The History of Fort William
The history of Fort William begins long before there was such a thing as Fort William, though even way back in the Iron Age the inhabitants found it necessary to build a stronghold there. This was at Dun Deardail, about two miles from the current town, dating back to perhaps 750BC. Dun Deardail is a vitrified fort, the stones fused together by fire in a way still not understood by contemporary experts.
The Picts who held the area are thought to have built a castle in Inverlochy , the village adjoining Fort William, in the early 8th century, and it was here that legend has their king the delightful sounding Achaius the Venomous concluding a treaty with Charlemagne sometime between 790 and 809AD. They had a common enemy in the raiding Vikings ; the treaty did not, however prevent Inverlochy being devastated and its castle destroyed by the Norsemen later in the 9th century.
A further fortress was constructed near the site of Fort William in the final quarter of the 13th century, the remains of this fortress still being visible to this day. It was constructed or at least improved by the Comyn family at the behest of Edward I , a move in the constant and bloody chess game of Scottish dynastic politics. That game in 1306 saw John Comyn, Robert the Bruce ís rival to the throne, murdered by him in Dumfries , the castle and estates passing into new hands thereafter.
Inverlochy in its later history was the site of two significant battles. In the first, in 1431, the forces of James I who had captured and imprisoned Alexander of Islay were defeated by the latterís highlander supporters who went on to despoil and loot the surrounding lands.
The second Battle of Inverlochy took place in 1645. Montrose, with some Irish soldiers along with his Highlanders, managed to defeat a Covenanter force twice as large as his own. Not only was Montrose outnumbered, but his enemy consisted largely of men who had fought at Marston Moor and elsewhere; and Montroseís men were hungry and had made a forced march to try and surprise the troops led by the Marquess of Argyle. Argyllís army was swept aside, many if its soldiers caught and slaughtered near the River Nevis: Montrose may have lost fewer than 200 all told; the Covenanters perhaps 1500.
It was less than a decade later that General Monck founded what was eventually to become Fort William. The stockade he erected in 1654 was to be his base in a campaign expected to drag on for years to subdue the clans in the region. In 1690 the wooden walls that had housed 250 men were replaced with stone fortifications large enough to garrison 1000.
The strengthened fortress was named Fort William after the recently crowned King William of Orange , and it was that King who was central to the next great event to take place on the spot: for it was in Fort William that the orders to massacre the MacDonalds were signed; 38 were duly slaughtered in Glencoe by members of the Earl of Argyllís Regiment.
Fort William was to see one last bloody affair in its subsequent history, when Bonnie Prince Charlie besieged the place, but failed to take it despite a bombardment lasting two weeks. The strategic importance of the fortís way to the sea was demonstrated during the siege, with the garrison re-supplied during the conflict.
A change in the nature of Fort Williamís history occurred at roughly the same period, conflict being displaced by the development of transport and eventually industry in the region: in 1722 lead mining had begun at Strontian to the southwest of Fort William; not long after General Wade began his programme of road building in the Highlands, partly for reasons of military control, but also to improve economic development. By 1736 Fort William on the West Coast was linked by road to Inverness on the East Coast. In 1803 Telford began the Caledonian Canal, which took two decades to complete, providing a waterway from Inverness to Corpach near Fort William. And finally in 1894 The West Highland Railway arrived, facilitating the rise of tourist trade which had begun decades before with the increasing use of packet boats and then steamers to bring travellers to the remote region.
Somewhat surprisingly for what was in many ways still an outpost, in 1896 Fort William pioneered electric street-lighting, using the hydro-electric power generated in its hinterland. That same hydro-electricity led to the development of aluminium smelting in the area.
Aluminium smelting remains significant, running alongside the tourist industry, with salmon farming a third string to the local economy now.
If you like this, Share it
On this day: