Fort William, in the western Highlands of Scotland, often comes in for just a line or two in guidebooks. For many, it is a place to pass through on the way to somewhere else. There are reasons to stay awhile to enjoy this town, though. Here are several.
Mountains: Fort William sits at the foot of Ben Nevis. Rising to a bit above 4400 feet, it is the highest mountain in the United Kingdom. It draws mountain bikers in summer, lovers of skiing and other snow sports in winter, and hikers and hill walkers in every season. If you plan to be one of those who go up all or part of Ben Nevis, be well prepared: at minimum fit, in good health, with sturdy well broken in boots, layers of warm clothing (even in summer), provisions, maps… you get the idea.
There are other ways to experience the mountain. Nevis Range, a sports center a few miles north of Fort William, operates a mountain gondola which ascends Aonach Mor, from which you can have good views of the Ben. Wind and weather permitting you’ll have fine views as you travel on the gondola, too — if you’ve a head for heights. Nevis Range operates places to eat on the mountain. There’s usually a weekly ceilidh, with music and dance, at the Snow Goose restaurant.
One of the best ways to enjoy the Ben, though, is to find a quiet place in Fort William — on busy summer days you may want to take to side streets or go a bit outside of town, in winter I’ve done this right in the greens and squares of the town center — to spend some time looking up at what you can see of the mountain from the town. It has its own voice and history, whether you see it clearly or whether, as is often the case, part of it is wreathed in clouds.
Waters: Fort William lies at the northern end of Loch Linnhe. This is a sea loch — its southern end opens into the sea — which mean you may have the chance to encounter porpoise and other ocean going sea life as well as river fish, golden eagles, and seals. Loch Linnhe is also well liked for its views to the west at sunset.
There are walks along the water and nearby, and Crannog restaurant runs both day and evening cruise trips during warmer months, as well.
Speaking of Crannog…
Food: There are good things to eat in Fort William. At Crannog, as you might imagine, seafood is the speciality and it is fresh out of the waters. They always offer dishes for vegetarians and met eaters as well, though. The Grog and Gruel offers dishes you might not expect in the Highlands of Scotland: Tex Mex and Cajun are on the menu. It’s usually quite good, too. Pizza and burgers are on offer, and vegetarians will find good selections from which to choose. There’s both a restaurant and an alehouse, and live music is on offer at times. For upscale dining, you might look to Inverlochy Castle, just a bit outside the town, or perhaps The Lime Tree, which in addition to dining offers an art gallery and, in winters, weekly cinema programs.
One of my favourite places in Fort William is perhaps one of the most informal. It is called Hot Roast Company, which about describes their menu: you’ll often see meat roasting in the streetside window. For sit in and takeway they offer hearty sandwiches (and vegetarians can be catered for too) and warm welcome. Fort William is at the northern end of the well known hiking route called The West Highland Way; Hot Roast is near the weary hiker statue.
History: There’s a good bit of history across all eras to be had in Fort William. People have been making their lives between water and mountain for centuries. The town was called after for a fort built to control trade routes and clans in the area and named for then King William of Orange. Outlander fans note, Blackness Castle near Edinburgh stands in for the fort in Fort William in the filming of that series. Not far to the north of Fort William is Glenfinnan where Bonnie Prince Charlie, Charles Edward Stuart, began his quest to bring the throne back to his family; a bit to the south is Glencoe, site of a number of events, including a historic massacre; a bit to the east in the seat of Clan Cameron, powerful at many points in history. Within the town itself at the north end of the High Street is a statue of Donald Cameron of Lochiel, chief of Clan Cameron for much of the nineteenth century, who also served the area in government.
People involved with all of these circumstances of history passed through or stayed in Fort William. There is much natural and geologic history to be found in the area as well. Ben Nevis was formed by a volcano and Loch Linnhe carved by glaciers. Begin to get a grip on all this by exploring the West Highland Museum in Cameron Square.
This part of the Highlands calls itself the Outdoor Capital of the UK (you’ll come across many signs attesting to that in Fort William) and there’s much of that to explore. It’s also a workaday town, with a hardware store, a public library, grocers, a tourist information office, lodgings, churches, a charity shop, a distillery nearby, places which sell mountain themed souvenirs, and sports stores geared to mountain sports, as well. Take your time and explore.
Music to go along with that exploration: Watercolour Music has its base near Fort William. At this writing one of Watercolour’s founders, Mary Ann Kennedy, has just released an album called An Dan Gaelic: Songs for a Modern World. Kennedy is an award winning singer, harp player, broadcaster, and composer.
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