Published 10th June 2013
This is a great summer to visit the Scottish Highlands by rail to enjoy some of the country’s greatest scenery and perhaps even glimpse wild deer through the train window.
The Highland Main Line over Britain’s highest summit on the National Rail network is celebrating its 150th anniversary, giving yet another reason to go.
The first part of the route opened from the south as far as Pitlochry on 1 June 1863, then from 9 September 1863, trains were able to link Perth and Inverness over the summit amid stunning mountains at Druimuachdar (pronounced “Drumochter”), 1,484 feet above sea level.
Astonishingly, the distinguished civil engineer Joseph Mitchell and the gangs of navvies he directed built 104 miles of new railway across some of the toughest terrain in the land in less than 23 months.
The Highland Railway became the company operating several dramatic routes to and from Inverness. Its constituent the Inverness & Perth Junction Railway opened the route between Dunkeld, Perthshire, and Forres, Morayshire, joining existing railway tracks at these towns to connect the cities in its title.
The section north of Aviemore was bypassed in 1898 by a direct line from there to Inverness over a new summit at Slochd, the route now followed by trains from London, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Perth.
Part of the original 1863 alignment closed between Aviemore and Forres in the Beeching era of the 1960s, but the stretch from Aviemore to Boat of Garten and Broomhill has been reopened by the Strathspey Steam Railway, who plan to extend to Grantown-on-Spey.
It’s easy to join the 150th anniversary celebrations this summer and autumn. Just take a train and enjoy the view. If you want to do more, there are events to attend and special things to see, but the attractive places served and the wonderful scenery are enough of a reason in themselves to make the delightful journey.
East Coast operates the daily “Highland Chieftain” express from London King’s Cross, calling at York, Newcastle and Edinburgh among cities on the way to Perth, Pitlochry, Kingussie, Aviemore and Inverness. ScotRail runs the Caledonian Sleeper service overnight to and from the Highlands and London Euston, and frequent daytime trains north of Perth, including services from Glasgow Queen Street and Edinburgh Waverley (and Haymarket). There are easy connections from many parts of England and Scotland.
Events to celebrate the anniversary are being held at various places. The Inverness Museum and Art Gallery, for example, is hosting an exhibition until 29 June. In Room To Discover at the museum in Castle Wynd, this exhibition is a fascinating insight celebrating 150 years of the Inverness & Perth Junction Railway.
The exhibition includes images, archives and artefacts from the High Life Highland Collections. Entry is free. Open daily except Sundays and Mondays. There is much else to see at the museum and gallery, too, something of a bonus for those who may have ventured to Inverness for the many other attractions of the Highland capital, including access to Jacobite Cruises on nearby Loch Ness, walks alongside the River Ness and a view of some of the historic buildings.
A great night out is also offered at Inverness, whether for those who want to be quiet or those whose fun is rather more lively. Not to mention onwards rail connections to the scenic lines north and west of Inverness and Dingwall.
This is also the Year of Natural Scotland, a good time to enjoy Scotland’s great rail journeys, including the Highland Main Line. The route to Inverness from Glasgow and Edinburgh is among those covered by Scottish Natural Heritage in View From The Train audio guides that can be accessed through App and MP3 downloads.
For those visiting the Grampians leisure centre of Aviemore, or merely pausing there on a longer journey, the Strathspey Steam Railway offers some truly spectacular opportunities. The 19-mile round trip makes a pleasant interlude from and back to Aviemore, with a chance to step off the train and take photographs at Broomhill, the station that served as “Glenbogle” in the lighthearted Monarch of the Glen television drama series.
There will be an extra special celebration of 150th anniversary events over the weekend of 3, 4 and 5 August. And on many days you can enjoy traditional Sunday lunch on the “Strathspey Clansman” or weeknight dinners on the “Strathspey Highlander”.
Attractive off-road walks and cycle routes are available – and you can hire bikes from Cairngorm Bike & Hike at the Strathspey railway station at Boat of Garten.
Written by Allan McLean