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Last updated on April 8th, 2021
Scotland has several train lines that are perfect for exploring the country including; the Kyle Line, the Far North Line, the West Highland Line, the Carlisle Line, the Stranraer Line and the Borders Railway. Discover the best train journeys in Scotland in this ultimate guide.
How to tour Scotland by train
There’s something special about travelling through Scotland on a train. I don’t know if it’s the sounds, the smells, or maybe just the fact that someone else is doing all the work, but taking the train always feels more enjoyable than using other forms of transport.
Sure, you can catch a flight, but then you end up missing out on all the stunning scenery between the airports.
You can take the car, but being stuck on the motorway behind a noisy lorry isn’t exactly a stress-free way to see the county (hence the reason I wrote a guide about Travelling Around Scotland Without a Car).
Plus, Scotland has a near-zero tolerance to drink-driving, whereas on a train there’s no problem with settling back with a glass of bubbly in hand.
Bicycle? Well yeah, it’s a great way to see small areas but you’ll see fewer attractions using your own leg-power than you will on a train, and I can’t think of anything worse than battling against driving wind and rain when you’re supposed to be relaxing.
Travelling by rail in Scotland is a little more expensive than driving a car (well maybe, see further down the page for money-saving tips) but it opens up a whole load of sightseeing opportunities that you’d otherwise miss.
Perhaps most importantly, you’ll get to see parts of the country that are otherwise completely unspoilt, with no other traffic in your field of view for miles around where you can enjoy mountains, lochs, and glens far away from the distractions of noisy traffic – especially in winter when driving a car means you’ll have to concentrate 100% on the road ahead. Check out my guide to Visiting Scotland in Winter for the full low-down.
If you’re thinking about travelling around Scotland by train this article might inspire you to book your next ticket. In it, you’ll find a selection of the best railway lines along with details about what you’ll see on the journey, which travel passes to get, and how to save money on your tickets.
The best train journeys in Scotland
Scotland doesn’t waste an inch of its landscapes when it comes to impressing visitors. From the dramatic coastal railway that runs between Stranraer and Glasgow to the stunning scenery of the West Highland Line, you’re never far from amazing experiences when you hop on board a train.
The sights you’ll see vary in each part of the country so you might consider combining a few routes into one holiday, or if you’re pushed for time maybe just choose your favourite line and base yourself somewhere along it.
A top tip here would be Edinburgh where you’ve got city attractions on your doorstep and the Highlands just a couple of hours train ride away if you fancy a day in the mountains, with the Scottish Borders less than an hour away in the opposite direction.
Alternatively, you could head over to the west coast and explore Glasgow before setting off south on the Carlisle and Stranraer lines – both of which offer vastly different scenery to the standard tourist hotspots in the Highlands.
Whatever you choose, whether it’s a visit to Loch Ness to see the monster, a tour of Scotland’s whisky distilleries or an excursion into the rugged scenery of the west coast, getting there by train makes it just that wee bit more pleasurable.
The following list of scenic railway journeys in Scotland will give you an overview of each line along with recommended places to stop and visit.
The Borders Line
- Start and end points: Tweedbank to Edinburgh.
- Journey time: 1 hour.
- Highlights: The Borders countryside. The mighty Arthurs Seat in Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park.
- Download the route map from Scotrail.
The Borders Railway is one of the newest stretches of track in Scotland and is the first to be built in over 100 years. This is a route that’s best used to explore Edinburgh and the Lothians, though I have to admit the Borders are a lovely part of Scotland as well.
The scenery isn’t mountainous and dramatic like you’ll find in the Highlands but it’s certainly picturesque, crossing lowland fields, woodland and quaint country villages along the way.
Much of this line passes through former mining villages which admittedly don’t have much to offer visitors but there’s a good tourist attraction in the town of Gorebridge that displays one of the former mines as a tourist attraction.
Having done a tour down there myself I have to say it’s highly recommended so check out the National Mining Museum website for the current times and prices.
Once past Gorebridge you’ll pass open farmland before stopping at Galashiels and Tweedbank. I’d personally give Galashiels a miss and get out at Tweedbank as you can take a short walk to visit Abbotsford House which was the ancestral home of Scottish author Sir Walter Scott.
Scott was an incredibly influential writer and was so revered that after his death the city of Edinburgh built the world’s largest monument dedicated to a writer in his memory.
You can’t fail to miss the Gothic-masterpiece Scott Monument in Edinburgh’s Princes Street (it’s not far from Waverley station*) and it has to be one of the highlights of a visit to the city.
Another attraction not far from Tweedbank is the historic market town of Melrose which is a lovely quaint wee place that’ll give you a good taste of rural Scotland. It’s also home to Melrose Abbey which is a fascinating ruined abbey not far from the River Tweed.
The only negative I have about the Borders railway is that it gets incredibly busy with Edinburgh commuters at peak times which means there’s often standing room only, but travel outside those hours and you’ll have a relaxed journey.
*Edinburgh’s Waverley station is named after Sir Walter Scott’s novel Waverley.
The Carlisle Line
- Start and end points: Carlisle to Glasgow.
- Journey time: 2 hours 30 minutes.
- Highlights: Gretna Green, home of untold marriage proposals. Glasgow and its fantastic shopping malls and restaurants.
- Download the route map from Scotrail.
Just like the Borders Line, the Carlisle Line starts in the countryside of the Scottish borders, only this time it’s on the other side of the country and finishes in Glasgow instead of Edinburgh.
The similarities between the railway lines continue along the length of this journey as it’s mostly low-lying farmland broken up by the occasional country town, but it does have a couple of stages that make it stand out from the other lines in this list.
The first of these has to be Gretna Green which is the second stop after Carlisle. If you’re an international visitor and are unfamiliar with this place it’s basically one of the most famous villages in Britain where thousands of young couples fled to get married after England tightened marriage laws in the 1750s.
There’s a decent tourist attraction in the Gretna Green Blacksmiths Shop – the original site of those impromptu marriages – that includes a restaurant, museum, shops and a lover’s maze, and it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re romantically inclined or looking to surprise your other half with a proposal.
After Gretna Green you’ll pass the town of Dumfries a little further up the track which is a historic market town with a lovely river cutting through it (the River Nith) and a museum dedicated to Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns.
Continuing along the Carlisle Line takes you through rolling countryside which is nice enough but not exactly jaw-dropping, but it does at least finish in Glasgow which in my opinion is one of the most exciting cities in Britain.
Glasgow has way too many attractions to list in this article so you might like to check out my Glasgow Category for a few ideas on what you can do in Scotland’s biggest city.
The museums, in particular, are excellent and there are more parks, galleries, restaurants and shopping malls than you’ll ever be able to fit into a single visit, with the bonus being that all the best attractions are completely free.
The Far North Line
- Start and end points: Inverness to Wick.
- Journey time: 4 hours 30 minutes.
- Highlights: The historic town of Wick. The photogenic Dunrobin Castle.
- Download the route map from Scotrail.
Possibly the remotest railway in Scotland, the Far North Line runs from the city of Inverness to the (almost-but-not-quite) most-northern point of the country at Wick.
This is a wild region in every sense of the word. Wide-open and desolate, much of the scenery that glides past the window is barren grassland interspersed with the occasional mountain and it’s not surprising that this part of Scotland is one of the least inhabited regions in Europe outside of the steppes of Russia.
But that’s not to say the journey isn’t worth making as there are several sights that more than make up for the apparent desolation.
Starting in Inverness the line sweeps up the north-east edge of Scotland in a gently sweeping arc, crossing the Cromarty Firth and Invergordon along the way.
To be honest, I’d give Invergordon a miss, but the Cromarty Firth is lovely in the summer and makes a great starting point for cyclists keen to follow the tourist road up the NC500 towards John O’ Groats.
If cycling isn’t your thing you can continue the train ride to Tain (home of Glenmorangie whisky) and Dunrobin Castle which is arguably the finest castle in Scotland.
The train station is just a short distance from this historic attraction so you may as well stop and visit it as it’s a real gem with stunning architecture that faces a drop-dead gorgeous coastline.
The Far North Line continues past Dunrobin for the majority of its journey along the north-east coast till it finally makes a diversion west to Thurso before doubling back on itself to Wick.
Thurso is an ‘ok’ town and while I’ve only visited it once it was raining so it came across as being a bit… grey. Wick isn’t that much better on the looks front but it has a lot of history to be proud of due to the fact that at one time it was one of the biggest herring fishing ports in the world.
They’re certainly proud of their heritage in Wick which is clearly displayed in the excellent Wick Heritage Museum that’s hidden away at the far end of the harbour.
It’s an absolute Tardis in there so don’t get put off by the unassuming frontage as you’ll easily spend a couple of hours exploring the exhibits.
Finally, no train journey on the Far North Line is complete without taking a short detour to Scotland’s most northerly point at John O’ Groats. This is quite a busy little attraction that looks out across the sea to Orkney in the distance and a selfie in front of the famous signpost is an absolute must if you’re visiting that part of the country.
My advice after wandering around the visitor area is to take a short walk up the coastline to see the mighty Duncansby Stacks which are enormous rock formations set against the backdrop of very dramatic cliffs.
The Stranraer Line
- Start and end points: Stranraer to Glasgow.
- Journey time: 2 hours 30 minutes.
- Highlights: The beach at Ayr. The city of Glasgow.
- Download the route map from Scotrail.
I’d say the Stranraer Line is probably the least-visited out of Scotland’s railways by visiting tourists, mainly due to the fact that this corner of south-west Scotland doesn’t have as many attractions as the rest of the country.
While the Solway Firth to the south draws visitors from far and wide who admire its attractive bays and nature reserves, the stretch of coastline further north tends to go a little unnoticed, even though it gets more attractive the further north you go.
This railway branches off at several points but the main line from the fishing port of Stranraer to Glasgow is the focus of the journey with the coastal towns of Ayr and Troon offering a pleasant contrast to the farmland that so inspired the poet Robert Burns.
Both towns have decent enough beaches but not much else, although as previously mentioned Ayr is notable for the river running through it as well as the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum.
Troon meanwhile, is worth visiting for the views across the Firth of Clyde towards the Isle of Arran and Royal Troon which is a large golf course that’s a regular host for the Open Championship.
The town is also a quick 5-minute train ride from Prestwick International Airport so if you’re visiting and have a few hours to kill before the next flight it makes a decent place to get some fresh air before getting onboard that stuffy plane.
From Troon the track curves inland past Lochs Semple, Barr and Kilbirnie before sweeping further inland past Paisley and onwards into the heart of Glasgow.
One attraction you might like to visit before the final stop in the city centre is Pollock Country Park.
This is the largest park in Glasgow and it features lots of woodland and riverside walks, play parks and walled gardens, and as it’s just a few minutes bus ride from the Cardonald train station you can easily get there if you fancy a break from the busy city.
The Kyle Line
- Start and end points: Inverness to the Kyle of Lochalsh.
- Journey time: 2 hours 40 minutes.
- Highlights: The Torridon Peaks, Achnashellach Forest, Ben Wyvis.
- Download the route map from Scotrail.
The Kyle Line stretches across North Scotland from Inverness – the capital of the Highlands – to Loch Alsh on the west coast. This is one of the most scenic train journeys in this list and it’s a firm favourite with visitors thanks to the stunning scenery.
You’ll start your journey in Inverness which is easily reached from all the main stations in Scotland, though it might take a little while to get there as the country’s other cities are either located on the east coast or much further south. Expect the train ride from Glasgow and Edinburgh to take around 4 hours to reach Inverness and around 2 hours from Aberdeen.
From Inverness the train passes the Beauly Firth (a body of water that connects the River Ness to the Moray Firth) and Dingwall where you’ll see the hulking mass of Ben Wyvis.
This sprawling mountain dominates the landscape and it’s a recommended hill-walking destination, with the undulating ridge running 3 miles to its highest point at Glas Leathad Mor which has an elevation of just over 3,400 feet.
From Dingwall the line passes through a mountainous Highland region near Loch Garve where you’ll see the peaks of Torridon before entering a region of thick forest as the track makes its way to Loch Luichart.
There are several points on this journey where the rail track closely follows a relatively busy road (the A835) but once it gets near the loch it runs alongside much quieter roads all the way to the final destination at the Kyle of Lochalsh.
From there you’re just a stone’s throw from the Isle of Skye so you may as well hire a car and cross the Skye bridge to explore this most-famous of Scotland’s west coast islands.
There’s a car hire company close to the Kyle Line end terminal if you want to extend your journey and if you do I suggest you take a short drive (about 10 miles) towards the spectacular Eilean Donan Castle while you’re in the area.
This castle is situated at the meeting point of lochs Long, Duich, and Alsh and it’s an absolute must-do if you’re in that region of Scotland.
The West Highland Line
- Start and end points: Glasgow to Mallaig.
- Journey time: 3 hours 50 minutes.
- Highlights: The Highlands gateway town of Fort William. Glenfinnan and the spectacular viaduct.
- Download the route map from Scotrail.
I’ve saved the best for last in this list of great Scottish railways because the West Highland Line – or at least the section of it from Fort William to Mallaig – has gained legendary status among Scotland’s tourists.
Everybody knows the scene in the Harry Potter films where the Hogwarts Express transports the young wizard to the magical wizardry school across a multi-arched viaduct. But not everybody knows that this is actually set in the village of Glenfinnan which in addition to the viaduct features stunning views from the Glenfinnan Monument across the shores of Loch Shiel.
This section as it winds its way north towards Mallaig has been repeatedly voted the best railway journey in the world, and having taken The Jacobite Steam Train myself I have to say it lives up to the title, and then some.
The Jacobite is a 1930s steam locomotive which puffs its way on the 84-mile return journey past a series of stunning Highland vistas.
Unlike the other railways which use modern trains, The Jacobite pulls renovated 1960s carriages which makes the whole experience feel very special indeed, and there’s no better way to see the Scottish Highlands than from inside a luxury carriage with a glass of champagne in hand.
The line starts near Ben Nevis (the highest mountain in Britain) before heading towards Arisaig (the furthest-west station), passing Loch Morar (the deepest freshwater loch) and skirting the River Morar (the shortest river in Britain) before arriving at Mallaig near Loch Nevis (the deepest seawater loch).
Once at Mallaig you can take a boat trip around the coastline to see Britains largest birds, sea eagles, which hunt from the surrounding clifftops or you can take a ferry over to the Isle of Skye and it’s extraordinary landscapes. Or of course, you can just head back to Fort William on a return journey.
If you’d like to take this amazing train ride I recommend using Get Your Guide which is one of the biggest tour booking websites on the planet. Pre-book your ‘Hogwarts Express’ Jacobite steam train tickets here.
How to save money on train tickets in Scotland
It’s always nice to save a bit of money on your holiday but saving on rail travel used to be a black art reserved for travel geeks with insider knowledge.
Thankfully though, these days there are a variety of resources on the internet that’ll automatically search the best deals for you, and combined with the tips I’ve listed below they’ll hopefully help you save some of your hard-earned pennies.
Avoid peak times and premium tickets
Like the rest of the UK, there are three different types of train tickets you can purchase for your rail journey in Scotland. These are:
- Off-peak tickets that are restricted for use between the morning and evening peak times. These times are dependent on the train operator so check with them before purchase. These are the tickets to buy if you want the cheapest option.
- Anytime tickets are valid for use at any time of the day and are usually more expensive than off-peak tickets.
- First-class tickets are more expensive than the other two types but offer a higher standard of service, including free Wi-Fi and refreshments.
It’s up to you with regards to options but I almost never travel first-class because it’s so expensive – often up to twice the price of a standard ticket.
To give you an idea of rail prices in Scotland, in 2020 a single off-peak ticket from Edinburgh to Aberdeen costs £39, but that soars to £86 if you upgrade to first class. You get tea and coffee included along with a snack, but at more than a 100% price increase I don’t think it’s good value.
Always book early
You can occasionally get a cheaper first-class ticket by buying in advance and once or twice I’ve found first-class tickets that were cheaper than the anytime tickets so you might want to check The Trainline website instead of wandering up to the ticket kiosk on the day.
Cheap tickets are usually released by the operators around 12 weeks before the date of travel but they can sell out quickly so try to book as early as you can. The longer you leave the booking date, the more expensive your ticket will be.
Be flexible with your dates and routes
It’s going to be more expensive to travel on a train at rush hour on a Monday morning than the same journey on a Saturday afternoon, so if you’re ok with changing the dates you travel you’ll save a bundle by going for the less-busy times.
Following on from this you’ll frequently find competing operators running trains between the same destinations so it’s always a good idea to compare services. A great resource for this is Red Spotted Hanky who’ll do all the heavy lifting for you by comparing all times and routes as soon as you enter your From and To points in their website.
Get a railcard
You can save a packet on Scotland’s rail fares with a railcard, though bear in mind if you’re a visiting tourist they’re not much use as you have to pay a charge upfront, making them more suited to frequent UK travellers.
That being said if you live in Britain and want to get a discount on your fare you probably should get one depending on your circumstances. I’ll list the most popular ones below:
- Two Together Railcard. Gives you a third off all rail travel on off-peak journeys for any two people over the age of 16 – but only when they travel together. It costs around £30 for the year which is easily recouped if you do just a few excursions – but make sure you keep your card with you as you’ll need it as proof when you buy your discounted ticket.
- 26-30 Railcard. This card is designed for younger people who are hoping to save a bit of money, and it’s only for use by 26 to 30-year-olds. Like the Two Together card it costs around £30 for the year and gives a third off rail travel.
- Senior Railcard. Just because you’re a senior doesn’t mean you have to miss out on Scotland’s railways and with this card you’ll save 1/3 on fares as long as you’re age 60 or over. Unlike the other railcards listed here you can purchase a card that lasts up to 3 years for a discounted price of £70 (as of 2020).
- Highland Railcard. Those living in the wilds of the Scottish Highlands can often feel isolated from the rest of the country which is one of the reasons this money-saving card makes so much sense. Only available to people living in selected postcodes, the Highland Railcard allows children to travel for a flat rate as well as giving a generous 50% off travel on selected routes.
For all railcard applications see the Scotrail railcards page.
Buy Scotrail travel passes
For visiting tourists a travel pass is the best way to get your ticket as it offer an all-in-one solution across a set rail network.
You can stick to one region of the country if you like or combine them if you want to see even more attractions, but my recommendation is to just get one travel pass and add on additional separate tickets as required.
Spirit of Scotland Rover: Offers unlimited rail travel throughout Scotland for either four or eight days. As of 2020, four days unlimited travel over eight consecutive days costs £149, while eight days unlimited travel over fifteen consecutive days costs £189.
Note that these prices will change regularly so check the website in advance before you buy the pass. Buy Spirit of Scotland tickets from the Scotrail website.
Scottish Grand Tour: Touted as one of the great rail journeys of the world, the Scottish Grand Tour is a circular route that passes through lochs, mountains, forests and farmland. You’ll cross some truly dramatic scenery with this travel pass including the West Highland Line and the Highland Main Line but you’ll also see the country’s top cities at Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness.
As an all-in-one package to see the best of Scotland in one go it takes some beating. Buy Scottish Grand Tour tickets from the Scotrail website.
Highland Rover: Gives you four days unlimited travel over eight consecutive days across the Highlands for £95 (as of 2020). Although it’s only valid for standard class you can travel at any time and you’ll get 20% off Northlink ferry services to Orkney and Shetland. Buy Highland Rover tickets from the Scotrail website.
Central Scotland Rover: Lets you take unlimited journeys between Glasgow, Edinburgh, and the surrounding area for just £55 (as of 2020). The pass lasts for three days and is valid for standard class journeys on ScotRail trains, but unfortunately you can’t use it on the new Borders railway line.
Note that this is the pass to get if you just want to explore the main cities as the journey from Edinburgh to Glasgow only takes an hour. Buy Central Scotland Rover tickets from the Scotrail website.
Rail and Sail: Getting to the north and west coast islands has never been easier thanks to Scotrail’s Rail and Sail which combines rail and ferry travel in one ticket.
These tickets really take the hassle out of exploring Scotland and you can even break the journey up to go and see different regions as you see fit.
Currently, the passes open up the Orkney and Shetland islands along with Mull and the Outer Hebrides, and with children age 5-15 getting a 50% discount they offer a great way to have a family holiday.
Resources for Scotland train tours
The Trainline: The Trainline is the UK’s favourite train ticket booking service, mainly due to the fact they make the process so easy.
Once you’ve registered you can enter your credit card details and book your tickets online with the minimum of fuss, and being able to reserve a ticket when you’re late is an absolute godsend.
Not only that but you’ll usually get a big discount by purchasing your ticket through them – sometimes up to 60% or more compared to buying at the station.
Scotrail: Scotrail is Scotland’s main train operator that provides the majority of the routes detailed in this article. While you’ll frequently hear weary commuters complaining about the service I have to admit I’ve never had any problems using any train in Scotland whether it’s been for work or pleasure.
As a whole the carriages are clean and they’re usually on time. Not to Japanese or Swiss ultra-efficient standards or anything, but never more than a few minutes deviation from the stated time (again, this is purely based on my personal experience here in Edinburgh).
Scotrail gets top marks for their website which seems to offer more and more information the deeper you delve into it. It’s a great resource for rail travel in Scotland and a website that you should definitely bookmark if you’re a new visitor to the country.
Traffic Scotland: Where would the humble commuter be without Traffic Scotland? Probably gnawing their steering wheels in frustration at being stuck in yet more roadworks I’m guessing, or seething at the fact the fast lane has been closed for repairs AGAIN.
Traffic Scotland distributes real-time information about closures, delays, accidents and general annoyances on the country’s road network, but it also provides information on the rail network.
It’s not the easiest website to navigate admittedly and the design looks like it’s straight out of 1995, but the information is reliable nonetheless. For rail travel click the Further Travel Information > Travel information Links section in the sidebar and then the ‘Are you interested in air, rail…’ link at the top of the next page.
You’ll find links to all the main train stations in Scotland along with details of any line closures and whether the next train is on time or not.
Traveline Scotland: The one website I go back to time and time again when planning a train journey is Traveline Scotland.
This website has a very useful journey planner that you can access from their homepage which allows you to enter a beginning and endpoint along with a departure time, after which it displays the travel time and train route on a big map.
It really helps to be able to see the journey you’ll be taking and makes it a breeze to see which attractions are located around each station – which is essential when planning a whistle-stop tour of Scotland. Take my advice and bookmark it ASAP.
I hope this article has been of some help to you for planning your next train tour of Scotland, although I appreciate how difficult it can be to choose where to visit first as there’s such a wide range of attractions to see in Scotland.
If you’re stuck for ideas please take a look around this website as you’ll find a detailed list of recommended attractions that might give you inspiration for planning your itinerary.
P.S. If you want to discover a few tips about saving money when travelling in Scotland take a look at my article on How to Travel Scotland on a Budget.
Frequently Asked Questions
The Borders Line: The Borders countryside and Arthurs Seat in Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park. The Carlisle Line: Gretna Green and Glasgow city centre. The Far North Line: The historic town of Wick and Dunrobin Castle. The Stranraer Line: The beach at Ayr and Glasgow city centre. The Kyle Line: The Torridon Peaks, Achnashellach Forest, Ben Wyvis. The West Highland Line: Fort William and Glenfinnan.
Off-peak tickets are restricted for use between the morning and evening peak times. Anytime tickets are valid for use at any time of the day and are usually more expensive than off-peak tickets. First-class tickets are more expensive than the other two types but offer a higher standard of service, including free Wi-Fi and refreshments.
Two Together Railcard: Gives a third off all rail travel on off-peak journeys for any two people over the age of 16 when they travel together. 26-30 Railcard: Gives a third off all rail travel on off-peak journeys for people aged between 26 and 30 years. Senior Railcard: Saves a third off train fares for anyone aged over 60 years. Highland Railcard: Offers a 50% discount for people who live in the Scottish Highlands.
The Trainline is the UKs favourite train ticket booking service. Scotrail is Scotland’s main train operator and operates the majority of the lines in the country. Traffic Scotland distributes real-time information about closures, delays and accidents. Traveline Scotland has a journey planner that displays the travel time and train route on a map.
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