Visiting the Harry Potter Train in Scotland
It’s no great secret to anyone who know’s me that I’m a big Harry Potter fan. I grew up reading, and waiting, for the books and then the films. I have long been in love with the wizarding world — with magic, and spells and charms and potions. It’s a world of imagination, where anything is possible. So when we were planning a trip up to the Northernmost part of Scotland I couldn’t resist experiencing the closest thing to real-life magic. Watching the steam train that transports young witches and wizards into the heart of Scotland, to the school called Hogwarts.
Before our visit I had two main concerns. The first, what if we got the timing wrong and we missed it? The second, what if it wasn’t as exciting as I expected? What if it all seemed a bit underwhelming and it was over so quickly? We were going out of our way to see a train after all.
But when I first heard the whistle of the Jacobite steam train as it rounded the corner and came into view I felt a flutter of giddy excitement. It chugged along the Glenfinnan viaduct slow and steady, it’s passengers waving to the crowds standing at the viewpoint. I turned and beamed to my boyfriend who was animatedly filming the whole thing. We watched it sweep over the viaduct, a plume of smoke billowing from the front. Within two minutes it was snaking off in the distance, between the hills the Scotland and off to distant lands.
What is it?
Twice a day the Jacobite takes a journey on an 84 mile round trip through the exquisite Scottish scenery marking a number of Britains greatest hits. Starting near Britain’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis, the Jacobite then visits the most westerly mainland station at Arisaig. Next past the deepest freshwater loch, Loch Morar, yet the shortest river, River Morar. Its final resting place is next to the deepest seawater lock, Loch Nevis.
Many will know the Jacobite as a different train altogether as the engine and carriages were used in the making of the Harry Potter films. And of course they’ll recognise the famous Glenfinannan viaduct from the second film, where Harry and Ron steal a flying car and pass the train en route to Hogwarts.
Where can I see the Harry Potter train?
To see the Harry Potter train either buy a ticket and hop onboard (tickets cost £65 1st Class September 2020) or get yourself over to Glenfinnan and head to one of the viewpoints.
Glenfinnann is about halfway between Fort William and Mallaig and is nestled along the beautiful West Highland Railway. At the train station you can visit a small museum about the history of the railway and the construction of the viaduct. The museum is housed in the old ticket office so it’s pretty cosy. You can also have a nosy in two of the old carriages or even grab tea and scones in one that’s been converted as a small cafe. (Currently not open during the COVID-19 pandemic).
The viaduct itself was constructed in the 19th century and built entirely of concrete.
Viewpoints for the Harry Potter train over Glenfinnan Viaduct
To reach the most popular viewpoint up on the hill next to the viaduct, walk along the main road from the visitor car park and take the next right. You’ll pass the smaller car park I mentioned and pass through a gate onto a tarmac road. A few minutes later you’ll see the viaduct emerge through the trees. Walk up the dirt path until you’re in position. All in all, it’s only about a 10–15 minute walk from the car park.
There’s no specific viewpoint as such so just pick your spot along the path. There’s plenty of space to avoid getting other tourists in shot but I’d recommend getting as high as possible for the best views of the train.
A second viewpoint is closer to the visitor centre and therefore further away from the action at the viaduct. So it depends what view you’re looking for. Obviously we opted to be closer to the train and the viaduct itself and we had a fab experience.
When should I get there?
The train timetable varies depending on the season so make sure you check, and double-check, before you go. The train runs twice a day and travels in both directions so you have four chances a day to catch the train passing over the viaduct.
At the time of writing the morning service leaves Fort William at 10.15am and the afternoon departs at 2.10pm. Usually the train passes over the viaduct about 30–40 minutes after leaving Fort William. The train travelling from Mallaig will cross back over the viaduct about 45 minutes before it’s due back at Fort William. So if you time it right and are prepared to wait, you might be able to see it twice in one day.
We visited in early September and were aiming to catch the afternoon train travelling from Fort William to Mallaig. Instead we were lucky enough to see both trains cross the viaduct, one after the other. If you have the time to wait, I would totally recommend. It means you have plenty of photo op’s the first time it comes through and then you’re free to enjoy the magic of it all on pass two — no rush to snap the perfect pic this time.
Whichever service you’re aiming to see make sure you arrive in plenty of time. Parking can be tricky as it’s a popular attraction and the train won’t wait for anyone. Arrive at least 30 minutes ahead of schedule to give yourselves time to park up and then walk to the viewpoint.
Top tip: We were about an hour early for the train so we took camping chairs and blankets. We were by no means the first people to arrive at the viewpoint but we were able to pick a good spot, high on the grassy banks. We set up camp in a relatively private and sheltered spot. Perfect for watching the train and a spot of people watching too!
Where do I park?
The best place to park is the Glenfinnan visitor centre — this is the first car park you’ll reach on the drive from Fort William. It’s a relatively small car park and visitor’s park there to check out Glenfinnan monument too be sure to arrive really early to guarantee you get a spot in time.
If not keep driving along the main road. A hundred metres or so up from the visitor’s centre is another small car park. When we visited it was blocked off but I’m not sure if that was to do with COVID or the construction works (maybe they’re building a bigger car park!). Alternatively, keep driving up the main road, you’ll spot plenty of laybys and grassy verges you could park on for a short while. It goes without saying, be careful where you park but you’ll likely see what others are doing so can just follow suit.
If all these options are out then you can park at Glenfinnan railway station and following the gentle hiking path to the viewpoint.
Make an afternoon of it with a short walk
There’s a nice two-hour walk which takes you past the Glenfinnan Viaduct Viewpoint and along the hills with stunning views of Loch Shiel. The steepest bit of walking is up to the viewpoint itself so you’ll have plenty of time to rest up before carrying on with the rest of the walk. We even saw a stag on this route!
The walk follows the same route up to the viaduct viewpoint. From there the path climbs higher up into the hill and it’s really easy to follow the dirt path. Several viewpoints are marked with information boards along the way. These will help you identify landmarks on Loch Shiel and the surrounding area.
The path undulates through the hills and passes through a tunnel which isn’t visible from a distance. From there you head into a small forest where the path is marked by a path made from old railway sleepers. Climbing out of the forest you’ll find yourself at Glenfinnan Station where you can visit the museum or continue the walk.
Leave Glenfinnan station and walk towards the main road. Turn left on the pavement and then take a sharp right down a track with several houses. Follow this country road past houses, the beautiful Glenfinnan House Hotel and a small Church. Keep your eyes peeled for a stag, we were lucky to see one just grazing nearby. The locals didn’t think much of this so I can only assume he’s a frequent visitor!
Eventually this small road will emerge on the main road not far from the visitor centre. You’ll recognise your surroundings as the Glenfinnan Monument rises on your right and the car park comes into view. You have two options: follow the well-signposted track towards the monument and explore this up close or return to the car park and continue your adventures elsewhere.
Whatever you choose to do a trip to Glenfinnan is sure to be filled with a sprinkle of magic. Whether you time it to see the steam train or not, you’ll be privy to some stunning views of some of Scotland’s most ethereal landscapes.
Originally posted on Sage Adventures travel & wellness lifestyle blog: www.sageadventres.co.uk.