Steam hauled trains are opening up the scenic Scottish Borders to visitors every Sunday this August. Aileen Robertson boarded at Dalgety Bay for a journey along the Borders Railway, which was reopened three years ago, and took in a visit to Abbotsford, the home of Sir Walter Scott.
The Black Five, a lovingly preserved 73-year-old locomotive, glides into Dalgety Bay station having set off from Linlithgow and already crossed the iconic Forth Bridge.
Today, the engine, owned by the same company which restored the Flying Scotsman, is pulling coaches for Scottish Railway Preservation Society (SRPS) Railtours, which is operating excursions to fund railway preservation projects at Bo’ness while boosting tourism in the rolling Borders.
I am joined for the trip by an enthusiastic railway traveller, my four-year-old son, and after the wheels grind to a halt and a team of stewards open the doors, we are shown into a 1960s carriage and to a table carefully laid out with a floral display, teacups and biscuits.
As the train rolls out of the station, we are welcomed aboard as friendly SRPS volunteers go round with pots of tea and coffee, and a basket of croissants.
It is worth mentioning that with the exception of the driver and guard, the staff on the train are all unpaid. These are real enthusiasts who want to preserve the experience of travelling on the kind of trains people wave at for future generations despite a constant need for fundraising.
The Black Five crosses the Forth Bridge for the second time that day and I imagine how the shiny locomotive must look on the Victorian cantilever structure.
At Edinburgh Waverley more people get on and I find myself sitting opposite former SRPS chairman Andrew Boyd, who in his student days campaigned against the closure of the track we will soon be joining. He too is joined by his son, but unlike me has no need to distract him with an endless supply of stickers.
A victim of the infamous Beeching cuts and political decisions of the time, the Borders Railway had been closed for 46 years before it was reopened in 2015 as, according to ScotRail, the longest new domestic railway to be built in the UK for over 100 years.
“Reopening the line was the right thing to do because it made good a wrong decision,” said Mr Boyd.
“The closure of the line isolated the Borders from the rest of Scotland.”
We travel south and the landscape becomes more undulating. Along the route, a number of people have come out of their houses to wave.
VisitScotland regional leadership director Paula Ward said when the steam train special was run last year it was a “runaway success”.
She said: “It really is a fantastic opportunity to step back in time and enjoy a relaxing day out to the Scottish Borders, taking in the spectacular scenery and discover two of Scotland’s great scenic rail journeys.
“Without a doubt, passengers are in for an unforgettable day out. They can sit back and relax and take in the picturesque beauty of the Fife coast, the iconic Edinburgh Waverley station, with plenty to see and do when they arrive in the Scottish Borders, all topped off with quality local food and drink.
“The return of the steam train experience provides an important boost to the local economy and continues to shine the spotlight on the quality of tourism offering in these regions.”
Every Sunday this month, travellers can get on the train at Linlithgow, Dunfermline Town, Kirkcaldy, Dalgety Bay or Edinburgh Waverley and alight at either Galashiels or Tweedbank.
Passengers have just over two hours to take in the sights before the return journey, with organised visits to Abbotsford, Melrose and Seasons restaurant in Gattonside.
I am booked onto a minibus for the Abbotsford tour. Lunch is booked at the Ochiltree Café, with a tour of the historic house to follow. It is a tight schedule and the tour is cut short to allow time to get back to the railway station in time.
However, on departure I was given an annual pass granting free entry to Abbotsford on my return. I certainly plan to, with so much to explore at the former home of the historical novelist. Now owned by a private trust, Abbotsford boasts a modern visitor centre and extensive grounds on the banks of the River Tweed, with woodland walks, picnic spots and children’s play areas.
The Borders has plenty to offer to visitors. Ruined Melrose Abbey is where the heart of Robert the Bruce is buried, with the surrounding area once home to the Roman army. Melrose’s Three Hills Roman Heritage Centre houses the Trimontium Museum, telling the story of Roman life in Scotland.
There are also plenty opportunities to explore the outdoors. Walkers can tackle the summits of the Eildon Hills or visit National Trust for Scotland gardens, either Priorwood with its apple orchard or the beautiful walled Harmony Gardens.
Back on the train, I am glad I opted for a salad at lunch when I find afternoon tea has been laid out. I did wonder how we would get through it but just a quarter of a sandwich and two tiny morsels of cake were left by the time the train arrived back in Fife.
Although the schedule does not leave much time to explore, travelling by steam train is a unique experience enjoyed by all ages and the excursions give a taster of what was, for me, an unexplored area of Scotland.
SRPS Railtours are running two more steam specials from Fife to the Scottish Borders on August 12, 19 and 26. Pick up from Linlithgow and stations in Fife starts at £82 for an adult or £124 first class. From Edinburgh Waverley, it’s £62 or £93 first class. Children’s tickets are cheaper. There’s a £16 supplement for morning coffee and afternoon tea. Optional tours and lunch are available. For more details, see srps.org.uk/railtours/