Polluting, slow and completely out of date. But the charm, people, the charm! Steam trains are adventurous and romantic, throwbacks to the Golden Age of Travel, when there was magic in the air. The Jacobite Steam Train delivers that magic for sure: with its alter ego being the “Hogwarts Express”, expect shades of Harry Potter, Ron and Hermione – and Dementors – mixing with the steam and coal dust!
Good Guesthouse Guisachan
In the “Outdoor Capital of the Highlands” Fort William on a sunny October day, we stayed at my favorite lodgings there, the lovely Guisachan Guesthouse. It’s perfectly located, good ensuite rooms including some family ones, and has very nice people, none the least being Phill, the super-helpful owner. And: they have a guest bar!
We had booked the Jacobite Steam Train roundtrip to Mallaig, the 10:15am departure. Waking up timely, we could see the waiting locomotive’s stream of steam right from our front room window. I’ve been a train nut ever since my long-gone teenage days and was getting plain giddy, while my wife rolled her wise eyes, but I did finish the delicious cooked-to-order breakfast first. And just to be sure, wolfed down a lovely cold cuts plate as seconds. Scots breakfasts are my downfall.
Arriving at the station, the magic begins. The train was parked with the locomotive backwards at the far end of platform number 1. Don’t look for platform 9¾ here: that’s at King’s Cross, London. Arrive with plenty of time to take pictures, find your carriage and seats, and prepare for the adventure.
Puffing out of Fort William, the scenery is gorgeous from the get-go. You’ll first see the famous “Neptune’s Staircase” on the edge of town, north of the tracks if you want to know where to jockey for a photo position. Neptune’s Staircase is a system of locks used for moving boats between water levels, much like you’ll see in many water/canal areas in England where they’re shuttling those pretty narrowboats up and down.
Fun fact: if you’re interested in stuff like canal levels, height differentials, water and boating management, stop by at the Falkirk Wheel during your Scottish travels. Less than an hour from Edinburgh, this engineering marvel only opened in 2002 and is spectacular!
A Bonnie Jacobite and “The Forty-Five”
Clickedy-clacking westward, the Jacobite stops at historic Glenfinnan. We reached the Station about 15 minutes after crossing the amazing Glenfinnan Viaduct, classic scene of the Harry Potter movies with the Hogwarts Express chugging to and from school. Today, we did not have Dementors attacking the train nor did I see a Ford Anglia flying above with young wizards trying to catch up!
More down to earth, somber and sobering, Glenfinnan was the key location in the final Jacobite Rising, the spot where Bonnie Prince Charlie began to amass his troops in 1745: hence the still-used nickname “the Forty-five”.
The Jacobites’ final hopes to get a Stuart back on the throne lasted only 2 years. The ever-fearsome “Highland Charge” was no match for the bullets and steel thrown at them, and the superior English troops crushed the Scots forces at Culloden Battlefield, 1746, in a bitter defeat. For a bit more on that, and the “Outlander” connection, see a previous blog post.
In 1815, the Glenfinnan Monument was erected in remembrance of “the Forty-five” on the shore of Loch Shiel. Note the lone Highlander in kilt on top of the 60 feet high Monument, honoring the clans siding with the Bonnie Prince.
Track or trail
You can get off the train at Glenfinnan Station during the 20-minute break. There’s the small West Highlands Railway Museum and an old dining car, but unfortunately, the Glenfinnan Monument is beyond reach, at 15 minutes walking. Also, forget about seeing or hiking to the Viaduct from here: there’s a neat hiking trail but it takes an hour, one-way.
So instead, I strolled to the (Bonnie) Prince’s House Hotel for a quick hello. I like to use it for clients that want to soak up the Jacobite history or do that gorgeous hike, on a good quality path, highly recommended for train nuts and/or photographers. And if you want to visit the lakeside Glenfinnan Monument: no hiking required, you can just drive there and park.
Tip: the hike is especially worthwhile if you check and time it with the Jacobite steaming across the Viaduct.
Munching in Mallaig
The next stop is at the pretty little harbour village of Mallaig, end of the Jacobite line and CalMac’s ferry port for Armadale on the Isle of Skye. This is a longer break, about an hour and a half, plenty time for lunch, pop into some shops, or take pictures around town. I recommend having lunch first. There are several food options but they fill up fast with the train crowd, and who wants to spend precious time waiting in line? Eat first, and then use the remaining time for your shopping or walkabout. We had lunch in the Tea Garden, quite nice.
After lunch, while my wife poked around town, I walked to the harbour, since we were going to drive back this way later to catch the ferry to Skye. Personal tip: don’t get carried away looking around and taking pictures, and do keep an ear open for the train whistle, so your better half doesn’t have to hunt you down!
Fantastic beats and where to find them
As the Jacobite winds its way back, the highlight again is the Glenfinnan Viaduct. The view was great in the morning on the way out but, as photographers and videographers know, the afternoon light is “warmer”, better color temperature, and the return ride offers wonderfully lit opportunities for pictures and videos, if the weather holds for you.
Those in the know will beat their way to a spot at the door/window at the end of the carriages as early as they can – some do this as soon as the train departs! Yes you’ll have to stand there for a long time, but what many don’t realize until they see it done by others is: those windows in the doors slide down, so you can get your shot without glass distortion. Who knew! Just be careful with side-swiping tree branches – and rock walls! I’m speaking from experience, and had the scratches to prove it, but at least I dinnae drop my camera!
Tip: on the way to Mallaig, pick the left side. On the return, the right, for the best view of the curving Viaduct.
Main Street meals
Back at the Station, take a final sniff of steamy coal air before you head over to your lodgings or, walk into Main Street where several restaurants and pubs offer meals or a drink. We enjoyed quite an Indian feast at the Spice Tandoori, recommended by Guisachan’s Phill.
Afterwards, back at the Guesthouse, we hung out in the spacious Guest Lounge and kept their well-stocked bar busy until closing time around 10:30pm, a nice and rather uncommon treat in a Guesthouse, much appreciated.
Practical Jacobite points
If you want to ride the Jacobite, make sure you have enough time. The roundtrip takes roughly 6 hours and they usually – but not always – run two daily services in the season: the morning schedule is 10:15am-4pm and the afternoon run 2:30pm-8:31pm. You read that right: 8:31pm, not 8:30pm. Trains adhere to very precise schedules!
First Class seating is not necessary but definitely recommended. It offers very comfortable 2×2 large seats across a good size table, which comes in handy, as the Jacobite features on-board food & beverage services. You can pre-order or just see what you feel like ordering when the friendly staff stops by.
The Jacobite is in high demand during its modest summer season and should be booked early, as especially First Class and the morning service sell out far in advance.
The auto alternative
Not doing the train? Driving from Fort William to Mallaig along the A380 is pretty too and only takes an hour. There’s a short stretch where the tracks run parallel and you might see the train, but not the Viaduct; it’s too far in. It’s a neat way to get to or from Skye using the short ferry ride, instead of going via the northern A87 Bridge at Kyle of Lochalsh. And when you’re driving, you can stop at Glenfinnan for as long as you like!
Marvelous for Muggles
The Jacobite Steam Train aka Hogwarts Express is a treat for Muggles and Wizards alike, but keep your eye on the sky over that gorgeous scenery, just in case those evil Dementors have a go at it again. Return to town safely, disembark, and while still under the spell of this magic ride, go and toast your good fortune – but say cheers with a nice Scots pint or a local Ben Nevis Distillery dram, as alas, in Fort William, they don’t serve butter beer! I did not mind. All was well.
My travel blog “Con’s Corner” takes a sometimes irreverent look at 4+ decades of travel in the British Isles. My trips are real: no months of staging the perfect photo, no waiting for the perfect weather, no Photoshopping, no promo story in exchange for a freebie: I pay full fare. It’s true travel. Note that the company does not necessarily share my opinions and views. In fact, they may be shaking their heads. The photography is mine (except where credited as noted), as are all typos, grammatical errors, and odd expressions. It’s a blog, people, not literature! I also accept full responsibility for any puns, varying on a scale from hilarious to ouch… Be all that as it may, I intend to keep at it until I get it right. Con Jager, Santa Rosa, USA.
(R) Photography by Robin Gabbert
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