A ride on the Jacobite train in north-west Scotland is a journey through history featuring a scenic spot best known from the Harry Potter movies.
The Jacobite is reckoned to be one of the best railway journeys in the world — high praise, indeed, but the ride from Fort William to Mallaig in the western highlands of Scotland is worthy of the title.
I sit back and enjoy a two-hour trip with some breathtaking scenery — over fast-flowing rivers, beside beautiful hills and deep lochs, through tunnels and alongside beaches made famous in films such as Local Hero and Highlander.
But it is the Harry Potter movie series that has made one point of the trip recognised all around the world. Some 21 solid concrete arches make up the spectacular curved Glenfinnan Viaduct, which is 380m long and stands 30m above the River Finnan. What a stunning sight.
The Hogwarts Express (in reality the Jacobite steam train) is seen crossing the viaduct in several of the Harry Potter films.
However, there is one thing that even the Scots can’t control and that is the weather. It is cloudy but clear as the train slowly chugs out of Fort William but by the time we reach Mallaig the rain is lashing down. Just as well we enjoy the views on the outward journey as, coming back, the rain is running down the outside of the window and condensation down the inside.
The railways spread out from central Scotland towards the Atlantic coast in the late 19th century, reaching Oban in 1880 and Fort William in 1894. Initially, the next step to Mallaig was seen as too costly and too difficult, but eventually the job was completed and the railway opened in 1901.
For many years, the movement of fish was far more important and profitable than passengers. The line was saved from closure in the 1960s and now the Jacobite travels twice daily during the warmer months. Passengers clog the small Fort William station prior to the 10.15am and 2.30pm departure times.
There is a special feeling sitting in an old steam train as the engine goes to work and the train starts to move. Chug ... chug ... chug ... chug. Slowly, the chugs get closer together and seeing the sights soon becomes more important than listening to the noise.
As the train turns away from the snow-covered Ben Nevis (Britain’s highest mountain), it soon crosses the Caledonian Canal by way of a swing bridge and then progresses through the villages of Banavie and Corpach. The scenery is wonderful, no matter where you look.
The train needs all its power to ascend a steep gradient and you just know that the best is up ahead. As we push through some deep cuttings, there it is — the Glenfinnan Viaduct carrying the railway line over the river and valley below. The fact the viaduct is curved sets it up for the perfect photograph.
From the viaduct the flat ground at the head of Loch Shiel can be seen. In 1745, the Jacobite Rising began here when Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his standard. Eight months later the prince’s claim to the thrones of Scotland and England ended in failure at Culloden. He was later smuggled out of the country and died in Rome in 1788, never having set foot in Scotland again. An 18m-high monument has been erected to commemorate the historic event at Glenfinnan.
Just after the viaduct, the Jacobite train reaches the halfway mark and stops for a 20-minute rest at Glenfinnan station to let passengers stretch their legs and pop into the interesting West Highland Railway Museum, which tells the story of how the viaduct was built by a man now known as Concrete Bob McAlpine.
Not far out of Glenfinnan, the train reaches the highest point of the track and begins the downward run to Mallaig through Lochailort and Beasdale. On a clear day, far out to the west are the Inner Hebridean islands of Eigg, Muck and Rum.
Up ahead is the village of Arisaig, said to be the most westerly station on the British mainland. It is the spot from where Bonnie Prince Charlie left for France in 1746 after the failure of the Jacobite rising. During World War II, the area was taken over by the British Special Operations Executive to train agents for missions in occupied Europe.
Mallaig signals the end of the line and a two-hour break before the return journey begins. With the rain lashing down, I confess we get no further than a pub a stone’s throw from the station.
- The Jacobite leaves Fort William at 10.15am and 2.30pm daily in the summer months, returning at 4pm and 8.30pm respectively. An adult return ticket costs £35 ($59) and a child return ticket £20.
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