what’s in a steam train?
Steam trains are very quickly becoming a thing of the past, as they fall into disrepair and out of fashion, replaced with faster and more environmentally friendly options.
However outside of China, the UK is one of the last countries with a fair few in operation, most operating as tourist attractions and no longer as transit.
And arguably the most famous of those is the Jacobite train through the Southwestern Highlands of Scotland. The train shot to fame when it was used for filming in the Harry Potter series as Hogwarts Train (the Glenfinnan Viaduct, with 22 arches, became iconic as well for the shot of the train passing, steam rising and whistle blowing as it chugs along).
The slightly more interesting history to me (or any of us non-Potterheads) could be it’s connections to the Jacobite uprising and the history of the Highlands. It is in the small village of Glenfinnan (where the train makes a short stop after passing over the viaduct) that Bonnie Prince Charlie first alighted on the Scottish mainland in 1745. It was only 8 months later that the Jacobite uprising was quashed with the short and horrific battle of Culloden.
The train was actually renamed ‘Jacobite’ in 1995, re-establishing the historic connection of the area with the train route.
But back to the light stuff! The train ride itself is incredibly scenic and often considered one of the top train journeys in the world.
I was not disappointed as we swept pass gorgeous lochs, passed under seemingly too-tight bridges, and saw many, many highland sheep.
capturing it all
Most people have a forward seat on way and a backward seat the other, on opposite sides of the train (to give everyone a chance to have a balanced experience, I’m sure). If you’re on the side with the better views (left going, right returning) make the most of your opportunities to get photos!
They ask you not to stick heads and cameras out of windows because you really do pass within centimetres of trees and cement bridges. But if you’re a guarded risk taker (as I like to consider myself), then I suggest using the windows near the toilets to get your videos and photos. But please be careful! And only do so in open areas. Use your head and don’t die. Ok?
For those obsessed with the perfect viaduct shot (sooo, all of us?) you’ll pass about 40 minutes after leaving Fort William – so get ready!
And to the intense Harry Potter fans, apparently the morning Jacobite train is the one that has some of the carriages used in filming, so you may want to try to get on that one instead of the afternoon one.
what not to purchase
The train offers light snacks and refreshments for purchase on board at reasonable prices – do NOT, I repeat do NOT, buy the “Jacobite High Tea” when purchasing tickets. Or the cheese board. Or anything else. It’s highly disappointing and served in unexciting cardboard boxes. You’re better off purchasing a snack on the spot or waiting and grabbing fish and chips in Mallaig. Trust me on this.
I also chatted briefly with a passenger in first class because I had tried unsuccessfully to purchase first class tickets, and he assured me that apart from slightly cosier seats and a lamp obstructing the view out the window (!), it was really not worth the extra fare. You’ve been warned.
The journey takes a little under two hours each way, leaving almost two hours in Mallaig, a tiny little fishing town at the edge of the western mainland.
There’s not a lot to do in Mallaig so I suggest bringing some good company or a book/journal to pass a bit of time. The fish and chips shop at the train station is apparently amazing.
a scotland must-do
The ride was a definite highlight of the trip and everyone on board seemed equally thrilled with the rail ride. It’s a must do – but be sure to book tickets WAY in advance! They sell out super early.
If you miss your chance to buy online, they do have one car they save for walk-in purchases. Line up with everyone else and head straight to Coach D. You’ll need to be one of the first or you’ll be out of luck.
Have fun indulging in every little person’s dream on the Jacobite train!