What, you might be wondering, connects Harry Potter, ‘the Black Lake’, and the Hogwarts Express, with the western highlands of Scotland? Well the claim is genuine. The Glenfinnan viaduct is the one seen in the films, and Loch Shiel is the inspiration behind the ‘Black Lake’ from the ‘Goblet of Fire’.
When you stand at Glenfinnan and look down the length of Loch Shiel, with its steep sided mountains running down to the waters edge, you might find yourself overcome with a sense of familiarity that you can’t quite put your finger on. You’d be right. As a young girl J.K. Rowling was awestruck by this vista and freely admits to it being an influence behind the school of magic.
Loch Shiel, can you see Hogwarts all of a sudden?
In addition to the loch itself, the ‘Potter’ connection isn’t finished yet. The glen has a dramatic twenty one arched railway viaduct that curves around its head in a very tight crescent. So tight is the turn that passengers have little difficulty observing the locomotive hauling them
This is the viaduct that features prominently in the Harry Potter films and no fan will have any difficulty recognising it. OK, we might need to suspend belief a little bit as to how a train that departs from platform nine and three quarters at London Kings Cross, ends up at Glenfinnan, but that’s magic isn’t it?
It’s not just Harry Potter however that Glenfinnan is famed for. In 1745 it was here that the young pretender, ‘Bonnie’ Prince Charlie came ashore from exile in France to raise is his standard and so begin the Jacobite Rebellion and his ill-fated quest for the British throne, which would eventually result in defeat a year later at Culloden.
The Hogworts Express (the Jacobite) steaming over the Glenfinnan viaduct
We should perhaps point out the local trains serve this route on a regular timetable for a cheaper price, but the scope for tourist trains was recognised long before a boy-wizard entered the equation. Although popularly referred to as the Hogwarts Express by visitors, the actual service is called ‘The Jacobite’. Steam trains leave Fort William at 10.15 and 14.10 each day and arrive at Mallaig at 12.25 and 16.29
The return journey is a little bit quicker as it doesn’t pause at Glenfinnan. It departs Mallaig at 14.10 and 18.38, arriving back at Fort William at 16.00 and 20.31 respectively.
The journey cuts through some stunning scenery and its pleasures are by now means confined to a single view. It begins by leaving Fort William, crossing the head of Loch Linnhe to Corpach where you’ll enjoy extended views of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain (we recommend a seat on the left-hand-side of the carriage travelling west). You then proceed along the shores of Loch Eil and then enter a more mountainous stretch before arriving at the aforementioned Glenfinnan.
Gradually the scenery begins to stop closing in on you and opens up a bit into expanses of exposed moorland and forests of pines. Loch Eilt passes by on your right, with the final few miles spent hugging the coastline as we reach the Atlantic and head north towards Mallaig
Mallaig made it’s name as a once thriving fishing port. The railway line is really a legacy to this and the need to get the catch to Fort William and onto market in Glasgow. Whereas its difficult not to admire this industrial heritage, it perhaps needs to be remembered that Mallaig is a functioning port today and needn’t be the most exciting tourist spot if you’ve got young children in your group.
If you’ve taken advantage of the Faraway Fairways family golf trip you might hold something of an edge over other visitors. Arisaig is a request stop that can be made by asking the guard. You might decide to get off before Mallaig and spend the day instead on the improbably pristine ‘silver sands’ of Morar or Arisaig, and their aqua-marine sea. In truth, Morar and Arisaig probably does depend on the weather, but if you get lucky you’ll be in for a thoroughly unexpected treat
The silver sands of Morar and Arisaig belong to a much more exotic location. Beware though, the water is frigid
So how does this work? Any golfers in your party haven’t used the train. Instead they’re using a vehicle in order to play golf at nearby Traigh (3 miles away). With a bit of clever co-ordination we should be able to arrange things so that they’re able to meet your train at Arisaig station and then take you on to the white sands (2 miles away) where you’ll be able to spend about three hours exploring the rock pools and generally allowing the children to play. We’d probably advise you make-up a picnic as Arisaig is hardly a well-resourced ‘resort’
Finally, there should be time for a bonus at nearby Loch Morar, Scotland’s deepest inland loch and home to her ‘second monster’ the much less well known ‘Morag’.
Loch Morar is just half a mile east of the village of the same name