Celebrating the best bits and bobs to be found while exploring Britain, Ireland and beyond. Much is inspired by real outings, whether they were walking, cycling or photographic in nature, while virtual blundering in the name of planning them has turned up some gems too. Regardless of how they were found, I hope that they keep coming so I can continue to share new things with you.
Terrain, history and economics have shaped Scotland's population distribution to the extent that most live in its most level parts. When you get to the Southern Uplands and Highlands, population centres become sparse to the point where use of public transport in those hilly areas involves a good deal of planning.
Of course, life is a lot easier in Scotland's cities and Scots seem to be good at patronage of bus and train services. Then, there are those more pastoral parts like Fife and the Borders that feel a little like the way things are done south of the English border.
Unlike England, there is a solid long distance coach network with Scottish Citylink, Megabus, National Express (mainly for cross-border services to and from England), and even Stagecoach itself all offering travel options. It was the first of these that facilitated my first excursions while I still lived in Edinburgh. That coach travel is cheaper than its train counterpart and I was a student living on a limited budget might have had something to do with this.
With my leaving Scotland to pursue a career, it was train travel that started to feature more strongly. For instance, the rather expensive Caledonian Sleeper overnight services have done sterling service whenever I have splashed out the cash to use them. Once intercity services had got up north from England, it then is the turn of Scotrail to convey me further. It is then that the challenges of building a railway through Scotland's wilder parts come to light with single track railway lines clinging to steep hillsides in places. Well, it's not for nothing that the West Highland lines feature in many a list of famous scenic railways. That they services aren't as regular as their lowland counterparts mean that you have to watch you times but Scotland doesn't have a shabby railway system where the terrain allows this.
Another of Scotland's alluring and distinguishing features is the number inhabited islands that it has. Apart from flying, reaching those involves ferry travel. Caledonian MacBrayne do a lot of the back-work for the isles in the west and service timings can be eccentric for the more outlying ones though Arran and Mull gain a very regular service. For Orkney and Shetland, you need to look at the likes of Pentland Ferries, Northlink Ferries and Atlantic Ferries to convey you, depending on where you are headed.
For those far flung destinations, there's the alternative of air travel with Loganair providing a lot of the flight options, either under its own banner or on behalf of the likes of British Airways or Flybe. While these services may be quicker than other options, there remains something appealing about not rushing a journey. Sometimes, it best to enjoy travelling and not just being in the place where you are going.
Anyone contemplating visits to Scottish hill country without a car could do worse than look at Scottish Hills by Bus and Train and Traveline Scotland is a mainstay with its travel planning and timetable functionality. Alternatively, a look at On Trains & Buses will add more to these with its listings of trunk and local services along with a list of councils that provide catalogues of bus timetables for their areas. In many cases, you could find yourself using the services of Scottish Citylink or West Coast Motors to get about the Highlands. For the Pentland Hills, Lothian Buses will have a use and their services are both high in quality and frequency.
As mentioned in the introduction, ScotRail is the main operator of train services in Scotland. In 1990's, it was transformed from a division of British Rail into a franchise operated by National Express. Further devolution handed the franchising exercise to the Scottish Government and they split things in two the last time around. Abellio now runs the main franchise while Serco runs the Caledonian Sleeper overnight trains between Scotland and London. Otherwise, Transport Scotland and SPT are calling the shots when it comes to franchise oversight. This includes insisting on the use of their own liveries, a practice that has to save money because you have wonder how expensive it is for new operators to emblazon their identity all over everything in their first few months of their contracts. Anything that saves money for the public purse has to be a good thing now that the boom of the first years of the century are a faded memory.
Aside from limited incursions into the north of England, ScotRail largely limits itself to running services within Scotland as it must have done in the days of British Rail. Away from the Central Belt, this includes routes passing through some very special countryside. Here the West Highland lines come to mind but there also is the one from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh along with the Highland Line and that through Ayrshire and Galloway to Stranraer. All of these will get you into fine hillwalking country and some of the stations are very remote too.
In those days of public ownership, it would have been the InterCity branding that was applied to Anglo-Scottish express as well as the Caledonian Sleeper trains that connect the likes of Fort William, Inverness, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow with London. One outcome from rail privatisation is that four operators now provide daytime Anglo-Scottish intercity services.
Two of these come under the Virgin brand though Stagecoach has a bigger hand in their operations. First, there's Virgin Trains East Coast and the mainstay of the offering involves services between London and Edinburgh or Leeds. Services to Inverness and Aberdeen run at certain times too. On the West Coast Mainline, Virgin Trains operate trains between Glasgow and London (Euston) together with those between Birmingham and Glasgow or Edinburgh. Arriva's CrossCountry operates Anglo-Scottish services via the East Coast Mainline and many of these run as far as Glasgow, via Edinburgh, with a few going as far as Aberdeen too.
There was a time when I wondered about Transpennine Express operating trains as far as Scotland since their network extended into the northeast of England. Since then, they began to run train services between Manchester and Glasgow or Edinburgh. The latest franchise is set to extend trains from the northeast England into Scotland too. New five carriage trains are on the way to complement the four car ones on the West Coast Mainline.
A visit to a Scottish island in good weather is something that isn't forgotten very easily. All of my excursions have taken me to islands on Scotland's west coast and it has been those escapades that had me using the services of Caledonian MacBrayne or Calmac as it is known otherwise. This is a state-owned ferry company and it operates under the strap-line Hebridean and Clyde ferries. That pretty much tells you what it does though it's Dunoon to Gourock service had to be released to a sister company called Argyll Ferries a few years ago. Some island services such as those to Arran or Mull get very regular services while the timetables for others such as Barra can feel eccentric so a spot of careful planning is in order. Road equivalent tariff pricing has made bringing your own vehicle cheaper that it once was and travelling as a foot passenger doesn't break the bank either. There are even hopscotch fares so a visit to a ferry terminal or to the company's website can be very useful.
Calmac's timetable for the Small Isles (Rum, Eigg and Muck) can make day trips less of a possibility so it is good to have Arisaig Marine operating from April to September every year. This is for foot passengers but that is no hardship with the restrictions on bringing cars onto these small islands anyway. Of course, you first need to get to Arisaig itself so it is useful that is a stop on the West Highland railway line between Fort William and Mallaig. Aside from staying in Arisaig itself, starting out from Fort William or Mallaig should be possibilities. Basing yourself in Mallaig also opens up the possibility of getting to Inverie, a mainland destination, using the Knoydart Ferry. There is enough around this part of Scotland to keep you busy for a week or more.
My Scottish island explorations have yet to take me to Orkney or Shetland. The cause has been a certain lack of commitment due to weather wariness but recent overseas excursions have distracted too. The latter may have their uses though for adding discipline to the thought process since a longer stretch of time may be needed for these northern Scottish island archipelagos.
Of the two, Orkney is not at all that far from the northernmost reaches of the Scottish mainland. The proof comes in the form of Pentland Ferries providing sailings that take less than an hour with a very modern ferry that they introduced to the route in recent times. That acquisition is enough cause for me to want to find out how busy this crossing is, especially considering how far they are from everywhere.
In contrast to those Pentland Ferries sailings, the overnight sailings offered by Northlink Ferries from Aberdeen are a lot longer. For instance, getting to Kirkwall alone takes five hours and Lerwick is another seven hours away with the direct Aberdeen-Lerwick journey taking twelve hours in total. The same company does Scrabster-Stromness crossings too and those sailings take around 90 minutes, comparable with those offered by Pentland Ferries. Prices reflect these crossing times and taking a car from Aberdeen to Shetland is not cheap, hardly a surprise when you consider that the travel time would get you to another European country from Britain depending on the outbound port, of course.
Once at Shetland, you need ferries to get from one island to another and Foula is a particularly isolated one with Atlantic Ferries offering 12-person sailings on specific days of the week, subject to the weather. It sounds a wild world away from the inviting islands that make up the Hebrides and goes to show that Scotland's islands offer a lot of variety for visitors.