Exploring the Spirit of Scotland by Train

Find out why the Spirit of Scotland pass from ScotRail is the easy way to explore beautiful Scotland by train

IMPORTANT NOTE

Please take into account the advice from your local government and the government of your destination before planning travel and click here to see the current UK government advice regarding Covid-19

In the summer of 2017, I visited Scotland as the guest of ScotRail. A version of this post first appeared on the ScotRail blog in July 2017.

Somehow, I managed to reach the grand age of 42 without ever setting foot in Scotland.

Clearly that was a situation that needed to be resolved. So when ScotRail invited me to spend 5 days travelling around Scotland, it was an invitation that I couldn’t turn down!

My first visit to Scotland would start in Glasgow and then take me on to Dundee, over to Arbroath on the East coast, northwards to Elgin and then finally back down to Dunblane. And all of my travel would be on ScotRail trains.

My main priority was to see as much of each destination as possible in the limited time available. And as a food and travel blogger, I was also keen to sample as much of the local food as I could!

The Spirit of Scotland Pass

I travelled around Scotland with the Spirit of Scotland pass, which you can buy online or at any manned ScotRail station.

For just £189, it allows you unlimited travel on 8 out of 15 consecutive days, using ScotRail trains as well as selected buses, coaches and ferries. Or if you’re planning a shorter visit, the £149 pass allows travel on 4 out of 8 consecutive days.

You can use the Spirit of Scotland pass after 9.15am on weekdays and at any time at weekends. And there are also a number of other discounts and benefits, so it’s ideal if you’re planning your own trip to Scotland.

Day 1: Travelling to Glasgow

My trip began with a flight up to Glasgow, and then a transfer by bus into the city centre.

The buses run regularly from Glasgow Airport and as well as being very clean and efficient, they also have WiFi and USB charging points. Very convenient if you find that your phone is running low after your flight!

I would be spending my first night in Scotland at the beautiful Grand Central Hotel, which is located right next door to Glasgow Central station.

So it’s perfect if you’re planning to start or end your ScotRail Spirit of Scotland adventure in Glasgow.

The hotel opened in 1883 and still feels very glamorous in a vintage kind of way. It brings to mind the golden age of steam and one of my favourite films, Brief Encounter.

Think high ceilings, sweeping staircases, wood panelling and dramatic chandeliers.

Click here to read my full review of the Grand Central Hotel

After settling into my room, I headed down to the hotel restaurant for dinner. I started my meal with a divine first course of salmon cured in The Botanist gin.

And I followed that with Pork Wellington, which was made from local pork enveloped in Campbell’s of Broxburn black pudding.

It was a very welcome start to my first visit to Scotland, and later I settled down to a good night’s sleep. I was feeling very excited about the journey that lay ahead of me.

Day 2: Glasgow to Dundee

My stay at the Grand Central Hotel included breakfast, so I took advantage and tucked into a full Scottish breakfast before I headed off to my next stop.

The food at the Grand Central is excellent and the breakfast buffet carried a delicious assortment of both hot and cold options.

I finally had my first taste of haggis and square sausage. I was little nervous about trying haggis, as I’m not always great fan of offal, but the soft texture and spicy flavours quickly won me over.

After a couple of cups of excellent coffee, I felt more than ready for the journey ahead of me.

The short walk from the hotel to Glasgow Queen Street station offered me a glimpse of Glasgow. I really wish that I’d been able to spend a little more time there, because Glasgow looks absolutely amazing. A proper visit to the city is still on my wishlist!

I quickly found the platform for my first train and settled down for the journey from Glasgow to Dundee. Throughout my stay in Scotland, I was really impressed by the standard of the ScotRail service – all of the trains were clean, comfortable and running on time.

WiFi and charging sockets on the trains make it easy to stay connected but to be honest, I spent more time watching the scenery than working!

Dundee

After a comfortable 90 minute journey, the train pulled into Dundee. As I headed out of the station, the sight of RRS Discovery greeted me.

This is the ship that took Captain Scott to the Antarctic, and it’s an impressive welcome to new visitors to the city. It’s located at Discovery Point right across the road from Dundee station, and is just one of the many interesting things to do in Dundee.

V&A Dundee. Photographed by Ross Fraser McLean
Photograph by Ross Fraser McLean

And directly behind the ship, you’ll see the modern design of the V&A Dundee. This is the first V&A museum outside London, and opened in 2018 to great acclaim. It’s definitely worth a visit if you’re visiting the city.

I would be spending my night in Dundee at the Apex City Quay Hotel, which is just a short walk from the station. The hotel is just around the corner from HM Frigate Unicorn – one of the oldest warships in the world.

Dundee is certainly a great city to visit if you’re interested in maritime history!

I had arrived at the hotel in the middle of the morning so my room wasn’t quite ready for me yet. Luckily, the friendly staff at the hotel were happy to put my suitcase in storage for me,so I sent out to explore the city.

Dundee has a population of just under 150,000, but somehow the city feels smaller and cosier than that.

It’s very easy to get around the city on foot and I enjoyed my stroll around the city’s streets.

A View from the Dundee Law

When I first learned that I was going to be visiting Scotland, I asked friends for suggestions of things to do during my visit.

One of my Dundonian friends told me that a walk up the Law would give me a great view over the city. I checked Google Maps and it looked like it was about a mile from the city centre, so that sounded perfect for my flying visit.

Little did I realise that the Law is actually quite a steep hill, and that mile walk gave me a fairly good workout.

Afterwards, I discovered that most people recommend driving to the top or walking the long spiralling path. But no matter, taking the short route did me good and the view from the top was more than worth the effort.

There was just a touch of drizzle in the air as I walked back down but that was quite welcome, to be honest!

I reckoned that I deserved to treat myself to some cake after that walk.

The Parlour cafe was recommended by the same person who suggested that I should walk to the top of the Law. But luckily for me, this recommendation was far less painful.

It’s clearly a very popular cafe, and I enjoyed a reviving slice of chocolate cake and coffee. The Parlour also do a great selection of salads, sandwiches, pies and so on, if you have time to stop for lunch.

And after that, I felt fully refreshed and ready to continue my walk around town.

I enjoyed looking around Dundee, and could easily have spent another couple of days there if I’d had time. As well as the maritime attractions, there are also some really interesting museums to explore and the architecture is gorgeous too.

Click here for more ideas of things to do in Dundee

A Stay at the Apex City Quay

The Apex City Quay Dundee is a modern hotel right in the heart of Dundee’s redeveloped waterfront area.

My room was bright, airy and comfortable with plenty of room to relax in. And the bathroom had a good sized bath that was perfect for soaking my tired legs in after a long day of sightseeing.

The hotel also has a spa, which would have been a lovely treat if I’d been staying longer in the city.

Click here to read my full review of the Apex City Quay

Dinner at the Apex City Quay

Initially I had planned to head into town for the evening and have dinner at the Innis and Gunn Beer Kitchen, which had great reviews.

But by the time I got back to the hotel after a day of sightseeing, I just felt too tired to go back out again.

So I decided to eat in the hotel restaurant, and enjoyed a dinner of lamb served with sweetbreads. That was another first, as I’d never eaten sweetbreads before – the food on this trip was turning out to be very interesting.

After a long soak in the bath, I was ready for sleep but the weather forecast for the next day was starting to worry me.

Rain was forecast for the majority of the day, and that really didn’t fit with my plans.

Day 3: Dundee to Arbroath

And sure enough, when I awoke the next morning, the clouds were grey and a steady drizzle was falling over the city.

I didn’t want to hang around in case the drizzle got heavier, so I decided to skip breakfast and have a good lunch in Arbroath instead.

As I walked back to Dundee station, the sky was growing darker and darker. Soon the rain was falling more heavily, and it carried on getting worse throughout my 20 minute journey to Arbroath.

By the time I got off the train, heavy rain was tumbling from a lead-grey sky and it was forecast to continue rain until around 4pm.

Was my day in Arbroath going to be a complete wash-out?

Arbroath

Home for my night in Arbroath would be at The Old Brewhouse in Arbroath, just a short 10 minute walk from the train station.

But during those 10 minutes, the rain was practically coming down sideways, and I had to hold my coat’s hood up and keep my head down as I walked.

I barely saw any of the town and by the time I reached the hotel, my jeans and coat were soaked through. I was feeling pretty miserable.

The Old Brewhouse

But the warm welcome that I received at The Old Brewhouse lifted my mood immediately.

The friendly staff looked after my case until check-in time, and showed me over to a cosy table in the restaurant. They brought me over a very welcome cup of coffee, and as I warmed up and dried out, my mood soon started to lift.

The weather looked set to stay rainy for a few hours, so I decided to try the Old Brewhouse’s £15 two course lunch offer.

I started with a bowl of thick, warming Broccoli and Stilton soup which helped to warm my frozen bones. The Lasagne that I had for my main course was full of flavour, topped with a thick layer of molten chese and very filling. Both dishes were completely delicious.

By the time I’d finished my lunch the rain was still falling steadily but my room was ready for me, so I headed upstairs to settle in.

My room was gorgeous, very light and airy and spotlessly clean. With a comfortable king sized bed and crisp cotton bed linen, it definitely felt more luxury hotel than B&B.

Read my full review of the Old Brewhouse, Arbroath

With the sound of rain falling on the velux window, and still feeling full from lunch, I drifted off to sleep on that comfortable bed…

Exploring Arbroath

I awoke around 3pm to find that the rain had finally stopped but the sky was still full of grey colouds. But just five short minutes later, blue sky was peeking through the clouds and the sun was starting to stream through the windows.

It was time to explore Arbroath, a small town with a history heavily grounded in the fishing industry.

Visiting Arbroath reminded me that the coast is my favourite place to be. Being by the sea always improves my mood, and as I stood looking out over Arbroath harbour, I felt completely relaxed.

I walked along the sea front, filling my lungs with the fresh, salty sea air. The waves were still pretty strong and some made it over the harbour wall, catching out some unlucky passers-by.

My original plan for the day was to take a walk along the cliff path, and then visit Vin-Tealicious, a vintage inspired tearoom. But the weather still looked quite changeable, so the cliff walk was probably not going to happen and actually I was still feeling quite full from lunch!

So instead I took a quick look around the Signal Tower museum, and then headed up to the Polish Gift to Arbroath for a better view out over the bay.

Arbroath Abbey

Next on my list was a visit to Arbroath Abbey. This Benedictine abbey was consecrated in 1197 with a dedication to St Thomas a Becket.

The abbey was once the richest in Scotland, and has great importance in the history of Scotland. It was here in 1320 that one of three letters to Pope John XXII was written, asserting Scotland’s status as an independent sovereign state.

The Arbroath Declaration, as it is now known, is the only one of the three letters still surviving. It called upon the Pope to recognise Scotland’s right to defend itself against attack, due to the antiquity of its independence.

These letters were sent to the Pope following the excommunication of King Robert I of Scotland (Robert the Bruce) for his part in the First Scottish War of Independence.

But if you are planning to visit the abbey, do make sure you check the opening times first. Unfortunately I had just missed closing time, so I turned back towards the harbour.

By now, the weather was absolutely gorgeous, and although my original plan was to eat dinner at the Old Brewhouse, it seemed a shame to go back indoors.

Fish & Chips by the Seafront

And when you’re by the seaside, what could be better than a fish supper?

A quick check on Google as well as the queue snaking out the door showed that Marco’s on the Shore is highly recommended.

It was very busy for a good reason – their fish and chips were some of the best I’ve ever had. I took my fish supper down to the sea front and ate them as the waves crashed in front of me. A couple of gulls lurked nearby, hoping to pick up some scraps.

It was the perfect end to a day that had looked so gloomy when it started.

Day 4: Arbroath to Elgin

I’m not sure if it was the fresh sea air, the comfortable bed or a combination of the two, but I slept incredibly well at the Old Brewhouse. I woke the next morning feeling really refreshed and headed down for breakfast.

A Smokie for Breakfast

And what else could I have for breakfast but an Arbroath Smokie. This smoked haddock is a local speciality, and this was my chance to try one for the first time.

My Smokie was served alonside scrambled eggs that were both creamy and light. It was a delicious way to start the day.

The sun was shining brightly so before I continued my journey, I headed out for one last walk around the harbour full of fishing boats.

I felt sad to be leaving Arbroath after such a short visit, but I know that I’ll definitely go back again.

The next stop on my itinerary was the town of Elgin, two and a half hours away by train. The train was looking fairly busy, and all of the table seats were already taken.

So I decided to leave my laptop in my bag and enjoy the scenery instead. I love road trips, but taking the train meant I could sit back and relax rather than having to focus on the road all the time. It made a lovely change!

Scotland’s varied landscapes flew past the window, and Arbroath’s dramatic coastline was soon replaced by rolling fields and hills.

But the sky was changing too, with dark grey clouds starting to catch the train as it raced along. I wondered whether we’d reach Elgin before the rain set in

Elgin

Having eaten a quick lunch on the train to save time, I headed straight to the Laichmoray hotel to check in and drop off my case.

The Laichmoray hotel is just 5-10 minutes walk from Elgin station, and it dates back to 1853. The friendly staff at reception soon made me feel very much at home.

With the clouds were still looking fairly menacing, I needed to keep an eye on both the time and the weather. But with the help of my Scottish friends, I’d planned a few things that I wanted to do while I was in Elgin.

I would have liked to visit Johnston’s cashmere mill and the Glen Moray distillery. But time was short and I didn’t want to spend time indoors while the weather was still dry.

So my plan was to head up to Lady Hill first, and then to walk down the High Street towards the ruins of Elgin Cathedral.

After scaling the Dundee Law, walking up Lady Hill felt like a relaxed stroll. But it’s worth heading up there to see the ruins of Elgin castle at the top, and there’s also a great view out over the town.

Pancakes and Rain

Elgin is a former cathedral city and it felt very big and bustling after Arbroath. But in reality, the town centre is quite compact and easy to get around.

I had just made it into the town centre when the rain that had been threatening all day finally caught up with me.

Luckily, I remembered that a friend had recommended visiting the Pancake Place for lunch so it seemed like the ideal place to wait for the rain to pass. I ordered a Banoffee stack of pancakes – they were absolutely gorgeous but the huge portion was far too much for me!

By the time I’d eaten what I could manage, the rain had stopped and I could carry on towards Elgin Cathedral.

Elgin Cathedral

After missing out on Arbroath Abbey, I really wanted to have a proper look around Elgin Cathedral. It was 4pm by the time I reached the cathedral, but luckily it was still open.

Elgin Cathedral was originally established in the 13th century, and fell into disrepair after the Reformation in the 16th century. It’s a beautiful place to walk around, and feels very peaceful.

In the cathedral’s towers, there are a number of exhibits exploring its history, and you can also climb up to a viewing platform at the top of one of the two towers. I went most of the way up but wasn’t quite brave enough to make it out onto the tower top!

Dinner at the Drouthy Cobbler

I decided to eat in town that evening rather than staying in the hotel, and found that The Drouthy Cobbler came highly recommended.

It’s a lovely little restaurant with a very vibrant atmosphere. Even at 6pm the place was packed, but luckily they managed to squeeze me in. I had a very delicious starter of seared scallops with pancetta, black pudding and pea puree, followed by one of the best steaks that I’ve ever had in the UK.

It was tender, full of flavour and cooked exactly how I’d asked.

If you fancy trying The Drouthy Cobbler for yourself, I’d certainly recommend phoning ahead to reserve a table!

Whisky at the Laichmoray Hotel

Back at the Laichmoray hotel, I felt that I had to pay their bar a visit. It has a selection of over 130 whiskies, and I couldn’t visit Scotland without having a dram or two.

I tried the locally distilled Linkwood 15 year old single malt, which had flavours of vanilla, buttery oak and toffee.

And on the advice of the barman, I also sampled a very smooth 18 year old Glendronach, which may even have been better than the Linkwood.

Day 5: Elgin to Dunblane via Aberdeen

I woke early again the next morning, ready to head off to the last stop on my tour.

There’s no need to reserve seats on the trains when you’re using the Spirit of Scotland pass. But it’s worth planning a rough schedule for your journey, especially if you’re planning to visit smaller towns which may have a limited service.

My original plan was to get the late morning train to Dunblane via Aberdeen and Perth. It’s a fairly long trip, taking around four and a half hours, and there aren’t many trains that stop at Dunblane each day.

Aberdeen city centre

But then I received a text from another friend asking ‘Have you tried Cullen Skink yet?’

I hadn’t, so she recommended that I stop off in Aberdeen and pay a visit to Cafe52, and a quick check of the ScotRail website showed that I could easily fit it into my schedule.

The flexibility of the Spirit of Scotland pass is definitely one of its big benefits. There’s no problems if you decide to spend an extra night in a town, or divert via a different route. It was easy to use the ScotRail website to check train times, and there are apps available for Android and iOS as well.

Cullen Skink in Aberdeen

So the plan now was to catch the early train to Aberdeen, stow my suitcase in the Left Luggage office (a bargain at just £2 for my big suitcase) and then have lunch at Cafe52 before getting the 1.30pm train to Perth.

Cafe52 is about five minutes walk from Aberdeen station and has been operating in the same location for 25 years. It has friendly staff, very cool decor and excellent food.

I went for a small bowl of the Cullen Skink with half a sandwich of smoked sausage, crispy bacon and goat’s cheese. I only wish I had ordered a larger bowl of the Skink, because it was so creamy and delicious.

It would have been nice to linger a while over lunch, but unfortunately time was not on my side. Aberdeen is a city that I definitely need to explore properly on my next visit!

After my train to Perth, I only had a short wait for my connecting train to Dunblane.

Dunblane

Dunblane was a wonderful location to wrap up my first visit to Scotland, and I could see the town centre as soon as I left the small train station.

Google Maps told me that it was only around half a mile to the DoubleTree by Hilton Dunblane-Hydro where I would be staying the night, so I decided not to get a taxi. Big mistake…

A Stay at the Dundee Doubletree Hydro

As with the Dundee Law, Google Maps didn’t show that the hotel sits on top of a big hill.

I walked through the town and up the hotel’s sweeping driveway, dragging my case behind me.

But when I reached the top, the stunning view out over the town soon made me forget the tiring walk.

I checked in and was directed to my room. The clean lines of the room’s decor were fresh and elegant, and the comfy bed looked incredibly welcoming.

But there was no time for a nap on this occasion. Time was running short, and I still needed to look around Dunblane so I headed straight back down the hill and into town.

Tennis and the Cathedral

I’m a huge tennis fan, although I have to confess that I cheer for Roger Federer rather than Andy Murray. But even so, actually visiting Murray’s home town was really exciting for me.

I definitely wanted to see the tennis club where he learned to play, and of course the gold postbox commemorating his Olympic gold medal. But I was also very keen to look around the rest of the town.

Dunblane has a beautiful Cathedral, which unfortunately had already closed for the day by the time I reached it. There are winding lanes and charming buildings, and the Allan Water (River Allan) running through the centre of town.

That would have made for a lovely walk if time had allowed, perhaps finishing up with dinner at the Riverside Inn. I ate there when I visited the National Wallace Monument on another trip to Scotland, and can see why it gets such great recommendations!

Dinner at the Kailyard

But rain clouds were looming once again, so I decided to head back and eat in the hotel restaurant. Nick Nairn designed the Kailyard’s menu, and it was very hard to choose from it!

I eventually plumped for a beautiful starter of red braised pork cheek with sticky rice, followed by steak with a whisky sauce. I’d never tried pork cheek before, and it was melt-in-the-mouth delicious.

The service in the restaurant was impeccable, as was the service throughout the hotel. They really make you feel like no request is too much trouble, and the facilities were very high quality as well.

Day 6: Dunblane to Glasgow and home

I woke up after another fantastic night’s sleep, and for a moment I couldn’t remember where on earth I was. Five different hotels in five days had finally caught up with me!

I also woke up with with very mixed feelings on my last morning in Scotland. On one hand, I was really looking forward to seeing my family and dog again, but I couldn’t help but feel sad to be leaving Scotland.

I ate an excellent breakfast in the Kailyard restaurant, and then requested a taxi for the short journey back to Dunblane station. I’d learned my lesson from the day before!

The final train on my Spirit of Scotland adventure took me on the 1.5 hour journey back to Glasgow. It gave me time to think about the past five days, and everything I’d experienced.

Looking back at the Spirit of Scotland

This was an amazing trip with so many happy memories and so much that I’ll look back on fondly.

The wonderful friendly welcome I received at each stop, the beautiful views I saw along the way, and of course all of the delicious food I’d eaten. Seriously, for a food-lover like me, this trip was fantastic!

I also loved the experience of travelling around by train. I’ll always love driving and road trips are great fun, but travelling by train felt like a much more laid-back way to see the country.

It might have taken me 42 years to pay my first visit to Scotland, but I knew that I’d go back again soon. Not only to spend more time in the places I’ve already visited, but also to explore the rest of the country.

My first visit to Scotland whetted my appetite, and now I’m always eager to return!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.