We recently spent a weekend in Lochaber to tick off a bucket list experience. We had tickets to ride on ‘The Jacobite’ steam train (or the Hogwarts Express to fans of the Harry Potter movies) – woo hoo.
We’d fled the city as soon as work released us both from its clutches for the week. 5:30pm was a late start to a road trip, but we didn’t mind as we were off on a new Scottish adventure. En route north, we stopped at Mhor Fish in Callander for Stornoway white pudding suppers. The risk of a Mr G hanger tantrum had been mitigated – phew.
After a little over three hours on the road, we arrived at the MacDonald Hotel & Cabins in Kinlochleven with a drouth on (thirsty)! Bags deposited in our room, we headed to the hotel bar to toast our escape from the city.
We took our drinks outside so we could soak up the beautiful scenery surrounding us. A period of prolonged hot weather known to most people as summer, but alien to Scots had put paid to the swarm of biting midges that would normally have enveloped us the second we were foolhardy enough to sit by a Scottish loch on a summer’s evening.
After a second round of drinks, and a jaunt round the village to stretch the boy’s legs we toddled off to bed (rock n roll). We were keen to waken bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for our bucket list adventure the next morning.
The magical day arrives
It’s safe to say we were a wee bit excited when we woke, knowing we’d soon be hopping aboard the train we’ve been known to stalk around Lochaber with our cameras.
After breakfast, we drove 20 scenic miles to Fort William to begin our magical journey. We arrived with oodles of time to spare. In fact The Jacobite was nowhere to be seen, so we decided to head into Glen Nevis for a potter. A Potter is exactly what we got too, as look who we bumped into there.
Harry Potter – and only a stone’s throw from where we’d watched him play Quidditch, and battle a dragon on the big screen.
The Jacobite – a mighty workhorse
Back in Fort William The Jacobite had arrived – yippee. The boy seemed to sense something exciting was afoot. He charged into the station, tail wagging, dragging us behind him.
And there it was The Jacobite aka Hogwarts Express or ‘Lord of the Isles’ to give it the name it carries. The Jacobite is the name of the route rather than the train. A nod to the fact it passes Glenfinnan, and the monument which honours those who died fighting for the Jacobite cause.
The engine was built in Glasgow in 1949 by the North British Locomotive Company, using a design dating back to the 1920s. Built to serve the West Highland Line, it had to be able to cope with the steep gradients and tight bends of the route. So, while The Jacobite may look like a whimsical, relic from a bygone era, it’s actually a powerful old workhorse.
The less gullible amongst you will have realised that the Harry Potter we met in Glen Nevis was actually The Wee White Dug in disguise. I know it’s hard to believe.
We rarely miss a photo opportunity were the boy’s concerned, so we popped his Hogwarts gear back on and set him up in front of the train for a couple of quick snaps. NEVER underestimate the appeal of a wee dog dressed as Harry Potter. Within seconds he’d been surrounded by Harry Potter fans, and we were struggling to get near him to take a photo.
After a few minutes we extracted him from the melee and whipped off his wizarding attire. He’d be enjoying his first ever train journey as a non-magical dug.
All aboard the Hogwarts Express
I’ve witnessed people grumbling when they’ve heard the train being referred to as the Hogwarts Express. “Call it by its real name” they bleat, probably clueless about its real name themselves. I love Harry Potter and old trains, and seeing a platform packed with happy day trippers of all ages, it’s hard to deny the positive boost the Harry Potter connection has given to this historic steam train. And who wouldn’t want to unleash their inner child for an imaginary journey to Hogwarts?
We hopped aboard at the buffet car to stock up on goodies. The boy couldn’t hide his delight. He loves travelling on buses, so we figured trains would also be his bag. His happy wee face soon drew attention in the buffet car and his outrageous flirting scored him some dog treats from the girl serving.
Stocked up on sugary treats and with coffees in hand, we made our way towards our seats near the rear of the train.
The boy shot through the carriages, lapping up attention as he went. “Awww, look a Scottie dog” was the most common cry we heard. He wasn’t bothered a jot about not hearing “Awww look a Westie” as he’s come to realise that tourists mostly call all wee Scottish dugs ‘Scottie dogs’.
Dogs are only permitted to travel in standard carriages, so the luxury of first would elude us. We were happy to forego the little extras to have our buddy by our side though. Plus, our standard seats were actually really comfy, and reasonably priced too at £35 each for a whole day out.
A thrill of excitement shot through me when the train pulled out of Fort William at 10:15am. I was now one of the people, who people like me chase around Lochaber to wave at.
We feasted on liquorice wands, jelly slugs and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans – the same sweeties you can buy on the ‘real’ Hogwarts Express.
Mr G, who is a Harry Potter ignoramus asked me to teach him a spell! “Wingardium leviosa” I replied. “Wingardium leviosa” he repeated, flicking his liquorice wand and looking really pleased with himself.
I turned my attention to the Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans, laughing as I read out the flavours. Cherry, Lemon, Watermelon, and dirt, rotten egg, vomit! Ach they’ll not really make sweeties taste vile I figured popping one in my mouth. Mmmm cherry, delicious. A few fruity flavours later and nothing weird tasting at all. I continued to munch, relieved that the vile flavours were obviously a joke. “Arghhhh rotten egg, no joke” – boak (Scots for retch).
And now for some scenery
The boy was so excited by his new mode of transport that he didn’t know quite what to do with himself. He stood in the aisle looking as pleased as punch. I moved the hairy faced tripping hazard onto my knee before someone fell over him.
Thankfully the scenery seemed to catch his eye and he sat happily watching Lochaber whizz by.
We passed Loch Eil where I remember being coerced into taking a freezing, early morning dook during a character building Outward Bound course many moons ago.
Knowing Scotland as we do, we realised we were sitting on the wrong side of the train to get a good view of Loch Shiel as we crossed the iconic, Glenfinnan Viaduct (as seen in the Harry Potter movies). We snuck out of our seats and found a door with an opening window where our carriage joined the one behind it.
We waited with cameras poised. It was announced that we’d shortly be crossing the viaduct and would see Loch Shiel on the left. A mini stampede from the right hand side of the train ensued.
We felt smug that our local knowledge had bagged us an incredible view as we crossed the viaduct. We watched steam billowing from the engine, and when it let out a whistle we gasped excitedly.
After crossing the viaduct we stopped at Glenfinnan Station for 20 minutes. The station is worth visiting in its own right as there’s a fantastic railway museum there. You can also dine at a cafe housed in vintage train carriages, and stay overnight in a sleeper compartment.
Back on the move, Mr G and I sat back and enjoyed the gorgeous West Highland scenery. The excitement of the trip was obviously too much for the boy, as he fell asleep and started to snore.
It made me smile to see people dotted along the route waiting to catch a glimpse, and hopefully a photo of The Jacobite. Normally, Mr G and I would be amongst them.
Free time in Mallaig
At 12:25pm we arrived in Mallaig in perfect time for lunch. Knowing Mallaig, we knew finding a table after a train load of passengers had just arrived in town might be a challenge. Leaving nothing to chance we sprinted out of the station and straight into the Chlachain Inn (a local favourite of ours).
Lunch at the Chlachain Inn
It was nice to be back in Mallaig, and the Chlachain Inn.
Mr G had Cullen Skink soup, which he swears is the best in Scotland. Not being a fan of pongy, fish soup I opted for lentil. A smoked salmon sandwich and chips followed for Mr G, while I kept things simple with a portion of chips and peppercorn sauce. The boy scored some salmon so we all left the inn happy.
Haggard Alley purveyors of magical wares
After lunch we wandered around Mallaig, and seeing as we’d arrived on the Hogwarts Express it was only right that we checked out the newest shop in town.
Haggard Alley, purveyors of magical wares stock all things Harry Potter. Stepping inside my head almost spun 360 degrees as I tried to take it all in. Golden snitches, Nimbus broomsticks, three-headed dogs – it was a delightful, magical emporium of wizard themed goodies.
I left clutching gifts for my Harry Potter loving daughters, and a Dobby notebook for myself.
Return to Fort William
At 14:10pm The Jacobite puffed its way out of Mallaig.
Loch Eilt looked incredibly atmospheric as we passed. The tree covered Eilean na Moine caught my eye. Like The Jacobite, it’s instantly recognisable to fans of the Harry Potter movies, as it’s where Dumbledore’s grave lies.
Everything looked lush and green. You’d never have known that Scotland had been basking in a heat wave. There was no burnt, straw like grass to be seen in Lochaber.
Approaching the viaduct once more, there was a stampede to the right hand side of the train. We stayed calm and enjoyed the less fussed over view of Glenfinnan instead.
As our journey drew to a close we skirted by Neptune’s Staircase on the Caledonian Canal. The eight locks were built by Thomas Telford between 1803 and 1822 to form the longest staircase lock in the UK.
Journey over, we bid a fond farewell to The Jacobite. It’d been an amazing trip from start to finish. Our bucket list experience had more than lived up to expectations.
That evening, we enjoyed a lovely Italian meal in our hotel restaurant, followed by a comfortable, but humid night’s sleep (even with the window open and a large fan cranked up full). The Scots just aren’t cut out for summer.
Hooray it’s raining
We woke the next morning to rain and heavy cloud, and couldn’t contain our glee. Breakfast eaten, and bags packed in the car we went for a cooling, wet walk to the Grey Mare’s Tail Waterfall on the outskirts of the village.
It was good to feel cool raindrops again. Who am I? Did I actually just utter those words?
The boy shared our excitement, and rolled in wet grass until he resembled a drookit (wet) rat!
Five minutes into our homewards journey we stopped for one last look (for now) at Loch Leven.
Scotland was back to looking her moody, broody best.
It was a wonderfully atmospheric end to a magical weekend.
Until next time ……..