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If like me you love trains, adore ferries and just cannot get enough of travelling around Scotland’s islands then you are going to enjoy this blog. We’re talking Rail and Sail here. This is an intoxicatingly romantic notion where you board a train in one of Glasgow’s grand railway stations and are then spirited out on an iron railroad to a pier where a ferry awaits to sail you off to a Scottish island. Forget about taking the car and become instantly carefree.

These days embarking on a Rail and Sail adventure has never been easier nor cheaper, whether you just fancy a day trip or a longer escape. CalMac’s RET fares have made ferry travel cheaper than ever and you can now buy a combined Rail and Sail ticket that includes the Scotrail leg of your trip, so there are no queues to negotiate. Join me now as I run through some of your options, with links to some other blogs I’ve done on the remarkable Scottish islands.

Bute ferry

Bute ferry © Robin McKevie

Arran

The ‘Scotland in Miniature’ epithet really does ring true with Scotland’s seventh largest island. The Highland Boundary Fault literally runs through the island. The rugged northern half of Arran is a Highland wilderness of soaring mountains and plunging glens, where red deer and golden eagles grace the epic landscape. There are castles, cute villages and even a whisky distillery. The south is home to rolling hills, sweeping sandy beaches and the glorious offshore island of Holy Isle. For more on Arran check out my blogs on 7 Reasons to Visit Arran and Arran: Scotland’s Foodie Island. Make sure to look out for dolphins and porpoises on the CalMac sail over too.

Hiking in the Arran Hills

Hiking in the Arran Hills © Robin McKelvie

Bute 

The trip to Bute is always a joy as you get to pass through the glorious curved Victorian pier at Wemyss Bay. Bute used to be the pre-eminent island in the Firth of Clyde, the seat of the region’s power and teasing vestiges of those glory days remain. Rothesay is very much the archetypal Clyde resort, its elegant sandstone buildings and sweeping promenade instantly evoking the days when myriad paddle steamers funnelled tourists ‘doon the watter’. Rothesay Castle for me is one of the finest in Scotland, its rugged well preserved hulk surrounded by a proper water filled moat. Venturing beyond Rothesay there is one of Europe’s most dramatic stately homes in the form of Mount Stuart, which reclines in a large waterfront estate that is awash with walking trails. You can read more on my blog about Bute here.

Robin hiking on Bute

Robin hiking on Bute © Robin McKelvie

Cumbrae 

It’s off by train to Largs this time and perfect day trip territory with the short sail across to wee Cumbrae. This is a great family escape – I love bringing my girls to the classic resort of Millport. After an ice cream on the waterfront we rent bikes and then cycle off around the island, taking in epic views to Arran and Bute as we go. There is the Cathedral of the Isles to visit too, plus keen golfers can also play a round. If you prefer getting wet then the sportScotland National Sport Centre is on hand with day tuition and longer residential courses in all sorts of watersports, from sailing to kayaking and on to powerboating.

Millport on Cumbrae

Millport on Cumbrae © Robin McKelvie

Mull 

I love the scenic Scotrail ride on the spur of the West Highland Line from Glasgow to Oban, Scotland’s busiest ferry port. The route takes in Loch Lomond, the sweep of mountains around Crianlarich and the expanse of Loch Awe, before a spectacular final run to the sea. The CalMac sail from Oban to Craignure on Mull is one of my favourites with Ben Nevis in the distance on one flank and Duart Castle commanding attention on the other. The island capital of Tobermory is great for a day out with lots of wee shops and great places to eat and drink. If it is beaches you are after then Calgary Bay is one of my favourites in Scotland.

Colourful Tobermory on the isle of Mull

Colourful Tobermory on the isle of Mull © Robin McKelvie

Small Isles

As a travel writer I have been lucky enough to ride on many of the world’s most famous railway journeys, such as the Orient Express and the Trans Siberian. Hand on heart I can say that the West Highland Line from Glasgow to Mallaig is my favourite railway journey in the world. This Scotrail adventure really opens up a swathe of the Highlands, crossing, of course, the ‘Harry Potter’ viaduct at Glenfinnan, before it offers up snatched glimpses of the distant Small Isles. Once you arrive in Mallaig it’s time for a boat fresh fish supper and then on to a CalMac ferry to the quartet of Small Isles. Eigg, Muck, Canna and (the largest) Rum all boast charms of their own. A wee camping Rail and Sail trip visiting all four makes for a brilliant, offbeat Scottish adventure that opens a window into another altogether different way of living.

An Sgurr on Eigg

An Sgurr on Eigg © Robin McKelvie

– Rail and Sail tickets allow passengers to travel on Scotrail and CalMac services on a single ticket. A range of travel passes are also available that offer further savings for those looking for more than a day trip or weekend away in one place. For more information check out CalMac’s timetables and fares.

 

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  • Bob W.

    Sounds nice, but what about putting a grand circuit tour together rather than individual trips from a central departure (Glasgow)? We’re interested in the possibility of a whole Scotland tour that does not involve driving a car. How’d that work?