Fort William (Scottish Gaelic: An Gearasdan [ən ˈkʲɛɾəs̪t̪ən]; “The Garrison”, Scots: The Fort) is a town in Lochaber in the Scottish Highlands, located on the eastern shore of Loch Linnhe. As of the 2011 Census, Fort William had a population of 10,459, making it the second-largest settlement in the Highland council area, and the second-largest settlement in the whole of the Scottish Highlands; only the city of Inverness has a larger population.
Fort William is a major tourist center, with Glen Coe just to the south, Ben Nevis and Aonach Mòr to the east, and Glenfinnan to the west, on the Road to the Isles. It is a center for hillwalking and climbing due to its proximity to Ben Nevis and many other Munro mountains. It is also known for its nearby downhill mountain bike track. It is the start/end of both the West Highland Way (Milngavie – Fort William) and the Great Glen Way (a walk/cycleway Fort William–Inverness).
Around 726 people (7.33% of the population) can speak Gaelic.
The earliest recorded settlement on the site is a Cromwellian wooden fort built in 1654 as a base for British troops to “pacify” Clan Cameron after the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. The post-Glorious Revolution fort was named Fort William after William of Orange, who ordered that it be built to control the Highland clans. The settlement that grew around it was called Maryburgh, after his wife Mary II of England. This settlement was later renamed Gordonsburgh, and then Duncansburgh before being renamed Fort William, this time after Prince William, Duke of Cumberland; known to some Scots as “Butcher Cumberland”. Given these origins, there have been various suggestions over the years to rename the town (for example, to Invernevis).
The origin of the Gaelic name for Fort William, An Gearasdan, is not recorded but could be a loanword from the English garrison, having entered common usage sometime after the royal garrison was established, during the reign of William of Orange or perhaps after the earlier Cromwellian fort, or from the ultimately French-derived word “garrison”, as at the earlier garrison at Inverlochy by the Scoto-Norman Clan Comyn.
Historically, this area of Lochaber was strongly Clan Cameron country, and there were a number of mainly Cameron settlements in the area (such as Blarmacfoldach). Before the building of the fort, Inverlochy was the main settlement in the area and was also where two battles took place—the first Battle of Inverlochy in 1431 and the second Battle of Inverlochy in 1645.
The town grew in size as a settlement when the fort was constructed to control the population after Oliver Cromwell’s invasion during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, and then to suppress the Jacobite uprisings of the 18th century.
During the 1745 Jacobite Rising, known as the Forty-Five, Fort William was besieged for two weeks by the Jacobites, from 20 March to 3 April 1746. However, although the Jacobites had captured both of the other forts in the chain of three Great Glen fortifications (Fort Augustus and the original Fort George), they failed to take Fort William.
In 1934, the Laggan Dam on the River Spean was completed as part of the Lochaber hydroelectric scheme by Balfour Beatty for the British Aluminium Company. The supervising engineers were the firm of C S Meik and William Halcrow, now known as the Halcrow Group. The dam was built to power the aluminum smelter here.
During the Second World War, Fort William was the home of HMS St Christopher, which was a training base for Royal Navy Coastal Forces.
More on the history of the town and the region can be found in the West Highland Museum on the High Street.
On 2 June 2006, a fire destroyed McTavish’s Restaurant in Fort William High Street along with the two shops which were part of the building. The restaurant had been open since the 1970s and prior to that, the building had been Fraser’s Cafe since the 1920s. Development work began in 2012 on new hotel accommodation and street-level shops, and these opened in 2014.
In November 2016, Sanjeev Gupta’s Liberty House Group purchased the aluminum smelter lock stock and barrel from the Rio Tinto Group.
On 3 April 2021, it came to light during Gupta’s financial troubles involving Greensill Capital that the Jahama Highland Estates (formerly the “Alcan Estate”) had been purchased in 2016 as part of the Rio Tinto Mines deal for the Lochaber aluminum plant because the furnace requires so much power that the smelter is located near a hydroelectric plant, which drains the basin of the 114,000-acre (46,000-hectare) Estate. The Estate includes the north face of Ben Nevis. According to reports, the Scottish National Party mandated that the Estate never be split from the hydro plant and aluminum smelter but Gupta ignored them and placed ownership of the Estate in a company that is domiciled on the Isle of Man. The 2016 deal was worth £330 million and was guaranteed by the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer. Conservative finance spokesperson Murdo Fraser was critical about the alleged breach of the SNP agreement and urged the SNP to “take whatever steps are necessary to protect public funds”.
A “Waterfront” development was proposed by the council, but there was no overwhelming support for this in the town. The development would have included a hotel, some shops, and some housing, but it was stated early in 2008 that it was unlikely to be completed before 2020. It was announced in April 2010 that the project had been abandoned.
Originally based on the still-extant village of Inverlochy, the town lies at the southern end of the Great Glen, Fort William lies near the head of Loch Linnhe, one of Scotland’s longest sea lochs, beside the mouth of the rivers Nevis and Lochy. They join in the intertidal zone and briefly become one river before discharging to the sea. The town and its suburbs are surrounded by picturesque mountains. It is also on the shore of Loch Eil. It is close to Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the British Isles, Glen Nevis, and the town of Achnaphubuil, is on the opposite shore of the loch. When the railway opened to Fort William on 7 August 1894, the station was given prime position at the south end of the town. The consequence was that the town was separated from the lochside by railway tracks until the 1970s when the present by-pass was built, and the station was relocated to the north end.
The town is centered on the High Street, which was pedestrianized in the 1990s. Off this, there are several squares: Monzie Square (named after the Cameron Campbells of Monzie, Perthshire, former landowners in the town); Station Square, where the long-since demolished railway station used to be; Gordon Square (named after the Gordons, who in the late 18th century owned land where the town now stands, when the town was named Gordonsburgh); and Cameron Square—formerly known as Town Hall Square. There is also Fraser Square, which is not so square-like, since it now opens out into Middle Street, but which still houses the Imperial Hotel.
The main residential areas of the town are unseen from the High Street and from the A82 main road. Upper Achintore and the Plantation spread steeply uphill from above the high street.
Inverlochy, Claggan, An-Aird, Lochyside, Caol, Banavie, and Corpach outwith (i.e. outside) the town are the other main residential areas. These areas are built on much flatter land than the town.
Fort William is the northern end of the West Highland Way, a long-distance route that runs 95 miles (153 kilometers) through the Scottish Highlands to Milngavie, on the outskirts of Glasgow, and the start/endpoint of the Great Glen Way, which runs between Fort William and Inverness.
Glenfinnan, 17 miles (27 kilometers) away, is home of the Glenfinnan Monument (Jacobite era) and the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct (as seen on a Bank Of Scotland £10 note). The viaduct has become known to millions in recent years as the “Harry Potter Bridge” after it was featured in the films of the books by J.K. Rowling, specifically Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Glenfinnan has also been used in Charlotte Gray and Highlander.
Just outside the town is a large aluminum plant once operated by Alcan and powered by the Lochaber hydroelectric scheme, in its day the biggest tunneling project in the world. This was formerly served by the Lochaber Narrow Gauge Railway better known locally as the Puggy.