Glenfinnan, SCOTLAND – This country’s most famous viaduct (no one asked can think of a runner-up) sneaks up on you, a curve veering into a landscape that was only a passing glimpse sideways on a journey pressing forward by train.
For over a century, the railway line connecting the West Highlands of Scotland to its largest city of Glasgow and then onwards to its capital of Edinburgh was a crucial, yet under-used transportation link.
So remote is this section of the country that there was talk a few years ago of closing down the Glenfinnan station.
But Glenfinnan’s fortunes turned when a boy wizard named Harry Potter boarded the Hogwarts Express and took the same curve over the viaduct at the start of each school term to the School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Today, fans of the Harry Potter series by Edinburgh-based superstar author J.K. Rowling take the steam train to ride across the rail line that the movies depict in scenes such as the flying car sequence and the Hogwart Express crossing over the viaduct.
When the train conductor announces near the end of the three-hour journey from Glasgow that the viaduct made famous by Harry Potter is approaching, passengers rush with their cameras to get a glimpse.
“Hogwarts!” said one fan scrambling to the left side of the train as it arrives into the station to take a picture of the view from the window.
The village of Glenfinnan itself does little to market its connection to Harry Potter even though a recent poll ranked Hogwarts as the 36th best Scottish educational establishment after it was listed for fun and then voted on by public.
“Glenfinnan’s been here for a long time before Harry Potter and will continue to be here a long time after the movies,” says Duncan Gibson, resident manager of the stone mansion Glenfinnan House Glenfinnan House, one of the country’s oldest inn first built between 1752 and 1755.
Gibson says the view of the viaduct, with its 21 arches, is most striking from the ground rather than through the haziness of the train windows and the clash of elbow-jutting passengers aiming for the best camera shot.
He packed up a thick sandwich of roast beef and horseradish on home-made bread for lunch then using a crude but simple map, Gibson directed me through fields and private land of an estate farm to the base of the viaduct, an impressive structure built entirely of concrete over a four year period beginning in 1897.
Looking up at the patches of sky from beneath the single track where Gibson instructed me to go past iron gates and wooden footbridges, I agree the view from the ground where the arches soar 30 metres high is a better frame then the quick glimpse from the train.
A short hike away from the viaduct is Loch Shiel, the setting for the start of the ill-fated Jacobite Rebellion led by Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1756. Harry Potter fans, being Muggles, will have to imagine Hogwarts Castle in the distance. Along the edge of the lake is where the school is painted in through movie magic.
The last movie in the series, Part 2 of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, hit theatres last week. The six previous Harry Potter movies have already grossed nearly $7 billion US worldwide and the success of the books made J.K. Rowling, whose rise to riches and fame have been well-documented, the first billionaire author.
It’s not known whether Rowling ever visited Glenfinnan, a tiny village with a church, a visitors centre, some remarkable inns with top-rated food and kilometres of hilly climbs around the lake. Her imprint, however, is everywhere in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, where she began writing the Harry Potter series.
Scotland’s capital city of castles and cafés is well-suited as the inspiration for many of the settings and characters that appear in Harry Potter.
Elephant House, a café on George IV Bridge Street, proudly proclaims itself as one of the establishments where Rowling began writing her first book. A backroom at the café, where the sticky toffee pudding is a sticky delicious mess, faces Edinburgh Castle, one of the possible sparks for Hogwarts Castle.
Manager Evie Thornton says Rowling spent hours there with cups of coffee and writing the beginnings of Harry Potter in longhand.
“She always had filter coffee and then just sat down and began writing. We have many writers come in here to do work, including Ian Rankin,” says Thornton. “No one bothers them.”
Nearby at Greyfriars Burial Ground, the entrance is guarded by Edinburgh’s most famous dog Bobby, a Skye terrier who visited his master’s grave every day beginning in 1858 until his own death 14 years later.
The shaggy stout iron monument to Bobby is decorated with gifts from travellers as far away as Australia who leave tiny koala bears attached to sticks. Another fan left an envelope with bus tickets and an invite to Germany for Oktoberfest. I like to think the loyal Greyfriars Bobby may have influenced Rowlings to create Harry Potter’s faithful owl Hedwig.
A few blocks away on Nicolson Street, Rowling is known to have written at Spoons Cafe, which doesn’t tout at all its connection to the author. It doesn’t need to. The place is laid-back with excellent service and an extensive menu. The tomato, fennel and fish soup, the daily special that day, was served with huge hunk of whole grain bread.
Before she made it big, Rowling spent hours here writing, but after the world-wide success of the first books, she laid low although residents still continue to see her around the city.
“I think she stays here because people don’t really bother her here,” says Lauren Meldrum, marketing manager of The Balmoral Edinburgh.
“She can live a normal life even though she may be one of the world’s most famous writers.”
The Balmoral and the Apex Waterloo Hotel, where Charles Dickens stayed while writing Great Expectations in 1861 are the two most elegant hotels in Edinburgh, and both within walking distance to Waverley rail station, the city’s central station.
With millions of fans waiting anxiously for the final book, Rowling holed up at the Balmoral in a suite to finish the last chapters.
In an interview with Oprah, Rowling confessed she wept when she finished writing the final book. But she may have also been feeling exhilarated and relieved.
Balmoral hotel staff discovered after Rowling left that she had written on a marble bust of Hermes that had been in the room. “J.K. Rowling finished writing Harry Potter at the Deathly Hallows in this room (552) on 11th Jan 2007.”
The suite has since been renamed the J.K. Rowling suite and visitors can see the bust which is now under glass to protect it from overzealous fans who may want a souvenir.
It’s a small, almost hidden, message by an author who has left a giant footprint in the literary world with her story of a boy wizard name Harry Potter.