From the top of the 60ft Glenfinnan Monument, a lone Highlander looks out over the place where Bonnie Prince Charlie arrived to start the 1745 Jacobite Rising.
Yet despite his stance, his traditional dress and the historical significance, some visiting movie fans continue to mistake the statue for Harry Potter. A survey by VisitScotland reveals that one in five tourists visits an iconic film location while in Scotland, with stunning backdrops featured in the money-spinning fantasy film franchise about the bespectacled young wizard among the most popular.
The tourism economy is clearly benefiting from the interest but with a TV reboot of JK Rowling’s books now in the works, is it possible that communities could suffer as footfall continues to increase?
So far in 2023, more than 83,000 people have descended on the National Trust for Scotland’s (NTS) visitor centre at Glenfinnan – a nearly 50% increase on last year. Most arrive desperate to see the Jacobite steam train – also known as the Hogwarts Express – cross Glenfinnan Viaduct, armed with magic wands and cameras ready to catch one of two services that recreate the iconic scene each day.
But with more than 10,000 people visiting over the Easter weekend alone, the infrastructure surrounding the viaduct is stretched beyond breaking point.
Emily Bryce is NTS’s operations manager for Glenfinnan and Glencoe. “In 2019 we had 500,000 people come through the doors of our visitor centre. That had probably risen from about 150,000 five years before,” she says. “That growth has come to a place that was chosen for the films originally for its natural beauty and spectacular scenery. We are simply not geared up for that number of people.”
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Bryce stops to watch someone walking past the visitor centre in a Harry Potter robe before adding: “We need the basic facilities to give people a good welcome but also make sure they’re not having a negative impact on the small community here. Glenfinnan probably has less than 150 actual residents, so an extra 500,000 totally transforms the community.
“It has an impact on the community’s mental health when they’ve got people leaving cars in their driveways, blocking access to their homes and going to the toilet outside.
“There have even been occasions where the emergency services haven’t been able to get into the village because people were parked on the only road in. The community applied for and secured a grant from the Scottish Government’s Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund to increase car parking spaces from 60 to 180 in total but even with that extra growth we don’t have enough spaces at busy times.
“That causes real frustration. People can just abandon cars in dangerous locations or climb hillsides where there aren’t paths, causing quite a bit of erosion.”
It’s not all bad though, as Bryce says the charity sees the hordes of Potterheads as an opportunity.
“The real story of Glenfinnan, the fact, is as exciting as the fiction,” she said. “Our challenge is to excite people with that real history. They might have come for Harry Potter but how do we get them to leave knowing more about the history?
“There’s a lot more to spotting the train and dashing off. You’re in one of the most beautiful locations in Scotland and everything is within pretty easy walking distance.
“Glenfinnan has the youngest average age of visitor for any National Trust for Scotland place and that’s a massively positive thing. If we can inspire and connect with them, that’s a great thing for both us as a charity and for them as visitors.”
To ensure the benefits of Glenfinnan Viaduct’s fame outweigh the negatives, a number of measures are being rolled out by the trust and partners including the police and local authority.
Bryce says: “What we are really keen to do is to change people’s behaviours so that more come without a car. We’d love people to choose to take the train through Glenfinnan.
“What is better than seeing someone else cross the viaduct on a train is crossing it yourself. It’s also far cheaper to catch the normal train than the steam train. If they are coming by car, be aware just how busy it is and come with a plan B. If the car park is full, which is highly likely, move on and don’t just abandon cars.
“We’re here to encourage people to get out and enjoy Scotland’s heritage, both the natural landscape and the stories that make us so special. We’re really excited by that. What’s difficult is that we spend more time managing the car park than sharing those stories.”
While hundreds of thousands of people journey to Glenfinnan to gaze up at the steam train crossing the viaduct, there are of course those who choose to do the opposite.
Every day between April and October, the Jacobite steam trains carry around 700 people across the bridge.
James Shuttleworth is commercial manager at West Coast Railway which operates the train. He was involved in the network when the Harry Potter movies were made. “We finished filming in 2011 but things didn’t properly kick off until three or four years later,” he says.
“We were building the Jacobite up anyway as one of the great rail journeys so there was interest from far afield, then the two came together and suddenly we were inundated with Harry Potter fans.
“We get a lot of people of all ages from all over the world who want to come and ride on the train. They know it’s not the Hogwarts Express but the two are tied together.”
Looking out of the train window, Shuttleworth is aware of the problems tourist numbers are bringing to Glenfinnan, but says they are balanced by positives: “When I was first in Glenfinnan before Harry Potter I was probably on my own on the hillside, but when I went over on the train last month there were a couple of hundred people there.
“For the local economy, it’s big business. Mallaig, if left to its own devices, would have declined into a hamlet.
“The village is almost entirely bypassed by the road. The normal train service doesn’t really bring enough people in but we’re taking upwards of 700 people a day in the high season.
“I went on the second train this year and there was optimism.
“In the West Highlands they set their tourist calendars based on when we run, which is now the beginning of April to the end of October.
“When we first started it was the middle of June to the middle of September, so we’ve doubled the season and the number of trains.”
All things considered, would Shuttleworth be keen to get involved in filming a second time if the opportunity arose?
“We await their call,” he says.
If it’s not Glenfinnan that springs to mind when thinking of the boy wizard, maybe it’s the whimsical Diagon Alley, the towering chess pieces from the first movie or the eerie cemetery from the fourth.
Edinburgh is another must-visit for fans given the number of locations that are said to have inspired JK Rowling’s seven Harry Potter books.
City council leader Cammy Day said: “We welcome filming and film-related tourism for the economic benefit, employment opportunities and the on-screen promotion it brings to the capital.
“Of course, big-budget productions like this also help to support our city’s creative industries, local businesses and boost tourism.”
However, like Glenfinnan, the city has also felt some negative side effects.
The real Tom Riddle wasn’t to know when he died in 1806 that his grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard would become a tourist attraction.
The council has had to take action after high visitor numbers damaged both the ground and the tranquility of the cemetery.
Culture and communities convener Val Walker said: “While we welcome that our cemeteries are appreciated by so many, the significant footfall through some of our cemeteries, like Greyfriars, is causing erosion of pathways and path edging which require regular repairs.”
After visiting Greyfriars, many fans like to go to the place where it all started – The Elephant House cafe, with a sign above its door declaring it the “birthplace” of Harry Potter.
This may not be quite accurate, with JK Rowling herself saying on Twitter: “I’d been writing Potter for several years before I ever set foot in this cafe, so it’s not the birthplace, but I *did* write in there so we’ll let them off!”
The cafe, on the city’s George IV Bridge, is currently closed after a fire in the neighbouring unit last year, but fans still head there to gaze at the locked door.
Owner David Taylor said: “I consider myself very lucky that JK Rowling was writing in the Elephant House as a regular customer when her first book was published, making us the ‘birthplace’ of the Harry Potter books.
“We are happy to be part of the magical world of Harry Potter.”
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