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Aboard the Royal Scotsman, a Dream Comes True

I had often dreamt of grouse hunting in Scotland. When an opportunity to do a story on the Royal Scotsman luxury train ride came up, I knew the opportunity would present itself. It was a dream comes true.

As the British Airways jet breaks through the base of the clouds, I catch my first look at Edinburgh and its surrounding countryside. Dark volcanic cliffs contrast with the lush verdant carpet covering the rolling hills. Edinburgh Castle rises majestically above the center of the city.

After I get my luggage, I call Bill Stewart, a friend I made by fax and telephone communication prior to making the trip to pick me up. It was impossible to find any lodging in Edinburgh because of the Edinburgh Festival taking place along with the Fringe and the Tattoo taking place at Edinburgh Castle that is all part of the festival. I sent a fax to the chamber of commerce in Edinburgh to see if they could help me in finding a room. A reply came back saying they couldn’t help and that Edinburgh was completely out of rooms. Gloom set in. A few days later I received a fax from a Bill Stewart who worked for the chamber saying; “if you don’t mind haggis, good scotch, and dogs, that I could stay with him and his wife.” Naturally, I called him back telling him I accept his gracious offer. And that’s typical of all the Scots I met on this trip, they were all very gracious hosts.

For the next four days, Bill was my personal driver, tour guide, advisor, media pass procurer, door opener, to name a few and he introduced me to the Mayor, the fire chief and many other notables in Edinburgh society. I was swept up into a whirlwind of activity that Bill had arranged and continued to arrange for me during my stay there. We toured several areas around the city, some historic, all of which I would have never seen if I had been there on my own. He got me on to the balcony of a very nice restaurant in Edinburgh so I had the best view to photograph the large parade that is part of the Festival. It seemed there wasn’t anything he couldn’t accomplish and he seemed to know everyone. None of this was part of his regular duties.

One of the most exciting and moving things I’ve ever experienced was the Tattoo held at Edinburgh Castle. The castle itself has loads of atmosphere and is an imposing sight, even more so when you enter its portal. The Tattoo is held nightly during the Festival and fills the stands that surround the courtyard with over 20,000 people. A Tattoo is a martial music competition where police and military groups from countries around the world come to march, drum, and dance with brass a blaring in full regalia. It’s a kaleidoscope of moving color and sound that stirs the very soul of man. I’m getting goose bumps at this moment as I remember those awe-inspiring groups and their distinctive sounds and the hundreds of bagpipe crying their mournful wail within the walls of the castle. There were groups from Japan, India, Brazil, Australia, Germany, Italy and the Virginia Military Institute just to name a few, each trying to outdo the other in color, movement and sound. It was literally, a movable feast to the senses and soul of every person in the audience.

The next morning, Bill Stewart, drives me down to the train station for my departure aboard the Royal Scotsman. We have a glass of lager before I say goodbye and head for the departure track. We remain great friends to this day.

I hear bagpipes. Their mournful sound is the official greeting for all the passengers of the Royal Scotsman. The piper is an older woman named Elizabeth, and she is wearing the traditional Scottish kilt and tunic. I am among sixteen passengers ready to board the train. John CoWan, our official Scottish Blue Badge Tourist Guide for the trip, greets us. As our bags are being stored in our private cabins, we are shown to the observation car to relax while final departure arrangements are made. A selection of hors d’oeuvres awaits us, but not for long. I take a look at the wine list, which includes Pouilly Fume, Domaine des Berthiers, Dagueneau, 1988 and Clos du Bois, Merlot, 1986. My decision to lose eight pounds before taking this trip is confirmed. I only wonder whether I lost enough.

The observation car is of Pullman vintage. Sofas and armchairs are strategically placed to allow thirty-two passengers a panoramic view of the Scottish countryside. The open veranda at the rear is a great place to watch Scotland unfold behind you.

Guests begin to introduce themselves to one another. Aboard are people from Australia, Holland, England, Germany and the United States. Another sixteen will be picked up a few days into the journey.

There is a whistle from the steam engine, and the train begins to pull out from Waverley Station on our six-day tour into historic Scotland and breathtaking scenery. We cross the Lowlands to Glasgow where the Delta Queen Steamboat was built and from there we follow the estuary of the Clyde River.

As we continue north, I go out on the veranda of the observation car to smell the freshness of the open countryside. Loch Lomond is to our right and so is a peak called Ben Lomond. Puffy white clouds make their home there and seem to be playing tag with Ben Lomond and other peaks around the loch. Across the loch is Inversnaid, the area once roamed by Rob Roy MacGregor, the legendary warrior, robber and folk hero.

The train climbs onto Rannoch Moor. Sunlight glitters on the countless pools, and the heather and grasses are ablaze in color. The moor is hundreds of square miles of peat bogs, lochans (small lakes), boulders and streams. Only the railway roadbed crosses over it, and does so on a floating bed of roots, brushwood and thousands of tons of earth and ash.

After a delicious lunch of fresh salmon, I return to my cabin to unpack and relax. The cabin is fitted out in rich wood and inlaid marquetry and comes with two beds, a table, a desk, a full-length wardrobe and a private bathroom with a shower.

Later in the afternoon, John CoWan calls us together in the observation car. “ I have a wee story to tell you.” He says. This first session is about the history of the sites we will see on this first day of the trip. The wee story lasts as hour; maybe more, and I realize that John doesn’t mean a small story when he says, “wee”. He must have his fingers crossed when he says “wee”.

In this wee story we learn that we’ll visit Achnacarry, the home of Sir Donald and Lady Cameron of Lochiel. After John finishes, he announces that he has a wee song to sing. We all join in, singing the old favorite, “Loch Lomond.” We sing enough wee songs to last an hour or more.

It’s four o’clock. The train stops at the Village of Spean Bridge, where a bus is waiting to take us to the Cameron estate. At the entrance to the home---more a castle than a home, actually--- Sir Donald himself greets us. He is a tall elderly gentleman, balding, with white hair. A smile is permanently etched on his rosy-cheeked face. We follow him into the house and marvel at the collection of medieval swords, spears and breastplates in the hall. The walls abound with historic paintings of family members and royalty. Collections of ancient coinage (some from Roman times), family jewelry and Bronze Age gold amulets are also housed on the estate.

Sir Donald explains his family association with Bonnie Prince Charlie. Sir Donald’s clan supported the Bonnie Prince in the 1745 uprising against George II. When the prince was defeated, the Cameron clan lost all its ancestral lands and its old castle was destroyed. But during the reign of George III, the lands were returned to the clan, and the work of rebuilding began. Work on this current residence was begun in 1802.

After the tour and a walk through the gardens, we return to the dinning room, where wine, tea and a tempting selection of fresh and smoked salmon and venison hors d’oeuvres have been prepared for us. We dig in, appreciatively.

Back on the Royal Scot, I change into formal attire for the first of three formal dinners aboard the train during the trip. These dinners are usually three or four-course meals, and you should be ready to partake of the best haggis, watercress soup, and fillet of Aberdeen beef (with Madeira sauce) that you’ve ever tasted.

The Royal Scot has two dinning cars, one of which has a teak exterior. Each car seats sixteen, and both are fitted with small overhead lamps that accent the warmth of their wood interiors. Dining tables are set with fine crystal, china and silver. The ambience is exactly what I’ve always associated with the romance of traveling by train.

I take my first evening meal with a couple from Florida, the Hamilton’s. I talk mostly with the husband Joe, and am afraid that his wife’s name now escapes me. We rave about the dinner. “I hope the chef takes a day off,” says Joe, “because something is going to give, and I think it’s going to be me.” We laugh, we understand. “Simply perfection,” announces Joe’s wife.

After dinner, John CoWan tells us that he has a special treat for us in the observation car. “Would you please follow me?” We do, and the special treat is that of listening to the music of Aonghas Grant, a renowned Scottish fiddler. Grant entertains us with a wonderful selection of Scottish music into the wee hours.

It’s the second day of the journey, and we are on the way to Fort William and Mallaig. I see streams that tumble down the hillsides; the water looking like hammered silver glistening in the sun. We pass a loch, and I am surprised to see it studded with tiny islands, each covered with tall silver trees.

We stop at Fort William and visit the ruins of Kilchurn Castle, stronghold of the Campbells. The train then takes us to Inverawe for a late afternoon visit to a smokehouse. We see how salmon, trout and other delicacies are smoked. We also check out how they taste. Delicious!

On the way again, we pass Loch Shiel and the monument marking where Bonnie Prince Charlie landed to commence his ill-fated rebellion. Each day as we roll along, John recounts the history of Scotland, from the time of James Stuart VI in 1567. We stop at Mallaig, which is on the Atlantic coast, and leave the train to wander around town. I stroll around the harbor and take photographs.

The train retraces its route back toward Edinburgh, except to head north up through Stirling, Perth and finally Boat of Garten, where it is stabled for the night. We begin the next day with a visit to the eighteenth-century estate of Sir Fitzroy and Lady Maclean. Sir Fitzroy, the fifteenth hereditary keeper and Captain of Dunconnel, is a former British diplomat, with postings in Paris and Moscow. During World War II he served in the Cameron Highlanders and Special Air Service regiments.

He is a former Member of Parliament and has written several books. Some say that Ian Fleming based some of his James Bond novels on Sir Fitzroy’s adventures during the war. To the locals, he is known as the real James Bond. It is said that Joseph Stalin put a price on his head.

He is an imposing figure of a man, tall but slightly bent because of age. The cane he uses is nearly as tall as he is. A female guest asks if he really knew all those women as depicted in the 007 films. There is a twinkle in his eye as he looks at his wife nearby, and a hearty laugh pours forth.

That evening after dinner, a fellow traveler and I talk about what great fishing there must be in all the lovely lakes and streams of Scotland. He says he has arranged to go trout fishing at nine the next morning. “I wish I had thought of talking to someone about going to one of the grouse hunting estates,” I say.

There is a tap on my shoulder. John CoWan has overheard my comments about hunting and says, “If you’d really like to go to Tullchan---it’s a premier hunting estate in all Scotland---I’ll try and arrange it for you.”

“It’s nine-thirty,” I say. “Do you think you can arrange it?”

“Give me a few minutes,” he says as he walks off to the staff quarters.

Twenty minutes later, he returns: “It’s all arranged,” he says. “The Tullchan estate driver will pick you up at eight-thirty tomorrow morning.” I can hardly believe it.

The driver arrives promptly at eight-thirty, and we arrive at Tullchan estate in less than an hour. The massive gray stone house sits on the side of a hill, surrounded by tall pines. In the house, wood paneling is everywhere, as are oil paintings that depict hunting scenes. A fine collection of shotguns, said to be worth one million dollars, is especially impressive.

One of the staff greets me and asks whether I’d like some breakfast. She shows me to the main dinning room, where Italian and Japanese hunters are having their breakfasts. I join them and strike up a conversation with the Italian. A few minutes later the general manager arrives and arranges to take the Italian hunter and me to the moors.

The general manager took me to the gunroom where I had the pick of several S/S’s and a few O/U’s. He advised me that the birds tended to be a bit distant and that I should pick a gun with a little choke. I finally found a S/S that seemed to fit me pretty well. It was a beautifully engraved 12 gauge with modified and improved modified barrels that was made by Holland & Holland. They fitted me up with some rubber boots, a jacket and several handfuls of shot shells. I also carried my camera in hopes of getting a good shot or two of some of the action. We had a short drive to the hunting grounds through some beautiful countryside.

The heather is in bloom on the rolling hills, and it looks like a scene from a Robert Mitchum film. A shaft of sunlight breaks through the clouds and races across the valley floor below, illuminating Tullchan in the distance. The air is fresh and snappy. The breeze is brisk, just right for walking through the deep heather.

The dogs are anxious and in minutes are pointing. About twelve red grouse fly up, and the Italian gets two of them. I shoot, but only get one, as they were a little farther away by the time they got to where I was able to shoot. The dogs are on point again in a few minutes and as we try to get a little closer another covey lifts into the cool air closer to me and I take two shots and drop two birds. The Italian gets another two birds as well. The well-trained dogs retrieve the birds quickly. I’m surprised at how well they can find the birds in such deep heather, but they don’t seem to have a problem at all. As we push down the hill we raise several more large coveys of grouse. I decide to forgo the shotgun for a while so I can get a few good photographs of the area, the hunting and the dogs. Two hours fly by, and suddenly it’s time to return to the train. I promise myself to return someday and to be shooting only with a shotgun rather than a camera and shotgun. It was great hunting in one of the most beautiful settings you can imagine. The walking through the heather and seeing the countryside was in it self a joy and the hunting just added another wonderful dimension to it.

On Saturday, we travel through the battlefield of Culloden, where Bonnie Prince Charlie’s cause was crushed in 1746. We tour Brodie Castle and then walk through the Strathisla distillery, which dates from 1786 and is the home of Chivas Regal. We spent the evening at the distillery sipping fine whiskey and dancing to the tunes of a piper. It was a grand evening.

On our last day, we visit Glamis Castle, the historic home of the Earls of Strathmorre and Kinghorn and the reputed setting for Shakespeare’s Macbeth. A residence of the royal family since 1372, it is the childhood home of Queen Mother Elizabeth.

It’s after dinner, and Joe Hamilton and I have a conversation in the observation car. His mother was from Scotland, from a family of twelve, and his brother was born in Glasgow. All his cousins were born in Scotland as well. He is the only clan member not born in Scotland, though as a young boy, he spent time in St. Cyrus, the site of the family home. This is his first visit since the age of five.

I ask him why he chose the Royal Scotsman to visit Scotland. “ It gives you the opportunity to relax and see the countryside with someone like John,” he says, “someone who can narrate what you are going to see before you see it, so you can understand it completely.”

Joe prefers travel by train to that by car, at least in Scotland. “Driving a car, you have to worry about if your driving on the proper side of the road,” he says. “You have to watch out for road signs and people, think about where you’re going and where you’re going to have lunch.”

Joe and his wife had been planning to see Scotland aboard the Royal Scot for quite a while. I’ve been thinking about this trip for three of four years now, and it’s better than I dreamt it would be. The food and people are fantastic,” says Joe.

At Dundee we begin the last leg of the journey. No sooner have we had an afternoon tea than we are passing through the farmlands of Fife.

When Edinburgh Castle comes into view, I come to accept that the journey is virtually over. We enter Waverley Station, and I begin my farewells, to the Hamilton’s and to the other guests. I shake the hand of John CoWan and thank the rest of the staff for their warm hospitality.

I hear bagpipes. I expect after today it’ll be a good while before I hear them again. A mournful sound never sounded so good.

Jerry Sinkovec