Fort William: Cloaked in Highland Beauty
Fort William is a popular hub for walkers, mountaineers, and scenery lovers of every type. Its appeal is not that of a destination town, but rather its location to some of the most stunning natural beauty in Scotland. The main street and little squares have some tacky gift shops, but there are plenty of outdoor-gear stores to purchase or rent whatever you need to explore the area.
After you arrive in Ft. William, head to the tourist office. The people there are very helpful. They’ll be sure to point you in the right direction whether you’re looking for mountain bikes, hiking, fishing equipment, or the perfect driving route to check out the views and snap photos. There are also plenty of exhibits about local heritage and wildlife, as well as updates on mountain weather.
Be sure to ask about the train. As it rolls along the shore of Loch Eil to the west coast through historic Glenfinnan, the train passes some of the area’s most breath-taking sights. (These days, it’s known for its role as The Locomotive in the Harry Potter films!) The Jacobite Steam Train runs the magical route from Ft. William to Mallaig as do the ordinary trains. Regardless of the train, Ft. William is the northern end of the 95-mile West Highland Way which snakes through Western Scotland from the outskirts of Glasgow.
Several cruises also leave from the town’s pier every day. These offer a chance to spot the marine life of Loch Linnhe, including seals and seabirds galore. These cruises are often exhilarating and offer a unique perspective on the area, so we highly recommend them!
Ben Nevis is the most obvious draw. Just a 10-minute drive from Fort William, it is among the Highlands most impressive glen, and at 4,406 feet it is Scotland’s highest, and most rugged, mountain. Ben Nevis is a classic glacial valley hemmed in by steep slopes and swathes of blue-green stones. Herds of shaggy Highland cattle graze the valley floor where a sparkling river gushes through glades of trees. With Ben Nevis, huge and imposing to the north, it’s not surprising that this valley was the location for film scenes from many movies including Rob Roy and Braveheart.
The town itself got its name from the original fort built here in 1650 to keep the Highland clans in order. Only parts of this fort survive--the rest was taken apart to make way for the West Highland Railway. Many Highlanders left for America during The Clearances from this area. Later, the coming of the railway established Fort William as one of the Highland’s main tourist centers and the take-off place to explore the mountains.
The five-mile climb to the top of Ben Nevis, along a well-beaten path, is doable for most people who are reasonably fit. During the summer, it can get a bit crowded—no surprise. The summit is reached by way of Glen Nevis, often called Scotland’s most beautiful glen.
Think you’re not the outdoorsy type? Give yourself a chance. The rewards of making the climb are huge. From the top you can see the Cairngorms, the Cuillin range on Skye, and the peaks of Argyllshire. On a very clear day, you may even get a glimpse of Northern Ireland. Spell-binding. Want to really get high? Take the UK’s only mountain gondola on one of the nearby peaks. Halfway up there’s a restaurant and bar, and in the winter it’s a great ski area.
If you’re all climbed out, see what you can of Fort William, particularly Cameron Square and the West Highland Museum. The most famous exhibit is the 18th century “Secret Portrait of Prince Charles.” This was done when all paintings of Stuarts were completed in obscure swirls so the viewer didn’t get into trouble for having any connection, at all, to the Stuart side of the Royal family. Another secret ritual for these Jacobites was to pass their wine, brandy or whisky glass over a bowl of water before drinking. This symbolized a toast to the kings across the water. There are also some pieces of eight from a Spanish galleon which sank in Tobermory Bay.
Just northeast of town is the acclaimed “Treasures of the Earth,” one of Europe’s finest collections of crystals and gemstones. The “Underwater Center,” on the banks of Loch Linnhe, is the world’s leading diving instruction and training center. Also north of town are the impressive ruins of Inverlochy Castle. The castle was built in the 13th century on the site of an earlier fort. If you’ve had enough sight-seeing, stop in at the 174-year-old Ben Nevis Distillery and Whisky Center and enjoy a whisky tasting. One of its finest brews is a blend of whiskies named, “The Dew of the Ben Nevis.”
Fort William, one of the major towns in the area, is noted not for its looks but for its location at the foot of Ben Nevis. Be adventurous and take the climb, if you’re able. Visit the large friendly pub, Ben Nevis, on Main St. Sit in comfy leather chair by a cozy fire and enjoy a whisky or fresh ale. Breathe deeply and think of the beauty that surrounds you. Relax…