Updated on September 21st, 2023
The Jacobite Steam Train, otherwise known as the ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘Hogwarts Train’, Scotland is iconic whether you are a fan of the wizard or not. A journey on this famous train has been called the “World’s Greatest Railway Journey” and who am I to disagree? You have views of the Scottish Highlands, Ben Nevis, islands of Rum & Eig and numerous lochs en route. It’s hard to imagine a more picturesque journey. Here is everything you need to know about riding, seeing and photographing the ‘Hogwarts Express’.”
Fort William to Mallaig Steam Train, Scotland
OK, I’ll admit it before we go any further, I have never seen a whole film or read a book that features Harry Potter. When my fantastic friend Manda & I were planning our Scottish adventure in August, the minute she suggested riding on the ‘Harry Potter Steam Train’ I wrinkled up my face & changed the subject. Then I reflected. Although I may not be a fan of the legendary boy wizard, I do love an experience. And a view. And the adventure on the Fort William to Mallaig train has been described as “The World’s Greatest Railway Journey”. So, I lamented, by which time there were no tickets left!
In that case, why am I now the expert you may be asking yourself? Because I not only took the ‘Hogwarts Express’ in First Class but I went to photograph it as it traversed the equally famous Glenfinnan Viaduct & followed it along the route to almost meet it again on the scenic Road to the Isles drive. Therefore, I can share my extensive knowledge with you on how to see, track, photograph & most importantly make the most of your ride on the officially titled Jacobite Steam Train.
For more on the Scottish Highlands see Scottish Highlands Itinerary – A Perfect 10 Day Road Trip for the Highlands and Islands
Everything You Need to Know to Ride & Photograph the Hogwarts Train, Scotland
The best place to photograph the train is when it goes over the equally iconic Glenfinnan Viaduct. The viaduct is an impressive 21 arched structure, built-in 1901. It is a must-see whether you are a fan of the legendary wizard, historic engineering, trains or just magnificent scenery.
We made sure we arrived early & were able to get a parking space at the Glenfinnan Visitors Centre. There is a charge of £3 but it’s worth it for the toilets! We asked one of the ladies there where the best viewpoint was & she did not disappoint. The car park fills up quickly but there are other opportunities to park close by. My advice would always be to get there early (be aware, this advice crops up quite a lot here!).
From the Visitors Centre, turn right & go over the bridge. After the other car park take the next right up a path which leads towards the viaduct. There is a box by the gate collecting donations. As you get closer to the bridge itself you will see a left-hand track. Take this & keep climbing until you get the position you want.
We sat at the edge of the pathway, which meant nobody could block our view. The vista from here of the valley, Loch Shiel, the Glenfinnan Monument & most of all the viaduct is spectacular in itself.”
What are the Glenfinnan Viaduct train times?
The train goes past twice a day, 30 minutes after it leaves Fort William (see below for train times). Therefore, ensure your spot well before 10.45am or 3.10pm (as of 2020). As other trains also use the track it means there may be delays so be aware this may not be 100% correct every day. I would hate for you to leave & miss it!
As the ‘Hogwarts Express’ Train starts chugging its way across the Glenfinnan Viaduct it lets out a triumphant whistle, which is followed by puffs of smoke from the chimney. It is really like stepping back in time. A sight to behold!
What else is there?
While you’re here it would be a shame to miss a short walk to view the Glenfinnan Monument. It takes prime position on the banks of beautiful Loch Shiel, topped by a statue of a kilted Highlander. This is where Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his standard to rally the Jacobite clans in 1745.
What if you want more…or you missed it?
The Jacobite Steam Train carves its path through the beautiful Scottish Highlands between Fort William & Mallaig.
This is also an extremely scenic drive to take in itself & pretty much follows the route of the train tracks. The journey is called the Road to the Isles & you can get a ferry from the end to the Isle of Skye or the Outer Hebrides.”
As a result, the Road to the Isles is a stunning ribbon-like road which will take you on a journey of 46 miles to Mallaig. It twists through woodland, glens & moors before hitting the pristine white beaches of Morar & Arisaig.
As we took this scenic drive, we occasionally heard the unmistakable chug of the train. After Glenfinnan, the stops include the beautiful village stations of Lochailort, Arisaig & Morar before the end of the line in Mallaig. If you check out the timetable, you will be able to clearly see the timings of the trains stops. You could plan to greet it again on another station or en route.
For more of the islands head to Top 10 Things to do on the Isle of Mull, Top 15 Picks for your Perfect Isle of Skye Itinerary, & 16 Fantastic Things to do on Lewis & Harris in the Outer Hebrides. For cycling along an epic railway line over viaducts & through tunnels read my post on the Monsal Trail, Peak District, UK.
What can you see from the Jacobite Steam Train?
A journey on the iconic train itself is an 84-mile round trip. If you want to see some of the best landscapes that the Scottish Highlands & Islands have to offer, then this is a pretty good journey to start with.
Fort William itself is known as the “Outdoor Capital of the UK” & boasts access to the highest mountain in Britain (Ben Nevis) & deepest seawater loch in Europe (Loch Nevis). Both of these can be seen from the comfort of your train seat. In addition, the journey passes Arisaig, the most westerly mainland railway station in Britain & allows views of the isles of Rum,
Eigg, Muck, Canna & Skye…on a clear day.
It also passes the deepest freshwater loch in Britain, Loch Morar & its namesake river which holds the title of shortest river in Britain. For true Harry Potter fans, what journey on the ‘Hogwarts Express’ would be complete without a trip past Dumbledores island grave?”
When does the train operate?
Check the official website for accurate timings & dates, but basically, there are 2 services, one in the morning & one, the afternoon. In 2020 the morning service started at Easter (April) & ran through to the end of October. The afternoon service began in May until the end of September. There may also be differences depending on whether you choose to go Monday to Friday or over the weekends. Please note that as with everywhere, 2020 was an unusual time! Dates of operation & times may be different in subsequent years so please check the official website before you plan your trip.
For 2020, timings were as follows:
Leaves Fort William 10.15 & arrives Mallaig 12.25
Leaves Mallaig 14.10 & arrives Fort William 16.05
Leaves Fort William 14.40 & arrives Mallaig 16.45
Leaves Mallaig 18.40 & arrives Fort William 20.30
This means that on either service you have 90 minutes to 2 hours in Mallaig. Make sure you arrive early before you start your journey. They advise 20 minutes beforehand but the earlier you are there, the more time for photos. They also close the doors 5 minutes before departure & will not wait if you’re late.
How much does it cost to take the ‘Harry Potter’ Steam Train?
There are 2 classes of ticket. In 2020 prices were £43 for a standard adult return ticket (£26 for children). If you would like the experience but to save money, then you may like to look at taking the steam train one way & getting a regular train back? For a single journey it is £36 for adults & £22 for kids, so not actually much to save.
I treated myself & went the whole hog for First Class. This gave us some plush seats, a table with a lamp & complimentary tea & coffee from the buffet cart.”
A first-class ticket is £65 for an adult return (£45 for children). There are no single fares quoted for first class. You could also opt for a private table for 2 people at £146 return in first class.
There are also options to order extras such as champagne or cream teas to make your journey even more special. On the trip back we treated ourselves to a gin & tonic from the trolley.
With COVID-19, face masks are required at all times on the train, except when you are eating or drinking. If you refuse, you may face a £100 fine.
As with my experience, the big advice is to book early! I was there in 2020 when tourist numbers were seriously down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This meant that availability was more prevalent. If your heart is set on taking a train ride then book early using the website. I understand that tickets become available in November for the following season, even if your visit isn’t until August, this will be peak season.
My other advice is to keep checking. All travel plans have gone a bit haywire in 2020 & who knows how much longer the uncertainty will continue.
As an example, when I tried to book in July for our August visit, the trains were sold out, all classes. Then, 2 days before my friend checked again & they had some tickets available, but only in first class.”
When we arrived at Fort William station, we joined the queue & a lady was checking that we had tickets, if not we could buy them on the train on the day. It didn’t make sense but all I can say is that if you don’t manage to get tickets online, then it is worth checking at the station…you never know!
Where can I get the best photos on the train?
There is not a perfect seat & all will be amazing, but if you are looking for the best shot, then be prepared for disappointment. With current restrictions movement throughout the carriages & into others personal space is not permitted. Leaning out of the windows can be dangerous & as such is discouraged. Also, if you are close to the front of the train be prepared to get hit by soot & ash from the funnel. It took me a while & some very sore eyes to work that out 😉
If you are lucky, the best views are from left-hand side of the train on the way there, which means the right on the way back. On this side you get the sea views with the islands & some impressive loch vistas. In addition, there is Ben Nevis as you come back into Fort William. As you go over the Glenfinnan Viaduct, there is a chance to capture the curve of the train.
If you’re incredibly fortunate you will be the perfect distance to see the bridge itself, the engine at the front & the carriages. On the right, you have some of the lochs & Dumbledores island grave.”
Before you leave Fort William, make sure you get your photos at the front of the train, in Mallaig it is not so easy. In Mallaig, they also take the steam engine from the front of the train to the back (which then becomes the front?!) & it effectively travels backwards (chimney closest to the carriages) which is a little confusing.
In addition, if you choose to travel on the afternoon service as we did, your return journey coincides with the ‘Golden Hour’. The sun’s orange glow reflects low on the sea & the steam train itself can be captured with that beautiful yellow hue.
Mallaig is a busy fishing town & also the place where you can get a ferry to Skye or the Outer Hebrides. However, if you have only 90 minutes why not consider a boat tour with Western Isles Cruises? Most tourists arrive by train, so they are well equipped to ensure your return is timed perfectly. You can also walk around the shops or stop for a bite to eat. We had a delicious fresh & local fish & chip lunch at family-owned The Cornerstone Restaurant which had great people-watching opportunities over the harbour.
The best way to the Jacobite Steam Train is by car. The station is within the town of Fort William (postcode PH33 6EN). Get there early to make sure you can park (apparently leaving your car at the nearby supermarket is a no-no!). If you are staying in Fort William, then it’s easier to walk. I stayed at Myrtle Bank Guest House which was perfect. It sits on the main road, overlooking Loch Linnhe & was spotlessly clean with an excellent breakfast. And most importantly, a 10-minute walk from the station.
There is also an option to take a train from Edinburgh or Glasgow. Check Trainline for tickets & prices. Again, the earlier you book, the more money you could save.
For more information on how to spend your time in Fort William, check out 18 Best Things to do in Fort William, Scotland
Even as a non-Harry Potter fan, riding the ‘Hogwarts Train’, in Scotland was an unforgettable experience. I hope you now have all the information you need to make the journey a memorable one for you as well.
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