About a boy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 July, 2011, 12:00am


Scotland's most famous viaduct (no one I ask can think of a runner-up) sneaks up on you. It is a curved construction that leans into the landscape beyond and can be glimpsed only briefly as the train thunders over it.

For more than a century, the railway line that crosses the viaduct and connects the West Highlands to Scotland's largest city, Glasgow, was a crucial, yet underused link. So remote is this part of the country there was talk a few years ago of closing down the station in Glenfinnan, which lies about halfway between Mallaig and Fort William.

Glenfinnan's fortunes turned, however, when a boy wizard named Harry Potter boarded the Hogwarts Express and rode across the same viaduct to begin each term at the school of witchcraft and wizardry. Today, fans of the Harry Potter series can take The Jacobite steam train - which includes some of the carriages seen in the films - along track depicted in scenes such as the flying-car sequence.

When the train conductor announces that the viaduct is approaching, passengers rush to the side to get a glimpse through thick, grimy windows.

'Hogwarts!' yells an overexcited fan scrambling to the left side of the train as it arrives at the station.

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 the 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 Glenfinnan House, a stone mansion and one of the country's oldest inns, built between 1752 and 1755.

Gibson says the view of the viaduct, with its 21 arches, is more striking from the ground than through the haziness of a train window amid a clash of elbow-jutting passengers all fighting for the best camera angle. He packs up a drink and a thick sandwich of roast beef and horseradish on home-made bread and directs me through fields and the private land of an estate farm to the base of the viaduct, which was built entirely of concrete over a four-year period beginning in 1897.

Having passed through iron gates and crossed wooden footbridges, I look up from beneath the single track and have to agree with Gibson; the 30-metre high arches are impressive from below.

A short hike away from the viaduct is Loch Shiel, where the ill-fated 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, led by Bonnie Prince Charlie, began. Harry Potter fans, being Muggles (those who lack magical abilities), will have to imagine Hogwarts Castle in the distance. Along the edge of the lake is where the school was painted in with movie magic.

It's not known whether J.K. Rowling, the billionaire author of the Harry Potter books, ever visited Glenfinnan, a tiny village with a church, a visitors' centre and some remarkable inns, serving top-rated food, surrounded by miles of hilly walks. But her imprint is everywhere in Edinburgh, where she began writing the Harry Potter series.

The castles, cafes and literature of Scotland's capital were fertile grounds when it came to providing inspiration for many of the settings and characters that appear in Harry Potter. The Elephant House, a cafe on George IV Bridge Street, proudly proclaims itself as one of the establishments where Rowling wrote her first book. A backroom at the cafe, where the sticky toffee pudding is a delicious mess, faces Edinburgh Castle, one of the possible inspirations for Hogwarts.

Manager Evie Thornton says Rowling spent hours here: 'She always had filter coffee and then just sat down and began writing. We have many writers who come here to work, including Ian Rankin. They come here because no one bothers them.'

Nearby, the entrance to Greyfriars Kirkyard is guarded by Edinburgh's most famous dog, Bobby, a Skye terrier who visited his master's grave here every day from 1858 until his death, 14 years later. The iron monument to the shaggy, stout Bobby is decorated with gifts from travellers from as far away as Australia, who leave items such as tiny koala bears attached to sticks. One admirer has left an envelope with bus tickets and an invi- tation to Germany for the Oktoberfest. Could the loyal Greyfriars Bobby have been the inspiration for Harry Potter's faithful owl, Hedwig?

Rowling is known to have written at Nicolson Street's Spoons Cafe and Bistro, which doesn't tout its connection to the author at all. It doesn't need to; the place is laid-back with excellent service and an extensive menu. The tomato, fennel and fish soup, the special the day I visit, is served with a huge hunk of whole- grain bread.

Before she made it big, Rowling spent hours writing here, but having tasted success, she began to lay low, although she can still be seen in the city from time to time.

'I think she stays 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 Apex Waterloo Place, where Charles Dickens stayed while writing Great Expectations, in 1861, are the two most elegant hotels in Edinburgh, and both are within walking distance of Waverley train station.

With millions of fans waiting anxiously for the final instalment of the Harry Potter series, Rowling holed up in a suite at the Balmoral to finish the last chapters.

In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, the author confessed that she wept when she finished writing the final book. But she may have also been feeling exhilarated and relieved.

Balmoral staff discovered after Rowling left that she had written on a marble bust of Hermes that had been in her room: 'J.K. Rowling finished writing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in this room (552) on 11th Jan 2007.'

The room has since been renamed The J.K. Rowling Suite and still contains the Hermes bust, complete with the small message from an author who has left a giant footprint on the literary and cinematic worlds.

Getting there: Emirates (www.emirates.com) flies from Hong Kong to Dubai and from there on to Glasgow, Scotland. For details about The Jacobite line, go to www.westcoastrailways.co.uk.