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Glenfinnan - an iconic viaduct and more

Glenfinnan on the Road to the Isles has a famous viaduct associated with Hogwarts Express - and Bonnie Prince Charlie's Monument.

Glenfinnan - a West Highland Must See

Glenfinnan is a popular stopping-off point on the so-called Road to the Isles, the A830 that runs 43 miles / 69 km between Fort William and the ferry and fishing port of Mallaig. We think Glenfinnan is worth a visit. History and heritage, railway engineering, cruising, scenery and, of course, that famous Harry Potter movie scene involving a flying Ford Anglia.

Bonnie Prince Charlie at Glenfinnan

When Bonnie Prince Charlie arrived at Glenfinnan in 1745, he probably could not have guessed, firstly, how his mad adventure would turn out and, secondly, that a large monument to his escapade in Scotland would one day stand there.

Pic shows relative positions of the Glenfinnan Monument and the famous ‘Harry Potter bridge’ in the glen.

Pic shows relative positions of the Glenfinnan Monument and the famous ‘Harry Potter bridge’ in the glen.

Anyway, on that late summer day he had travelled by boat up Loch Shiel. Supporters, many of whom had been coerced by their chiefs, trickled in with sufficient numbers for him to launch his bid to take back the throne of Scotland and England in the name of the deposed Stuart monarchy.  

That event, the final Jacobite rising, got under way with the ‘raising of the standard’ at the head of Loch Shiel, in the natural bowl where Glen Finnan meets the loch. It was the 19th August. On the 20th September of the following year, having been utterly defeated, the Prince left Scotland forever.

The Road to the Isles

In Highland terms, a much more beneficial event took place in 1812. A road by the famous engineer Thomas Telford went through, ultimately connecting Fort William, the main centre hereabouts, with the coast at Arisaig to the west. Perhaps it was this that made Alexander Macdonald of Glenaladale decide to build a memorial tower to the last Jacobite Rising in 1815. After all, Jacobitism as a political force had lost all potency by that time.

Glenaladale from Loch Shiel. The Prince stayed here overnight before continuing up the loch to rally the clans in 1745.

Glenaladale from Loch Shiel. The Prince stayed here overnight before continuing up the loch to rally the clans in 1745.

Glenaladale is a secret glen halfway down the loch on the north side. It is still roadless today. The Prince had stayed there before arriving at Glenfinnan. The Glenfinnan Monument came into the hands of the National Trust for Scotland in 1938. They look after it and today have an exhibition and visitor centre on site.

The Glenfinnan Viaduct

You can see the scale of the viaduct here. It dwarfs the two-car ScotRail train bound for Mallaig.

You can see the scale of the viaduct here. It dwarfs the two-car ScotRail train bound for Mallaig.

But wait, there was one other important thing happened in Glenfinnan. A really spectacular thing. The first and longest mass concrete viaduct in Scotland or England was built there, opening in 1901 as part of the ‘Mallaig Extension’ ie the continuation of the West Highland Railway to the sea. A spectacular 21-arched concrete crescent was flung across the gap in the glen, 100ft / 30m high and 1284ft /  391m long. It still carries rail traffic today.

Everyone knows that because, according to NTS sources, more visitors come to see the viaduct because of its Harry Potter movie connections than come to see the Glenfinnan Monument because of its Bonnie Prince Charlie association (yawn).

How to get the best views (in close-up) of the Glenfinnan Viaduct

(Oh, all right, you get a nice view of the Glenfinnan Monument as well.) Many visitors park at the Glenfinnan Monument carpark, by the NTS building. However, if you continue a very short way west, opposite the road (left) that leads down to the Glenfinnan House Hotel, there is some additional parking on the right, where the road that comes down Glen Finnan reaches the main road. Having said that, I’ve never actually been able to park there!

Parking problems aside (and I’ve been known to park at the church further on and walk back down the hill), simply walk up Glen Finnan and the road takes you right underneath the impressive arches. The marks of the shuttering that formed the concrete into shape more than a century ago are still visible. (This was, after all, a viaduct that was poured into place, section by section.)

Looking south, down Loch Shiel, into the sun. Glenfinnan Monument is left of centre. Note this picture was taken on the 1st day of October. Yes, as late in the year as that and the midges that day were still horrendous.

Looking south, down Loch Shiel, into the sun. Glenfinnan Monument is left of centre. Note this picture was taken on the 1st day of October. Yes, as late in the year as that and the midges that day were still horrendous.

Cruising Loch Shiel, aboard Sileas. Robbie the Border Terrier watches out for sea eagles.

Cruising Loch Shiel, aboard Sileas. Robbie the Border Terrier watches out for sea eagles.

There is a path network around Glenfinnan and you can leave the road and walk uphill westwards through the arches. This leads on to a fine high-level path with stunning views down Glen Shiel and the loch.

Only one little inconvenience: you are looking south into the sun, which can cause problems (or interesting effects) with lens flare.

The path that started below the viaduct takes you down at Glenfinnan Station, where there is a little museum and also a restaurant in a former railway buffet car. So there is something to detain you before you walk down the main road (which has a pavement) back to your starting point.

Loch Shiel Cruises at Glenfinnan

At time of writing, there is a cruise boat on Loch Shiel in the summer season. Sileas is a former Admiralty launch. Loch Shiel Cruises takes visitors well down the loch, to the haunt of sea eagle and red stag (and a whole lot of fascinating local history too). It’s well worth the trip. And only a local man could point out the local detail in the way that the owner Jim Michie does in his commentary.

Booking.com

In short, if you are based in or around Fort William - and we discuss whether you choose there or Oban on that link - then by the time you have taken in the exhibition at the NTS visitor centre, walked down to the Monument (just because, well, people do…) then walked up to the viaduct, then you’ve already spent in the immediate vicinity.

You’ll need another hour or so if you are walking the higher path that then brings you down to Glenfinnan Station. Then, in the afternoon you could do the cruise. Altogether, you will have spent much of the day here. Maybe there’s time to drive west though...By the way, The Glenfinnan House Hotel is a favourite of ours, highly recommended and dog-friendly as a further bonus.

What else is on the Road to the Isles as well as Glenfinnan?

Some say the name ‘Road to the Isles’ should really be the Road FROM the Isles as it originally referred to old Scottish cattle-droving roads from Skye, at least one of which was lost when Loch Loyne to the north of Glenfinnan was dammed for hydro-electricity - though by this time cattle-droving had been killed off by the railways anyway.

In any case, it’s a romantic name and the scenery from Glenfinnan usually has adjectives such as ‘jaw-dropping’ ‘spectacular’ and ‘buttock-clenchingly magnificent’ applied to it. OK, I exaggerate with the last example but the A830 road is no stranger to hyperbole.

That unavoidable Hogwarts Express

So, in short, it’s worth it for the drive alone - though rail enthusiasts might prefer the Jacobite steam-hauled service - no doubt joined by the Harry Potter fans keen to experience Hogwarts Express.  (Book well in advance - it's fearfully popular!)

Road to the Isles running east-west but see (grey dots) an interesting circular route to the south of it.

Road to the Isles running east-west but see (grey dots) an interesting circular route to the south of it.

Aside from the scenic ambience, between Glenfinnan and Mallaig, it’s worth stopping off at Arisaig, then go on to discover the White (or Silver Sands) at Morar before arriving at the faint anticlimax which is Mallaig. (Good local heritage centre though and a harbour stroll is always diverting.)

Finally, - see the map on this page - if you are route-planning you may be tempted by the circular route that (clock-wise) goes south from Fort William, across the Corran ferry (frequent, non bookable) and joins the Road to the Isles at Lochailort via Strontian and Acharacle, so that you visit Glenfinnan on the way back, as it were.

This is a great scenic journey too - but allow plenty of time on the Strontian to Glenuig section as it is mostly single track and is heavily wooded in places with lots of blind bends. The coast around Glenuig gives excellent views of the Small Isles and the mountainous profile of Skye.

Rum Coolin and also Eigg, half-hidden left, from Glenuig.

Rum Coolin and also Eigg, half-hidden left, from Glenuig.