How to Take the Ultimate “Harry Potter” Fan Vacation – Part 2: Scotland
by Brian D.
In the first part of this series about our Ultimate Harry Potter Fan Vacation to the UK, we covered the Harry Potter-themed activities and movie filming locations we enjoyed in London. No Harry Potter-focused trip to the UK for Harry Potter-obsessed fans would be complete without venturing up to Scotland though. With that in mind, we followed Harry’s footsteps and boarded a train to Scotland at London’s King’s Cross to head north for the next part of our magical adventure.
J.K. Rowling wrote much of the books in Edinburgh, some of the city’s cafés, in particular, being well-known spots where she’d spent hours on end sipping coffee and putting pen to paper. If ever a city came straight from central casting to inspire a series of books about wizards and witches, mystery and magic, and turreted castle wizarding schools, it would be Edinburgh. Edinburgh’s Old Town, with its cobbled streets lined with towering gray stone buildings, looks and feels magical. It leaves you feeling like you’ve not only stepped back in time but into another world.
When it comes to Edinburgh’s Harry Potter connections – just as in the books themselves – there’s a fair amount of fiction found. Everywhere you go, you find something that someone is saying inspired some part of the Harry Potter stories. There’s a Potterrow street around the University of Edinburgh that some say inspired Harry’s name; there’s the turreted castle school with students divided into four houses that some claim was the inspiration for Hogwarts; there’s Greyfriars Kirkyard with headstones said to have inspired names in the books – therein lies Thomas Riddell (Voldemort), Elizabeth Moodie (Mad-Eye Moody), and William McGonagall (Professor McGonagall). There’s more than one winding, diagonal street lined with quirky shops and weathered stone architecture said to be the inspiration for Diagon Alley (though the same gets said about more than one street in London).
We went about Edinburgh taking things in good humor and, with a grain of salt, committed to having fun and embracing all of Harry Potter’s Edinburgh lore. Whether a specific place inspired something in the books mattered less to us than it truly looked and felt like it very well could have. Tours of Potter sites in Edinburgh might embellish, but more than anything, they’re a chance to get caught up in the excitement of a city that surely has deep Potter connections, often led by tour guides who themselves are eager and enthusiastic fans of Harry Potter, while among fellow Potterhead travelers who are as excited as you to be following in Harry’s footsteps – be they real or imagined. We went in with a bit of skepticism but an open mind and readiness to have fun.
Located right next to Edinburgh Waverly train station, one of the first places you see when arriving in Edinburgh by train from London is the Balmoral Hotel, and its connection to Harry Potter is most definitely a fact. The Balmoral is where J.K. Rowling stayed to write much of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – the suite she stayed in carries her name now.
The Elephant House, just off the Royal Mile, bills itself as “The Birthplace of Harry Potter” because Rowling often wrote there. In truth, Rowling had started writing the books well before setting foot in The Elephant House. Nonetheless, she’s confirmed she did indeed spend plenty of time writing there, so this establishment has Potter bonafide. Sadly, it’s closed now – in 2021, a fire broke out in a different business in the same building, and The Elephant House was damaged. It’s unfortunate this cherished piece of Potter history might be lost forever, but here’s hoping they manage to reopen.
The other café known for its Potter connection is Nicolson’s Cafe. When we originally started planning this trip, the space was occupied by a restaurant called Spoon that would eventually close during the pandemic. After Spoon closed, new owners took the space over, opened a new coffee shop, resurrected the Nicolson’s name, and have embraced the Rowling and Harry Potter connection fully – there’s Harry Potter theming inside, and they’re more than happy to welcome Potterheads through the door.
I find the story these writing locations in Edinburgh tell about the popularity of the books and the success of their author quite fascinating and even inspiring – the migration from cafés and coffee shops where Rowling could hide at a table in the corner writing endless chapters for the price of a cup of coffee early in her career to an opulent luxury suite at Edinburgh’s poshest hotel as she sat down to write the final book in the series says a lot about what a remarkable phenomenon the Harry Potter books became in such a short period of time.
So much of Old Town Edinburgh really does look like it could have inspired places and themes in the books; with their connections or proximity to places, we know Rowling spent time making the claims all the more believable. The Elephant House overlooks Greyfriars Kirkyard directly behind it, so it’s reasonable to think Rowling might have spotted a “Thomas Riddell” or “McGonagall” on a headstone on a stroll through it and subconsciously recalled that name when putting pen to paper later. Adjacent to Greyfriars Kirkyard is George Heriot’s School, which does look like a grand castle and divides its students into four houses (whose colors are red, blue, green, and white – almost a perfect match for Hogwarts but not quite, this Hufflepuff would remind you). And while Rowling has said no school in Edinburgh was the inspiration for Hogwarts, it’s not hard to see why many think that George Heriot’s School – surrounded by places with Rowling and Potter connections, with its four houses, and founded in the 1700s as a school for orphans – was an inspiration for the castle school the orphans Tom Riddle and Harry Potter would attend. Victoria Street is often said to be the inspiration for Diagon Alley, and perhaps the street that can make that claim most legitimately does really look like it could fit that bill and is itself a stone’s throw from The Elephant House and other known Rowling haunts.
Adding Scotland to our trip not only meant being able to visit places connected to the writing of the books but also made it possible to take a ride on the Hogwarts Express – West Coast Railways’ Jacobite steam train that is a pilgrimage destination for many Potterheads.
The Jacobite runs over the West Highland Line, with its Glenfinnan Viaduct the most recognizable portion of the line for Potter fans. Many other stretches of the train’s journey also appeared in the movies as well. Further, the train travels by lochs and through portions of the Scottish Highlands that were used for filming, and it’s the Jacobite that played the part of the Hogwarts Express in the movies (though the engine used for filming retired and now resides at the studio tour in London).
The Jacobite runs between Fort William in the Scottish Highlands and Mallaig on the west coast of Scotland – neither of which are particularly close to Edinburgh. We had to figure out how to get to the train with only four full days in Scotland to work with, many of which were already spoken for with other plans. We ultimately discovered that several tour companies offer full-day tours that depart from Edinburgh bright and early in the morning, venture around the Highlands, drop you off at Fort William to ride the train, including the train ticket, and then bring you back to Edinburgh after.
The dates of our trip made Grayline’s “The Magical Highlands Tour” the one for us – indeed, they were the only option with the limited days we had to work with (it seems different tour companies get access to bulk seats on the train on different days).
An advantage of going this route was that all we had to do was meet the tour bus in Edinburgh and be ready for a day in the Highlands. A disadvantage is we had little control over much of the itinerary and details. First class or compartment-style seating wasn’t an option, and everyone on the tour had assigned seats in standard class (which was still great, but those seeking more of the Hogwarts Express experience might prefer the higher travel classes). By far, the biggest disadvantage we suffered, though, was in having no control over what side of the train we sat on. On the outbound journey from Fort William to Mallaig, you absolutely want to be on the left side of the train for the best views of the Glenfinnan Viaduct, the numerous lochs along the way, and the most stunning scenery. When the train runs from Mallaig to Fort William, you want to be on the right side of the train as you face forward in the direction of travel for all the best views. Our assigned seats had us on the less desirable side in both directions, which proved to be tremendously disappointing.
While being relegated to the bad side of the train was a bummer, it by no means ruined the day. I was happy to be there in the first place, and we enjoyed spectacular weather all day long – gorgeous blue skies and brilliant sunshine. We spent time in Glencoe seeing filming locations for Hagrid’s Hut, the Forbidden Forest, the Hogwarts quidditch pitch, Dumbledore’s grave, and more; we met and bonded with other Potterhead travelers (most on the train were Harry Potter fans). Further, while I think our tour operator couldn’t quite deliver on the Harry Potter promises of this tour, our guide was clearly passionate about Scotland and shared his knowledge of Scottish history and geography with us and made the day a pleasure.
If anything, this trip to and through the Highlands and on the “Hogwarts Express” didn’t leave us marking an item off our Harry Potter fan to-do list – it added even more to that list. I want to get back to the Highlands, book a compartment on the Jacobite with friends, rent a car and travel around filming locations at our own pace to spend as much time in them as we want and see as much of every bit of the Highlands as possible.
It speaks to just how much there is for Harry Potter fans to see and do throughout the United Kingdom that our two weeks spent on our Ultimate Harry Potter Fan Vacation added more to our travel bucket list than they marked off. More than anything else, the trip left us appreciating just how wonderful it is being a part of this marvelous Potterhead community – running into other fans at cafés and gravesites in Edinburgh, venturing through the Highlands in a bus and train full of Potter fans, meeting other Potterheads as we geek out over random London street corners, and visiting countless strange yet familiar and cherished places where you meet countless strange yet familiar people with whom you share a special bond. As Dumbledore would say, “While we may come from different places and speak in different tongues, our hearts beat as one.”