Scotland’s Jacobite steam train is a railway journey of superlatives.
Hailed as the greatest railway journey in the world, it passes by Britain’s tallest mountain range and Europe’s deepest saltwater loch with views of the iconic Glenfinnan Viaduct along the way.
It’s rare to find a more picturesque train ride!
Many people ride the Jacobite train as it’s also known as the Harry Potter Train or Hogwarts Express and there are plenty of filming locations from the franchise en route. But you don’t have to be a fan of the wizard to enjoy it.
In this Jacobite steam train review, I share everything you need to know about riding and photographing the train – and crucially, whether or not it’s worth the hype.
What is the Jacobite steam train?
The Jacobite steam train is owned and operated by West Coast Railways. Officially called the Jacobite, it’s named after the local connections to the Jacobite political movement in the Scottish Highlands.
It also goes by the Harry Potter train and you may already recognise parts of the railway route from the film franchise.
Some of the carriages on the Jacobite made up part of the Hogwarts Express. Although, the actual Hogwarts Express engine is at Warner Brothers Studios in London!
Whatever you wish to call it, the train is a traditional vintage steam train and one of the last ones in the UK.
It offers a unique way to experience the West Highlands with its spectacular views of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Britain, and the iconic Glenfinnan Viaduct before reaching Loch Nevis, the deepest seawater loch in Europe.
Update for 2024: West Coast Railways (the Jacobite train operator) has been banned from operating the steam train over a safety dispute. For now, it looks like you can still book tickets for this year but check with West Coast Railways just in case.
What is the Glenfinnan Viaduct?
Located at the top of Loch Shiel, Glenfinnan Viaduct is a railway viaduct that opened in 1901.
The striking concrete architecture cuts a dramatic image against the surrounding green hills of the West Highlands. It’s made even more spectacular by the Jacobite steam train which travels along it for half the year.
The filming of the second and third Harry Potter books, Harry Potter and the Chambers of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban also took place in this area.
The Hogwarts Express even stopped at Glenfinnan.
Editor’s tip: The Jacobite steam train can get booked up months in advance – particularly during the summer! I recommend booking it early to avoid disappointment.
Where is the Jacobite steam train?
The Jacobite train is located in Fort William on the west coast of Scotland. Fort William is a popular base for the Scottish Highlands and islands such as Mull and Skye.
It’s also at the foot of Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the United Kingdom!
How do you get to Fort William?
Known as the outdoor capital of Scotland, Fort William is a pretty easy base to get to.
You have several ways to get to Fort William: hire a car or campervan and drive (it’s 2 hours 35 minutes from Glasgow). I recommend RentalCars for the best price comparison.
The best option (I personally think) is riding the direct train from Glasgow to Fort William on the West Highland Railway Line.
Although it’s a fair bit slower (3 hours 50 on average), it’s an absolutely glorious journey up through the Highlands – giving you a taster of what’s to come.
And yes, it’s the first part of the same line the Jacobite is on.
If you’re riding the Jacobite, you’ll most likely need to stay in Fort William. Read my top hotel recommendations for Fort William.
The best Jacobite steam train tours
You can easily ride the Jacobite steam train as part of a self-guided trip. But if you’re short on time, don’t want the hassle of getting to it yourself or want to do it as part of a wider Scotland west coast itinerary, I recommend doing a small group tour.
Here are the best Jacobite steam train tours you can do:
- Hogwarts Express and Scottish Highlands Day Tour – departing from Edinburgh, this day trip includes a one-way ticket on the Jacobite steam train. You’ll also get to see the Glenfinnan Viaduct and the beautiful village of Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands!
- 2-Day Highlands Tour with Hogwarts Express – if you want to incorporate the Jacobite steam train into a longer Scottish Highlands experience, this two-day tour from Edinburgh includes the Cairngorms, Culloden Moor, a ride on the steam train and a visit to Glencoe.
- Glenfinnan Viaduct, Glencoe & Mallaig Tour – for a budget-friendly option, this eco-certified tour departing from Glasgow takes you to Glenfinnan where you can see the train going across the viaduct. This one doesn’t include the steam train ride.
Editor’s tip: I recommend booking these tours in advance as they sell out quickly! All tours offer free cancellation up to 24 hours before departure.
Where does the Jacobite steam train go?
The Jacobite steam train runs from Fort William to the seaside town of Mallaig on the west coast of Scotland. It’s a gorgeous 84-mile journey with breathtaking views all the way – particularly when you cross Glenfinnan Viaduct.
One thing to note, although the Jacobite passes stations on the journey, you won’t be able to get off at any of them as it only stops at Mallaig – sometimes Arisaig.
To get off, you’ll need to ride the West Highland Line train (more on that later!).
A quick note on Mallaig
Mallaig is a fishing town on the west coast of Scotland. It’s well-known for its fabulous fresh seafood. However, as lovely as it is, there’s not a whole lot else there so I advise managing your expectations.
If you feel like stretching your legs, there are a few nice walks in the hills behind the town. The Tea Garden restaurant is also a good place for a bite to eat.
Alternatively, Mallaig is a link to the Isle of Skye.
You could use the Jacobite steam train as a transport link rather than an attraction by riding it to Mallaig and then catching the CalMac ferry to Armadale, Skye. Or vice versa. This means you’ll ride the steam train one way like I did rather than out and back.
Just make sure you check the ferry timetable carefully so that the timings match up.
How long does the train take?
The journey takes about one hour and 30-40 minutes each way so you can sit back, relax and enjoy the spectacular scenery passing your window.
If you choose to do the return journey then you have about two hours to spend in Mallaig.
Jacobite steam train times
Morning: Departs Fort William at 10:15 and arrives in Mallaig at 12:26 | Departs Mallaig at 14:10 and arrives in Fort William at 16:03
Afternoon: Departs Fort William at 12:45 and arrives in Mallaig at 15:01 | Departs Mallaig at 16:45 and arrives in Fort William at 18:53
The service runs seven days a week. The timetable differs slightly on Saturdays.
Note: the train only runs for half the year – from April through to October. The afternoon service runs from May to September!
Jacobite steam train ticket prices and seating
There are three carriage types to choose from on the train. These are:
First Class Open Carriage: this carriage has been beautifully furnished with traditional upholstered seats and table lamps. You can choose between private tables of two or four. You’ll also get complimentary tea and coffee. Plus, optional cream tea is available for pre-order at about £18.50 per person!
First Class Compartment Carriage: known as the Harry Potter compartment carriage, the vintage-style compartments seat up to six passengers. The price is per compartment. Complimentary refreshments aren’t included. This carriage is only available during the morning service.
Standard Class Carriage: fairly basic but still comfortable, the seating is four per table. No complimentary refreshments are included but you can make use of the buffet.
Ticket fare prices look like this:
Adult Day Return
Child Day Return (16 and under)
Private Table for 2 Return
Note: all train fares include a return journey in the price. You can ride the train one way but there’s no one-way fare price. Book tickets here.
Jacobite steam train review: what to expect
So, what’s it actually like on the Jacobite steam train? I rode it one way in September on the return journey from Mallaig to Fort William.
I used it as a mode of transport travelling from Skye to Fort William and then onwards to Spean Bridge for the night.
This was fine, but the only downside is that you only get a chance to see Glenfinnan Viaduct once rather than twice. So, I was a little apprehensive about getting on the train and finding a good spot.
Mallaig station is small (as is Fort William) so you can just walk onto the platform without showing your ticket. You get your tickets via email and the conductor checks them later on.
It’s recommended that you get there a minimum of 20 minutes before departure but we got there half an hour before to take photos of the outside (you can take better photos of the front of the train at Fort William).
We found our seats in Standard Class – right at the front of the train. It’s not quite like riding in style in the beautiful vintage First Class but we were on a bit of a budget. Standard Class was fine, nothing too swanky, but comfortable!
We soon realised that our seats were on the wrong side to see Glenfinnan so my boyfriend disappeared down to the back of the train with a camera in tow, leaving me with the bags.
As we set off, I kept an eye on the map and then jumped up to claim my spot on the right side of the train at the end of the carriage in time for Glenfinnan.
I had to stand firm as plenty of people were trying to do the same. I did end up sharing my window with another woman though.
As we approached the viaduct, the train slowed down and the driver told us where to look. I felt a bit like royalty seeing the people at Glenfinnan waiting and waving as we slowly passed by!
We all craned our necks to get a good view and a lot of people stuck their cameras and phones out of the window (very risky!) to get a better shot.
I found that it was impossible to get a photo of the curve of the train without the odd camera, head or selfie stick in the way!
After Glenfinnan, I was able to return to my seat. My boyfriend also returned and we sat back and relaxed for the rest of the journey.
It was an amazing experience despite the mad dash for Glenfinnan. If I had a bigger budget, I would have opted for the cream tea in First Class for the full Jacobite train experience.
Which side of the train should you sit for Glenfinnan
Okay, probably the most important question – which side should you sit on if you want to take a photo of the train curving around Glenfinnan Viaduct?
Short answer: you want to sit on the left-hand side when departing from Fort William and the right-hand side when returning from Mallaig. I repeat that’s LEFT there and RIGHT back. The same goes if you want the best views too.
To see a proper curve, you’ll also want to be at the very front of the train or at the very back. If you’re at the front, watch out for the soot.
If you call up to book your tickets, you might be able to request where you sit, otherwise, tickets are randomly allocated.
Editor’s tip: if your seat is on the wrong side for Glenfinnan, don’t worry! It happened to me too. Go and park yourself by a window at the end of the carriage ideally at the front or back of the train. I recommend getting to a spot as early as possible and be prepared to wait there until Glenfinnan. As the train nears the famous site, lots of people will be milling about looking for a similar spot!
Other photo spots to look out for on the Jacobite:
- The big and obvious one is the Glenfinnan Viaduct! It’s roughly about halfway through the train journey and don’t worry, you can’t miss it as the train slows down for pictures.
- As you come to Glenfinnan, look out for the beautiful Loch Shiel and the Glenfinnan Monument, a tall tower that commemorates the lives lost at the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
- Depending on visibility, you’ll be able to see Ben Nevis as you arrive at Fort William.
- Just after Glenfinnan (or just before if you’re returning from Mallaig), you’ll pass by Loch Eilt where you can see Eilean Na Moine island – the island where *SPOILER ALERT* Dumbledore is buried in the Harry Potter films. It’s on the opposite side of Loch Shiel.
- As you travel along the coast to Mallaig, see if you can spot the Isles of Eigg and Rùm then later the bottom of Skye in the distance!
What about Glenfinnan Viewpoint?
The Jacobite steam train is without a doubt a beautiful railway journey with spectacular views. However, there’s one thing you do miss when riding it and that’s the best view of the train going over the viaduct. After all, it would require you to be in two places at once!
So, what if you want to see the Hogwarts Express go over Glenfinnan Viaduct in all its Harry Potter glory? For that, you’ll need to go to Glenfinnan Viewpoint located on the hill above the viaduct.
Glenfinnan Viewpoint is just a 10-minute walk from Glenfinnan train station, but you’ll need to be on the West Highland Line train operated by ScotRail to get off, not the Jacobite train. That train runs three times a day (once on Sundays!).
You can also drive and park near the lookout, but parking isn’t free and spaces are limited.
Fair warning, the viewpoint gets very busy as everyone wants to get that same photo. Try to get there early if you can to secure a spot you like.
When to see the Jacobite train go over Glenfinnan
The Jacobite goes over Glenfinnan Viaduct at approximately:
In theory, you can squeeze in both riding and viewing the train if you’re prepared to do some to-ing and fro-ing.
You could get the ScotRail train from Fort William to Glenfinnan, which takes about 34 minutes. Depending on the time you have, you could admire the views over Loch Shiel before getting into place for the Jacobite.
Then you would hop straight on the next ScotRail train to Mallaig and be just in time for the morning service heading back to Fort William.
Or give yourself a breather and catch the afternoon train back (only from May to September!).
Alternatively, you could spread them both out over two days. On the first day, you could catch the ScotRail to Glenfinnan and have a day out there.
You have two opportunities to see the Jacobite train go over the viaduct then. You can also have a look at Glenfinnan Monument, the museum and take a cruise on Loch Shiel.
From there, go back to Fort William (or onwards to Mallaig), then ride the Jacobite train one way or both ways!
Want to know how to get to Glenfinnan from Fort William? I’ve written a guide featuring all the best transport options, photography tips, where to stay, what to do at Glenfinnan and more.
Editor’s tip: Check the timetable here to make sure the trains line up.
Top tips for riding the Jacobite steam train
- If you aren’t too bothered about the Jacobite steam train trip itself but want to see the views, you can get the ScotRail train. It follows exactly the same route at a fraction of the price!
- You can bring your own food and drink on the train. There’s also a buffet car to buy refreshments. If you book First Class you can pre-order cream tea for your journey.
- If your window is open, be prepared for some soot and steam.
- Scotland is no stranger to wet weather… If your window is misted up, give it a wipe and wipe the outside too before you set off so you can see the views.
- And on that note, pack a rain jacket for your excursions outside! Read my complete Scotland packing list.
- You can take photos and videos from the window but just make sure you hold on tight.
- And if you’re travelling with your furry friend, you’ll be pleased to know that well-behaved medium-sized dogs are allowed in Standard Class!
Jacobite steam train review: is it worth it?
Yes, 100%, riding the Jacobite train is worth it! It’s arguably pretty expensive and I was worried it wasn’t going to live up to expectations, but it proved me wrong.
Admittedly, I was a little bit stressed about missing Glenfinnan to enjoy myself the whole way through – but not everyone can sit on the same side and I don’t see how they can manage it fairly. Once I settled myself into a spot I liked on the train I was able to relax!
The Jacobite steam train is perfect for Harry Potter lovers as you get to ride the Hogwarts Express (my 11-year-old self would be in bits!). But it’s not just for Harry Potter fans.
The train journey is regarded as one of the best in the world so it’s worthy of being a bucket list activity in its own right.
That being said, if it’s just a good photo of the Jacobite train passing over the viaduct you want, then I recommend getting the ScotRail train to Glenfinnan and waiting at the viewpoint.
I hope you’ve found this Jacobite steam train review and guide useful for planning your own trip. If you have any questions about it, let me know in the comments below!
Book the Jacobite steam train.
Looking for more Scotland travel inspiration?
- 10 Best Things To Do In Edinburgh For The Ultimate Travel Itinerary
- No-Fly Holidays: The BEST Train from London to Edinburgh (Review)
- 20 Best Things To Do On The Isle Of Mull
- 9 Best Scotland Small Group Tours You Need To Book
- 10 Days in the Scottish Highlands: The Ultimate Itinerary
This post may contain affiliate / compensated links. As an Amazon Associate, I also earn from qualifying purchases. For full information, please see my disclaimer here.