Standing in a car park at the Glenfinnan Monument to the clansmen who died in the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, a crowd waits expectedly – tourists, Harry Potter fans and rail enthusiasts from all around the world – waiting in the cold rain to hear the blast of the horn and the steam of the approaching train.
Ahead of them is the Glenfinnan Viaduct, a masterpiece of Scottish engineering which has achieved increased fame following the use of the West Highland line and the Jacobite steam trains in the Harry Potter films and today fans can enjoy travelling on those trains through beautiful Highland scenery along this historic line.
The Viaduct is the centrepiece of the Mallaig Extension Railway, opened in 1901 as an extension to the West Highland Line originally funded by the Government to support economic renewal and the fishing communities along the west coast of Scotland after the Highland Clearances. Built by Robert McAlpine & Sons, headed by ‘Concrete Bob’ as Robert McAlpine was known, it is notable for being the first major mass concrete engineering project in the UK since the Romans, concrete being chosen due to the difficulty of working the local stone, and the curving viaduct, with its 21 arches rising 30 metres above the River Finnan is, at 380 metres, the longest concrete railway bridge in Scotland.
Scottish engineering was built to last and, further west towards Aviemore, you can still travel on a train on the Strathspey Railway which is pulled by a railway engine which was built almost 120 years ago in the St. Rollox Locomotive Works opened, along with the St Rollox Carriage and Wagon Works, in Springburn in Glasgow in 1856 at a time when Glasgow was a world centre for railway engineering around the world. The journey on the Strathspey Railway takes you past former rail lines, now closed, stations which are themselves architectural gems and yards full of old wagons, perhaps awaiting restoration some day.
Why are steam trains so popular today? They celebrate the ambition of the time with engineering triumphs such as the Glenfinnan Viaduct, putting Harry Potter to one side, and the sight and smell of the steam blowing out of powerful steam locomotives which could travel in all weathers and generally ran on time and where you could enjoy your journey while dining in style in the Dining Car, something I remember from my youth on journeys from Glasgow Central to the old Euston Station, long since gone, when Britain really was the engineering centre of the world.
Probably missed by many of the travellers on the railways as they travel over it is the Caledonian Canal, another triumph of Scottish engineering, designed by Thomas Telford and opened in 1822 as part of the investment in roads, bridges and infrastructure to support the economy after the Clearances, much reducing the journey times and the hazards for shipping from the east to the west coasts of Scotland, made economic by connecting Loch Garry, Loch Quoich and Loch Arkaig (as long as you can avoid the monster in Loch Ness!)