Traveling like Harry Potter on the Hogwarts Express through the Scottish Highlands
By Kekoa Kaluhiokalani
Although its on-screen appearance is relatively brief (a few vertiginous minutes in “Chamber of Secrets” and a gloomy establishing shot in “Prisoner of Azkaban”), the Glenfinnan Viaduct—otherwise known as the Harry Potter Bridge—is an iconic landmark in the Harry Potter cinematic universe. For the Harry Potter completist, the chance to cross the Glenfinnan Viaduct in a steam train that closely resembles the Hogwarts Express can prove an irresistible opportunity. Unlike a movie studio tour or an amusement park ride, the train journey is a live experience through the actual landscape and across the very arches featured in the films.
There is a moment the physical world merges with the cinematic and it becomes clear why the Harry Potter filmmakers chose this location: the Scottish landscape looks impressive in all weather conditions, from every angle, and regardless of the lighting conditions. A sunny day makes the greens, grays, blacks, and blues pop in Technicolor brilliance. On rainy days, the valley mists over and takes on an aura of desaturated mystery. As for the viaduct itself, its elegant, geometric arches and its broad curve bisect the valley with a pleasing mathematical precision. Other than the train and the tracks, there are few if any signs of human activity amidst the hillsides, which just further reinforces the feeling that you are passing through a primeval fantasy landscape. The scenery is so lush and movie-like that it is tempting to look upward for flying cars or inquisitive dementors.
The train journey alone is worth the price of a ticket. The feel of the steam train’s progress—its rhythms, cadence, the sounds of the engine chugging up inclines, even the occasional puffs of steam and soot wafting through the windows—elegantly captures the retro-fantasy vibe from the movies. Once the train departs from Fort William, the Scottish Highlands take center stage: the mirror-like waters of Loch Eil, the waterfalls cascading down into Glen Shiel, the ancient islands with equally ancient-looking trees standing in Loch Eilt. (One is free to guess which one of these islands was the setting for Dumbledore’s gravesite.) At times, the route gradually rises alongside dramatic cliffs and valleys, and passengers are gently but firmly reminded to keep hands and heads inside since rock outcroppings and sturdy tree branches make frequent, unheralded appearances. At varying intervals, people congregate at railroad crossings and on hills to take pictures and wave to the passengers.
After about an hour into the journey, an announcement signals the approach to the Glenfinnan Viaduct. Without question, this segment is the emotional highlight of the trip, and as the train slows to accommodate picture-taking, the anticipation level of the passengers erupts in a flurry of activity. Smartphones and cameras with telephoto lenses compete for the best angles, and riders bunch up against every available window. This is the moment when it becomes clear why seating positioning is everything. Everyone on the left side of the train has an uninterrupted, picture-perfect view; everyone on the right side has to scramble for leftover vantage points. For those who lost the seating lottery, there are spaces between carriages where there are doors with windows. Those spot can also get crowded, but people there are willing to rotate to allow everyone a turn for a selfie with the Harry Potter Bridge. It is also advantageous to be in one of the rear cars in order to get a wide-angle image of the front of the train spouting clouds of steam against the lush hillsides. There is more than enough time to take a few hundred or thousand photos and videos.
After arriving in Mallaig, passengers play the waiting game. It is clear that the twice-daily arrival of the Jacobite is the highpoint of the day for the many small businesses, and the few coffeeshops and cafés rapidly fill up and stay full until departure time. Unless a one-hour boat tour of the bay or trawling the numerous souvenir shops sounds appealing, the best way to pass the time is to grab a takeaway cup of tea and walk the circular route that hugs the edge of the harbor before returning to the train station.
On the trip back to Fort William, the Glenfinnan Viaduct appears on the righthand side in case another round of photo-taking feels appropriate. For the most part, there are still fascinating features in the passing Highlands to entertain the attentive observer; however, the mood onboard for the return is much more subdued. For most of the passengers, the mountains, lochs, and rivers transition into a blur of background images. This is a time to relax, read, or nap, as the swaying of the carriage and the warmth of the afternoon sun make it easy to drift off dreaming of chocolate frogs.
Before booking a seat on the Jacobite and heading to Scotland for your own adventure, it is best to keep a few basic facts in mind. First, the route, which is seasonal, travels between Fort William and Mallaig on Scotland’s picturesque west coast. Each leg, outbound and return, takes just over two hours with about 90 minutes of downtime in Mallaig. Most if not all travelers begin at the Fort William train station (which is miniscule in comparison to Kings Cross in London), and getting to Fort William takes a bit of time from either Glasgow (two and a half hours by car, three and a half hours by train) or Edinburgh (three hours by car, four hours by train). In other words, this particular experience requires a time investment with a possible overnight stay nearby.
Second, the train is called the Jacobite, owned and operated by West Coast Railways, and it is a well-maintained 1930s-era steam engine that runs this route throughout the tourist season. It is important to note that the train seen in the movies (number 5972) is housed at the Warner Brothers Studio outside London and thus not available to ride. Aside from the exterior similarities, the only parts of the train that resemble the film are the first-class carriages, complete with privacy doors and facing benches (more comfortable than its second-class counterpart). The refreshment trolley occasionally passes by festooned with Potter-adjacent snacks, though the chocolate frogs sell out quickly. West Coast Railways pointedly avoids mentioning anything specifically related to Harry Potter, although references “wizards,” “magic,” and “muggles.” Yet even in the absence of any official endorsement from the Potterverse gatekeepers, it is clear that the majority of passengers are there for the chance to imagine their own voyage from Platform 9¾ to the School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
West Coast Railways
Book well in advance, although on rare occasions the ticket office at the train station may have returned tickets on the day.
The fine print on the ticket asserts that seat number and the “facing” or “back” designation does not guarantee any particular view because the carriages can be arranged in a variety of configurations. Therefore, being on the best side for the Glenfinnan Viaduct is almost entirely up to chance.
Because the eateries in Mallaig can fill up quickly and time in the town is relatively short, it may be advisable to pack a lunch. There is a supermarket near the train station for stocking up on sandwiches, fruit, snacks, and drinks.
Free public restrooms are difficult to find in Mallaig; the most accessible ones are at the train station.
Avoid the extras and add-ons for the trip, especially the “Jacobite High Tea.” It is a pre-packed box and some may find it disappointing.
Extend your experience by traveling to Glenfinnan and photographing the train as it crosses the arches. Because there are two return trains daily, there are four chances for excellent pics.
Kekoa Kaluhiokalani is a literary nerd. Literally. With his Ph.D. in Irish Dramatic Literature, he travels twice a year with study abroad students to walk JK's footsteps. Thinks Blade Runner is perfection.