Fort William lies on the eastern shore of Loch Linnhe, at the southern end of "The Great Glen" and at the foot of Ben Nevis, Britain's highest mountain (4406ft). It is the largest town in the West Highlands and the commercial centre of Lochaber; an area renowned for the tremendous natural beauty which has provided the setting for many important events in Scottish history.
Fort William was originally called Inverlochy, “Mouth of the Lochy”, which drains the loch of the same name. The name Inverlochy lives on in Inverlochy Castle, just a stone's throw north of today's Fort William. The castle, sadly now in ruins, is thought to be the second to have been built on this site. The first is said to have been in existence by the early 700s and by the end of the 8th century surrounded by a wealthy and cosmopolitan town. The ancient Inverlochy Castle was amongst the primary strongholds of King Achaius the Venomous (c.787-819), ruler of the Scots of Dalriata and grandfather of King Kenneth MacAlpin, who united the Scottish and Pictish kingdoms in 843. Legend has it that it was Inverlochy Castle in which Achaius celebrated a treaty of alliance with the Emperor Charlemagne, c.809. The alliance with Europe's most powerful leader was not a permanent guarantee of Inverlochy's security; within a century the castle was razed to the ground by Viking invaders.
The Comyns built the existing castle in the 1200s. It was still in the family's hands in 1306 when John Comyn, the head of the family and a competitor for the Scottish Crown, was stabbed to death by Robert the Bruce, the future king, in Greyfriars Monastery in Dumfries. Bruce as king ensured the castle and lands were taken off the Comyns and from then on Inverlochy was gifted to a series of families, beginning with the Gordons of Huntly, who were favoured by whatever king happened to be in power at the time. Nonetheless, it remained an important site and was to be the location of two important battles. In 1431 the Royalist forces of King James I were defeated by the MacDonalds, the powerful family of the Lords of the Isles. In 1645, the Campells, who were holding the castle, were defeated by government forces led by the Marquis of Montrose. Realising defeat was imminent, the Campells attempted to flee. In pursuit, the government forces massacred somewhere in the region of 15,000 men. The Marquis of Montrose reportedly lost just 8 men.
Inverlochy Castle was surpassed as the prominent military site in the area in the mid 17th century. The shift was instigated by General Monk, who built a fort in 1654 at a strategic position at the head of Glen Mhor, on behalf of Oliver Cromwell who sought to pacify the Highlands. In the 1690s the fort was enlarged at the behest of William of Orange, who feared the Highlands be used as a base for an invasion by supporters of the Stewart dynasty, which his house had displaced. It was then that Inverlochy took the name of the new king and became Fort William.
William's fears were well grounded; 1715 and 1745 were to mark Jacobite (from the latinised form of James, the traditional name of the Stewart kings) uprisings in the Highlands. On both of these occasions Jacobite armies tested the newly constructed battlements of Fort William. On both occasions William's northern fortress survived. However, the fort was not to survive the arrival of the railway. In 1894 it was destroyed to make way for railway tracks, which now make what was once a northern outpost easily accessible to thousands of travellers each year.
People come to Fort William for many reasons. It is a perfect base from which to explore the Highlands. It is the end of the West Highland Way and the Great Glen Way: two popular walking routes through Scotland. The Caledonian Canal, completed in 1803, linking all of the lochs of the Great Glen, now allows sailing trips through the heart of the Scottish Highlands and Fort William is a starting or finishing point for this unforgettable journey. Perhaps most importantly there is Ben Nevis, whose awesome presence is impossible to ignore. The largest mountain in the British Isles has silently borne witness to the often sentinel events which have occurred within her dominion. Looking up at her changing moods one is tempted to think that the immensity of her presence has contributed in some secret way to the unfolding of history at her feet. See also: Fort William Cycling