I remember when I was first introduced to Harry Potter. I was about 13 years old, in Miss Barkett's 7th-grade English class, and we had been told by our (uber conservative, rural) school board that we could not read the first Harry Potter book as a class because it “condoned witchcraft.” (Yes, apparently I went to school in the 1600s.)
So when the next Scholastic book order form came around (remember those?), nearly everyone in the class ordered the book anyway. Forbidden is so cool when you're 13, after all.
I remember devouring that book. Hours spent sprawled out on the pink carpet of my childhood bedroom, getting swept away to Hogwarts along with Harry.
Even though I was a little older than the Boy Who Lived (well, at the time of first reading, at least), I secretly hoped that an owl would swoop into my backyard and deliver my Hogwarts letter. (Still waiting – I'm convinced it got lost in the owl post.)
For me, Harry Potter was a huge part of my teenage years. I more or less grew up along with Harry, going to book release parties and midnight movie showings all the way through high school. When I finished reading the seventh book, there was literally a void in my life – I went through some serious post-series depression.
It's probably no wonder, then, that, even close to 30, I still latch on to every opportunity to get my Harry Potter fix.
And now I can also say that I've ridden the Hogwarts Express.
Well, sort of.
In the Scottish Highlands, there's a famous steam train called the Jacobite. The scarlet locomotive travels from Fort William to Mallaig on the West Highland Railway Line, carrying tourists through one of the prettiest parts of the Highlands from May to October each year.
This train also “starred” as the Hogwarts Express in a few of the Harry Potter movies – basically any scenes where you saw the train trundling along the tracks.
As part of my trip with Highland Explorer Tours earlier this summer, I got the chance to ride this very cool train.
We boarded in Mallaig, a little town on the coast just across the water from Armadale on the Isle of Skye. The day was warm and sunny – so much so that it actually got warm inside the train and necessitated us opening the windows. This meant that bits of soot from the big steam engine were constantly falling into our hair and on our tables – but I honestly didn't care.
I spent the first 30 minutes of the ride in my seat, watching the scenery pass by. But then I got antsy, and ended up spending the next hour standing near an open window on one of the doors at the back of a carriage.
From this vantage point, I had a perfect view of the lochs and mountains and streams that we passed – landscape that wins this train journey all sorts of accolades.
And as the wind whipped through my hair as we passed over the iconic Glenfinnan Viaduct, I was transported back to seventh grade; I was 13 again, giddy over the fantasy of going to Hogwarts.
As I went back to my seat a bit later, face wind-burnt and hair soot-filled, I honestly expected a plump little witch to come by to ask if I wanted anything off the sweets trolley.
IF YOU GO
When: The Jacobite operates from May to October each year (exact dates vary). In 2015, the train made two trips per day.
Where: The Jacobite travels between Fort William and Mallaig in Scotland. You can ride round-trip, or just take the train one-way (which is what I did).
How much: An adult return ticket is £58.00 in first class and £34.00 in standard class (first class gets you a Harry Potter-esque compartment; standard class gets you a seat at a table). One-way tickets are £53.00 in first and £29.00 in standard.
How long: The ride one-way lasts about two hours.
Where to sit: If you want the best views of the viaduct and some of the lakes, you'll want to sit on the left side of the train when traveling from Fort William to Mallaig, or the right side of the train if traveling from Mallaig to Fort William.
Are there tours? Not planning to be in Fort William or Mallaig? Booking a tour into the Highlands from Edinburgh is another great way to make sure you have the chance to ride this train. Here are a few options to consider:
- Check out this 2-day tour that focuses on Jacobite history in Scotland.
- This 3-day tour includes the Highlands, Isle of Skye, and the Harry Potter train.
- And, finally, this 5-day tour has it all: the Jacobite, Isle of Skye, Loch Ness, and more.
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Is the Jacobite a train YOU would like to ride?