What It’s Like to Take the Hogwarts Express in Scotland
Are you a Harry Potter fan? I certainly am, even though I have only read the books once. I’m also that guy who loves seeing filming locations in real life. Of all the Harry Potter places I’ve been to, the Hogwarts Express was the best.
Learning About the Hogwarts Express
The first time I heard about the Hogwarts Express was almost by mistake. My friend Hebe and I were making our way to the Isle of Skye for the first time. We took a bus up to Fort William and then planned to take the train out to Mallaig where we could catch the ferry to the island. On the way, I think it was Sonia who told me that we would be passing over the Glenfinnan Viaduct. This is the bridge that the Hogwarts Express travels over on its way to Hogwarts in the movies.
As a joke, I asked the ticket booth if we could get a ride on the Hogwarts Express. They said we had missed the train. “What?” I said, “we missed the last train?” Sonia and I looked at each other in dismay. “Oh no,” the lady said, “there’s one more train in a few minutes.” “But I thought you said we missed the express.”
Turns out there’s a real steam train that goes over the tracks every day (once in the off-season and twice in the summer)! With Sonia, I had to be satisfied with a dozen shots of the bridge taken from the window. It was beautiful, but it wasn’t the same as riding a steam train. I vowed that someday I’d have to go back and take that train to experience the magic for myself.
A year later, I was on another tour of Scotland, this time with Kelly from Taiwan who wanted me to take her to the Glenfinnan Viaduct. I was happy to comply. We parked our rental car at the Glenfinnan train station and hiked the mile trail to the bridge, sitting in the deep ferns for nearly an hour until the train passed by. Just as the locomotive was passing in front of us, it gave a great toot-toot and an accompanying burst of steam. It was great to see, but I also reaffirmed my vow to ride the steam train someday.
Riding the Hogwarts Express with Grayline Scotland
Grayline Scotland was one of the first tour bus companies in Scotland, before the first Harry Potter movie came out and not long after the publication of the first book. It wasn’t long before the demand for tours to Harry Potter filming locations became high. Grayline has met that demand with its own Harry Potter tour to the Glenfinnan Viaduct and the Hogwarts Express, more correctly called the Jacobite Express. Unlike the other Grayline tours which keep the cost down by excluding attraction costs, this tour includes the cost of riding the train.
Another difference is that, instead of leaving at 9 a.m. with a pickup from your hotel or hostel, like most of the tours, this one leaves at 6 a.m. from Victoria Street. That’s still more than an hour after sunrise in the summer, but you’ll need to ensure you don’t partake in all the amazing nightlife Edinburgh has to offer. You don’t need to worry about breakfast though, as you’ll get a welcome package on the bus including a pastry, oatcakes, cookies, some raisins, an apple and a bottle of water.
I was the last passenger to arrive at the bus at 5:58 and the bus pulled out the moment I was on board. We had to get to Fort William by 10:15, and getting a bus across Scotland is not an easy feat. We made a stop at the Trossachs Woollen Mill outside Callender for coffee and a toilet break (although there’s also a toilet on the bus), and a photo opportunity with the couple of Hairy Coos (Highland cows) there. As it was, we didn’t make it to Fort William until 9:40, giving us barely half an hour to get some snacks or lunch from the Morrisons next to the station. It was also our opportunity to take photos of the locomotive.
We were all assigned seats on the train in the second car. I drew the theoretical short straw and was assigned to seat A1. I was placed in the front-left seat of the car facing forward in the best position to get photos of the bridge. I took constant photos along the route which included the usual spectacular scenery of Scotland. When we came upon the bridge, I had my arm far out the window to get the best angle for a recording. Unfortunately, that meant that I was constantly pelted by coal chips flying out of the locomotive. It was so worth it. I could just imagine the Harry Potter theme playing in the background as we passed over the viaduct.
We stopped at the Glenfinnan Station and had enough time to walk around for a few minutes before carrying on to Mallaig. There, we had a little over an hour for lunch and exploring the quintessential Scottish fishing town before we were back on the bus to retrace our route. Sadly, I forgot my jacket on the train and didn’t notice until just after it was too late.
Grayline took us back to Glenfinnan, where we stopped at the visitor center. We went down to see the Glenfinnan Memorial which commemorates the location where Bonnie Prince Charlie began his uprising. The shore of the lake is also where Hagrid sat throwing pebbles into the lake which surrounded Hogwarts.
The Hogwarts Express was scheduled to return over the viaduct at 3:10. Everyone went up to the viewpoint behind the visitor center to watch it pass. I knew the better viewpoint on the other side of the river, and ran over with my tripod to get the video. The train ended up coming nearly half an hour late. We were supposed to be on the bus as soon as the train passed, and I had to sprint to get back. Seems I run fast since I was the first one back on the bus.
From there we returned to Edinburgh, taking the route through Spean Bridge and the Cairngorms, stopping in Pitlochry for dinner and another bathroom stop. (Don’t get the idea that the toilet on the bus doesn’t work, but it’s easier to sit on a seat that isn’t shaking.) Pitlochry is one of the most beautiful little towns in Scotland, and I spent most of the stop taking photos. It’s where Queen Victoria arrived in 1842, and the mill hotel she stayed at is still available to book rooms at.
We arrived back in Edinburgh at 7:45 p.m. My dream of riding the Hogwarts Express had come true.
And as a happy ending to the story, a couple weeks later I returned to Fort William and was able to retrieve my jacket from the train! Good to know the train has a lost and found!
A Word of Warning
Shortly after taking my ride on the Hogwarts Express, a good friend of mine flew halfway around the world to take her son on the train for his birthday. When they arrived at the train station, there was no steam train. Instead, a diesel engine was waiting on the tracks. Apparently, there is a period of the year when the grasses around the tracks are too dry and the steam train becomes a fire hazard. Unfortunately, this was never communicated to the passengers before their arrival. The diesel train is no different than the usual train that goes over the tracks several times a day, and at a fraction of the cost of the Hogwarts Express. I don’t personally know how much the train company will help to warn beforehand that the steam train won’t be running, but it’s good to know that all experiences won’t be the same. I can only hope my friend will be reimbursed for the letdown.
Booking the Hogwarts Express with Grayline Tours
The Loch Ness and Loch Lomond tours run daily, while the other six tours run one day a week (except for the Harry Potter Tour to Alnwick Castle which runs twice). All tours leave at 9 a.m. except for the Edinburgh to Loch Ness tour (8 a.m.) and Hogwarts Express tour (6 a.m.). Most tours are £36 ($51). The Loch Ness tour is £47, Loch Lomond is £39 and the Hogwarts Express tour is £110 ($146) which includes the cost of the train ticket. Discounts are available for children, students and seniors.
- Website: Gray Line Scotland
- Phone: +44 (0)131 555 5558
- What to bring: Comfortable shoes, waterproof jacket, camera, and optional snacks and drinks.
It is possible to book the Jacobite Express in Fort William or using the Jacobite website, but it’s not cheap to get to Fort William. I’d recommend the Grayline tour as the best and cheapest option.