Of course there was a Scotland before J. K. Rowling wrote the wildly popular Harry Potter series of children’s novels. But the rugged Scottish countryside between Fort William and Mallaig has been immortalized in several of the Harry Potter films, adding to its appeal. There are memorable scenes of the Hogwarts Express steaming its way from London’s Kings Cross Station northward toward Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. Etched in filmgoers’ memories is the view of the steam train crossing what we muggles (non-wizards) know to be the Glenfinnan Viaduct-a picturesque arched bridge through the highlands.
Visitors to Scotland can have that Hogwarts Express experience. West Coast Railways operates a regularly scheduled excursion train powered by a steam engine that originates in Fort William near the base of Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain. The train sets out at 10:20 am, stops just after the Glenfinnan Viaduct at the Glenfinnan Station for about 30 minutes, and then proceeds to the port town of Mallaig, arriving at 12:25 pm. This leaves about one and a half hours to have a leisurely lunch at a tea garden or fish and chips shop prior to the train’s departure on its return trip to Fort William.
Along the route are some of the most spectacular views of Scottish lochs, glens, and hills available anywhere. Signs of human habitation are minimal along the route.
The day we took the trip in mid-August we were fortunate to have a gorgeous sunny day, with the temperature around 70 degrees F and maybe a few degrees higher in the direct sun. This is as summery as it gets in the Scottish highlands! In summer every now and then the clouds and mist take a day off and allow us to see the countryside in its full glory. We saw the many shades of green on the hillsides, the deep blue waters of the lochs, and the red canoes of vacationers waving up at the train.
This train trip is highly recommended for visitors to Scotland of all ages. Children love the Harry Potter tie-in, and adults marvel at the scenery. The steam train nostalgia appeals to everyone. Also, it is just about the right length for a day trip.
Tickets for the journey are sold primarily on line, although a limited number of same-day tickets may be available. You will need to get there very early and stand in line to obtain same-day tickets. The train is usually sold out in advance. Use a computer with a printer available when you book tickets because your print-out is your ticket. Your ticket print-out will include your seat numbers. A 2.50 GBP (about $4 US) booking fee is charged.
The website for additional information and ticket booking is:
Standard fares (First class is more expensive.)
Adult fare round trip = 31 GBPs (approx. $48 US)
Adult fare one way = 23.50 GBPs (approx $36.50 US)
Child fare round trip = 17.50 GBPs (approx. $27 US)
Child fare one way = 13.50 GBPs (approx $21 US)
The train operates daily Monday through Friday from mid-May until the end of October. During the peak summer months of July and August, the train also operates on Saturdays and Sundays.
Departure from Fort William: 10:20 am
Stop for about 30 minutes at Glenfinnan Station (refreshments, train history exhibits)
Arrive Mallaig 12:25 pm
Depart Mallaig 2:10 pm
Arrive Fort William 4:00 pm
Harry Potter Connection
In the Harry Potter films (based faithfully on the children’s novels by J. K. Rowling), Harry and his friends are shown departing on the journey to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry at the Kings Cross Station in London. They climb on to the “Hogwarts Express,” a steam train that travels through beautiful mountains and lochs and crosses over what is unmistakably the arched Glenfinnan Viaduct in the West Highlands of Scotland. Although Hogwarts is not explicitly described as being in Scotland, there are many indirect indications. Many of the outdoor scenes in the film were actually filmed in Scotland.
The Hogwarts Express was actually the Jacobite steam train. For the filming, it was fitted out with a specially decorated locomotive and cars with traditional compartments with doors. The Hogwarts Express locomotive is now in a railway museum in York, England. The specially fitted out cars with compartments are used on excursions and such a car is part of the daily operation of the Jacobite train. No one who books a ride on the Jacobite is initially assigned seats on the “Harry Potter” car. On the day of travel, some families arrive very early for a chance to be reassigned to that special car.
Incidentally, the other cars on the Jacobite are older cars from the 1960’s. They are functional, but quite basic. And the windows can be somewhat grimy from the soot produced by a steam engine. Nonetheless, the ride is very enjoyable.
Where to Get the Train
The day excursion departs from the regular Scotrail station in the heart of Fort William. The Scotrail Station has a dedicated parking lot that was far from full the day we parked there. The all-day parking fee was 1.5 GBPs (about $2 US). You can also get to Fort William by train from Glasgow. There are many hotels and B and Bs near the train station. Fort William is near the base of Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain, and is called the “gateway to the highlands.”
According to Wanderlust magazine (quoted on the Jacobite website), this train trip is the best railway journey in the world. I have not been on many of the competing trips, but I can say that the Scottish highland scenery on this trip is breathtaking. We planned on this as an important element in our trip to the highlands and we were not disappointed. It exceeded our expectations.
Personal travel experience
Reviews of the Jacobite Steam Train on www.tripadvisor.com
Website of West Coast Railways