Take a trip on board the Jacobite steam train as it travels on the scenic West Highland Line from Fort William to Mallaig in Scotland – the real-life version of the Hogwarts Express from the Harry Potter films.
* This site contains affiliate links, where I get a small commission from purchases at no extra cost to you.
I can never resist a scenic train ride, and the Jacobite steam train through the Scottish Highlands is one of the best. This 84-mile round trip travels along the West Highland Line from Fort William to Mallaig. And it’s a journey packed with old-fashioned charm, from the vintage carriages to the sound of the whistle and smell of the steam engine.
It’s a relaxed way to travel as you soak up views of lochs, mountains and waterfalls and chug across the spectacular Glenfinnan Viaduct – one of the most iconic locations from the Harry Potter films, where the Jacobite starred as the Hogwarts Express. So if you’re planning a trip on board the Jacobite steam train, here’s everything you need to know.
What is the Jacobite steam train?
The Jacobite is a steam train which operates on the scenic route between Fort William and Mallaig in the Scottish Highlands. It gets its name from the Jacobites, a group who fought to get the Stuarts back on the British throne in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Jacobite steam train runs along a stretch of the West Highland Line, which was voted one of the great railway journeys of the world – and they’re not wrong. The full line runs for 164 miles from Glasgow to Mallaig, past Loch Lomond and the desolate Rannoch Moor on its way to Fort William. But it gets even more scenic from there.
The stretch of line from Fort William to Mallaig opened in 1901 and steam trains ran on the route until 1967 when they were replaced by diesel trains. But they were brought back in the 1980s, and have been run under various different names since then – the most recent being the Jacobite… or some of you might know it better as the Hogwarts Express.
The Jacobite starred in the Harry Potter films, transporting Harry and his fellow students from Platform 9¾ at London’s King’s Cross to Hogsmeade Station. You get a particularly good view of the train in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets when Harry and Ron fly over it in a stolen Ford Anglia as it travels over the Glenfinnan Viaduct.
The Jacobite provided the steam engine and the carriages used in the film, and the same carriages are still in use on trips today. Though the locomotive which pulled the Hogwarts Express is now on display in the Warner Bros Studios in London.
There’s a gift shop selling Harry Potter merchandise on board the train and we spotted a few people in Hogwarts scarves. But you don’t need to be a Harry Potter fan to enjoy the Jacobite. There’s a mix of train enthusiasts, Potter addicts and people just wanting to admire the scenery, with a mix of ages and nationalities from all over the world.
Where does the Jacobite steam train leave from and go to?
The Jacobite starts from Fort William and runs to Mallaig, a journey of 42 miles. It stops off in Glenfinnan along the way, and will also stop at Arisaig if you ask the guard.
If you’re travelling by car, Fort William is 108 miles (2 hours 40 minutes’ drive) from Glasgow, 148 miles (3 hours 20 minutes) from Edinburgh or 66 miles (1 hour 50 minutes) from Inverness. You can park your car at the An Aird Car and Coach Park, which is just behind the Morrison’s supermarket next to the train station.
You can also get to Fort William by train – it’s around 3.5 hours from Glasgow, on a slow but scenic route travelling along the rest of the West Highland Line. If you’re coming from Edinburgh you’ll need to get to Glasgow first and change trains there.
Fort William is also on the route of the Caledonian Sleeper, which runs overnight from London to Scotland. It’s a great way to travel to Scotland, with a mix of seats and cabins with shared bathrooms or en-suites – and even some cabins with double beds. There’s a dining car on board and you wake up in time for breakfast with a Highland view.
The Highland Sleeper departs from London Euston at 9.15pm (8.59pm on Sundays) and is scheduled to get to Fort William at 9.57am. But it’s quite often delayed, so it’s safest to book an afternoon trip on the Jacobite in case you’re running late.
How often does the Jacobite run?
The Jacobite doesn’t run year-round, but has one or two services a day from spring until autumn. The morning service runs between 3 April and 27 October 2023, and there’s also an additional afternoon service from 1 May until 29 September.
How long is the Jacobite steam train ride?
The round trip on the Jacobite steam train takes around six hours in total. The outward journey from Fort William to Mallaig takes 2 hours 10 minutes, with a short stop at Glenfinnan included. Then you have 1 hour 45 minutes to look around Mallaig before heading back to Fort Wiliam, which is slightly quicker at just under 2 hours.
The morning Jacobite trip leaves Fort William at 10.15 and arrives into Mallaig at 12.26. Then it returns at 14.10, getting back into Fort William at 16.03.
The afternoon service leaves Fort William at 12.50 and arrives into Mallaig at 15.06. Then it returns at 17.00, getting back into Fort William at 18.52. The timetable is slightly different on Saturdays though, with the train leaving at 14.40 and arriving back at 20.35.
You’re advised to get to the station in Fort William at least 20 minutes before the departure time so you can find your seats. But it’s also a good chance to get some photos of the train on the platform, with the steam billowing out as they fire up the engine.
What are the classes of travel on the Jacobite steam train?
The Jacobite steam train uses vintage British Railways train Mark I and Mark II carriages which were in service from the 1950s to the 1970s, and there’s a choice of First Class and Standard Class seats. Standard Class has basic seats with two tables of four on each side of the aisle. It’s the no-frills option but is still pretty comfortable.
If you want a bit more luxury, First Class carriages are more spacious, with tables for four on one side of the aisle and tables of two on the other side – so for an extra cost you don’t have to share a table. You get bigger, upholstered, armchair-style seats with more leg room, fancier wood panelling, tartan table lamps and matching curtains.
On the morning trip there’s also a special First Class carriage with compartments connected by a long corridor if you want the proper Harry Potter experience. Each compartment seats six and you need to book the whole thing, so there are only a few available.
There are toilets at the end of the carriages. And if you’re travelling with a dog you can bring it along with you, with one ‘medium-sized family dog’ (not sure how exactly they define that!) allowed in Standard Class only, which must stay on a lead.
Can you get food on the train?
There’s a buffet car on the train where you can buy hot and cold drinks as well as basic snacks like crisps and chocolate. First Class passengers (unless you’re in the compartments) get a cup of tea or coffee included on each leg of the journey and can also pre-order an afternoon tea box filled with sandwiches, scones and cakes.
Otherwise you can bring your own snacks or picnic, but the journey’s not all that long so we just waited until we got to Mallaig which has a selection of pubs and cafés (see below for suggestions) where you can get lunch or tea and cake. And if the sun’s shining there’s just enough time to grab an ice cream from the kiosk at Glenfinnan station.
How do you get the best seat?
You can’t choose your seat so it’s pot luck as to where you’ll end up, but you are allocated seats together if there are two or more of you. You usually have to share a table, but you can pay extra in First Class to have a private table for two.
Seats are marked B and F – backwards and forwards – but they don’t necessarily correspond to the direction the train actually goes in. The locomotive moves to the other end of the train when you get to Mallaig rather than the train turning around. So you get to go in both directions, and change seats for the return so you get views from both sides.
The windows can be a bit grubby for taking photos, especially after it’s rained – we gave the outside of our window a wipe down with a tissue before we set off. There is small section at the top which opens so you can take photos through it, though they do let a bit of soot and steam in if you’re near the engine, especially going through tunnels.
The windows in the vestibules at the end of each carriage open wider – just don’t stick your head or your camera out of the window as there are tunnels and trees close to the line!
The Jacobite steaming across the Glenfinnan Viaduct is the journey’s most famous photo opportunity. The conductor announces when you’re approaching the viaduct on both the outward and return journey – it’s around 35 minutes from Fort William if you want to get into position early and bag one of the coveted spots by the window.
For the best view of the Glenfinnan Viaduct you need to be on the left-hand side of the train on the outbound journey or the right-hand side on the way back (though the locomotive is on backwards for the return journey so it doesn’t look quite as good), and ideally in a carriage near to the back of train so you can see it curving around.
The train slows down as you go over the viaduct so you get time to take photos – and wave to all the people gathered on the hillside around the viaduct to take photos of the train passing (see below for details if you want to join them).
What can you see along the way?
For a fairly short journey, this stretch of the West Highland Line packs in a lot of scenic views. Just after leaving Fort William you pass the ruins of Old Inverlochy Castle and cross over the Caledonian Canal past Neptune’s Staircase – a series of eight interconnected locks which was built by Scottish engineer Thomas Telford in the 19th century.
The route then runs along the shores of Loch Eil, with views back to Fort William and Ben Nevis. Then you cross the Glenfinnan Viaduct, which has 21 arches and stretches for 380 metres above the River Finnan. Look out for the Glenfinnan Monument on the edge of Loch Sheil, which is dedicated to those who died fighting for the Jacobite cause.
After a stop off at Glenfinnan, where you can make a quick visit to the café or West Highland Railway Museum, it’s on past Loch Eilt. One of the small islands dotting the loch is another Harry Potter location – Eilean Na Moine where Dumbledore is buried.
The train passes the Church of Our Lady of the Braes, which was used for another film Local Hero (1983), before travelling on through Arisaig, the most westerly railway station in Britain. Then the last stretch towards Mallaig has views out over to the Small Isles of Rum, Eigg and Muck, as well as the south of the Isle of Skye.
What is there to do in Mallaig?
At the end of the line is the small port town of Mallaig. You have 1 hour 45 minutes there (or a bonus extra 10 minutes on afternoon trips), though there’s not a huge amount to see.
You can go wildlife spotting on a boat trip with Western Isles Cruises. Their tours only last an hour and are timed to fit in with the train timetable. They sail out to Green Island on the Knoydart Peninsula, looking out for seals, porpoises, dolphins and whales.
Or you can just take a walk around the harbour, watching the fishermen mending their nets and the ferries coming and going. Keep your eye out for the resident seals – we spotted one basking on the rocks just outside the harbour. There’s also a 1.75-mile circular walk which takes you around the harbour and up into the hills behind the town.
Mallaig has a few shops to browse, including the Haggard Alley shop which sells Harry Potter merchandise. And if you’re hungry there’s good seafood at the Chlachain Inn or Steam Inn, fish and chips from Jaffy’s Shop or pizzas and pastries from The Bakehouse.
How much does the Jacobite steam train cost?
An adult return ticket costs £57 in Standard Class and £89 in First Class in 2023 (or it’s £33/£63 for children under 16 – under threes don’t need a ticket). You can also book a private table for two for £199 or a compartment for up to six people for £385.
There are no discounts for Railcards or InterRail/Eurail passes. And you can’t buy single tickets or return on a different day, so if you wanted to travel one way (if you were planning to take the ferry to Skye from Mallaig), you still have to pay for a return trip.
There’s also a minimum booking of two passengers in First Class, so if you’re a solo traveller you can only travel in Standard Class.
If you don’t fancy splashing out on the Jacobite, you can also take a regular train along the Fort William to Mallaig stretch of the West Highland Line instead. The standard ScotRail sprinter trains aren’t quite as atmospheric as the Jacobite and you don’t get so long to soak up the views, but you do still get to see the same scenery.
The regular trains run three–four times a day, take around 90 minutes and cost from £7.80 one way (and you can use Railcards and passes). They also run year-round, so are a good option if you’re visiting in winter when the Jacobite isn’t running.
How do I book the Jacobite steam train?
You can buy tickets for the Jacobite online at their website or by phone on 0333 996 6720. You’ll be sent a booking confirmation after you’ve booked and then get your tickets and seat numbers sent to you by email a few days before you travel.
If you want to travel in First Class then book as early as you can as these tickets sell out quickly (we booked three months in advance for August and could only get standard tickets) – especially in the compartments as there are only a few of them.
Can you buy tickets for the Jacobite on the day? You can sometimes pick up last-minute tickets on the day if there’s availability. They’re sold by the guard on the platform at Fort William and you can only pay cash. Get there early if you want to pick one up, but the Jacobite is popular so I wouldn’t chance it if it’s something you really want to do.
Another option is to book a tour which includes the trip on the Jacobite. You can take day trips from Inverness*, Edinburgh* and Glasgow*. Or there’s a three-day tour* which also includes visits to Loch Ness, the Isle of Skye and Glencoe.
Where can you see the Jacobite crossing the Glenfinnan Viaduct?
The one thing you do miss onboard the Jacobite is the best view of it going over the Glenfinnan Viaduct. But you can easily do both in one day if you’re travelling between May and September when there are two train services each day.
If you’re travelling by car, you can park at the Glenfinnan Viaduct and Monument Car Park (PH37 4LT). Or you can take a regular ScotRail train or the no 500 bus from Fort William to Glenfinnan. The train crosses the viaduct around 11.00 and 15.15 for the morning service and 13.25 and 18.00 (15.15 and 19.45 on Saturdays) for the afternoon service.
But get there early if you want to bag a prime position as it gets very busy. The main viewpoint is on the hill above the viaduct – you follow the road under the viaduct and then make your way up the hill to the left so you can see the viaduct as it curves around. But you can also get a different view of the train from below the viaduct.