On the authentic Harry Potter trail through Scotland

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Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, England, was Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies. (ELLEN DUNKEL / Staff)

ST ANDREWS, Scotland - The unicorn is the national animal of Scotland, just one of many signs it's a magical land.

So when my niece, Rachel Cawkwell, received a Bobby Jones Scholarship to do graduate studies in English literature at St Andrews University, I knew I had to visit. She was studying the works of the great authors and walking their hallowed grounds, but for my sojourn, I proposed a lighter route: the trail of literary hero Harry Potter. We found suggestions online at VisitBritain.com and made plans.

Hermione Granger used a Time-Turner - an hourglass necklace for time travel - to get to two classes at once. But Rachel had to carve out separate blocks for writing her master's thesis and visiting the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Without a Time-Turner, we'd have to stick to nearby environs of Scotland and northern England.

That left out Platform 93/4 at King's Cross Station in London, 470 miles to the south, where the Hogwarts Express boards through a brick wall. The train is accessible only to witches and wizards, but King's Cross Station, nonetheless, has a sign marking the way. (On Sept. 1, author J.K. Rowling tweeted that James Sirius Potter, Harry and Ginny's son, would be starting at Hogwarts that day. She asked whether someone at King's Cross could wish him luck.)

Not only did we not have a Time-Turner, we also didn't have a flying Ford Anglia like Harry and Ron Weasley used to get to school in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. We did, however, have the "Bobbymobile," the full-size van Rachel shared with three other scholars. It took us past lush grassy pastures, heather on the moors, and bright yellow fields of rapeseed on a series of day trips and overnights in pursuit of authentic Potter - far from a world of theme-park Potter stretching from Universal Orlando to Universal Japan.

On my first day in Scotland, we stayed in St Andrews, a gorgeous seaside college town, the birthplace of golf, and home to the university where Prince William and Kate Middleton met. This was May, and tents and seating were going up for July's British Open.

We walked on a beach along the North Sea where Rachel ran most days, and where the opening scene of Chariots of Fire was filmed. We poked through the ruins of the 450-year-old St Andrews Castle. Nearby were the even more gorgeous ruins of St Andrews Cathedral, built in 1160 and abandoned during the Protestant Reformation in 1560. Rachel's room at Deans Court had a window seat overlooking it and the North Sea beyond. Even her dorm dated to the 15th century and felt very Potteresque; we ate some meals in the basement, which felt like a shrunken version of the Great Hall at Hogwarts, with arched ceiling, long tables, and candelabras.

Our first Potter pilgrimage was a three-hour ride in the Bobbymobile to the Scottish Highlands. There, it was snowing in May. We headed for Glencoe, a gorgeous area centered on a giant loch. We accidentally took the scenic route around the lake, adding an extra 45 breathtaking minutes to our trip.

Glencoe Village is tiny, so lodging should be booked well in advance. Just as we pulled up to our B&B, the charming Inchconnal, some of Rachel's friends from St Andrews unexpectedly pulled up behind us. They managed to find a room only after knocking on several doors.

It stayed light past 10 p.m. in May, so Rachel and I unpacked, ate a dinner we had brought, and then went hiking through forests that, in the Harry Potter movies, served as the land surrounding Hogwarts. Our walk also went through a redwood grove, planted in the 19th century by a Scotsman who had spent time in California.

The next morning, we had tickets for an 84-mile round-trip ride on the Jacobite Steam Train - used as the Hogwarts Express - that runs May through October on the West Highland line, from Fort William (the largest town in the Highlands) to Mallaig. In between, it stops several times so passengers can get off and take photos of the mountains and lochs.

The main attraction on the route, though, is the Glenfinnan Viaduct, over which Harry and Ron flew the aforementioned Ford Anglia. A short hike would have afforded a better view of it, but not enough time was built into the schedule for that before the train took off again.

The small towns where the train stops offer little to do, apart from lunch and a bit of shopping. Unlike the fabricated Wizarding Worlds, these are places where people live and work; few souvenirs are sold. The train ride is the reason to go, and on ours, costumed actors walked the cars as Delores Umbridge and a Dementor.

Before heading back to St Andrews, we drove to the Steall Falls at Glen Nevis, site of Rachel's favorite hike and the Tri-Wizard Tournament in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. It's also where Quidditch matches were filmed for the first two Potter movies.

The drive isn't easy on the motion sick, with hilly one-lane roads and barely adequate pull-offs to allow other cars to pass. Then, when we finally reached the path, a sign warned: "Danger of death: Fatal accidents do occur by falling from this path."

As one who sprains ankles walking on flat pavement, I was concerned. But small children were scrambling across rocks and hopping over streams like little mountain goats, so I agreed to try it. Still, after nervously climbing across a second waterfall without Floo Powder to help me escape if I fell, I opted out. Someone else would have to catch the golden snitch. We returned to St Andrews.

The next day we spent in Edinburgh, about an hour's drive or a train ride away. We toured Edinburgh Castle, home to many monarchs, including Mary Queen of Scots and now a monument and museum. We walked the Royal Mile to Holyrood Palace, Queen Elizabeth II's Scottish abode.

J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (known as the Philosopher's Stone in the U.K.) at a cafe in Edinburgh, the Elephant House, which serves hot drinks and meals. The food was good, but even there, its most famous customer got only a mention on one wall and a sign in the window.

Still, patrons have made sure Harry and Rowling get their due. Moaning Myrtle would be proud that the loo was given such attention. Nearly every surface in the bathrooms is covered with graffiti proclaiming adoration for Rowling, Harry, Ron, Hermione, and friends.

That left the main event for the next day: Hogwarts, a.k.a. Alnwick Castle (pronounced A-nick), in Northumberland, England.

On the way down, we stopped at Bamburgh Castle, a stunning structure on a beach. Visitors can tour it, lie in the sun, or frolic in the sea. We just admired the scene from the sand, then headed to Alnwick, a nice market town with a huge, stately castle.

Alnwick Castle was the most touristy of the sights we saw. On sale were snacks and souvenirs, including a modest selection of Harry Potter robes, scarves, and Marauder's Maps. Apart from tours, broomstick training, medieval crafts, and wand-making were offered.

(Alnwick was also featured in the 2014 Downton Abbey Christmas special, and a Downton Abbey exhibit is on through the end of the year.)

If the weather complies, Alnwick, with its botanical garden, can fill a day. But as often happens in the U.K., it began raining before we could get to it.

We stayed overnight in an Airbnb deep in the heart of cornfields, yet just a few miles outside town. The next morning, we took off for Durham, yet another charming city with a castle and winding roads lined with shops.

We had our sights on Durham Cathedral, a World Heritage Site, which doubled as parts of Hogwarts in Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets. Harry flew his owl there, Ron vomited slugs, and Professor McGonagall taught her class to transform animals into goblets.

After checking out the cathedral, we enjoyed it again, in miniature. For every pound donated, a Lego brick is added to a scale replica. The details - tiny stained-glass windows resembling the real ones - amazed.

The next morning, Rachel and I parted ways for a couple of days. She hit the books, and I took a train to visit friends in the Lake District on the northwestern coast of England. We hiked along the coast, walked through fields of wild garlic flowers, and bought fresh eggs of several colors from a farmer.

I returned to St Andrews for one last overnight. King's Cross was only one of the Harry Potter sites we hadn't seen. There was the Hogwarts Library - the Bodleian Library at Oxford University; the reptile house at the London Zoo, where Harry discovered he could speak Parseltongue, the language of snakes; London's Leadenhall Market, the entrance to the wizards' pub, the Leaky Cauldron.

But I wouldn't have changed a thing. It was a magical trip.

edunkel@phillynews.com

@edunkel