See Scotland by Steam

This blog describes taking the Jacobite steam train (AKA the Harry Potter Train) from Fort William to Mallaig, arguably the best train journey in Scotland for its combination of landscape and steam power.

Many of you will likely know of this train journey from the film adaptation of JK Rowling‘s Harry Potter books. Scotland has capitalised on the striking image of the steam train crossing the viaduct in Glenfinnan.

Harry Potter fans flock to the Highlands to experience the train journey to the fictional school Hogwarts.

However, if you are not so Potter-mad, does the journey merit an expensive train ticket, all the hype and the superlative ‘best’?

If your heart races over any of the 3 Scottish giants (Harry Potter, James Watt or the majestic Highlands), I certainly think so.

Here’s why.

The Jacobite steam train on the Glennfinnan viaduct - best train journey in Scotland
The Jacobite, pausing for photos on the Glenfinnan Viaduct – photo credit : M-L

 #01 The Landscape

This stretch of railway line gets described as one of the most impressive train journeys in the world.

The Jacobite crosses the Glenfinnan Viaduct (often pausing for photos) and follows Glenfinnan up through the Scottish Highlands, to reach part of the Scottish west coast where you can glimpse the Inner Hebrides and the turquoise sea and White Sands of Morar.

It’s breathtakingly beautiful. All the way up, people are leaving their seats in the carriage to see the view from better angles – and get the best photos.

(On the way back you sit on the opposite side of the carriage – so everyone can get a shot of the side with the best views). 

The train journey is a celebration of how beautiful Scotland can be. 

See for Yourself!

Here’s the video I made for my English Moments Youtube Channel.

Unusually, I don’t talk over it –  or narrate it as an English lesson.  I just wanted to share the day with you.

#02 The Town of Mallaig

Mallaig is a fabulous destination.

It’s remote and hard to reach by road (you need to be going there – you don’t just pass through it). However, it’s an important fishing harbour and ferry port – so well connected to other islands and parts of Scotland by the sea.

If you are willing to overlook the blatantly commercial sprinkling of Harry Potter-themed businesses, it has retained much of its Scottish fishing town charm. The trainloads of tourists have allowed nice independent craft shops to flourish – and cafes and restaurants to provide tasty seafood. (If you are on a budget – you can grab a sandwich and head to the harbour).

Mallaig merits much more time in the town exploring (we spent 15 minutes just watching jellyfish in the harbour).

(We opted for 2 hours in Mallaig as we have a 2-hour drive to/from Crieff to factor in. I don’t think the 4-hour option would be too long at all). 

Mallaig and the Inner Hebredes - best train journey in Scotland
Mallaig Harbour – looking across at the islands of the Inner Hebrides 

#03 The Power of Steam

I’ll put my hand up to it. I’m a bit of a train geek. I LOVE steam train rides. I love the sound of it, the smell of it, the noise of the train pulling out or arriving.

When you are on the train it is less impressive than seeing the locomotive thrust through the landscape. (I’ve stood waving and watching it pass on several occasions). What was new to me was the volume of people who come to Glenfinnan to watch the train cross the viaduct. It’s a truly impressive sight.

You can tell at a glance the tourists from the locals. The steam train passes a supermarket in Fort William and many locals didn’t even bother lifting their heads.

(I used to work in Reims in France, which housed a steam train in the station and I spent hours admiring it, imagining it running. One time it had it’s engine on – and was pumping out steam. I ran to tell my colleagues who were also taking the TGV to Paris – but they didn’t look impressed. I can’t imagine a steam train passing not enhancing the weekly shop at Morrisons). 

The Age of Steam

Incidentally, many people believe that James Watt (Scottish) was the inventor of the steam engine. In fact, he saw how wasteful of energy early designs were and invented the separate condenser – which improved pumps in particular, which led to him designing the means of rotary motion.

I adore being beside a stream train when it moves off – and the huge pent-up power makes the iron giant begin rolling.

It’s not as thrilling on the train itself, so if you are on a budget, you can still get a lot out of watching the train leave the station – completely for free.

Big and Small

There’s so much to love about the engineering of steam trains and the incredible feat of constructing a railway through the valleys of the highlands.

Here’s a little video I took at the viaduct on the former railway line running Strathyre to Killin.

The sense of history you get from old engineering like this is so powerful.

#04 The Harry Potter Fun

I’m not big on the movies but I loved the books, and I’m looking to sharing them with my daughter.

For many, being on this train and seeing ‘the viaduct’ is a dream come true.

The train is full of a mix of landscape tourists and Harry Potter fans on a pilgrimage. It makes a really fun atmosphere of excitement, with strangers chatting and sharing good times.

It’s friendly Scottish tourism at its best. 

I felt like I’d been on a kind of incubator holiday by the end of the day. That much happiness rubs off!

English activities in Perthshire - girl on train Language School
This American girl had travelled all night (from Wales) to reach the Harry Potter train. 

The Jacobite Steam Train

How this English conversation activity helps your English and positively impacts our community:


✅ Great for mental/physical health

⭕ benefits our local community.

✅ preserves craft skills, historic machinery, monuments etc.

⭕ supports Scottish industry/agriculture

⭕ gets you talking with a rich and diverse selection of people, or about diverse subjects.

🟠  explores Scottish wildlife in non-invasive ways 

⭕ supports arts & artists

🟠  is a good introduction to Scottish culture

✅ financially contributes to preserving culture

✅ it is for fun and feeling good in English.

(Learn more about this Checklist.)

Learn English on The Best Train Journey in Scotland

I do take my immersion English holidaymakers on this train.

As you know I love showing off Scotland and in my opinion, this journey is just one of the best ways to get maximum landscape and adventure into a day.

However, this train does fully book up for the summer season.

If you book your English language holiday later in the year or at the last minute, we will unlikely get a place onboard. 

Something to remember for summer 2024 though!

When you book your immersion English holiday with Blue Noun, we will chat using Whatsapp about potential English excursions and activities to include in your learning holiday.

Whatsapp messages arranging best train journey in Scotland

Further Information