Fort George is the most amazing military construction built after the Battle of Culloden to control the Highlands and crush any future Jacobite rebellions. It is a place we have been wanting to visit for years and it more than lived up to our expectations and was a fascinating visit. By review has turned out a lot longer than expected, so I’ve split it into four parts. This covers the life of the soldiers as described in the Living History Presentation and also the reconstructed barrack blocks.
Part 1 covers the history of the site and has general information about visiting. Part 2 describes the buildings on the site. Part 3 is a description of a walk round the ramparts. I have also written a separate review for the Historic Scotland Fort tea rooms.
I am always a bit twitchy about living history presentations as they can vary from dire to excellent. This was excellent. The interpreter was dressed in the uniform of the 1st Battalion of the Black Watch. There are three or four presentations during the day in the great magazine which last about 20 minutes. It was informative and entertaining. It began with a brief description of the history of the fort. Most of it I knew, but there was sufficient new information to keep my attention.
The fort had taken 24 years to build by which time the Highlands had settled down and the threat of a Jacobite rebellion had lessened. The defences were never tested, although there is story of a twitchy guard on night duty who thought he heard a Jacobite in the undergrowth and shot it. Next morning a dead cow was found…. This isn’t in the history books and may be apocryphal, but it makes a good story. We settled down to enjoy the rest of the presentation.
The 1st Battalion of the Black Watch stationed here were armed with a brown bess musket which weighed 11lb2oz. It fired a lead bullet in a cartridge with gunpowder. The soldiers carried 20 in a cartridge belt worn round the waist. They had to bite off the end of the cartridge with their teeth and put the powder in the pan. The rest of the cartridge and lead bullet was put in the barrel and pushed down with a ram rod. When the trigger was puled, a piece of flint knocked the pan which produced a spark which ignited the powder and the gun went off. The soldiers were trained to fire three times a minute. In battle they were lined up in rows and the first row shot their 20 cartridges, followed by the second row, third row… There was no system to replace fired cartridges.
Firing a musket resulted in a burn to the side of the face. Soldiers were not allowed to grow beards but often grew side burns to protect the side of the face from the flash in the pan. Another apocryphal tale?
The rifles had a 17” bayonet which could be fixed to the barrel. When not in use this could be turned upside down and used as a candle holder in the camp. The ordinary soldiers were also supplied with a brass handled sword, although they were not trained in the use of this and there are stories that it was used to spear food to cook over an open fire. Apparently there is also a record of a soldier holding the sword by the blade and using the hilt as a club.
Soldiers lived in cramped condition is the barrack blocks, with eight men in a room, sleeping two to a bed. One soldier in every hundred was allowed to have his wife with him. (We didn’t find out how it was decided who this would be.) The women received half rations in exchange for doing chores for the soldiers. Their only privacy was a blanket hung up in a corner over a bed. If the husband was sent to war, his wife and any children had to accompany him, otherwise she would lose her allowance. If her husband was killed, the wife was allowed to live in the barracks for three months before she had to leave, or found another husband.
The day began at 5am with bread and cheese for breakfast at 6.30am. Soldiers were given a pewter plate, tankard and a wooden spoon. They were allowed a ration of beer a day. The barracks had a brewery and soldiers could buy extra beer at 6d a gallon. Whisky was charged at 1d a gill. Troops were often drunk.
There were strict rules about being drunk on guard duty and soldiers were supplied with a water bottle. If an officer suspected a soldier of having beer rather than water in his bottle, the soldier was made to run up and down the parade ground. If it was beer, the exercise made it froth. Punishment was either being put in the ‘black hole’ (prison) or being whipped five times with the cat of nine tails.
Any leisure time, the soldiers would play cards or dice, often gambling their wages. These were 1/- a week. If a man accepted the King’s shilling he was automatically enlisted into the army. If the army were short of men, recruiting officers would visit the pubs in Inverness and drop a shilling into a tankard of beer. The unsuspecting drinker was deemed to have accepted the King’s shilling and signed up. This upset the pub landlords as locals left as soon as soldiers entered the pub. This led to the glass bottom tankard so a drinker could check there was no shilling in the bottom of his glass,
The great magazine contained 2500 barrels of gunpowder and soldiers spent eight hour shifts locked in there. They had to wear wooden clogs and a special uniform with no metal buttons to avoid sparks. If they needed to work, one person would hold a lamp with a guard round the flame. Most of their time was spent in the pitch dark, so they often ended up sleeping for most of the shift. The relieving soldiers had to knock on the door with their rifle butts to wake them up and the marks made can still be seen on the door. A powder cat spent all its life in the magazine to kill mice. The cartridges were sealed with animal fat and if the mice ate it, the powder leaked out.
Entry to the HISTORIC BARRACKS is opposite the great magazine. A wooden door with ventilation slats at the top leads into a long corridor with dark sage paint along the bottom of the walls and cream above. There are barrack rooms off on either side. Three of these have been furnished to represent life of 18th or 19thC soldiers and an officer. Each is based on a real soldier and there are information boards with details of his service record.
Room One represents the period 1780-1868 of Private John Anderson, a rank and file soldier and his wife. They used an army blanket to corner off part of the room for some privacy. There was no separate mess room so the soldiers ate and slept in this room using a small peat fire for cooking and heating. There is a small table with bench seats for meals. Beds were made of solid wood and have a thin mattress and a single blanket. Two men shared a bed. Above each bed is a slate with their names. Above the beds are pegs to hang kit and belongings. The ceiling is covered with graffiti. The room was cramped and it was estimated the soldiers had less space than the inmates of the workhouse.
Room Two is Major Andrew Coglan’s room from about 1813. It is a spacious room. The windows have wooden shutters and there is a mantle over the fireplace for his personal belongings. He still had a peat fire. The bed was a half tester with blanket drapes to help stop draughts. He was supplied with a cupboard and chest of drawers, table and sloping writing desk and two wooden chairs. Light was provided by a candlestick on the chest of drawers.
Room Three is a rank and file room from 1868 with Private George Moffat. There was now a communal mess room, so soldiers no longer needed to cook in the barracks. A small peat fire provided heating and some wag has drawn a mantle piece round it. Lighting was by a gas light hanging from the ceiling. Couples now had separate married quarters. The room has five single beds. These were metal and folded in half during the day. The mattress and bedding was folded and placed on a shelf above the bed. There are pegs above the bed for water bottle and clothes. The room was furnished with wood table with eathenware plate, bowl and mug. There was also a zinc bucket and scrubbing brush. Above one of the beds was a small case with brushes and a red duster.
This was a fascinating and well worth while visit. We spent several hours round the site but didn’t visit the Highland Museum which covers the story of the Highland Regiments from the Napoleonic Wars to Afghanistan.
Allow yourselves plenty of time for a visit and choose a nice day as there is little shelter around the site.