My first experience of Fort William came the very first week I was in Scotland. My family and I took a day tour out to Loch Ness, and we drove through town on our way to meet Nessie. (Although I’m the only one of the trio who remembers the driver saying, “We’ve driven over the spot where the walls of the old fort would have stood.”)
My second experience of Fort William came some time later, when I was going out to the Isle of Skye, and we stopped there for lunch. Unfortunately, it was raining and we only had about an hour, so we hit a pub for lunch and the yarn shop down the way.
My third experience of Fort William came about when my parents came to Scotland again, and I finally got to see the fort.
Or what’s left of it.
Now, if you’ve read or seen Outlander, you are probably wondering why someone would want to visit Fort William in the first place. For the time period in which Outlander takes place, that’s a legitimate question. Fort William wasn’t always a tourist destination. In fact, all you have to do is look at the Gaelic name for the town to see that: An Gearasdan, or The Garrison.
Back in the day, the shores of Loch Linnhe were open land controlled by the Clan Cameron, with a few settlements dotted about. A fairly large settlement was at Inverlochy, just up the road from where Fort William is now. The dark and less than pleasant reputation that Jamie Fraser’s contemporaries associated with the place have their roots in the Cromwellian era.
After the Civil Wars in Britain (1642-1651), the British monarchy was abolished and a commonwealth was established. That didn’t go so well – after so many years of monarchical rule and nobility ingrained in British society, no one really knew how to work with a republican government – and a man named Oliver Cromwell took control. He ruled essentially as a dictator, although he never really had that title. His policies were considered cruel and vicious, especially in territories which he felt to be a threat to centralized power, such as Ireland and Scotland. Both places had clan cultures, meaning that localities were fairly autonomous and central government played very little role in their politics. Cromwell tried to change that through use of the military.
In 1654, a fort was built on the shores of Loch Linnhe to house the troops sent to Scotland for the purpose of keeping the clansmen around Inverlochy under control. After the Glorious Revolution in 1689, when Mary and William of Orange usurped the British throne, the fort was renamed Fort William in his honor. It served as a garrison, a prison, and an office for Crown officials. If you’ve read Outlander, you know just how well English presence in Scotland went over, and that force was often used to implement Crown policy. Fort William would have been the epicenter of that tension in the western Highlands. This was not lost on the architects, who constructed a fort with walls 20 feet high and 10 feet thick, surrounded by a defensive ditch, and complete with a bomb-proof arsenal.
After the Jacobite Rising of 1745 (the one with Bonnie Prince Charlie and the rest of the Outlander crew), the fort saw very little action. It was used as a training base for soldiers and housed a garrison until the Crimean War in 1854. In a rather subdued end for such a massive presence, the fort was dismantled in 1894 to make way for a train depot. If you visit, though, you can still see the foundations of the old fort, standing proud on the banks of Loch Linnhe.