Modern visitors to Fort William can easily spend a considerable time here without ever realising that there are significant remains of the fort that gave the town its name still standing only a few yards from the main road passing along the shores of Loch Linnhe, and very close to the railway station and the large supermarket that will doubtless be visited by just about everyone coming to the area.
The River Nevis used to flow into Loch Linnhe a little to the south of where it does now. The angle of land formed to the south of its mouth on Loch Linnhe was recognised as an ideal defensive location, easily supplied by sea, by Cromwell's forces in 1654. They built a wooden citadel on the site which was intended to help retain their grip on the Highlands. In 1690, in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution of 1689 and the first Jacobite uprising that followed (see our Historical Timeline), King William III/II approved a plan by his commander in Scotland, General Hugh MacKay, to build a much more substantial fortress on the same site.
In July 1690 a fleet of naval ships arrived at the head of Loch Linnhe, to be met by General MacKay and 7,000 troops. In less than two weeks the earlier citadel had been rebuilt and a garrison of some 1,200 troops took up residence, defended by 12 guns taken from the naval ships and placed in bastions intended to deter both Jacobites clans and any French supporters arriving by warship.
The original wooden defences were rapidly replaced by stone walls up to 20ft in height and despite early desertions by Highland troops and a mutiny in November 1690, Fort William soon gained substance and permanence. This was aided by the development of a settlement close to the fort which was named Maryburgh, after Queen Mary. The village helped supply the fort, and relied on the fort for its trade and protection. Though this only went so far. Buildings in Maryburgh were initially only made from wood and thatch so they could be rapidly cleared if the fort was in danger of attack. The Gaelic name for Fort William, An Gearasdan, translates as "The Garrison", and the English name of the village soon also changed to reflect its military origins.
Not long after it was established, the fort played a central role in one of the most infamous episodes in Scottish history, the Glencoe massacre. In August 1691 King William III/II offered to pardon all the Highland clans who had taken up arms against him in the 1689 Jacobite uprising. The pardon was conditional on their taking an oath of allegiance to him by 1 January 1692. We relate the events that followed on our Glencoe page, but it was two companies of troops from Fort William commanded by Captain Robert Campbell of Glen Lyon who undertook the massacre at 5am on the morning of 13 February 1692. The orders to "fall upon the Rebells... and putt all to the sword under seventy" were signed by Major Robert Duncanson, one of the senior officers based at Fort William.
Fort William fulfilled the purpose for which it was built when, on 14 March 1746, Jacobite forces mounted an attack. They were fought off by the garrison and placed the fort under siege, with the help of artillery on the high ground to the east. The Jacobites withdrew on 3 April 1746 and it was two weeks later that they were decisively defeated by government forces under the Duke of Cumberland at the Battle of Culloden.
Fort William continued to serve as a garrison for the army until 1855. In 1864 it was sold by the War Office to the local laird, Mrs Christina Cameron Campbell. She converted the buildings into housing and the surrounding ditches into gardens. In 1889 the fort was acquired by the North British Railway Company under the terms of a compulsory purchase order. The railway was opened on 7 August 1894 and followed a route through the centre of the fort and along the lochside to a railway station then located near Fort William's main steamer pier. Some of the fort's buildings were used by the railway company, and part of the open area within the fort was used as a sports ground.
In 1975 the railway station was moved to its current location to the north-east of the fort, and the line of the railway along the lochside was used for the duel carriageway road that still takes traffic past the centre of the town. This resulted in the removal of more of the fort, leaving just the parts of its western side that you can see today. But while the Old Fort may only be a shadow of its former self, there is a lot more to see here than you might expect, and it does repay exploration. A particular surprise is the original sally port, leading down onto what was originally the bank of the River Nevis and allowing access to the shore of Loch Linnhe.
Other surviving parts of the Old Fort can be found elsewhere in the town. Wood panels that once lined the governor's room found their way to the excellent West Highland Museum in the centre of Fort William. Meanwhile, the original main gate can also still be seen. When the railway arrived this was dismantled, and in 1896 it was reassembled, stone by stone, in Craigs Cemetery, in Fort William's Belford Road, a quarter of a mile to the east of its original location.