Cottage. It has uninterrupted views across the water to a sight you’ll more than likely already recognise: the 13th-century Eilean Donan castle, standing on an island where three sea lochs meet and connected to the shore by a stern stone bridge. It’s one of the most iconic images of Scotland. 

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A drive through the Scottish Highlands is memorable enough, but you can take it up a gear or two when you hire a classic or luxury car. Zoom through Glen Coe, a deep valley of towering mountains renowned for its walking trails and popularity as a film destination. And if that’s not dramatic enough for you, just remember that you’re actually driving through the mouth of an ancient volcano.

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Get off the train at Glenfinnan Station and you’ll be spoilt for choice for places to explore. In one direction is Loch Shiel; in the other is the Glenfinnan Viaduct. The area is renowned for its beauty as well as its historic significance. Glenfinnan is closely tied to the Jacobites, the Road to the Isles, and the viaduct itself. Explore them on your own two feet or two wheels.

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Day 3-4: Isle of Skye

Take a ferry or drive across the Skye Bridge to the spectacular landscapes of the Isle of Skye. It’s packed with mind-bending geological features, brooding castles, prehistoric sites, distilleries and reminders of its turbulent past, which includes feuding clans, Jacobite battles and the Highland Clearances. Hike through the eerie, brooding Quirang at the northern tip of the Trotternish Ridge and you’ll understand exactly why this island is so special.

Loch Coruisk, a magnificent freshwater loch, lies at the foot of the Black Cuillin. It’s inspired folk songs, JMW Turner’s paintings and the words of Sir Walter Scott. Hop on a boat trip from Elgol to see it up close. On the way, you’ll see the unmistakable small islands of the Inner Hebrides on the horizon and maybe spot wildlife such as puffins and golden eagles and even whales and dolphins.

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Book a flight with Loch Lomond Seaplanes and soar over the Isle of Skye and Scotland’s rugged northwest coast. Once airborne, the views stretch from the rocky Cuillin mountains across Broadford Bay to the Scottish mainland, and you’ll glide above Skye highlights including the Quiraing, the Kilt Rock and the Storr. Flights usually last about 1 hour and include an unforgettable water take-off and landing in pretty Portree Harbour.

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The Old Man of Storr is visible from miles around. It’s the most impressive part of the already remarkable Trotternish Ridge; the towering, jagged splinters at the edge of the ridge are one of Skye’s most striking rock formations. Despite its threatening appearance, the hike to get here is vigorous but not too overwhelming, so take a picnic and admire views of loch, sea, Skye and across to the mainland.

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Day 5-6: Northumberland & Newcastle

Take the time to enjoy a spectacular drive back down south to England’s north-eastern county of Northumberland, known for its amazing landscapes: endless beaches, castles, brooding hills, heather moorlands and the largest International Dark Sky Park in Europe – plus easy access to the international airport at the city of Newcastle. Spot a rich array of wildlife, from wild goats to red squirrels, explore the windswept coastline, stargaze in Britain’s darkest skies, and visit an isolated archipelago home to puffins and grey seals.

Northumberland is home to some of Europe’s darkest night skies, and you can indulge in spectacular galaxy gazing from its atmospheric locations and ancient Roman sites. To make the most of clear skies, take your telescope to Cawfields Quarry picnic spot and take advantage of some of the darkest skies in England, then camp at nearby Herding Hill Farm, and continue to gaze in awe at the nighttime display.

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Hadrian’s Wall is the most significant monument built by the Romans in Britain. It stretches across the very top of England, and you can explore it on foot (or bike) on the 84-mile (135-km) Hadrian’s Wall Path National Trail, which follows the wall from coast to coast. Along the way, take in breathtaking scenery and nearby historic sites, such as Housesteads, Britain’s most complete Roman fort, and 13th-century Lanercost Priory.

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Warkworth Castle stands tall atop a hill tucked into a curve of the River Coquet and the views along the river and coast from the castle walls are spectacular. Despite mostly being in ruins, this mighty Northumbrian fortress continues to dominate the surrounding countryside, and the Great Tower is still largely intact. William Shakespeare set some scenes of Henry IV Part 2 here – it was the home of Sir Harry Hotspur. As it’s less than an hour’s drive from Newcastle airport, it’s the perfect place to end your journey before heading home.

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