Welcome to Spean Bridge
Spean Bridge is a small village lying where two valleys meet, the Great Glen and the Spean Glen. It also lies at the junction of the A82 and the A86, eight miles north of Fort William. South of Spean Bridge is the Leanachan Forest with Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain, towering in the distance and the Rannoch Moor beyond. The River Spean cuts through the town, while nearby the Caledonian Canal cuts through the Scottish Highlands. The area may be peaceful now, but historically it has been associated with warfare and conflict.
Sunrise at The Commando Memorial Spean Bridge - The Great Glen
At the far, northern end of Loch Lochy a bloody battle was fought between Clanranald and the Camerons against the Frasers in 1544. Clanranald and the Camerons had spent the early summer securing the lands north of Loch Lochy and threatened south into Fraser territory. In alarm, the Frasers gathered an army of around 300 men and travelled north for the showdown. At the head of Loch Lochy the Clanranald and Cameron forces, numbering some 500, descended from a nearby hill cutting the Fraser forces apart. It is said that only four Fraser men were still alive by the end of the day. It is also said that predicting death, over 80 of the Fraser men had ensured their wives were pregnant before they went to battle. The site of the slaughter is known as ‘Blar-nan-Leine’, or ‘the field of the shirts’ because the uncommonly hot weather had meant that the men had opted to remove their plaids and fight only in their shirts.
Conflict returned to the area with the Jacobite wars in the 17th century. At the southern extreme of Loch Lochy, probably in the vicinity of the neighbouring village of Gairlochy, Viscount Dundee gathered the Highland Clans in preparation for the glorious Jacobite victory over of government forces at the battle of Killiecrankie in 1688. And in Spean Bridge in 1745 a small detachment of Highland Jacobites made such a racket that a vastly superior government army ran away.
A year later the war was over: the Jacobite army was routed at Culloden and Bonnie Prince Charlie, the young pretender to the throne, went into hiding. A little valley stretching between Loch Lochy and Loch Arkaig, called the Dark Valley, was one of the many hiding places of the prince. He was sheltered there by Cameron of Clunes. Inspired by the area’s connection with the Jacobites, the Dark Valley has since lent its name to one of D.K. Broster’s books about the Jacobite wars.
Spean Bridge got its name from this time; the intensive road and bridge building project instigated by General Wade in an attempt to tame the Highlands led to the building of a bridge over the Spean River. Alas, in 1913 this bridge, situated about a mile downstream of the village, collapsed down the deep gorge which it spanned. As legend has it the collapse was caused by local schoolchildren, who blocked the drainage system the evening before a frost.
Fortunately by this time there was another bridge across the Spean, built by Thomas Telford in 1819. Telford’s bridge was part of a period of development of the Highland’s infrastructure, ironically at the same time as the Highlands were being depopulated. Thomas Telford was behind many of the civil engineering projects in the Highlands. Possibly the most impressive was the Caledonian Canal, passing nearby Spean Bridge to the west. The canal linked all of the lochs of the great glen making it possible for the first time to sail through the heart of the Scottish Highlands from coast to coast. Today it sees mainly pleasure craft. The 19th century also saw Spean Bridge becoming a stop on the railway line to Fort William, which encouraged the town to grow.
However, war was to affect the town again in the following century. During WWII the Dark Valley became the primary Commando Training Centre for the British Armed Forces. Having the nearest rail link, Spean Bridge became the railhead for the training centre. At Clunes the Clan Cameron Museum doubles as the start of the Dark Valley Historic Trail and Information Centre, which will take you around the places where many of Britain’s commandos spent their last days before heading off to the front. This brings us to Spean Bridge’s most emblematic landmark and one of Scotland‘s most impressive and beautifully located monuments.
Situated on a rise just to the north-east of the village, the Commando Memorial, unveiled in September 1952, was designed by Scott Sutherland. It commemorates the men who trained here and gave their lives during the war. Their fate is something to ponder while taking in the spectacular panoramas of the river valley, forests, lochs and mountains; some of the finest views in Scotland.