Fort William is the gateway to the Western Highlands and one of the country's main tourist centres. It stands at the head of Loch Linnhe, with the snow-topped mass of Ben Nevis towering behind.
Phone code: +44 (0)1397 | Population: 10,774
You could be forgiven for assuming that it's quite an attractive place, but you'd be wrong. Despite its magnificent setting, Fort William has all the charm of a motorway service station. A dual carriageway runs along the lochside, over a litter-strewn pedestrian underpass and past dismal 1960s concrete boxes masquerading as hotels.
Most of the good things about Fort William are outside the town. The surrounding mountains and glens are amongst the most stunning in the Highlands and attract hikers and climbers in their droves: Ben Nevis - Britain's highest peak at 4,406 ft - and also the very beautiful Glen Nevis, which many of you may recognize from movies such as Braveheart and Rob Roy. There's also skiing and snowboarding at nearby Aonach Mor, one of Scotland's top ski areas, and some good mountain biking around the Leanachan Forest.
Though it's not a pretty sight, Fort William is the largest town hereabouts and has all the services and facilities you'd expect. There are banks with ATMs on the pedestrianized High Street, as well as a couple of good supermarkets and two well-stocked outdoor-equipment shops.
History of Fort William
Fort William also has a rich history if we turn back the pages we can find many interesting things about this ancient creation. It seems that there were many Cameron settlements in the region. The area of Lochaber was Strongly a Cameron country before the fort, Inverlochy was the main settlement at that time.
The town slowly grew up as the settlement close to the fort in order to control the population after the invasion by Oliver Cromell during the English Civil War. Fort Williams got many names in the beginning it was named after William of Orange and later was known as Maryburgh after his wife.
This was further changed to Gordonsburgh and then Duncabsburgh at last got its present name Fort Williams after the Butcher Cumberland. This fort also was a key witness of the World War II, acting as a training base for Royal Navy Coastal Force. Still standing tall this architectural beauty has to unveil a lot about its historic backdrop.
Today Fort William has been rebranded, justifiably, as the Outdoor Capital of Britain.
Local Sights & Activities for Fort William
There's little of real interest in the town, though the West Highland Museum, on Cameron Square by the tourist office, is a worthwhile exception. It contains excellent exhibits of Jacobite memorabilia, including a bed in which Prince Charles slept, and a 'secret' portrait of the prince which is revealed only when reflected in a cylindrical mirror. There are also fine displays of Highland clans and tartans, wildlife and local history. Info - Jun-Sep Mon-Sat 1000-1700; Oct-May 1000-1600; Jul-Aug also Sun 1400-1700. T702169. The fort from which the town gets its name was built in 1690 by order of William III to keep the rebellious Scottish clans in order. The garrison fought off attacks by Jacobites during the rebellions of 1715 and 1745 but was then demolished to make way for the railway line. The scant remains of the fort can be seen on the lochside, near the train station.
The Ben Nevis Distillery is at Lochy Bridge, at the junction of the A82 to Inverness and the A830 to Mallaig, about a mile north of the town centre. To get there take a Caol or Corpach bus (see below under Transport). Info - Visitor Centre open Mon-Fri 0900-1700 (Jul-Aug also Sat 1000-1600). Tel. 700200. Just before the distillery, on the left, are the 13th-century ruins of Inverlochy Castle.
Three miles from the town centre along the A830 to Mallaig, in the suburb of Banavie, is Neptune's Staircase, a series of eight linked locks on the Caledonian Canal. The locks lower the canal by 90 ft in less than two miles between Loch Lochy and Loch Eil and comprise the last section of the canal which links the North Sea with the Irish Sea. It's a pretty dramatic sight, with equally dramatic views of Ben Nevis and its neighbours behind Fort William. From here you can walk or cycle along the canal towpath. Further along the A830 to Mallaig, in the village of Corpach, is Treasures of the Earth, an exhibition of crystals, gemstones and fossils displayed in a huge simulated cave. Info - May-Sep daily 0930-1900; Oct-Apr 1000-1700. Tel. 772283.
There are several good rivers around Fort William, ranging in difficulty from Grade 1 to 6. Canoe courses are run by Snowgoose Mountain Centre, which is attached to The Smiddy Bunkhouse . A useful contact is the Nevis Canoe Club, Tel. 705388.
Torlundy Trout Fishery at Torlundy Farm in Tomacharich, 3 miles north off the A82, Tel. 703015, has 3 lakes filled with rainbow trout and hires out rods. Pony trekking from £15/hr, book in advance.
Hiking and climbing
Fort William is a mecca for hikers and climbers. For information on the climb up Ben Nevis and walks around Glen Nevis. If you want to hire a guide, try Lochaber Walks, 22 Zetland Av, Tel. 703828; Fort William Mountain Guides, Tel. 700451; Alba Walking Holidays, Tel. 704964; and Snowgoose Mountain Centre.
There's an indoor climbing wall at the Lochaber Leisure Centre (see below).
The Leanachan Forest, below Aonach Mhor, is 4 miles north of Fort William. Access is via the road to the Aonach Mhor ski development. The forest covers a huge area with 25 miles of mountain bike trails, ranging from easy to demanding. There is also the Great Glen Cycle Route, which is mainly off-road and runs all the way from Fort William to Inverness. For the hire, sale or repair of bikes, and good advice on local cycle routes, visit Off Beat Bikes, 117 High St, and at the Nevis Range Ski Centre, Tel. 704008, www.offbeatbikes.co.uk, open only Jul-Aug.
The Nevis Range ski centre is at nearby Aonach Mhor. For details, see above, and for ski equipment, try Nevisport (see above).
There's an indoor pool at the Lochaber Leisure Centre, off Belford Rd (see map), Tel. 704359.