Glenfinnan - iconic viaduct, Harry Potter and a famous prince
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. Find advice on the best viewpoints here, plus walks, loch cruising. It's beautiful country - a Highland 'must-see' .
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.
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
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.
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.)
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.
The Glenfinnan Viaduct
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).
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...)
How to get the best views (in close-up) of the Glenfinnan Viaduct
(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!
Plans for additional car parking have finally been approved, according to press reports in 2018. (Basically, Glenfinnan is being loved to death.)
You could, of course, make the parking issue the problem of you patient and competent tour-guide(!), and see Glenfinnan as part of a tour to Skye and the West Highlands. It’s a very relaxing way of seeing the best of the west.
Parking problems aside (and - whisper it - 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.)
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.
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.
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 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 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, 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!)
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.