x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Follow the Harry Potter trail through magical Scotland

Andrew Eames hops aboard a Jacobite steam train for its route along Scotland's north-western coast, which sets the scene for the journey to Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films.

The Jacobite, better known as the Hogwarts Express of the Harry Potter films, runs across the spectacular Glenfinnan Viaduct. Fifty Fifty / Press Association Images
The Jacobite, better known as the Hogwarts Express of the Harry Potter films, runs across the spectacular Glenfinnan Viaduct. Fifty Fifty / Press Association Images

Every day, twice a day, the relatively little-known fishing port of Mallaig, in the west Highlands of Scotland, fills with 300 people speaking in tongues and looking vaguely lost. If the weather is good enough they gather along the port jetties, pointing at the harbour-dwelling seals, eating chips and watching the depleted fleet of fishing boats coming and going. If the weather is bad, they cram into Mallaig's various eateries, which have all massively expanded in recent years to cope with these unusual surges in business. They're there for 90 minutes, and then, with a whistle, several bangs and a huge puff of smoke, they're gone.

This stretch of highland coastline is not without its tradition of exotic foreign visitors. Bonnie Prince Charlie, who grew up in France, landed here back in 1745 to raise his army at Glenfinnan and lead the Jacobite rebellion to march on the English, a brave but foolhardy enterprise that ended in defeat at Culloden, after which the English outlawed the whole Scottish clan system.

But now, 266 years, later, it's not the Bonnie Prince pulling the crowds to this part of the West Highlands, it's the Boy Wizard. For the magic conveyance that carries that daily invasion into Mallaig and away, again, is also called the Jacobite, but this one is a steam train (thus the whistle, the smoke and the bangs of the carriage doors), and it runs between Mallaig and Fort William every day. It also happens to play the part of the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter films.

The latest and last of the films, part two of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, has just been released, and the train will once again be back in on-screen action. Its most iconic moment in the films so far has been steaming across the spectacular, curving 21 arches of the Glenfinnan Viaduct, 20 minutes out of Fort William, with the stupendous landscape of lochs and mountains behind it and with Harry Potter and Ronald Weasley in a flying car above. However, for this final film most of the new material has been shot up on neighbouring Rannoch Moor, a morass of bog and rock, a sombre wilderness whose visual appeal perfectly captures the foreboding of the final film.

There isn't much Potter memorabilia either on board the train or in the stations at either end of the journey. Copyright issues mean that the Jacobite cannot overly promote itself as the Hogwarts Express, but you can't disguise those landscapes or that viaduct, and the last few years have seen an enormous surge in passenger numbers, largely of people who'd never otherwise have come to this part of Scotland. Travelling on the train the other day, I met Germans, French, Indians, Malaysians and Chinese. When I asked Pieter, a grizzled Dutchman, whether he'd have come on the Jacobite if it wasn't for Harry Potter, he agreed that while he and his friend were "there for the steamies", their wives "prefer Hermione and Ron" - which was a deal-clincher, as far as the trip was concerned.

Certainly they were none of them going to be disappointed, because it's a great journey - as long as the windows are not covered in rain. Beyond Glenfinnan, the train climbs through forests of ash, carpeted in a tartan of bluebells and bracken, turning this way and that as it seeks a way through from glen to glen. The peaks above are habitually hung with the fraying rope of streams in spate, and the land around is littered with lochs that look like slices of sky fallen to ground. Trailing clouds of steam, the heavy-breathing Jacobite clatters through this landscape, its pulse slowing at the hills and racing in the valleys, a snorting beast prowling through its mythical homeland.

The last part of the journey into Mallaig is through some of the UK's most spectacular coastal scenery. There's a view of islands out across the Sound of Arisaig, where Eigg, Rhum and Muck crowd the horizon, and with the shoulders of the Isle of Skye a little further north. Close at hand are white-sand beaches and, on a sunny day, the sea has the turquoise hue of the Caribbean.

However, the vast majority of the travellers on the Jacobite have bought return tickets and don't stay in Mallaig for longer than the train's 90-minute turnaround time, which only gives them enough time to sample what must be some of the best fish and chips in the country. That's a shame because there's a lot more to see and do around here, completely unrelated to steam trains and wizardry.

This is, for example, Scotland's best sea-kayaking territory, and kayaking itself is one of Britain's fastest growing national sports. Just south of Mallaig, one of the last stops of the Jacobite is at Arisaig, the most westerly harbour on the Scottish mainland, and a key location for kayakers who are doing what is widely recognised as one of the best sections of the Scottish sea-kayaking trail, a route that runs all the way up the coast from the Mull of Kintyre to Ullapool.

For kayakers, this section of the trail is a perfect place for a sea-borne adventure; there's wild camping, deserted islands, rich sea life, water-surrounded castles and waterside inns. The peninsulars, sea lochs and promontories mean that when it cuts up rough there's always somewhere to run and hide.

South of Arisaig, for example, one of the most sheltered pieces of water is Loch Moidart, a sea-loch gummed up with forested islands, one of which is topped by Castle Tioram, the forbidding-looking seat of the Clan Ranald, whose legends are all about feuding clans and maidens tied to rocks and drowned by the rising tide. Some of the loch's forested islands are inhabited - the large island of Shona is owned by Richard Branson's sister Vanessa - and they all have secret moorings and channels that turn into fast-flowing rivers at different stages of the tide.

Arisaig itself, where Bonnie Prince Charlie came ashore for his fated Jacobite adventure, is a boating base with regular summer services out to the "cocktail isles" - Rhum, Eigg and Muck - and its big bay is protected by the Arisaig skerries, outcrops of rock with skirts of sand made from shells and a sort of coral. At the right stage of the tide, these become a kayaker's maze, the beaches gleaming and crisp and the shallows luminous under the boat. It's a place to play hide and seek with eider ducks and otters.

There are other sorts of wildlife hide-and-seek to be done on land, too, particularly thanks to the high populations of deer in this part of Scotland. Deer-stalking has been a traditional source of revenue for highland estates where the terrain is usually far too steep and rough for any kind of agriculture, and until now it has been very much a pastime of the rich and the aristocratic. But there's a very special piece of land, easily accessible from Mallaig, that is unique in the way it is managed, and enlightened in the way it treats its deer.

That piece of land is the Knoydart peninsula, a knuckle of rock and glen that is effectively an island, thanks to a chain of mountains that isolates it from the rest of the mainland. Its main access is via regular ferry connections from Mallaig, which is about a 30-minute journey across the water.

In years gone by Knoydart used to be one big hunting estate, whose sole residents were estate employees, but then it was bought by a consortium of locals and conservation organisations and is now run as a charitable foundation. Its resident population has grown to about 125 and includes a variety of eccentrics, not least the Napoleon-loving postmaster, who started life as a plumber in Kent. The peninsula offers a range of surprisingly luxurious accommodation options and its tourism initiatives include deer-stalking with a camera, rather than with a gun - although it does still do the latter, too, to keep the deer population in check.

A healthy deer population is good news for camera-stalkers, of course. Starting from sea level, guided by one of the peninsula's rangers, it is not easy to stay out of the line of sight of mountain-loving stags, of whom there always seems to be one on sentry duty. One of the current stock of Knoydart stags happens to be a rare albino, although camera-stalkers will be very lucky to get a glimpse.

The Knoydart ranger will teach his stalking party how to be aware of wind direction, of line of sight, and of being overlooked. It's particularly important to know what is behind and beside, as well as what is in front, because spooking one deer, inadvertently, can trigger a chain reaction through 360 degrees.

As they get higher, stalkers are less likely to be overlooked and their chances of getting close to something get better. Then there'll be the glimpse of a lonely, dun-coloured outline browsing amongst the wind-whacked grass, and both parties get so close to each other that they nearly give each other a heart attack.

At which point it is a matter of keeping a steady hand, and only taking pictures, not lives.

 

If you go

The flight Return flights from Abu Dhabi to Edinburgh on Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) cost from Dh2,575, including taxes.

The train The Jacobite (www.westcoastrailways.co.uk/Pages/jacobite.cfm) runs from Fort William to Mallaig and back again, between May and October. Tickets cost £31/Dh182 return.

The activities Sea-kayak hire is available at Arisaig for £30 (Dh176) per day (www.seakayakhighlands.co.uk). The Knoydart Foundation (www.knoydart-foundation.com/wild-knoydart-experience) charges between £100 to £150 (Dh588 to Dh882) for camera-stalking groups.