Fort George

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We have been wanting to visit Fort George for more years than I care to remember, so expectations were high. Would it live up to them, or would we be disappointed? The first view of the ramparts took our breath away. We were impressed before we’d gone in and it got better and better.

It is a marvellous setting on a promontory jutting out into the Moray Firth, with superb views across to the Black Isle and the white lighthouse at Chanonry Point. On the landward side it is surrounded by low, flat ground which is used for rifle ranges. Choose a dry day to visit as the site is very exposed.

As this review has turned out a lot longer than expected, I’ve split it into four parts. This part covers the history and information about visiting. The second part is a description of the site. The third part describes a walk around the ramparts and the fourth covers the life of the soldiers and the reconstructed barrack block. I have also written a separate review for the Historic Scotland tea rooms.

The first Fort George was built in 1727 in Inverness on a hill beside the River Ness, on the site of (and incorporating portions of) the medieval castle which had been rebuilt as a citadel by Oliver Cromwell but then abandoned. During the 1745 rising the fort was seized by the Jacobites, who blew it up in 1746 to prevent the Hanoverians from using it as a base. Fort Augustus at the other end of Loch Ness had also been destroyed.

The military were determined this should not happen again. After the Battle of Culloden, a string of forts was built in and around the Great Glen to control the Highlands of Scotland and crush future Jacobite rebellions. As well as Fort George, these include Ruthven Barracks and Corgaff Castle which was refortified.

Fort George was built on an isolated promontory jutting into the Moray Firth between 1748-1769 and controlled the sea approaches to Inverness. With its own harbour, it could be supplied by sea in times of siege. Anticipating any attack would come from the landward side, it was protected by a series of ditches which could be flooded and outer works including a ravelin and adjacent lunettes.

It was intended to house two field battalions and their officers (about 2000 men) and over 80 heavy guns. It was planned using the latest ideas in defensive military architecture with stone faced walls and projecting bastions and redoubts. Underground bunkers were designed to protect the garrison from artillery fire. The fort spreads over 42 acres with houses for the governor, deputy-governor and fort-major, blocks for the staff officers and the gunners, two enormous barrack blocks, ordnance and provision stores, powder magazines, workshops, bake house, brew house and – as an afterthought – a chapel.

Fort George was finally completed, well behind schedule, in 1769. It was also well over budget. The original estimates for construction had been a remarkably precise £92,673 19s 1d. The final cost was more than £200,000, a figure larger than the Gross National Product of Scotland in 1750.

The scale of Fort George is impressive and it is virtually unchanged since it was built. It remains one of the largest and most impregnable fortifications in Europe.

However by the time it was finished, the Highlands were relatively calm and no action was ever required from Fort George. There is a story, may be apocryphal, that one shot was fired by a jittery soldier on night duty who thought he saw a Jacobite soldier creeping up to the fort and fired at him. Next morning the guards found the dead body of a cow….

The fort is still used by the military and soldiers are seen around the site. Security is taken seriously and there is a large notice explaining that for security reasons, visitors are asked to only take essential items of personal luggage and may be subjected to a search. We weren’t and we didn’t see any indication of this.

Visitors are allowed access to the ramparts and all outside areas of the site, chapel, the Highlanders’ Museum, the restored and recreated barrack block and the Red Hackle Cafe in the Seaforth ’s Regimental Institute. This is open to visitors for lunch from 12.30. There were good smells and a steady stream of soldiers into it. Historic Scotland also have a small cafe in the workshops under the Prince Henry Frederick’s Bastion. This is open during the day and serves soup, sandwiches and cakes. Access to the rest of the buildings is restricted to army staff. There is no restriction on taking photographs around the site, although they are not allowed in the museum.

Adult entry is £8.90, concessions £7.20. At first sight this seems expensive but there is a lot to see. Allow plenty of time for a visit.

We spent over three hours here on a beautiful sunny day but didn’t visit the museum. It is worth starting by walking round the ramparts to get a feel for the geography of the site. The Living History presentation is excellent – informative and funny. And last of all keep your eyes open for sightings of the bottle nose dolphins who live in the Moray Firth. Michael saw them, but I was too slow and missed them.

Most of all, enjoy your visit. We did.

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