Glasgow to Mallaig and the Glenfinnan Viaduct: Railway Writing Retreat
Updated: Feb 25
There are many ways to keep the motivation to write going. Sometimes it comes from an expected source and sometimes a change of scenery is just what the book doctor ordered.
Working on a sequel to my novel Saving Francesca Maier, I had the opportunity to take the train from Glasgow to Mallaig with a group of 4 other writers. This is one of the world’s most scenic train journeys and passes over the Glenfinnan Viaduct, of a certain Harry Potter fame. There’s a popular steam train that completes the most famous part of the route but for the purposes of writerly frugality, this time I travelled on a standard Scotrail train, which takes exactly the same route, although on the steam train there is the option to disembark for photos from outside the locomotive.
Still, my fellow passenger managed to take these impressive shots from inside the train, and the Scotrail conductor conveyed an impressive sense of ceremony at the moment of passing over the ‘world-famous Glenfinnan Viaduct’.
As a group of writers, we pre-booked our seats at tables and next to power sockets and the stop for lunch at Mallaig promised time for writerly chat. I can’t say we managed to entirely avoid talking on the way, but no more than the average water-cooler chat and a welcome change in an often solitary profession. It was galvanising to be amongst a group of dedicated writers for the day, something like I sometimes daydream being part of a writing team on a TV series might be. A second distraction was of course the breathtaking Scottish scenery. Still, I managed to write 4,000 words over the 10-hour journey and do some important plotting/outline work, too – and I’ve kept up a good writing pace since returning from the trip. It was one of my most memorable day’s work – certainly with the most spectacular office view I’ve ever enjoyed.
I had also managed a surprisingly productive writing stint at Glasgow’s fabulous Grasshopper hotel, which allowed me to check in to the pristine peace and quiet of my room overlooking the roof of Glasgow Central Station at midday. With homemade goodies and ice cream outside my room, an old typewriter to write reviews on and welcoming staff, this together with one of the world’s best railway journeys made a fabulous writing retreat. Saving Francesca Maier and 52 Dates for Writers even joined the hotel library.
Itinerary: We travelled from Glasgow to Mallaig on the 8.23 train, arriving for lunch in Mallaig at 13.34. The return from Mallaig to Glasgow left at 16.05, arriving back to Glasgow at 21.24. Bought in advance, my ticket cost around £40, with £65 for the hotel stay at Grasshoppers hotel, including breakfast and snacks and check-in from midday – making this a good-value mini writing break. Lunch in Mallaig at Chlachain Inn was well-priced, plentiful and delicious – especially the Cullen skink.
The Harry-Potter Connection: the filming of the second and third Harry Potter books, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban took place in this area with the Hogwarts Express calling at Glenfinnan. At the beginning of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, there’s a famous flying car scene which was filmed over the viaduct, featuring an enchanted Ford Anglia when Harry and Ron miss the train to Hogwarts. The viaduct was completed in 1898 and overlooks Loch Shiel. It also features on some £10 Scottish bank notes, being part of a series depicting Scottish bridges issued in 2007.
In summary, this was a wonderful writing adventure and has spurred me on with my current writing project. Ten and a half hours on a train, however, is a feat of endurance and there were inevitable distractions from the writing. In March, I am attending a writers’ conference in London and then travelling by train from London to Exeter for a 90th birthday party. For the approximately 3.5-hour journey with South Western Railway, a first-class ticket was only £22. Another train writing retreat beckons.
It wouldn’t be unreasonable to worry about delays and the weather impacting a writing retreat by train. We travelled in February 2020, a day before storm Ciara hit the UK and were lucky with clear skies and uninterrupted travel. Our carriage-mates were heading to the Isle of Skye after disembarking from Mallaig and their return journey was delayed. Still, I’m told the extra day off work added to their Scottish island adventure. (Thanks to Eilidh for the fabulous photos and author and indexer Fiona Firth for arranging the trip.)
What about you? What’s the most inspiring journey you’ve taken? If you’d like to use a journey to inspire your own writing, my creative-writing handbook ‘52 Dates for Writers’ includes a series of exercises to guide you in this and has been described as a ‘must-have guide for writers’ (Books of All Kinds).