Fort William is located at the foot of Ben Nevis, Britain's tallest mountain. Oliver Cromwell's forces built a citadel there, known as the Garrison of Inverlochy, in 1654. This was abandoned after the Restoration but, after the first Jacobite rebellion, Fort William was constructed which gave the modern town its name.
Fort William is located at the confluence of the River Ness and Loch Linnhe at the south-western end of the Great Glen, a series of lochs that run through the Highland massif and which has historically been an important artery of trade and movement through the otherwise inaccessible terrain. Its location made it a key nodal point throughout the pre-industrial age and a major medieval fortress, Inverlochy Castle, was built nearby. However, by the seventeenth century ships had become larger whilst developments in artillery meant military facilities needed to have easy, unrestricted access to the sea. Furthermore, professionalisation of the armies of the time meant they needed dedicated barracks. The two fortifications built at Fort William during the seventeenth century - the Garrison of Inverlochy and Fort William itself - both reflected these requirements.
Garrison of Inverlochy
Following the execution of Charles I in 1649, England declared itself a Commonwealth. However, in Scotland the Covenanter Government opened negotiations with the former King's eldest son, Prince Charles, and after having extracted significant political concessions proclaimed him as Charles II. This prompted an invasion by Commonwealth forces under Oliver Cromwell. He achieved decisive victories at the battles of Dunbar (1650) and Worcester (1651) which put him in control of southern Scotland and thereafter expanded his influence over the whole country. His forces secured the north-eastern end of the Great Glen in 1652 with the construction of Cromwell's Citadel but, in the south-west, the troublesome Cameron clan prompted further military intervention. A Commonwealth force under General Monck moved into the area and in 1654 built a new fort which became known as the Garrison of Inverlochy. The new facility was an earth and timber structure located directly on the banks of the River Nevis. It was configured in a pentagonal layout and supported a garrison of 250 troops. The fort was abandoned following the Restoration of Charles II in 1660.
Fort William (Fort)
On 5 November 1688, William of Orange landed an army at Brixham starting a popular uprising against the Catholic James VII (II of England) that resulted in his overthrow. Known as the Glorious Revolution William and his wife, Mary Stuart (daughter of James VII), were invited to become joint monarchs subject to constitutional limitations. Protestant England embraced the new rulers but reaction in Scotland to the new regime was mixed. Although the Scottish Government supported William and Mary, amongst both Protestant and Catholic circles there was reluctance to displace the Stewart dynasty which had ruled Scotland for over 300 years. Almost immediately the first Jacobite rebellion ignited (April 1689) led by John Graham, Viscount Dundee. Supported by Irish troops and Highland Clans he had military success at the Battle of Killiecrankie. A number of further battles were fought but the uprising was ultimately defused by the offer of a general amnesty to any clans who had participated provided they took an oath of allegiance. Nevertheless, the Government had been shaken by this violent rebellion and in 1690 the old Cromwellian fort was also rebuilt.
The new facility was raised by General Mackay and he named it Fort William after the new King. It was much larger than the earlier structure and was intended to garrison around 1,000 men as well as having fifteen 12-pounder guns. Work started on this earth and timber fortification around 1690 and it was rebuilt in stone in 1698. The new fort was built on top of the earlier Cromwellian structure and had an irregular layout. Its north-east wall abutted the River Ness and was protected by a demi-bastion. The southern landward sides were fronted by a zigzag ditch shaped by two bastions. The north-west side was protected by a demi-bastion and boggy ground lay beyond. A riveted glacis protected the east and southern sides of the fort whilst the entrance was via a ravelin. A small settlement grew up outside the walls that became known as Maryburgh after Queen Mary.
Discontent amongst the Highlanders at the overthrow of the Stewart dynasty continued into the eighteenth century and was further fuelled by the Act of Settlement (1701), which barred Catholics from the throne, and the Act of Union (1707), which merged the English and Scottish Governments. This simmering resentment ignited in rebellion following the succession (in 1714) of George I, first of the Hanoverian monarchs. This uprising, which occurred during 1715 and accordingly became known as 'the fifteen’, was defeated at the battles of Sheriffmuir and Preston. Construction started on further military installations across the Highland region and, following the appointment of General George Wade as Commander in Chief of the army in North Britain, work started on Fort Augustus to augment Fort William and Inverness Castle (which had now been renamed Fort George).
In July 1745 the final Jacobite rebellion started led by Prince Charles Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie). Ironically the rebels made effective use of the military roads built in the preceding decades for the Government forces. The Jacobites initially struck south invading England and advancing as far as Derby before turning back. After defeating Government forces at the Battle of Falkirk in November 1746, they moved into the Highlands aiming to dislodge the Government garrisons along the Great Glen. Both Fort Augustus and Fort George fell to the Jacobites and they then moved on to besiege Fort William. As they approached the fort, the garrison sallied out and burnt Maryburgh to ensure it could not be used by the rebels. Fort William endured a five week Jacobite siege but successfully withstood all attempts to take it and the Jacobites eventually gave up. The rebellion came to an end with the Government victory at the Battle of Culloden (1746).
Although Fort William had withstood the Jacobite assault, the ease with which Fort Augustus and Fort George had fallen prompted substantial changes. Fort William was partially rebuilt with its landward moat modified to enable it to be flooded. Further enhancements were also made to the fort's ramparts. The facility remained garrisoned until 1864 but thereafter the site was decommissioned and in 1189 was sold to the West Highland Railway Company. They demolished most of the fort's buildings although the Officers' Mess remained in use until 1935 before being torn down after World War II.
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Fort William has been largely destroyed with much of the structure now having been buried under the A82 and the Fort William Railway Station. Nevertheless the northern demi-bastion survives and has been converted into a small park. The entrance archway has also survived but has been relocated to a cemetery just a short walk away from the original site.
Fort William. The 1698 fort had an irregular shape which was largely defined by the spur of land on which it was built. Only the northern part of the fort has survived.
Northern Demi-Bastion and Sally Port. The northern demi-bastion can still be seen although its ramparts have been lowered. The Sally Port has also survived.
Fort Interior. The interior of the fort has been landscaped.
Military Occupation. Following the Jacobite rebellions northern Scotland effectively became subject to a military occupation. Three major facilities along the Great Glen - Fort William, Fort Augustus and Fort George - were the lynch-pin of the occupation whilst there were also smaller garrisons at other locations including Braemar, Corgarff, Glenelg and Ruthven. The facilities were linked by a series of military roads largely built by George Wade and William Caulfield.
Entrance. The forts original entrance archway survives but was moved in 1896 and is now the access into a cemetery.
Fort William. Fort William (town) as viewed from across Loch Linnhe. Ben Nevis clearly dominates the site!
Fort William can be found just off the A82 opposite Morrisons supermarket. Numerous car parking options are available with one option shown below. The fort's original entrance gateway had been relocated and can now been found on Belford Road.
Car Parking Option
Fort William Fort
A82, PH33 6EN
Fort Entrance / Arch
Belford Road, PH33 6BT