Jacobite steam train from Fort William to Mallaig
When ‘all aboard’ leads to so many special moments
From mid-May through to late October each year, adults can become kids again for a day; and children can experience one of the most visceral of thrills from past generations – a rail trip pulled by a magnificent steam locomotive. These are the kind of trains where Poirot or Miss Marple used to solve murders, spies would exchange messages, and The Railway Children and many others enjoyed adventures. Climbing aboard The Jacobite Steam Train in Fort William itself, prepare yourself for an unforgettable six-hour rail trip spent covering the 84 miles to Mallaig and back. This has frequently been described as ‘one of the great railway journeys of the world’. The daily service, from May to October, is augmented from mid-May to the end of August with an afternoon departure, returning to Fort William in good time for dinner.
So much of interest as you enjoy full steam ahead
Departing under the gaze of magnificent Ben Nevis, you will journey close to Loch Eil, which opens into Loch Linnhe near Fort William. As you travel onwards, you are approaching what will probably be one of the highlights of the entire journey, especially for the youngsters, and those grown-ups who really haven’t. Welcome to the Glenfinnan Viaduct, where, on this glorious steam train, you can become a pupil on their way to Hogwarts, maybe a nervous first-timer or an experienced senior, as this is where some of the most iconic Harry Potter train scenes were captured.
Of course, you might not see Harry and Ron swooping through the arches in their magical Ford Anglia. Or, did you just catch the merest glimpse? If time permits, the Jacobite may pause here for a few moments. The mass concrete 21-arch sweeping viaduct is 380 metres long. It was completed in October 1898 and used to transport materials over the valley below as the Fort William to Mallaig West Highland Line railway was constructed and finally opened on April Fool’s Day in 1901.
The River Finnan flows 100 feet below you as you cross. Incidentally, it has also featured in Monarch of the Glen, Ring of Bright Water – and on a Bank of Scotland £10 note! Glenfinnan is also noted for its monument, built in 1815 to remember the 1745 raising of the standard of Bonnie Prince Charlie during the Jacobite Rising. A Highlander stares out, always watchful, and it’s a treasured place to visit for Jacobite enthusiasts from many countries. You will have a chance to stretch your legs as the locomotive rests for a short while at Glenfinnan Station, where you might also visit the West Highland Railway Museum.
On to Arisaig and beyond
Your journey means that you will have the opportunity to pass beautiful villages such as Lochailort and Morar, and to visit Britain’s most westerly mainland station at Arisaig. By arrangement with the train guard, travellers can alight here. This is the Gaelic for ‘the safe place’. Just to the east of the village, by Loch nan Uamh, is the Prince’s Cairn. If Glenfinnan remembers the raising of the standard, then this marks the sad departure point of Bonnie Prince Charlie to France after the failure of the 1745 Jacobite rising. During the second world war, many Special Operations Executive agents were trained in this area for their missions across occupied Europe.
As The Jacobite passes Loch Morar, you’ll be observing the deepest freshwater body of water in The British Isles, created by glacial action around 10,000 years ago. At its deepest, the loch descends for over 1,000 feet to its floor. At its western end, it is fed by the River Morar, which, at high tide, is less than one kilometre long, and believed to be the shortest river in the land. Mind you, even so brief, it still manages to create the Falls of Morar waterfalls over a rock bar at the end of the loch.
As your destination point at the fishing and ferry port of Mallaig approaches, you’ll be close to Loch Nevis, believed to be the deepest seawater loch in the whole of Europe. Out to sea, you’ll catch sight of many islands, including Skye, Rum, Eigg, and Muck. After an outward journey of around two hours, The Jacobite stops here for over one and a half hours, to catch its breath for the return trip, giving you the chance to stroll around the shops and enjoy the magnificent Mallaig Bay views – maybe even try some classically Scottish seaside fish and chips!
Mallaig was founded in the 1840s when local landowner Lord Lovat divided up a local farm into parcels of land and encouraged the tenants to move westwards and become fisher folk. When the West Highland Line arrived, the local economy took off. Today, this thriving community welcomes many tourists to stay a while, or head on to the Western Isles.
You surely deserve some special treatment
Incidentally, when you book your tickets, do consider taking advantage of the superb afternoon tea or cheeseboard treats. The former offers dainty sandwiches, a home-made scone, an unforgettable chunk of sublime Dundee cake and tea or coffee; the latter a trio of magnificent Scottish cheeses, with oatcakes (of course), chutney, butter, fresh grapes, and coffee or tea. You might also consider the special treats of champagne, chocolates or flowers on this most romantic of journeys.
When the time comes to return
With so much to see on this truly scenic railway line, many visitors have said that the return journey is like a whole new experience! Incidentally, you can grab a terrific little Souvenir Tour Guide on-board or online. When you book, you’ll be able to choose from either the standard fare or, for just a little more, treat yourself to first class travel, in 1960s Mark 1 British Railways coaches. With its many gradients and tight curves, part of the thrill will be enjoying how well these magnificent steam locomotives cope with the journey. Your locomotive might be the K1 ‘Lord of the Isles’ or the ex-LMS Black 5 ‘The Sherwood Forester’ or ‘The Lancashire Fusilier’. Whichever it is, as you find your land legs once more on the platform at Fort William, one fact can’t be doubted. You’ll have so many memorable moments to treasure from your time ‘under Jacobite steam’.