Sleeper creeper

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 October, 2011, 12:00am


Dreamy fantasies rather than the possibility of nightmares inspire me to book a sleeping compartment on the Royal Scotsman. In the days leading up to my trip to Edinburgh to catch the train with my girlfriend, I am full of anticipation. I've read the food on board is just sublime, I know the landscapes of northern Scotland are absolutely stunning in that grim, brooding way unique to the Highlands, and I am thrilled to be riding on Britain's only luxury sleeper service. I've always loved trains, and whenever I go to big countries, I make a point of taking long train rides. Britain is small, so sleepers are a rare delight.

But a Halloweenesque theme does seem to accompany us on this particular adventure. I put this down to the mist, or the malt, or perhaps a Scottish spirit taking revenge for all the misdeeds of the English.

It starts the night before we board. To be close to Edinburgh Waverley, our departure station, we've booked into The Witchery. The hotel, an iconic boutique property, is opulent and ostentatious. Occupying an ancient warren of a building in Edinburgh's Old Town, it has only a handful of rooms, all with big wooden four-posters and decked out in antiques. Ours has suits of armour, 19th century military uniforms, ball gowns and hats, and other dusty old costumes. Hardly any light strays in from outside. It is exotic and slightly erotic.

'Dannii Minogue said it was the best lust pad in town,' says Roxy, the charming and camp, concierge. 'You can be what you like here. Settle in and get that uncorked.'

And with that, he leaves us to our complimentary bottle of bubbly and a night in a private theme park. But, I wonder, after a lovely dinner at the hotel's restaurant, what exactly has happened at this 'witchery'? Roxy had pointed out, almost as an aside, that the iron rings on the steep spiral staircases were for shifting cadavers between floors. Nonetheless, I sleep well, eventually.

A breezy ride on the Royal Scotsman's observation deck - the only one in Britain - blows away any meandering thoughts. We've been out of Waverley only 10 minutes and are crossing the famous Forth Rail Bridge, which, until this year, has been painted continually since its construction in the 1880s (a new long-lasting protective paint has just made the round-the-year painters redundant).

Pipe Major Iain Grant serenaded our boarding at the station with some wonderful bagpipe tunes, but now I am gulping Scotland's clean, cold air with gusto - along with yet more champagne, served round the clock on the train by a young barman called Fraser.

Soon the train is veering east towards the Kingdom of Fife and the North Sea coast near Aberdeen. As dawn descends, we dine on delicious, locally sourced scallops, followed by rare Aberdeen Angus steaks and delicate desserts - all matched carefully to quality wines. The two chefs have only a typical railway kitchen, about the size of a single bed, yet turn out exquisite food.

After dinner - and for each of the four nights of our trip - the train is parked (or 'stabled', as rail lingo has it) in the sidings of a deserted railway station.

Our first night is spent at Keith, where passengers get to know one another. The Royal Scotsman only carries about 30 people, so the atmosphere is intimate. Most of the passengers are from Britain and the United States, but there is also a young couple from Shanghai who run a venture capital firm. They are game - trying all the kippers and haggis thrown at them, dancing to the live bands that come on board to entertain us in our stables, and sampling the malts.

While we breakfast on Arbroath smokies (a local smoked fish) the following morning, the train edges out of Keith station under a grey drizzle. Flashes of autumn colour soon wake up the view, but even the rain seems to add something to the scenery.

A couple of hours out of Keith, we stop at the Glen Ord distillery to do a whisky tasting and nosing. Although I've enjoyed malts for years, I've never been taught to recognise the distinct flavours before - orange peel, toast, caramel, cinnamon - and I discover that the peaty, smoky ones I've always enjoyed come from the Isle of Islay in the west. I sip five or six types before returning to the train, slightly wobbly but with a warm feeling in my chest.

We roll on into one of the Highlands' most spectacular sections en route to the Kyle of Lochalsh. Through the now heavy rain I can see the peaks of the distant Torridon mountains and the heather-clad moorland. Now and again there are rumbling crofts, reminders of the barbaric Highland Clearances when the English expelled the Scots peasants and replaced them with sheep.

At Plockton, we alighted to go for a short boat trip across Loch Carron to see a colony of cute seals. The water is glass calm, almost eerily so, as we motor past the dark stone facade of the Jacobean-style Duncraig Castle - the 19th century home of Sir Alexander Matheson, whose family made a fortune exporting opium to China in exchange for tea, and who was a founder partner of Jardine, Matheson & Co. With lowering clouds above and a mist swirling in from the loch, it looks like something out of a horror film.

The following day, at Ballindalloch Castle, in Banffshire, there is more spookiness. The castle's laird, Clare Macpherson-Grant, tells us about the Pink Lady: 'I didn't know much about her until a few years ago, when a visitor from Minnesota told me he'd been chatting to a woman who had lived in the castle in 1750 - and had lost her daughter when she was just five years old. He told me the Pink Lady thinks I am her long lost daughter and wants to protect me.'

A more famous castle, Glamis, is our main stop the following day. Pronounced 'glahms', it's famous for being the home of the Queen Mother, and also of murderous Macbeth. In Shakespeare's play, King Duncan, on arrival at Glamis, remarks: 'This castle hath a pleasant seat. The air nimbly and sweetly recommends itself unto our gentle senses.' That evening he is murdered by Macbeth.

It's pure fiction, as the castle was built some 300 years after Duncan I's death in battle in 1040 and was only extended to its present magnificence in the 17th century. But Glamis Castle still houses murky legends, such as the earl who lost his soul playing cards with the devil, and Mad Earl's Walk, where a deformed 19th-century earl, hidden away from view, was let out to take some exercise.

Our guide, Caroline, steers us into a chapel she says is haunted by the Grey Lady, aka Lady Jane Douglas, burned as a witch in 1537. 'She was brutally tortured by King James V and haunts the chapel. Sit in that seat and you may feel a cold sensation. Many visitors have said they've felt a chill.' I sit in the corner and wait, and maybe I shiver.

But it isn't the stories so much as the building that has a strange presence. It has some ancient, labyrinthine corridors, time-worn stone spiral staircases, dozens of hunting trophies (bears growling at you at every turn), ancient suits of armour and, mysteriously, more windows on the outside than can be counted from the inside. It's the perfect milieu in which to conjure up apparitions and phantoms.

On my way into the Queen Mum's sitting room - with, of course, a huge drinks cabinet for her many bottles of gin and Dubonnet - Caroline warns me to watch that I don't fall. Apparently, many moons ago a misbehaving page boy was banished to the 'naughty step' one cold winter's evening and tragically froze to death. Now, she says, 'he entertains himself by tripping up unwitting visitors'.

It is not all haunted castles, of course. One night we do Scottish dances on the platform at Dundee. I think we frighten off the locals with our ineptitude. Another evening, a storyteller regales us with tales of heroic Highlanders fighting the evil English. One morning I go shooting 'clay-pigeon only' and discover I'm a decent shot.

But the combination of autumn weather, a romantic old train, landscapes that are at their most dramatic when the weather turns stormy, and these random tales of well-meaning and mischievous ghosts is a perfect way to get into Halloween mode.

On the last night, when I decide to really have a go at the train's incredibly well-stocked malt whisky selection, I go for a quiet walk down the platform. The dancing has stopped. Everyone is in bed. The moon has risen. At the far end of the train, in a dark corner, I see a Highlander coming towards me. He is white-faced, ashen even, grinning and wearing the classic kilt and, presumably, carrying a legendary dagger called a skean dhu.

Of course, it is my reflection in the window of one of the carriages. Just as well none of the other guests wake up and open their shutters. I am in my hired kilt and Highland costume, and bleary-eyed from a jug of Macallan malt whisky. Fraser has spoiled me with the 25-year-old, 'the best and most expensive whiskey we have on board'.

It is a fitting end to a fabulous adventure, riding on a train that is itself a ghost of the glory days of rail travel through a land of ghouls, mad earls and Shakespearean deceit. And with the most magical spirit of all coursing through my veins.

The rail McCoy

Fly to London and either fly from Heathrow to Edinburgh with British Airways or take the East Coast railway from King's Cross station to Edinburgh Waverley.

The Witchery

All guests receive a complimentary bottle of champagne on arrival and a breakfast hamper brought to their room. Doubles start at GBP325 (HK$4,033)

The Royal Scotsman operates a range of services. The four-night 'Classic Journey' featured in this story also takes in Kyle of Lochalsh, the Rothiemurchus Estate and Boat of Garten. All food, drink, tours and entertainment included. GBP4,330 per person.

Glamis Castle, Glamis, Forfar, Angus. Tel: +44 (1307) 840 393