Castles and Forts in Lochaber: Part I

Nothing beats exploring a castle! We’re lucky to have several from various periods of history.

Dun Dearduil, Glen Nevis

View looking west over Dun Deardail, a vitrified Iron Age fort in Glen Nevis.Thought to be named after Deirdre, a tragic heroine from Irish legend, who is said to have eloped to Scotland with a young warrior called Naoise (after whom it is though Loch Ness is named) where they had, by all accounts, an idyllic time of it until things took a turn for the worse. Read more… or download to read on your tablet here…

The Iron Age fort is one of a number of “vitrified” forts that seem to be mostly unique to Scotland. Vitrification is a fusing of stones requiring temperatures over 1,000 deg C – why this has happened is not known, destruction during or after capture by enemies? Or perhaps, given how widespread the practise seems to be, part of a ritual closure of the fort. The fort is also known as Dun Dearg Suil, Hill of the Red Eye, reference to it’s use as beacon hill or maybe the very big fire that would have been required to fuse the stones?

You can access the fort either from the Braveheart carpark in Glen Nevis or take the sign-posted detour from the West Highland Way at Blamachfoldach. From either side it’s a good few hours walk, both of which are reward in themselves. Standing on the edge of the old ramparts looking down into Glen Nevis, especially when the weather is a bit wet and blustery, it’s… well… it’s all a bit Game of Thrones!

Inverlochy Castle

Inverlochy Castle from the air.There are two Inverlochy Castles near Fort William. We’re not talking about the one with the Michelin starred kitchen! The Old Inverlochy Castle can be found next to the River Lochy at the end of a short road that turns off the A82 more or less opposite the Esso garage just to the north of Fort William (bear to the right at the junction or you’ll end up in the coal merchants!).

The castle that you can see here is remarkably well preserved given its age, it was originally built in the 13th century, however legend has it that this was the site of an earlier Pictish castle where, in 790 AD, King Achaius signed a treaty with Charlemagne. Viking raiders subsequently destroyed the wooden structure.

The castle has been the site of two major battles. The First Battle of Inverlochy in 1431 was part of a power struggle between the Lords of the Isles and James I of Scotland. The battle was initiated by Donald Balloch, cousin of the imprisoned Alexander of Islay Lord of the Isles and Earl of Ross, who raided the castle with 600 men and is reputed to have killed 1,000 royalists, including the Earl of Caithness. James I subsequently led an army into the Highlands and the rebel forces disintegrated.

The entrance to Inverlochy Castle.The Second Battle of Inverlochy took place in 1645 during the Scottish Civil War (which was linked to the English Civil War). This time the royalists were on the march, led by James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose otherwise known as “The Great Montrose”. The Royalist army had sacked Inverary, the seat of the Marquis of Argyll on the 14th of January and then marched north with Argyll, and his much larger Scottish Covenanter force, in pursuit. On the morning of 2nd of February Argyll thought that the Royalist force was about 30 miles ahead of him and heading towards Inverness and an even larger Covenanter force. Montrose however had decided to head south and confront Argyll’s force at Inverlochy and after a cold night on the slopes of Ben Nevis that’s just what they did. Argyll himself decided he would get a much better view of the battle from his galley moored on the other side of Loch Linnhe which probably wasn’t the vote of confidence his troops had been looking for, they were subsequently routed.

Fort William

The view of Fort William from Cow Hill.Whilst the Second Battle of Inverlochy was won by the Royalists, it was ultimately the Covenanters that won the war and Inverlochy Castle fell into disuse as a new wooden fort, the Garrison of Inverlochy, was built nearby in 1654 to house English troops brought in to keep the local clans in check. The wooden fort was replaced with a stone fort around 1690 and named after William of Orange whilst the village that had grown up next to it was named Maryburgh, after Mary II his wife (and cousin) who let’s not forget was also joint monarch of Britain… and she only gets a village named after her! The fort was again garrisoned with troops seeking to pacify the locals.

The settlement was subsequently renamed Duncansburgh… then Gordonsburgh, before eventually being renamed Fort William, this time after Prince William, Duke of Cumberland, also known as the Butcher of Cumberland for his actions following the Battle of Culloden where he commanded the victorious Hanoverian forces. Jacobites from Lochaber took a detour on their retreat towards Culloden to return home and lay siege to the fort in 1746. The fort, and the garrison, survived several days of cannon bombardment from Cow Hill behind the town before the besiegers withdrew to join their comrades on Culloden Moor… cue more suppression of the “savage clans and roving barbarians” (gee thanks, Dr Johnston, I’m sure we could share a few words with you look up in your dictionary!). Troops remained in An Gearasdan (The Garrison) up until the time of the Crimean War. The fort was demolished to make way for the new railway which originally came into Fort William from the south.

You can visit the foundations of the Fort, now the old railway has gone but still just across the road from the current railway station.