Travel writer Hannah Stuart-Leach travels from London to the Highlands of Scotland, via sleeper train, to stay in the same castle – in the same room – Queen Victoria did in 1873.
Queen Victoria felt a deep affection for the Scottish Highlands, having first journeyed there by royal yacht with her beloved husband Prince Albert. She liked it so much he bought her Balmoral Castle in Aberdeenshire, and even after his death she continued to take the trip north to enjoy the peace and wild beauty of Scotland’s countryside. I hopped on the night train from London to see what so captivated her...
Sleeper train from London to Scotland
Unlike Queen Victoria, I had the luxury of boarding the Caledonian Sleeper, a long-distance train known fondly as The Deerstalker. Short 2-day getaways like mine are possible now, unlike in Victorian times, thanks to this overnight service from London all the way to Fort William, in the heart of the Scottish Highlands.
Boarding at London’s Euston Station at 9.15pm, I dropped my bags in my private cabin and headed straight to the dining carriage for a comforting meal of haggis, neeps and tatties, and an obligatory nightcap.
After a busy day in the capital, I was soon ready for bed. Tucked up in my cosy berth, I fell asleep remarkably quickly, lulled by the gentle chug of the train and soothed by the lavender and chamomile pillow mist provided in the sleep pack.
By 7.30am I was up ready for breakfast in the buffet car and the mesmerising views of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park that had now appeared outside the windows. As the train wound its way along the final stretch, we passed some of the most remote landscapes and lochs in Britain. Herds of peaceful-looking deer basked in the early-morning sun, oblivious to the odd bird of prey gliding lazily overhead.
Staying in the Queen’s bedroom!
Fresh off the train, I checked into Inverlochy Castle Hotel, set magnificently against the backdrop of Britain’s highest peak – Ben Nevis. I was shown to the Queen’s Suite – a truly elegant bedroom, with a 4-poster bed, antiques and tartan soft-furnishings. It took me a moment to get my head around the fact that the Queen of England once stayed there, the excitement compounded by the historic decor – I could almost picture her sitting at the dressing table.
As authentic as it is, the furniture has in fact changed since the Queen’s visit – she brought her own bed up from London. But thankfully, the view remains much the same. I understood instantly how she spent her week painting there in quiet reflection, admiring the heather flecked hills beyond and noting, ‘The views from the house are beautiful, especially from my sitting room…’
The castle was built as a hunting lodge for Lord Abinger and friends in 1863, near the original 13th-century fortress, and to this day guests come to get away from it all. You can still come here to go deer stalking, fishing, or walking in the mountains. Or you can settle into a slower pace, taking the estate’s rowing boat for a paddle around the loch, or enjoying afternoon tea in the lobby.
A taster of Scotland’s mountains and glens
Of course, no matter how short your stay in the Highlands, the invigorating mountainscapes demand you leave the comfort of your castle at least once to explore.
On recommendation from my hosts, I eased myself in with a mountain gondola ride up the north face of Aonach Mor, the 8th highest peak in Britain. ‘You’ve got a head for heights then?’ joked my chirpy taxi driver, unnervingly, before I made the 655m (2,150ft) ascent.
The sky was overcast, so the steep 15-minute ride transported me right into the clouds, to the snowy slopes where skiers were enjoying the last of the season. On a clear day, you can see as far as the Hebridean Islands off the northwest coast of Scotland.
I ventured to Steall Falls, too – a rugged, rocky walk through Nevis Gorge – to see the spectacular waterfall that features in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Glen Nevis and the rest of the Highlands offer such natural drama they’ve become Hollywood favourites, and the location of other blockbusters such as Braveheart and TV series Outlander.
A location fit for a queen
Back at the hotel, after a dreamy soak in restorative mountain spring water in my bronze bathtub, I went down to the dining room for some Michelin-starred cuisine.
The 6-course feast – created by chefs Albert and Michel Roux Jr – was a culinary journey through the Highlands, with perfectly presented plates transitioning from local wood pigeon to roasted Mallaig langoustine and fillet of Loch Awe sea trout.
Afterwards, I settled into an armchair in front of the open fire. Tumbler of whisky in hand, pianist playing in the background, I flicked through a book on the history of the hotel. It showed a dreamlike watercolour Queen Victoria painted while admiring the view from ‘my’ bedroom. Alongside it, her final thoughts on Inverlochy Castle: 'I never saw a lovelier or more romantic spot'.
Happy and relaxed after my short Highland retreat, I couldn't agree more.