Glenfinnan – a West Highland Must See

Glenfinnan on the Road to the Isles – the road linking Fort William and Mallaig – has a famous viaduct (the ‘Harry Potter bridge’)  and Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Monument nearby. Advice on the best viaduct viewpoint here, plus walks, loch cruising. It’s beautiful country – a 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 probably worth a visit. (I mean, everybody else does…)

History and heritage, railway engineering, cruising, scenery and, of course, that famous Harry Potter movie scene involving a flying Ford Anglia

Of course, long before Glenfinnan became associated with wizardly fiction, and long before a ground-breaking viaduct was built here, the glen witnessed an important event in Scotland’s story.

Glenfinnan Viaduct
The wee two-car train on the Glenfinnan Viaduct seems very small! But it’s a big and impressive viaduct.

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.

Between viaduct and loch is the place where he raised the clans – at least some of them – and started his ambitious campaign to gain the throne.

Most visitors today, however, go to the famous Glenfinnan Monument down by the loch-side, rather than the actual flag-waving site.

‘Supporters, many of whom had been coerced by their chiefs, trickled in with sufficient numbers for the Prince to launch his bid to take back the throne of Scotland and England in the name of the deposed Stuart monarchy.’

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. The date 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

A much more beneficial event for the Highlands 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.

Strictly speaking, the tower originally functioned as some kind of look-out for a ‘shooting-box’ – a square shelter built alongside it, but this building was demolished around 1835 and a statue of a Highlander placed on top of the tower.

(OK, agreed: too much information. I know all you want to read about is Harry Potter.)

Glenalladale from Loch Shiel
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 actual place where the Prince unfurled his flag wasn’t actually at the monument, though generations of visitors have been led to believe that it was. Where Bonnie Prince Charlie raised the clans (follow that link and look for Glenfinnan info!) is 425 yards / 130m to the north-west and higher up.

‘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).’

The Glenfinnan Viaduct

The most famous structure for miles around!

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).

If the ‘all things Harry Potter’ near hysteria are impacting on visitor numbers to Glenfinnan, then that shouldn’t really be surprising. Look what John Wayne did for Cong in Ireland!

Glenfinnan Viaduct – symbolic of any Scottish journey

Recently, the iconic viaduct has become a veritable symbol for any journey by rail in Scotland. Ludicrously, for instance, in Series Two of the huge budget drama ‘The Crown’ – all about the falderals and shenanigans of the British royal family – the viaduct has a role.

Why? Because a wide shot of a steam train crossing the viaduct is used as visual shorthand for the monarch and entourage journeying to their Highland hideaway of Balmoral Castle. 

Now, you’d no more travel from the south (aka ‘England’) to Balmoral via Glenfinnan than, say, fly from New York to Alaska via Argentina, but – hey, it’s a great visual and part of the lavish treatment that has made the series so successful across the world.

No point in letting geography spoil a good scene. (He said with just the faintest trace of grumpiness…)

‘Parking problems aside, simply walk up Glen Finnan and the road takes you right underneath the impressive arches.’

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

(You get a nice view of the Glenfinnan Monument as well.)

Glenfinnan Viaduct from below
A little road goes underneath the Glenfinnan Viaduct, which you reach on foot.

Many visitors park at the Glenfinnan Monument carpark, by the NTS building. A new and extended carpark is now open close by to cope with the sheer numbers of visitors (not necessarily all Harry Potter types).

Basically, Glenfinnan is being loved to death.

Loch Shiel from above the viaduct
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.

There is a path network around Glenfinnan and you can leave the road and walk uphill westwards through the arches. In the picture above, the midges were horrendous  that day – and it was well into the autumn.

Close up to the viaduct, the marks of the shuttering that formed the concrete into shape more than a century ago are still visible. This was, after all, a structure that was poured into place, section by section.

Anyway, basically by following a well-trodden route, you should find yourself on 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, notable for the Glenfinnan Station Museum that portrays the history and heritage of the railway. Light lunches, cakes and so on are on offer in the 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 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.

Some say the name given to the Fort William to Mallaig road, ‘Road to the Isles’, should really be the Road from the Isles as it originally referred to old Scottish cattle-droving roads from Skye.’

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: in that case, you’ve already spent quite a lot of time in the immediate vicinity.

Loch Shiel cruising
Cruising Loch Shiel, aboard Sileas. Robbie (aka Rupee) the Border Terrier watches out for sea eagles. Actually, we didn’t see any but they are around.

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?

Some say the name given to the Fort William to Mallaig road, ‘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 these through-ways 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 in tourism literature.

That unavoidable Hogwarts Express

So, in short, the famous road between Fort William and Mallaig is 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 location
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 going on to discover the White (or Silver) Sands at Morar before arriving at the faint anticlimax which is Mallaig.

You may find those famous sands totally over-run with campervans, by the way.

(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. It then goes west 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.

View from Glenuig
Rum Coolin and also Eigg, half-hidden left, from Glenuig, one of the attractive wee places on the southern loop below the Road to the Isles.

Some more related pages include the info on your preference for Oban or Fort William; a quick aside about a historic walk in the Great Glen (with Bonnie Prince Charlie connections); finally, the story of the Road to the Isles.