It’s 1.30 in the morning, and we’re heading north on the night train.  W.H. Auden had it right:

This is the night mail crossing the Border,

Bringing the cheque and the postal order,

Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,

The shop at the corner, the girl next door. 

Overnight sleeper services have been running between England and Scotland for more than 140 years.  That’s a rich heritage, and it’s certainly a journey that deserves to be on anyone’s bucket list.

We pick up the train at Crewe.  It’s Valentine’s night, and we’ve been waiting in the hotel next to the station.  There was a Valentine dinner, and all around the room, bored couples are toying with empty glasses.  Balloons hang limply in the corners, and a few drooping roses are laid on the tables.   But there’s an excited little gathering of people waiting for a train: not just any train, but the sleeper to Inverness and Fort William.

 Joining the Train

In good time, we all make our way to the platform.  Then she appears out of the mist, sadly neither chuffing nor steaming.  Instead, she’s a throwback to the 1970s diesels that spanned the UK in my youth.  We find our compartment via a welcoming guard and squeeze our bags into the tiny spaces.  It’s not exactly a room for huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ types, as you’d struggle to fit even a modest carp net under the bunks.  Or indeed down the tight corridors, so pack light.

We head off to the buffet car, where all but the most hardy passengers have long since called it a night.  Perhaps it’s just as well we’re too late for haggis, neeps and tatties.   It seems to be a night of parties we’ve just missed.  Back in our tiny compartment, we try and work out how (and indeed how much) to undress in the wildly swaying confined space.  We’re standing in a place probably about half the size of your average toilet cubicle, and trying not to flail our arms too much.  We raise the blind, and end up sitting on the bottom bunk, watching lights flashing past and hearing the chattering of the rails.

A Sense Of Occasion

Making my way down the corridor, I catch a sudden glimpse of a vision in peach satin.  I stand amazed as a passenger in a beautiful nightgown and wrap works her way down to the toilets.  I glance down at the floor and wince as I see her beautiful peach satin slippers make contact with the damp patches by the carriage doors.  She’s misplaced the Orient Express, and yet I am so charmed by her sense of occasion that I can’t think she’s being silly.  This really is the stuff of which dreams are made.

Hurtling To Scotland

Back in the compartment, it’s difficult to sleep.  The bunks run across the width of the train, and every time we take a curve or some points I slide either to my head or my toes.  I am in some hurtling version of Willy Wonka’s nut sorting machine.  Yet the very motion and sense of speed is so exciting that I really don’t want to sleep and miss any part of the journey.

Early in the morning, the steward knocks with a bag of breakfast goodies.  We sit on the bottom bunk, marveling at the silhouettes of the Grampians and their big stark shadows.  And as we eat, daylight fills in the contours and the hills come to life.   By the time we reach Inverness, we are stunned at the sight of a troupe of hikers wandering the glens.  In t shirts.  In February.  We really have entered a different universe.

A misty Eilean Donan castle during our trip to the Highlands.

Returning

I’d love to tell you that the return was equally exciting.  But in truth it involved hanging around a hotel next to Inverness station, with luggage ill suited to the shoulder width corridors of the train.  Then there was the strange absence of a sheet on the top bunk, leaving a waterproof mattress like a hospital bed.  That didn’t help with the sliding from head to toe on the points, and increased the speed of motion for each slithering moment.  Friction burns were narrowly avoided, and it certainly made us laugh.

Then, on leaving the sleeper train on a bracing morning at Crewe (strangely so much colder than Inverness), finding our connection sitting at the platform.   The driver was snug in his cab with the heating on, while we froze unhappily on the empty platform with a locked waiting room.  I think I’d just thawed out when we got home.

Tips and Recommendations

For information on the journey, consult the ever reliable Man In Seat 61.  In addition, I’d suggest:

  • Consider joining the train at London Euston, rather than Crewe.  You’ll get more of the sleeper experience, and you might even get to enjoy the haggis, neeps and tatties en route.
  • Pack something comfortable to sleep in, preferably something in which you can nip along the corridor to the toilets without either embarrassing yourself or freezing.  It’s no fun trying to dress or undress in those little compartments, so do it as few times as possible.
  • Pack as light as you can for the trip.  Those train corridors are really narrow, and dragging a big bag behind you is difficult.  Something fairly squidgy is also going to be easier to wrangle within the compartment space.  You can leave a really big bag with the guard.
  • If you are staying over in Inverness or Fort William, see if the place where you are staying can hold your luggage until you board the sleeper.  There are also luggage lockers at the station at Inverness.
  • Cheaper berth prices still exist on the Sleeper.  Journeys start from £70 each way, not at all shabby for the night’s accommodation AND the journey.  However, a quick random search couldn’t find me a price that reasonable.  If you’re happy to try a reclining seat for the night, prices can be as low as £45 each way.  In fact, I’m way too tempted to book it again already!

 

Author: Bernie

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63 thoughts on “Travelogue: Catching the Sleeper Train to the Scottish Highlands – Overnight To Inverness

  1. I love Scotland (even though I haven’t been yet) and sleeper trains! This looks like the perfect trip for us! Thanks for sharing these tips!

    Posted on August 5, 2017 at 8:44 am
    1. It really was an experience. Even the lounge car on the train (not usually renowned for decor) had a bit of ambiance like a Scottish lodge. And Inverness and the Highlands are fabulous! Rent a car and drive around Loch Ness and over to Skye. We need to go back.

      Posted on August 5, 2017 at 9:54 am
  2. Such a beautifully written post! Taking a night train is always an exciting experience. I have yet to take one with more spacious compartments (the first time I took a night train I was actually surprised by how small the rooms were).

    Posted on August 5, 2017 at 11:45 am
    1. Aw thanks! I think we were amazed how exciting it was, rattling and bumping through the night, and waking up periodically to check what we could see.

      Posted on August 5, 2017 at 12:54 pm
  3. What a wonderful recount. I have never tried the experience of a sleeper train, but that’s somethingI would like to do. Sadly, on the overnight train journeys I’ve taken I had always chosed a seat, as it was the cheaper option. There is a sleeper train that takes you to northern Sweden that I would like to catch one day. Go to sleep and wake up in Lapland – definitely going to do this!

    Posted on August 5, 2017 at 2:31 pm
    1. As I was too excited to sleep on this one, I think a seat would have served me well. But that perhaps works best when you can catch a quick sleep at your destination. I’m blown away at the thought of a sleeper train to Lapland. My fingers are itching to find out more about that one and start saving – sounds an incredible experience! (And also way too exciting for sleep!)

      Posted on August 5, 2017 at 4:46 pm
  4. I really like the experience that you share here. A few years ago I took the night train from Paris to Venice and this totally make sense, same struggles 😂 thanks for sharing!

    Posted on August 5, 2017 at 3:05 pm
    1. Paris to Venice sounds wonderful. I spend way too much time on the website of the Man In Seat 61, who shares such great vids and info about the big train journeys in Europe. Still plenty on my list to do.

      Posted on August 5, 2017 at 4:43 pm
  5. I love overnight trains! Of course I imagine this one would be a little more luxurious than the last one I did in Vietnam. Thanks for the information.

    Posted on August 5, 2017 at 3:13 pm
    1. I imagine the Vietnam train would be an amazing experience, although I might be a bit creaky for it now. Overnight trains are a great adventure.

      Posted on August 5, 2017 at 4:42 pm
  6. I always love reading your articles, you paint such a vivid picture! I used to work very near to Crewe train station, so know the exact hotel you’re describing! Great info, thanks

    Posted on August 5, 2017 at 3:22 pm
    1. Ah, thank you! That hotel was brilliant – it was thick with the air of Valentine disappointment. 😉 And the feeling’s mutual – loving your blog too.

      Posted on August 5, 2017 at 4:40 pm
  7. I lived in the UK for a half year, but never left England, Im completely ashamed and sad. Id love to explore Scotland! If only I knew you could do it for only 45 pounds one way, Id go for it! Travelling and accomodation is so expensive in the UK! Thanks for the tip!

    Posted on August 5, 2017 at 3:56 pm
    1. Tis true that it can be expensive here. The other bargain, now sadly ended, was that you could buy a Megabus ticket to Edinburgh – but it sent you on the train. I think our most bargain journey was about £30 return each to Edinburgh from Birmingham. The sleeper’s a great experience, and tbh, I think you’d have just as good a sleep in the seats as in the bunks. Like me, you might be too excited to sleep anyway.

      Posted on August 5, 2017 at 4:38 pm
  8. I never knew there was a sleeper train to Scotland!! That women is so goals haha

    Posted on August 5, 2017 at 4:19 pm
    1. Ooh yes! So much more fun than flying. Driving’s pretty epic too though (and it’s a long way for those of us used to a small island!).

      Posted on August 5, 2017 at 4:34 pm
  9. I went on my first overnight train in Thailand and it was actually very comfortable and a great experience! I would love to do this in Scotland! I’ve never been!

    Posted on August 5, 2017 at 4:34 pm
    1. Glad to know that the Thailand train is comfortable. My knees are getting a bit creaky now, and things like that are starting to make a difference. I’d love to try a big train journey outside Europe.

      Posted on August 5, 2017 at 5:09 pm
  10. That sounds so exciting! I will definitely give it a try one of these days. I did try the eurorail and I have to admit that while it was a great/unique experience, I was unable to get a good night’s sleep. :-/ but I’m keen to give it another go, :-p

    Posted on August 5, 2017 at 4:43 pm
    1. I reckon that the big stations need something like a capsule hotel. Do the night train, then book a restorative three hour nap in a pod. That would see us travelers happy! Ashamed to say I never did Eurorail, but I’m fast heading to the age where I can get discounted travel again, so there’s always time!

      Posted on August 5, 2017 at 4:49 pm
  11. I love the romance of a train journey. But then I try to sleep and it all goes to hell. Lol. But I would love to do this since it saves me a hotel booking and I love all things Scotland.

    Posted on August 5, 2017 at 4:54 pm
    1. I think sleep would be possible on this one if you weren’t doing the imitation of a kid on Christmas Eve that I was managing. 🙂 We staggered through a good day in Inverness and at Culloden after the night on the sleeper, and were raring to go for roadtripping the Highlands the day after.

      Posted on August 5, 2017 at 5:06 pm
  12. Your writing style is absolutely captivating; I almost wish this post was chapters long. I even enjoyed your descriptions when you discuss the less-than-perfect return.

    I have always loved the idea of hopping on a sleeper train and waking up in a new place.

    Posted on August 5, 2017 at 5:12 pm
    1. Thank you so very much. That is such lovely feedback to a new blogger – I will treasure it. (Especially as I wonder if I waffle on a bit!)

      Your blog title and the explanation in the header always makes me smile. That’s real adventuring. And it reminds me of my enduring love for Robinson Crusoe – read first as a child, and the ideas never went away.

      Posted on August 5, 2017 at 5:44 pm
  13. Train journeys are quite an experience and there are so many little stories involved, like the one with the peach nightgown 😉

    Posted on August 5, 2017 at 5:23 pm
    1. The little stories are the things that make travel. I am thinking that it was a Valentine trip or maybe an anniversary. I loved her style – I have a feeling I was in leggings and a fleece at the time, so hardly glamming it up!

      Posted on August 5, 2017 at 5:38 pm
  14. “You can leave a really big bag with the guard.” This is SO important! I love traveling light and it drives me nuts to take the train alongside tourists w/ oversized bags! LOL Very informative post!

    Posted on August 5, 2017 at 10:21 pm
    1. We only found that out later. After we’d played Bag Tetris in a very small space… So I thought it might be useful. (My Bag Tetris workout was very powerful though. It could start a fitness trend all of its own. 😉 ) It was the trip that started me packing light, so I’m a reformed character.

      Posted on August 5, 2017 at 10:37 pm
  15. You made that train journey come to life! I loved the bit about the woman in the nightgown.

    Posted on August 5, 2017 at 10:37 pm
    1. I’d love to know what she’s doing now. I wonder if she has as many fond memories of that trip as I do. (And maybe she blogged it too. “There was a wild-haired woman wearing leggings in the corridor. She wasn’t making much of an effort.” 🙂 )

      Posted on August 5, 2017 at 10:41 pm
  16. I have been on plenty of sleeper trains around Australia but I would never be able to describe it with such story and character as you have!

    Posted on August 6, 2017 at 5:31 am
    1. Thank you, that’s lovely to hear. For me, the characters and the scenery are what make journeys. They are the memories that fill my travel journals. And sleepers in Australia? Wow! I’ve heard of the Ghan, but went off looking and see there are lots more. Through the Red Centre and the Nullabor would be incredible. I’ve only ever flown over, and that was amazing. At closer quarters would be stunning.

      Posted on August 6, 2017 at 6:21 pm
  17. Never took a train to Scotland but I drove Bristol-Scotland so many times. It’s always fun to catch a sleeper adventure though. And probably, packing light and having snacks seem like a very good idea!

    Posted on August 6, 2017 at 10:11 am
    1. That was definitely the journey that taught me to pack light. More sleeper adventures would certainly be good. And Bristol’s a pretty drive too; I’m from the South West, so it’s about the stage when my inner Devonian emerges. 😉

      Posted on August 6, 2017 at 6:14 pm
  18. I always wonder if people still use overnight trains in the age of airplanes 🙂 I remember when I had to travel from Warsaw to Moscow for 19 hours in such a train and it was really unforgettable experience (although I didn’t sleep at all due to noise!), when all the carriage started to socialize 🙂

    Posted on August 6, 2017 at 11:28 am
    1. It’s a whole different experience isn’t it – all about the journey. I think if we’d joined the sleeper at Euston, we’d probably have been able to socialise on the way up. When you join at Crewe it’s pretty much midnight already and most people were tucked up. Warsaw to Moscow sounds incredible; I would definitely love to do that.

      Posted on August 6, 2017 at 6:11 pm
  19. I lived in Scotland for a short while and absolutely loved venturing into the Highlands! Such beautiful scenery. I had never heard of this sleeper train, so nice to learn more about it! Thanks for sharing your experience.

    Posted on August 6, 2017 at 12:35 pm
    1. We have the occasional “shall we?” moment about relocating to Scotland. It’s very tempting, although not feasible at the moment. You must have had a fabulous time living there.

      Posted on August 6, 2017 at 6:08 pm
  20. What a way to wake up in the morning the day after Valentine’s! I’m sure it must have been very memorable during this time of your life 🙂 Lovely writing style you have, Bernadette!

    Posted on August 6, 2017 at 2:50 pm
    1. Ah, thank you. We were on the train for my husband’s birthday, although in truth it was probably bucket list for both of us. Great memories, definitely!

      Posted on August 6, 2017 at 6:07 pm
  21. What a lovely post! I have never taken an overnight train, I know I would stuggle sleeping and then feel totally drained in the morning. However, I have taken an overnight coach in Vietnam and it was a horrendous experience, cockrouches running all over the place ugh, but that is another story.

    Posted on August 6, 2017 at 6:14 pm
    1. That’s a whole other level of adventure, and probably not one I’d be terribly good at. 😉 Sometimes adversity makes for great travelers’ tales, and sometimes it makes you want a long shower. I’ll certainly tuck that away for future reference!

      Posted on August 6, 2017 at 6:24 pm
  22. Aw cool! I’ve always wanted to go to Scotland, this looks like a great way to get there. I’ve only even taken a sleeper bus (in Brazil…) it was not so relaxing but I can imagine that this is way better 😀

    Posted on August 6, 2017 at 8:16 pm
    1. I hear that the buses in Brazil are great – an experience in their own right. We’re hoping to head that way in 2018/19, so maybe I’ll get to try that out. Scotland is most definitely recommended.

      Posted on August 6, 2017 at 8:37 pm
  23. You have a wonderful way of writing – it almost made me go and pack my bags right now to see this wonder. It sound like you had a great time and it should be done at least once in a lifetime 🙂

    Posted on August 6, 2017 at 9:48 pm
    1. Ah, thank you. It’s definitely a journey worth making; I’ve not done anything like it before or since. It wasn’t the most comfortable night I’ve ever had, but it’s certainly one of the most memorable.

      Posted on August 6, 2017 at 10:29 pm
  24. Never tried an overnight train although I love traveling by train. The freedom to walk around, the scenic landscape riding through. Also Scotland is still high up on my list, sigh! Fun what kind of people you can encounter 😉

    Posted on August 7, 2017 at 4:18 am
    1. We went in February, so it was mostly spotting lights until Scotland, when we could start to see the scenery. I imagine it would be spectacular in June when you’d have lots of daylight for the journey.

      Posted on August 7, 2017 at 6:14 am
  25. Love the poem and the way you describe the little details. My partner loves train journeys and this is definitely one I’ll do when visiting Scotland.

    Posted on August 7, 2017 at 7:43 am
    1. It’s so very worth it. I don’t think I’ve had an experience like it before or since.

      Posted on August 7, 2017 at 7:50 am
  26. Have never travelled in Europe at night, especially by trains. But sounds very exciting.Thanks for sharing.

    Posted on August 7, 2017 at 11:29 am
    1. I think our next one may be mainland Europe. Unless we can run to Amtrak. I’ve got a yen for more of the great train journeys.

      Posted on August 8, 2017 at 7:33 pm
  27. I can’t believe how narrow the train doors are – thanks for the tips! Looks ridiculously cold and probably a place I’ll have to visit in the summer (body not made for these epic cold temps) haha.

    Posted on August 9, 2017 at 9:44 am
    1. I think it’s a bit of a typically British weather experience. 😉 We went in February for my husband’s birthday and the Highlands/Inverness was actually pretty warm. There were people in t shirts walking into Inverness, and even chilly me managed in a fleece and top. As we got nearer to the Midlands, it was way more bracing. No rhyme nor reason to the weather here. But definitely go for it by summer; the views on the long summer nights would be stunning.

      Posted on August 9, 2017 at 10:32 am
  28. This is a nice post, I really like your writing style. I have been on only one sleeper train, through the Australian Outback. They are an experience aren’t they!

    Posted on August 9, 2017 at 1:31 pm
    1. Thank you! I’m sure the train through the Outback was magnificent. That must be added to my ever-growing bucket list. I imagine all the colours of sunrise and sunset make for a spectacular view of the Red Centre. And yes, most definitely an adventure!

      Posted on August 9, 2017 at 1:51 pm
  29. Great post and list of tips at the end! I’d love to do this trip one day 🙂

    Posted on August 9, 2017 at 3:16 pm
    1. It’s definitely worth adding to your list of things to do. I’ve not had another travel experience like it.

      Posted on August 9, 2017 at 3:37 pm
  30. Wow the Eilean Donan Castle looks beautiful. Actually everything around makes it look great! Didn’t know that was running for 140 years! That’s a long way back! Also isn’t seat61 great? You can know everything about trains!!

    Posted on August 10, 2017 at 6:22 am
    1. It was spectacular all round in the Highlands. So very, very beautiful. As for Seat61, agreed! Methodical, detailed, painstaking: everything you could hope for from a travel website.

      Posted on August 10, 2017 at 6:25 am
  31. I’ve always wanted to take a train, being from New York I’m just used to the subway and I definitely do not want to sleep on that. This was lovely! thank you for the write up.

    Posted on August 11, 2017 at 3:59 am
    1. The subway’s most definitely not built for sleeping. 😉 But I’m resolved to do one of the Amtrak long distance runs at some stage…just need to decide which one.

      Posted on August 11, 2017 at 1:25 pm