Getting to Hills, Glens and Islands
Terrain, history and economics have shaped Scotland's population distribution to the extent that most live in its most level parts. When you get to the Southern Uplands and Highlands, population centres become sparse to the point where use of public transport in those hilly areas involves a good deal of planning.
Of course, life is a lot easier in Scotland's cities and Scots seem to be good at patronage of bus and train services. Then, there are those more pastoral parts like Fife and the Borders that feel a little like the way things are done south of the English border.
Unlike England, there is a solid long distance coach network with Scottish Citylink, Megabus, National Express (mainly for cross-border services to and from England), and even Stagecoach itself all offering travel options. It was the first of these that facilitated my first excursions while I still lived in Edinbugh. That coach travel is cheaper than its train counterpart and I was a student living on a limited budget might have had something to do with this.
With my leaving Scotland to pursue a career, it was train travel that started to feature more strongly. For instance, the rather expensive Caledonian Sleeper overnight services have done sterling service whenever I have splashed out the cash to use them. Once intercity services had got up north from England, it then is the turn of Scotrail to convey me further. It is then that the challenges of building a railway through Scotland's wilder parts come to light with single track railway lines clinging to steep hillsides in places. Well, it's not for nothing that the West Highland lines feature in many a list of famous scenic railways. That they services aren't as regular as their lowland counterparts mean that you have to watch you times but Scotland doesn't have a shappy railway system where the terrain allows this.
Another of Scotland's alluring and distinguishing features is the number inhabited islands that it has. Apart from flying, reaching those involves ferry travel. Caledonian MacBrayne do a lot of the backwork for the isles in the west and service timings can be eccentric for the more outlying ones though Arran and Mull gain a very regular service. For Orkney and Shetland, you need to look at the likes of Pentland Ferries, Northlink Ferries and Atlantic Ferries to convey you, depending on where you are headed.
For those far flung destinations, there's the alternative of air travel with Loganair doing a lot of the backwork for these, either under its own banner or on behalf of the likes of British Airways or Flybe. While these services may be quicker than other options, there remains something appealing about not rushing a journey. Sometimes, it best to enjoy travelling and not just being in the place where you are going.
From City to Countryside by Bus & Coach
My first experiences of using the Scottish bus system was in Edinburgh where Lothian Buses (an organisation remaining largely in public ownership and one of a dwindling number of municpal operators) continue to hold sway along with First East of Scotland, whose reach extends into the Scottish Borders and north as far as Stirling. Lothian is one of those operators that both innovates and sets the standard by which other operators should be judged so I count myself fortunate to have lived in a city served by them. First were rarely used but they have come a long way from elderly vehicles operated under the SMT Lothians banner with much needed investment in new addtions to their fleet since then.
Scottish Citylink came into my life when I started to venture beyond Edinburgh using a network that then looked not unlike how it is today. Those first trips to Fort William, Inverness, Oban and Skye might have been much more tricky without their services.In recent years, it has become a collaboration between Comfort DelGro and Stagecoach and that aroused concerns in my mind, especially with Stagecoach's takeover of Rapsons around the same time. Nevertheless, things have settled down with a bus war with West Coast Motors, the main operator in Argyll, reaching a sensible conclusion and innovations like Citylink Gold being rolled out to the public.
It strikes that the picture that I have painted so far has stayed the course for so many years and that it has shaped my explorations of Scotland a lot too. Of course, there are other companies that I used with satisfaction too. There's Munro's of Jedburgh in the Scottish Borders and McColl's of Balloch near Loch Lomond together with the smaller operators that conveyed me around the Western Isles. They all have got me about the place without needing to use a car and that cannot be a source of complaint.
Border Crossing & Getting Around by Train
As mentioned in the introduction, ScotRail is the main operator of train services in Scotland. In 1990's, it was transformed from a division of British Rail into a franchise operated by National Express. That franchise is one let by the Scottish Government nowadays and First is the franchisee. Another feature of the modern railway landscape in Scotland is that Transport Scotland and SPT are calling the shots. This includes insisting on the use of their own liveries, a practice that has to save money because you have wonder how expensive it is for new operators to emblazon their identity all over everything in their first few months. Anything that saves money for the public purse has to be a good thing now that boom has turned to bust on us.
Aside from limited incursions into the north of England and the running of overnight Caledonian Sleeper services connecting the likes of Fort William, Inverness, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow with London, ScotRail largely limits itself to running services within Scotland as it must have done in the days of British Rail. Back then, it would have been the InterCity branding that was applied to Anglo-Scottish express as well as the overnight services now operated by ScotRail. One outcome from rail privatisation is that four operators now provide daytime Anglo-Scottish intercity services.
First, there's East Coast, the state-owned operator that took over from the failed National Express East Coast. Ironically, that replaced the respected GNER that itself met a sad end because of an excessive Treasury premium which had the exact same effect on its successor. The franchise is to be re-let again at some point with a scope reduced from what it is today. For instance, no services will be operating between Glasgow Central and London King's Cross and the mainstay of the offering will be services between London and Edinburgh or Leeds (even Bradford is cut out). Services to Inverness and Aberdeen will continue to be part of the offer so there's some additional sense of continuity.
The mention of Glasgow Central brings us to Virgin Trains, who operate the services between Glasgow and London (Euston) that will facilitate the refocussing of the East Coast franchise. In addition, they also run services along the West Coast Mainline between Birmingham and Glasgow or Edinburgh, a hangover from the days when they ran the CrossCountry franchise.
Arriva is the current custodian of CrossCountry and their Anglo-Scottish services follow the East Coast Mainline, which probably explains why I rarely use them. In some ways, they are comedown after Virgin's time in charge with trolley services replacing the onboard shop though there is something to be said for having bicycle storage in the middle of a train. It is they who will replace East Coast on the Edinburgh-Glasgow spur when the London franchise gets a trimming so we'll see how that goes. As well as those city termini, they go as far as Aberdeen too and mainly with HST's too.
There was a time when I wondered about Transpennine Express operating trains as far as Scotland. The cause was my seeing their serving Newcastle-upon-Tyne but it is the West Coast Mainline along which they cross the Scotland-England border. This is a consequence of the reorganisation around the time of the CrossCountry franchise changeover when they were given services Manchester to Glasgow or Edinburgh. What failed to convince me about the wisdom of the move is that three-carriage diesel trains are the main workhorses in their fleet, even if two units can be joined together. Nevertheless, they seem to be doing fine with them most of the time even if I encountered very crowded trains while travelling around the time of the Edinburgh festival season in August. Mind you, I still think that routinely using longer trains would be best.
Reaching Islands by Sea
A visit to a Scottish island in good weather is something that isn't forgotten very easily. All of my excursions have taken me to islands on Scotland's west coast and it has been those escapades that had me using the services of Caledonian MacBrayne or Calmac as it is known otherwise. This is a state-owned ferry company and it operates under the strapline Hebridean and Clyde ferries. That pretty much tells you what it does. Some island services such as those to Arran or Mull get very regular services while the timetables for othere such as Barra can feel eccentric so a spot of careful planning is in order. If you are bringing a car, fares are not cheap though travelling as a foot passenger like I have been doing doesn't break the bank. There are even hopscotch fares so a visit to a ferry terminal or to the company's website can be very useful.
My Scottish island explorations have not taken me to Orkney or Shetland up to now. Not having an aversion to the idea means that I am not one for ruling out the prospect of my ever doing such a thing. Sometimes, a faraway destination has a certain allure about it.
Of the two archipelagos, Orkney is at all not that far from the northernmost reaches of the Scottish mainland. The proof coomes in the form of Pentland Ferries providing sailings that take less than an hour with a very modern ferry that they recently introduced to the route. That acquisition is enough cause for me to want to find out how busy this crossing is, especially considering how far they are from everywhere.
In contrast to those Pentland Ferries sailings, the overnight sailings offered by Northlink Ferries from Aberdeen look a lot longer. For instance, getting to Kirkwall alone takes five hours and Lerwick is another seven hours away with the direct Aberdeen-Lerwick journey taking twelve hours in total. The same company does Scrabster-Stromness crossings too and those sailings take around 90 minutes, comparable with those offered by Pentland Ferries. Prices reflect these crossing times and taking a car from Aberdeen to Shetland is not cheap, hardly a surprise when you consider that the travel time would get you to another European country from Britain depending on the outbound port, of course.
Once at Shetland, you need ferries to get from one island to another and Foula is a particularly isolated one with Atlantic Ferries offering 12-person sailings on specific days of the week, subject to the weather. It sounds a wild world away from the inviting islands that make up the Hebrides and goes to show that Scotland's islands offer a lot of variety for visitors.