Welcome to Fort Augustus
Situated close to the midway point in the Great Glen, the village of Fort Augustus is an ideal base for exploring this famous valley. Today’s beautiful village is centred on its lock gates which take the water of the Caledonian Canal down those final few feet to meet with the legendary Loch Ness. The canal, which follows the Great Glen from Fort William to Inverness, may be the most romantic way to arrive in Fort Augustus but it is not the only way; the town lies on the Great Glen Way, a long distance footpath which follows the glen along its 73 miles, although most visitors nowadays arrive by car along the A82.
The Caledonian Canal at Fort Augustus - Loch Ness
Since prehistoric times there have been human inhabitants in the Fort Augustus area, as sites such as the artificial island (or crannog) known as Cherry Island on Loch Ness testify. The island was first confirmed as a crannog by a monk called Odo Blundell, from the local monastery, who undertook one of the first examples of underwater archaeology in Scotland, in 1908, by hiring a wet suit from the canal company. His conclusions have since been confirmed by more modern underwater archaeologists.
The actual date of the first settlement on the site of today's village is unclear. We can assume that its prime position, at the southern end of Loch Ness, would have been recognised since earliest times. The site may well have been recognised by St Chumein, a Christian missionary from Iona who journeyed into a the pagan wilds of Scotland on missionary expeditions around the 7th century. The early Christian church built at Fort Augustus was dedicated to the saint and in the Gaelic language the village, Cille Chumein - ‘the church of Chumein’ , still owes him its name. Its English name would arrive much later and would be born out of war rather than faith.
For centuries Fort Augustus was little more than a tiny hamlet the life of which life revolved around fishing the waters and working the land as well as providing hospitality for those few travellers who made their way along the mighty waterways of the Great Glen. The political turmoil of the late 17th century, brought about by dynastic conflict between the house of Hanover and the ousted house of Stuart (whose sympathisers were known as Jacobites), erupted into a war which would change the Highlands, and Fort Augustus, forever.
By siding with the deposed House of Stuart the Highlanders had put themselves on a collision course with the government. As part of government attempts to subdue the Highlands a policy of road and fort building was instituted. After the failed Jacobite rebellion of 1715, Fort Augustus was selected for the building of a stronghold to guard over the route afforded by the Great Glen. One wall of the original fort, complete with gun loops, can still be seen making up part of a hotel. Ten years later a second fort was built by the water’s edge, at the behest of General George Wade, so that it could be more easily supplied by the government boats patrolling the loch. This lay on the site of the Abbey, built at the beginning of the 19th century using the fort as a quarry. The fort was named Augustus after King George II’s 3rd son, William Augustus, after which Fort Augustus became the English name of the village which surrounded it. Interestingly, William Augustus, later titled the Duke of Cumberland, based himself in the village in the aftermath of the ultimate defeat of the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. By then William Augustus was better known in the Highlands as ‘Butcher Cumberland’ as a result of the brutality of his generalship and fervent pursuit of a policy of repression in the Highlands.
One of the village’s quaint tales is from a short time after the Jacobite collapse. It involves the local character John Anderson. Anderson, a carpenter by trade, is famous due to his relationship with one man: the poet Robert Burns (1759-1796). It is Anderson who is said to have built the poet’s coffin, and to whom the poem ‘John Anderson, my Jo’ was dedicated. It is genial to imagine the hills around Fort Augustus as being the setting for the song’s second verse, which describes the happy days the friends spent climbing together. John Anderson, who died in 1832, is buried in the village graveyard.
In the final years of his life Anderson would have seen great changes in his village. When the greatest civil engineer of his day, Thomas Telford (1757-1834), was commissioned to build the Caledonian Canal, connecting all of the Great Glen’s lakes into a single waterway through the Scottish Highlands, it was to be the greatest project of his life. In 1822, 17 years after commencing, the canal was opened. Towns such as Fort Augustus became instantly accessible to the growing number of travellers exploring Scotland’s wild and beautiful places. Today, this lovely village, with more amenities than one would expect from a settlement of its size, is one of the highlights of any journey through the Great Glen.