Having arrived in Fort William around lunchtime after our journey north on the West Highland Line (read about that here), we had a couple of hours until we could check into our accommodation. Aware we’d have our luggage with us, we’d emailed ahead to our first destination, the West Highland Museum, who were happy for us to leave them at reception.
The West Highland Museum is a great little museum covering the history of the area ranging from the Jacobites to WW2 Commandos and the more recent aluminium production in the area. Located in one of the town’s listed buildings, the museum has exhibitions spread over eight rooms across two floors. With a whole room dedicated to the Commando Basic Training Centre in nearby Spean Bridge, there is a definite focus on military history (especially with the Jacobite uprising as well), however a lot of social history is also covered with a small section about St. Kilda, the extremely remote island community that was evacuated in 1930 after a petition signed by the residents.
What I hadn’t realised about this remote part of Scotland was the large industrial economy created by the presence of the aluminium smelting plant on the outskirts of the town. Fort William may seem like an odd place for an aluminium plant, however the smelting process requires a lot of electricity and the rain water of the nearby mountains (including Ben Nevis) provides enough water for the plant to be powered by Hydroelectricity.
After visiting the museum and heading up some steep steps to check into our accommodation for the night, we headed back to the town centre and across the square from the museum to a place we’d been recommended for lunch, the Highland Cinema. The cinema had opened its doors just four days before our visit and its café bar provided great food made with a wide range of local produce. In fact, later in the day we walked past a number of the suppliers on our way back into town from Banavie.
After our late lunch we decided to head out and see some of Fort William’s local sights, recommended to us by Colleen from the museum. The first of these was right next to the railway station and was the old fort of Fort William. Originally constructed in wood in 1654 before being replaced by stone and expanded, the fort gained notoriety for its role in the 1692 Glencoe massacre. Sold by the War Office in 1864, the fort was initially converted into private residences before gradually being demolished over the early 20th century due to the arrival of the railway. All but the remaining seaward wall was demolished in 1975 to allow for the realignment of roads and the railway, leaving what remains today.
Having looked around the remains of the fort, our plan was to get a train one stop further north, to Banavie, and walk back via the remaining sights. With a little bit of a wait until the train, we were lucky enough to see the magnificent locomotive of the Jacobite hauling its carriages back into the station after its trip to Mallaig. Being able to see this spectacular engine whilst waiting for our regular ScotRail service got us even more excited for our adventure on it the following day.
Our train to Banavie left a couple of minutes late, however we were soon jumping out at the single platform station and crossing the road to our next destination, Neptune’s Staircase. Neptune’s Staircase is the longest staircase lock in Britain comprising of eight locks and carrying boats up or down the 20m difference between Loch Linnhe and the Caledonian Canal. Constructed between 1803 and 1822 the system originally took over half a day to pass through, but thanks to the Hydraulic and push button system now installed, this has been reduced to 90 minutes!
With our next destination halfway between Neptune’s Staircase and Fort William, we decided to walk all the way back to the town rather than take the train and walk back out. On the south bank of the river Lochy, next to where the railway now crosses it, is Inverlochy Castle. Originally constructed in the 13th century, the castle is now in ruins, however it remains largely unchanged from when it was built. The castle has been the location of two historic battles, the first a royal defeat in 1431 and the second a royal victory in 1645.
Despite there not being lots of the castle left, Historic Environment Scotland have put plenty of information signs around the ruins to provide its history, and given it’s free, it’s well worth a quick look around. From the castle we had a walk of just over a mile along the Great Glen Way back into Fort William itself. The route took us along the bank of the River Lochy to the point where it and the River Nevis flow into Loch Linnhe.
Whilst our time in Fort William itself was short, we were happy with what we were able to see and enjoyed the fact that all of the sights we had seen were completely free. All in all our walk from Neptune’s Staircase back to the railway station was just over 3 miles, whilst the single fare (with a railcard) for the journey out to Banavie was just £1.70. I’d certainly recommend heading to both Neptune’s Staircase and Inverlochy Castle if you can, however if you’d rather just stay in the centre, the West Highland Museum is a must.