PICTURE the scene: sitting nestled in a window seat as sweeping panoramas unfold. Trundling through rugged glens and mist-strewn moors. Skirting the edges of majestic mountains and traversing remote coastal stretches. A smattering of landmarks – waterfalls, standing stones, crumbling keeps – to stoke the imagination.

The tantalising romance of rail travel never fails to excite (who doesn't love the film Brief Encounter?) and Scotland has no shortage of gems: from stunning scenery and breathtaking summits to incredible bridges and famed viaducts – the list goes on.

To some, the typically packed commuter lines, such as Glasgow to Edinburgh or the Fife Circle, may hold less allure, but even these can possess magic when viewed through fresh eyes.

A new book, Scotland From The Rails: A Window Gazer's Guide, is published by Bradt Travel Guides this week. It charts the history, landscapes and fascinating stories behind our train routes, capturing everything from world-beating feats of engineering to tales of adventure and derring-do.

Author Benedict le Vay has been enchanted by rail travel since childhood. Here, he shares his passion for all things trains and reminds us what makes Scotland's railways so special.

How did you first fall in love with trains?

I was tiny, holding someone's hand. I recall standing on a station platform as an express hurtled towards us. It was like a raging, snorting dragon: hundreds of tons of steel, coal, water, passengers on cushions, and a guard's van at the back. The deafening, thunder-like der-dum, der-dum – and, finally, the last der-dum. Then silence as we stood there in awe of the monster that had charged through, the tail lamp receding as the sooty smoke descended.

HeraldScotland:  A steam engine on an unidentified Scottish line, photographed in 1963 A steam engine on an unidentified Scottish line, photographed in 1963

Even earlier as a youngster, maybe in a pram, crossing the overbridge on the line as my brothers walked to school, suddenly there would be the screech of a whistle and the whole road would be enveloped in steam and smoke and that wonderful smell. For a minute you were in cloud and then it cleared. Later, on the same bridge going to school myself, if you waved at the drivers they would whistle and then disappear underneath you, steam or not.

They still do. I was delighted to see a toddler in a pushchair on a Glasgow footbridge wave at a train driver. No cloud of steam and smuts, though.

Railways are in your blood. What is the family connection?

My grandfather was an Inspector of Railways and my mum grew up on her own private train, rolling around India with servants, a cooking stove and bath. Sometimes it was just a private carriage hooked up to other trains. When they rolled up to the north-west frontier, they had to have armed guards, and the bridges had a sandbagged gun position at each end.

READ MORE: Are these Scotland's best train journeys? 10 great railway routes

Growing up later with granny – a Scot from Elgin – one of our favourite games was "Ambala Junction" where everyone would sit on one of two sofas and a sudden cry of "Amabala Junction" would see a rush and fight for a seat on the other sofa. This was to do with a "break of gauge", where tracks changed width, so everyone had to change trains.

It was only much later that I discovered that it was based on a British game, "Gloucester", where Brunel's glorious but doomed broad gauge ran out and every person, parson, parsnip and potato had to be taken off one train, while fighting the rush going the other way.

What are your favourite childhood memories of trains?

As a schoolboy in Dulwich, South London, I played cricket and rugby next to the famed Boat Train 1 railway route where the Golden Arrow to Paris would come steaming past.

A huge golden arrow down the side of the loco, the words "Golden Arrow" on one side and "Fleche D'Or" on the other. Union Jack and Tricolour crossed and flying on the front buffer beam. Glorious chocolate and cream Pullman cars with great brass handles by the elegant end doors.

A flunky with white gloves waiting to greet you when you boarded at platform one in Victoria. Elegant linen-covered tables, each with a little golden lamp and heavy silverware laid for lunch.

HeraldScotland: Scotland From The Rails: A Window Gazer’s Guide by Benedict le VayScotland From The Rails: A Window Gazer’s Guide by Benedict le Vay

In there, I knew as it passed, there were film stars, spies, diplomats, foreign correspondents, football pools winners, eloping lovers, cheating husbands and wives, military types and tycoons. Of course, I dropped a few cricket catches and fumbled a few rugby balls watching it go by.

Other times, the more sombre-looking Night Ferry would roll past at a statelier speed. These midnight blue carriages had "Compagnie Internationale des Wagon-lits et des Grands Express Europeens" written on gold all the way along them, just under the roof above the doors – so mysteriously romantic. It was, in effect, the British branch of the Orient Express.

Later, I caught both trains, and the latter was special because they shunted it onto boats, while you were supposed to be sleeping, with a huge "bong bong!" (as if you were crossing the Caledonian Canal in Scotland, but worse).

HeraldScotland: The Jacobite steam train crossing the Caledonian Canal on the Banavie Railway Swing Bridge. Picture: GettyThe Jacobite steam train crossing the Caledonian Canal on the Banavie Railway Swing Bridge. Picture: Getty

That concept – a train ferry – was invented and pioneered in Scotland, as my book relates, before they built the Forth Bridge. The fact that the linkspan in Dunkirk – a Scots invention – was still there at the end of the Second World War, when everything else was blown up in the docks, was because Hitler had ordered the SS to guard it.

This was so he could roll into Britain, preferably in the carriage the Germans surrendered in at the end of the First World War and where their victory over France at the start of Second World War was signed in too.

Not his worst mistake, of course, but he bungled that because, although the track was the same width, the European carriages are much taller and wider so it would have gone "ker-prang!" against the first bridge in Kent. Hitler forgot about it, so when they blew up all the French docks, the SS were still guarding the train ferry terminal. Result: it was easy to resume services after the war.

The Golden Arrow was travel for a moneyed elite, of course. Maybe taking 100 people once a day to Paris in 10-and-a-half hours. Today (until the pandemic, that is) the Eurostar does that maybe 20 times a day, with 900 people on each service, and in under three hours.

What stokes your enduring passion for rail travel?

A car can be a nice thing, but the actual experience can be loathsome. Coming round the corner on a motorway and seeing the taillights of a jam. So many towns destroyed by rat-run, one-way systems, multi-storey car parks, linked by urine-soaked, vomit-stained underpasses, filling stations, drive-in junk food, the danger to pedestrians (if there are any left), the pollution locally and globally.

Or airports where you are prodded by security goons, herded through the ghastly duty-free and having to get up at 2am to catch the Ryanair flight to Costa Fortune. No thanks, never again.

HeraldScotland: A poster produced for the London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) to promote rail travel to Edinburgh. Picture: GettyA poster produced for the London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) to promote rail travel to Edinburgh. Picture: Getty

On the train, you can have a leisurely meal. The final thing to do before boarding is to get the very best wine and produce you can in each city – lovely pastries, coffee in a flask or a bottle of something (not in Scotland that bit but on the Eurostar, bien sur) and crispy fresh French bread – and enjoy a picnic lasting for a hundred miles. 

You can enjoy the scenery, make friends, doze off, read the paper or lose yourself in a bonkbuster. Can you do that in a car? No. All you see is the back of a lorry and hundreds of miles of tarmac.

When did you first visit Scotland by rail and what are your memories of that?

As a child arriving on the Highland Main Line. We got off at Blair Atholl, I think. I remember damming little streams with stones to make a pool to paddle in. And boasting hopelessly to a passing gent about all the enormous fish I had caught (tiddlers of some sort, I expect), only to be told later he was the Duke of Atholl, who owned the rivers and farms and probably the fishing rights.

As a student, I caught the all-night mail train from London to Dundee. It was cheap – the fare from the south coast was £4 – but, by gum, it was slow and roundabout. You went to York twice during the night. In the end, the guards and inspectors could hardly find anywhere to punch a hole in my ticket – it had 13 holes, like a lace doily.

What were the standout moments of researching and writing Scotland From The Rails?

Well, just think about the superlatives you have in Scotland. The most spectacular rail journeys in Britain. The highest main line summits. The longest bridge. The most famous railway bridge of all.

The two grandest British main lines (one end of each, that is). The best railway reopenings and electrification projects. The most northerly station and the most westerly too. The most complex sleeper operations.

HeraldScotland: The LMS Stanier Black Five steam train on the Forth Rail Bridge en route to Tweedbank in the Borders. Picture: Gordon Terris/The HeraldThe LMS Stanier Black Five steam train on the Forth Rail Bridge en route to Tweedbank in the Borders. Picture: Gordon Terris/The Herald

Some of the friendliest staff and the most lovely – sometimes downright quirky – station buildings, many lovingly maintained or restored. And, for the icing on the cake, some utterly charming or fascinating preserved lines, steam centres and luxury excursion trains which cruise through this magnificent land.

How do Scotland's railways compare to others around the world?

The West Highland Line from Glasgow to Fort William and Mallaig has been voted the world's most scenic line by an independent poll, and although obviously I haven't seen everywhere, I've seen an awful lot and would go along with that.

There is so much variety in a small country, as with scenery. The other thing Scots should be damn proud of is the way you have reopened and modernised lines. The Borders Railway, the Alloa Branch, and more routes in Fife coming along, electrifying the routes from Glasgow to Edinburgh.

READ MORE: Are these Scotland's best train journeys? 10 great railway routes

I can see all the Scottish cities being connected by electric railway one not very distant day, powered by wind or hydro with no pollution at all. If only England and Wales with their cack-handed, stop-start electrification schemes were as good at this as Scotland.

Scotland From The Rails: A Window Gazer's Guide by Benedict le Vay is published by Bradt Travel Guides on Monday (February 15), priced £14.99