Scotland may be the perfect place for road trips. The North Coast 500 route is a great itinerary through the wild north of the country - Scotland's response to Route 66. If you wish to see the core of Scotland, you may want to rent a car and go explore. However, if like me you believe public transport is just as good, safer, and allows you to relax and enjoy the scenery, then let me show you how I managed to do that in three days. You can adjust this express itinerary to longer formats.
Step 1: Fall asleep in England, wake up in the Highlands
I travelled from England to Scotland on the Caledonian Sleeper, which is a great way to already be way up North in the morning of day 1. The 'Deerstalker' line will get you into Fort William for 10am (you can also board this train from Edinburgh at 4 in the morning). Here's train lover Mark Smith (the man in Seat 61) presenting his own Sleeper experience. Note that you can also book seats instead of berths, which will end up being much cheaper too.
Fort William is lovely: it has all the amenities and services one needs, and is a great starting point to discover the West Highlands. It is largely dedicated to outdoor activities, so spend the right amount of time there according to your interest for hiking, mountain biking, etc.
Step 2: A Hogwartsy feeling on your way to Mallaig
From Fort William, your next step has to be Mallaig. The railway to get there is the famous West Highland railway - a breathtaking stretch across mountains, lochs, and the renowned Glenfinnan Viaduct. You can take the regular regional trains or board the Jacobite train - which is basically the Hogwarts Express!
Step 3: All aboard the Skye boat!
Once in Mallaig, it may feel like you've reached the tip of Great Britain. You haven't though - this ain't Land's End or John O'Groats! From Mallaig, regular ferry services will take you across to Armadale on the Isle of Skye.
Skye will be the only portion of trip requiring taking a bus. Stagecoach has good summer timetables in place across the island - please check if travelling during the year. There are plenty of online guides to Skye, so do check what you wish to see on the island, which is one of Scotland's true gems.
You won't need a boat to leave Skye - it is the only island with bridge access to the mainland. Buses will take you across the Skye bridge into Kyle of Lochalsh, another little town with a terminal railway station. The service from Kyle to Inverness is jaw-dropping, switching between loch views, naked hills, and large forests.
Step 4: back to the central Highlands - your move!
Inverness requires no introduction: it is the capital of the Highlands, and has literally all the comfort a British city can offer. It is a genuine town with a gorgeous river front. From there, you have access to much more: tours of Loch Ness, trains up North towards Wick, eastbound to Aberdeen, or south on the Highland Main Line. Edinburgh and Glasgow are less than four hours away, and there is a Caledonian Sleeper service down to London that leaves at 20:44.
This was a very quick overview and what can be done by public transport. What strikes me every time is how different the trips are: railways rarely meet roads, and therefore offer brand new exciting opportunities. You may know Corrour station, Britain's highest and most isolated station, that is also a cosy hotel and restaurant. Although the number of railways in Scotland is limited, trains do run on them and will do a perfect job at showing you the country around.
My trip was an express one, condensed in three days but giving me enough time to enjoy every minute of it. That is, in my opinion, the greatest point about train travel. Without the pain of driving, you constantly soak up the atmosphere, on or off the train. You can, however, extend this itinerary for a full week or more. My entire trip was done by booking tickets very early on (each advance railcard ticket was less than £10). Alternatively, the new Spirit of Scotland travelpass will give you the flexibility you may want if you cherish the freedom of driving and still need to be convinced.
Go out there and enjoy!