A Spirit of Scotland winter adventure
We believe that no matter the time of year, the Spirit of Scotland is waiting to be discovered. We invited Christina, our latest guest blogger, to take a winter adventure and test our theory out.
ScotRail’s exciting travel pass makes it easier than ever to capture the true Spirit of Scotland.
Although Scandinavian by birth, I have always had a wild fascination for Scotland. After moving to Glasgow three years ago, this fascination has slowly and steadily grown into actual love. The minute I stumbled off my flight and onto Scottish soil for the very first time, armed with two massive and offensively pink suitcases, I instantly knew that this was a love meant to last. I’m still not sure if this instant knowledge was due to the fact that there was a gin tasting at the airport the very day I arrived, or if it was simply the welcoming taxi driver who immediately called me ”love” and then let me listen to One Direction all the way to Finnieston. Whatever the reason was, I instantly felt at home.
Over the past few years, I have seen it as my duty as an 'adopted Scot' to fully discover everything Scotland can offer. Most of these adventures - some more successful than other, I must admit – end up on my travel blog, Cavaforlunch.com. Today, however, I am here to report on my most recent mission to conquer Scotland during winter. Armed with a coffee and ScotRail’s Spirit of Scotland Travel Pass, I set out from Glasgow on a cold November morning. My journey would end four days later, and by then I would have explored places like Stirling, Aviemore, Inverness, Aberdeen and St Andrews.
The Spirit of Scotland travel pass is quite brilliant in the way that you can use it for both trains and buses all over Scotland, and it will also provide you with some great discounts for ferries. In other words, you will get lots of freedom when travelling – and a sea of opportunities, too.
I quickly found that travelling Scotland by train is surprisingly easy and low-effort, especially compared to renting a car. Not only does the train take you directly where you want to go – and it saves you plenty of time and frustration for when the GPS needs to recalculate its route for the fifth time in just as many minutes – but it also means that you can rise to the occasion and stop by some of the many whisky or gin distilleries you can find along the way. And I can assure you, you are doomed to cross paths sooner or later.
So without further ado, let us dive straight into my Scottish railway adventures.
Chasing the Past in Stirling
After leaving Glasgow Queen Street Station in the early hours of the morning, I found myself in nearby Stirling before the clock had even struck 10. As I have visited Stirling several times before, I headed straight for my favourite part of the city: The Old Town.
Located near Stirling Castle, Stirling’s Old Town is a charming area filled with hidden lanes, historic buildings and picturesque pathways. I recommend a visit to Church of the Holy Rude, the second oldest building in Stirling after the castle. The church was founded in 1129 (yes, seriously!). It is a beautiful piece of architecture, and admission is free. In the Old Town, you can also find the Old Town Jail, which is now a museum and it gives you an authentic experience of what prison life was like centuries ago. Both are definitely worth an hour or two of your precious time. Besides, their close location to the castle makes them a great addition to your history-filled day in Stirling.
After revisiting my favourite alleys and buildings in Stirling’s Old Town, it was time to get back on the train again. A hearty meal and Scottish pub life awaited me in Pitlochry.
Picturesque Village Life in Pitlochry
Pitlochry is a wee village located at the very heart of Scotland, and here you will find beautiful scenery, clear air and a hearty meal that will keep you going all day.
After reading about the Old Mill Inn, winner of INN OF THE YEAR at the 2014 - 2016 Scottish Hotel Awards, and – perhaps more importantly for many travellers - Best Bar in Scotland at the National Pub & Bar Awards 2017, I knew that this was the place to go. Hence I escaped the cold winter day, and found myself a cozy table near the fire place. Accompanied by the immortal tunes of Wham!’s Last Christmas, I enjoyed a Scotch Beef Burger and a glass of Merlot. The Old Mill Inn might have a questionable taste when it comes to Christmas music, but at least they serve a mean burger.
My stay in Pitlochry was doomed to be short and sweet, but if you want to extend your stay I can highly recommend a visit to the Blair Athol Whisky Distillery. The distillery is located only a few minutes walk away from the main street in Pitlochry, and it is most definitely worth a visit or two. The distillery offers whisky tours galore, with the cheapest option starting as low as 7.50 per person. In my opinion, Pitlochry is most certainly the kind of place where you should spend an afternoon.
Spectacular Sights in Aviemore
My train arrived in Aviemore just as the sun set over the magnificent Cairngorms, and I stayed at the station, admiring the sight, until the cold winds of the Scottish Highlands got the better of me and I rushed off to find a bed for the night.
As I woke up in my soft bed the following morning, eager as a child on Christmas Day, I was surprised to find snow covered mountain tops and a temperature I was most certainly not prepared for. You see, winter in the Highlands is cold. Really cold. Nevertheless, I was incredibly excited for my day in Aviemore, a lively village located at the very heart of the Scottish Highlands. Perhaps more importantly, Aviemore is right at the foot of the majestic Cairngorms. After breakfast, I wrapped up in two woolen jumpers and sat out to find the nearest bus stop. I was to spend my entire day in the Cairngorms, and – even more excitingly – I were to travel on the Cairngorm Funicular Railway. Whilst unknown to many travellers, the funicular takes you all the way up to what is the 6th highest mountain in the UK, and from here you can enjoy a spectacular view of the landscape.
If you only have time to do one thing while in the Highlands, the funicular should be it. I mean it.
I spent a few happy hours playing around in the snow and being completely mesmerised by the spectacular view from the top. Afterwards, a warm soup and a cup of hot chocolate awaited me in the mountain restaurant. Safe to say, the magnificent Cairngorms offer the French Alps some serious competition.
Foodie’s Delight in Inverness
After spending an entire day playing around the snow covered tops of Cairngorms, I was absolutely knackered by the time my train left Aviemore station. From the comfort of my window seat, I watched as the dramatic landscape of the Scottish Highlands slowly transformed into the more coastal scenery of Inverness, the capital of the North. If you ever have the chance to travel through the Highlands by train, I highly encourage you to take it. The scenery is absolutely breathtaking, and I truly believe that watching the sun set over majestic mountain tops are one of the best forms of meditation there is.
My stay in Inverness was far too swift for my liking. Yet, I still believe I managed to make the most of it, especially since I dedicated most of my time to my favourite hobby: eating. To be honest, I am relieved to find that being a ’foodie’ is such a fashionable thing these days – it sounds way better than to straight out admit that I have gluttonous tendencies.
I spent my evening at the White House, a lush bistro slash cocktail bar with a magnificent menu. I am not even exaggerating when I claim that they serve the best Gin Fizz on this side of the Highlands. One drink quickly turned into two, a locally sourced haddock arrived at my table, and suddenly the hours had passed without me even noticing. By the time I rolled into my hotel bed, well-fed, exhausted and happy, my mind had already wandered back to the beautiful Cairngorms.
Second-Hand Shopping in Aberdeen
After my amazing evening in Inverness, I was still in somewhat of a food coma when I arrived in Aberdeen the following afternoon. That is my excuse, at least, when I have to explain the fact that I lost my direction and spent a whole hour walking helplessly around the city while looking for my hotel. After finding at least twenty roads that did not take me to my hotel, and one that eventually did, I was finally able to leave my bags and start some proper exploring.
As this was my first ever visit to Aberdeen, I quickly messaged a friend who recently returned from a stay there, and asked him his opinion of the city.
”It was very grey”, he quickly responded.
”Grey? As in the weather?” I asked.
”No, ’Grey’ as in the city.”
To be fair, I realised what he meant as soon as I arrived in Aberdeen: the city is covered in nothing but grey bricks. In fact, it is grey as far as your eyes can see. Yet, the word ’grey’ is far from accurate when describing the soul and life of the city. The people are chatty and happy, the bars are fun and the second-hand shopping is rather wonderful. I ended up spending both precious time and money in the many second hand shops on Skene Street. If it is retail therapy you are craving, Aberdeen might just be the city for you.
Aberdeen also offers a very interesting bar scene, and I had lots of fun over a pint in the nightmare-esque surroundings of Slain’s Castle. Located on Belmont Street, Slain’s is a pub everyone need to experience at least once. The gothic building, combined with design effects inspired by modern horror films, will definitely give you an experience out of the ordinary. Plus, the beer is really good too. If you are not brave enough for Slain’s, I can highly recommend the Espresso Martini at nearby Revolution. But remember to bring a blanket – although it admittingly offers a cozy atmosphere, Revolution is weirdly chilly and it is the closest I have ever been to getting a frostbite while being indoors.
Don’t let the grey buildings trick you. Aberdeen is more fun than you think.
Last Stop: St Andrews
For the last day of my Spirit of Scotland experience, I boarded my train just as the sun rose over the hills of Inverness. Soon, the stunning coastline of Northern Scotland was visible through my window, and I once again leaned back and enjoyed the magnificent landscape. Travelling by train is indeed very relaxing. I departed the train at Leuchars Rail Station, and from here I took the local bus to one of my favourite Scottish cities, St Andrews.
If you ever find yourself in St Andrews, you have to stop by the pub of St Andrews Brewing Company. This is a locally owned brewery, and they have a total of 18 taps of craft beers - from both Scotland and world-wide. They also serve a huge range of the finest Scottish gins and malt whiskies, they have an impressive selection of wine, and some delicious lunch options, too. If you are hungry, I recommend the nachos. If you are thirsty, I recommend everything. I took one for the team, and tasted my way through local craft beer, a mulled cider made of the delicious Scottish cider Thistly Cross, and I am planning on returning very soon to test out their gin flights.
St Andrews is, however, so much more than just breweries. Whether it is your first or your tenth visit to the city, I highly recommend that you tour the ruins of St Andrews Castle and the nearby Cathedral, both of which are important and impressive examples of the city’s historical past. If you have brought your better, or worse, half with you to St Andrews, I do advice you to take a romantic stroll along the beach at sunset. You will probably be awarded ”Lover of the Year” when the sunset colours the sky in a magnificent pink tone, and the two of you are accompanied by nothing but the soothing sounds of crashing waves.
To me, St Andrews was the perfect end to a stunning adventure across Scotland.
Final Notes on My Spirit of Scotland Journey
As my train approached Glasgow Queen Street, four days after my Scottish adventure first began, I was still in awe of all the beauty I had witnessed. From the dramatic mountains of the Highlands to the idyllic beaches of St Andrews, my journey revelead a landscape so beautiful that it is almost difficult to grasp.
I am almost embarrassed to say that I brought two books with me. Before the journey started, I could not possibly understand what I would do during all those hours stuck on a train in the middle of Scotland. In reality, my books were left unopened. The scenery was too beautiful to ignore, and it felt as if I would be guilty of an unforgivable crime if I did not admire every moment.
It is easy to travel Scotland by train, far easier and way more enjoyable than to travel by car. Travelling by train gives you full access to the stunning landscape outside your window, and the railway takes you through the mountains in places where motorways and highways will never reach. Especially the journey between Pitlochry, Aviemore and Inverness struck me as breathtakingly beautiful. It is tricky to look away when dramatic mountains, green hills and unspoilt scenery passes by your window.
This journey have reminded me of that instant love I felt for Scotland when I first moved here three years ago. For me, this is a love story that will never really end.
Christina, originally from Scandinavia and now living in Scotland, is a journalist, translator and social media wizz. Check out her blog Cavaforlunch.com, and follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter