The West Highland Museum stands on the south side of Cameron Square in the heart of Fort William. As museums go, this one is fairly easy to overlook, and even when you have noticed it, the apparently modest size of its building means you might simply pass by. Don't: this is an absolutely superb museum that is well worth a couple of hours of the time of anyone passing through Fort William. And because its premises extend beyond the main building, the interior feels far bigger than seems possible from outside.
Within this Tardis-like museum is a large, wide ranging and endlessly fascinating collection of well displayed objects, almost all of relevance to the West Highlands in general with a particular but far from exclusive focus on the Jacobite era.
The West Highland Museum is run by an independent charity and has been in operation since 1922. In the early days the museum had neither premises nor permanent exhibits to display in them, and it focused on a series of summer exhibitions which culminated in a highly successful Jacobite Exhibition in 1925. They capitalised on that success to launch an appeal for the funds to purchase one of the oldest buildings in Fort William, the premises of the old British Linen Bank on Cameron Square, built in 1835.
During the 1930s the museum consolidated its reputation as the pre-eminent Jacobite museum. The building was used as a naval officer's mess during World War Two, but following the war the collections continued to grow and in the 1960s an appeal was launched to purchase the neighbouring building: which explains why the interior is so much larger than you expect.
What you see today dates back largely to a major refurbishment of the museum in the mid 1990s, which included a complete reroofing of the building and the insertion of a second staircase between the ground and upper floors to allow better circulation of the growing numbers of visitors being attracted to the museum. Today's visitors should remember that the museum remains a charity which receives only limited public funding: and that income generated by the shop is essential.
The museum is split between the ground and upper floors, and although the various rooms are numbered, there is no particular recommended route for visitors. This promotes simply wandering around each floor in turn and enjoying the amazing range of exhibits on view. These are grouped into a series of collections, from natural history and the Jacobites to Highland life, archaeology and Victoriana. There is also a room dedicated to the role of the Commandos, who trained in Lochaber during WW2.
One collection in a rear room on the ground floor is called "The Fort". The room has been lined with panels from the governor's room at the now (mostly) long gone Old Fort which gave Fort William its name. It would be fair to describe the collection as having a largely military and legal focus. The centrepiece of the room is a large wooden birching table, to which miscreants were strapped to be birched. It is incredible to think that this was used as recently as 1948. Other artefacts on display range from cannonballs and Lochaber axes to thumbscrews.
Weapons are found elsewhere in the museum. An easily overlooked display case on the ground floor is home to the gun believed to have been the weapon used in the infamous Appin Murder. On 14 May 1752 a single shot rang out on a hillside above the mouth of Loch Leven. The unhappy target of this fatal shot was Colin Campbell of Glenure, manager of the Hanoverian government's estates in the area. What followed was one of the most famous miscarriages of justice in Scottish history when an innocent man, James Stewart, or James of the Glen, was convicted of the murder and hanged at Ballachulish.
Also easy to overlook in the stairwell is a twin barreled leather gun, a small cannon dating back to the early 1600s that looks as if it would have been considerably more danger to its users that to its intended targets. But the museum is about far more than military matters. Not far from the Appin gun is a huge ingot of aluminium produced locally and a coffin guard or mortsafe: and close to the leather gun are prehistoric finds, early skiing and mountaineering equipment, and parts of very early gravemarkers.
The upper floor of the museum feels larger than the lower floor and is divided into two main rooms and a smaller rear room that is home to an excellent collection of costumes. The Jacobite collection remains an important part of what draws visitors to the museum, and the range of objects on view is outstanding. Pride of place goes to one of the oddest objects on show, a tray bearing what appears to be a series of random paint streaks. When viewed in a cylindrical mirror this turns out to be a secret anamorphic portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie. In the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden it was considered treasonable to have portraits of the Prince. The tray hid his likeness in plain sight, and allowed a toast to be drunk to him by supporters after revealing his image by placing a cylindrical glass of claret in the centre of the tray to serve as a mirror. A more obvious likeness of Bonnie Prince Charlie is on display nearby in the form of his death mask.
Everyone will have their own favourite objects. Prominent in one of the upstairs rooms is a fairly large illicit still and associated "worm" condenser, both apparently donated anonymously to the museum in 1924. The still carries holes which seem to have been punched in it by Customs and Excise to prevent its use. Others will be captivated by the old musical instruments on display; by the collections of coins and medals; by the natural history collections; or by any of the many other objects on view.