Britain’s most scenic rail line – the West Highland Line – runs from Glasgow, by Loch Lomond, via Fort William and along the island-studded coastline to the fishing port of Mallaig. It’s simply superb and can be enjoyed on a standard train, but board a vintage steam train for the final leg to Mallaig and it takes on a different, magical dimension.
Harry Potter and his friends know it well from their journeys to Hogwarts – this section of the line features in the much-loved films. Boring old Muggles will delight in discovering it, too.
The 84-mile return journey is one of the world’s most exciting steam train trips. You’ll smell the building drama on the approach to Fort William station, close to mighty Ben Nevis, as the tang of coal smoke drifts through the air. The smoke will be pumping out of The Jacobite locomotive in readiness to haul the British Railways maroon livery coaches.
With a deafening whistle and a massive blast of smoke, you’re away. Look right after pulling out of from the station for the top of the whale-backed Ben Nevis; its summit is often snow-kissed at this time of year. Shortly after, you’ll chug past the cascading flight of canal locks known as Neptune’s Staircase as The Jacobite slowly crosses the bridge over the Caledonian Canal at Banavie, where it meets the saltwater Loch Linnhe.
So, what’s the train like? Well, what with the smell of sulphur wafting in through the windows and the sophorific clackety-clack, it’s impossible not to be seduced. You’re unlikely to get a place in the traditional compartments, as used by the young wizard, unless the train is almost fully booked. But fear not, as the other carriages – both first and second class – afford the best views.
The highlight is the crossing of the 300m (1,000ft) long Glenfinnan Viaduct with its 21 arches. Potter fans will of course remember it as the beautiful backdrop to the nail-biting scene where Harry hangs on for dear life from the door handle of the Weasley’s Ford Anglia, after it is almost crushed by the Hogwarts Express.
Enjoy the view
To see the iconic Jacobite steaming along the viaduct at its best, try to get a place on the left-hand side of the train. The 1960s-made carriage doors come with the good old-fashioned large single glass windows that slide down.
There’s a 20-minute stop at Glenfinnan station where you can further admire the stunning view of Loch Shiel, as well as visit the railway museum, which has a restored dining car and rail exhibitions, along with the option to follow walking routes or hire bikes. Down by the shore, the Glenfinnan Monument marks the spot where Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his standard to herald the 1745 Jacobite Uprising and his attempt to claim the Scottish and English thrones.
Further down the line, the magnificent seascape includes the Inner Hebridean islands
of Canna, mountainous Rum, Eigg, Muck and the southern tip of Skye. Coastal views include the tropical-looking gleaming white sands of Morar, which have also been popular as a filming location. The beach sits to one side of the line and the loch to the other – so keep eyes peeled for Scotland’s ‘other’ monster, Morag, a possible sister of the great Nessie.
The line ends at the bustling port of Mallaig for an hour and a half lunchtime stop. This was once Europe’s busiest herring port, and is still a thriving fishing centre today. It is also the most westerly harbour on the British mainland, making it one of the most important lifeboat stations for the west coast of Scotland. A Heritage Centre tells the fascinating history of the area. There are many places to eat but there’s nothing like tucking into fish and chips while watching the busy activity at the harbour. Short ferry trips connect to most of the islands, if you wish to continue your Scottish journey. Meanwhile, The Jacobite will be packing away plenty of coal for the homeward trundle.
HOW TO GET THERE:
By car, Fort William is 100 miles from Glasgow on the A82. From Edinburgh, follow the A82 from Crianlarich for 130 miles. Trains run from Glasgow to Fort William.
08457 55 00 33
FIND OUT MORE
West Coast Railways
0844 850 4685
The operator West Coast Railways runs the steam train trips until October 26. Adult return: £32, children: £18.
The Cornerstone Restaurant
Main Street, Mallaig
Nevis Bank Inn
Fort William PH33 6BY
Inverlochy, Fort William