Highland Forts and Barracks.

There are now found in the Highlands a small number of forts and barracks, most of which follow the line of the Great Glen. They were all built in response to the various Jacobite rebellions of the early 18th century, rebellions that were attempts to return a Stuart king, with Catholic leanings, to the throne of England. In response to the threat, the British army, first under General Wade, and later under General Caulfield built these various fortifications, together with roads to enable rapid troop movement in the event of further trouble. The roads, for which General Wade is famous, were adequate for this purpose, but needed to be improved later to allow the passage of, for example, wheeled carriages. However, the work along the Great Glen was much admired. Johnson thought the road along Loch Ness was "levelled with great labour and exactness", though Sarah Murray, travelling at the very end of the 18th century, was alarmed when she found herself on "a precipice of perhaps eighty or a hundred feet perpendicular, [with] no security whatever should the horses take fright." Wade always chose the most direct route for his marching men, which again annoyed Mrs Murray: "His military roads go up and down mountains, never dreaming that he could wind round the bases of them." Thomas Telford, who had the job of improving the roads in the early 19th century agreed with Mrs Murray, thinking them poorly surveyed, but they were a start, and linked the various military establishments set up by the Georgian government. 


Evidence of the forts' existence is found to this day, of course, with names such as Fort William and Fort Augustus. In fact there is little remaining in either of these two places of the structures themselves. A wooden fort at Fort William had been built as early as 1654 by General Monck, who was Cromwell's representative in Scotland. It was replaced by a stone fortress in 1690, and further improved by General Wade in 1725. However, progress had no respect for history, and the building was almost completely flattened to make room for the railway which was opened in 1894 (right).

The fortified arch in the photograph may be a gesture to 'Fort William' but it certainly isn't the original 18th century structure. Sir John Carr, on a tour of Scotland in 1807, was not impressed by what he saw: "Nothing can be shabbier, as a fortress, than Fort William. It could scarcely stand a siege of two days against a company of raw. but resolute, volunteers: the barracks are composed of wood, and having already suffered by time, promise at no distant day to be blown away as touch-wood." He was recieved politely by the "officer residing and his lady", and learned that the main reason for continuing the garrison was as "a check upon smugglers in this part of the country.....The farce of shutting the gate at the hour usual in fortified towns is still preserved in this travesty of a fortification."

The fort at Fort Augustus fared little better. Most of the stone was used in the construction of St Benedict's Abbey, which was opened in 1880. The protestant line to the throne was emphasised in the choice of names for these two forts. 'William' refers to King William III, and 'Augustus', to Prince William Augustus, the third son of George II, who was later to make his name leading the Hanoverian force at the Battle of Culloden. For a short period, the town was called Wadesburgh, which might have pleased the Highlanders more than any reference to 'Butcher Cumberland.'

Again, Sir John Carr was not impressed: "The fort, which, seen from the heights towards Loch Ness, resembles an old decayed palace, stands at the head of the lake on a small plain, and possesses little worthy of observation....The barracks are able to accommodate four hundred men. As a place of defence, it is only necessary to mention that it was easily taken by the raw rebels of 1746....I was more pleased with seeing the mountain-ash which grew about it, and the Govenor's little garden, than the whole fortress."

At least the two forts William and Augustus lasted for a number of years: the barracks at Ruthven were completed in 1721, and destroyed by retreating Jacobites just 25 years later. The engraving above is by Charles Cordiner, from his Remarkable Ruins and Romantic Prospects of North Britain, which was published in 1795. 

Its success as a defensive structure had been proved in 1745, when 12 soldiers within were able to fend off a force of over 200 Highlanders. However, they were forced to surrender in the following year as the Jacobite army, armed this time with canon, advanced north. On the day after Culloden, 3,000 Jacobites assembled at Ruthven, where each man was told to "seek his own safety as best he can". It was as they dispersed that they reduced the barracks to the ruin that can still be seen on its prominet mound from the A9 road.

Ruthven Barracks, a GWW photograph on a postcard posted in 1904/

Another set of barracks was constructed at Glenelg, south of Lochalsh and opposite Skye. Bernera barracks were built  between 1717-1721. It is said that the builders had no qualms about using stone from the nearby ironage brochs at Dun Telve and Dun Troddan. It was not until 1755 that the site was connected by a road to Fort Augustus, the work being overseen by General Caulfield. The barracks could hold up to 240 soldiers.

Bernera Barracks, a photo taken in the 1920s by                                       The Barracks, on a 1936 postcard

Duncan MacPherson.    

Visiting the region in 1786, John Knox observed in Bernera "a group of mean huts, and the most miserable looking people that I had seen....Here, in 1722, were built two houses, containing 24 appartments, for the accommodation of 200 soldiers. These buildings were made, it is said, a notorious job; and their present ruinous state, in so short a time, seems to confirm that assertation. Here, I was entertained by the commanding officer, and his whole garrison. The former was an old corporal, and the latter was the old corporal's wife; the entertainment, snuff and whisky." 

A Photograph of Glenelg Bay, registered in 1936, showing the ruins of the barracks on the distant left-hand side. Images of these barracks are far less common than those of the fortifications found along the Great Glen.

It appears that visitors to these military establishments  in the 18th and early 19th centuries found little to impress them. There is, however, one exception: Fort George, near Inverness.

The Moray Firth, with Fort George and Fort Rose. An engraving by Thomas Allom from Beattie's "Scotland Illustrated..." published in 1838. It appears Fortrose never had a fort, the etymology possibly being 'ros (headland) of Fortriu.'

There were in fact two Fort Georges at Inverness. The first was built in 1727, on the banks of the River Ness, where the medieval castle had once stood. It was a large edifice that could house 400 soldiers, but in 1746, the garrison found itself under seige from the Jacobite army who were returning north after their foray into England. They were able to mine beneath the ramparts of the fortress, and the commander, Major George Grant, surrendered to them on 21st February. Having sacked the buildings, they then laid gunpowder and blew up Old Fort George to ensure that it could never be used again by the Hanoverians.

                                                                           Two Views of Old Fort George, Inverness.

View of Fort George and Town of Inverness as it was in the           View of Inverness in Scotland with its Bridge over the River Ness; Fort George 

Year 1744. An engraving from Paul Sandby's "The Virtuoso           on an Eminence near it. An engraving published by Alexander Hogg.

Museum", published 1778.

In a state of shock following the various military successes of the Jacobites, not least their ability to destroy completely a fortress like Old Fort George, the British Government resolved to build an impregnable defensive structure at Ardersier Point, and began work on New Fort George in 1748. The site offered various advantages, being at the northern end of the Great Glen, yet with access to the open sea. It is not overlooked by high ground, which made it less vulnerable to enemy bombardment.

The design was overseen by General William Skinner, and the work of construction organised by the Adam family - William until his death in 1748, then Robert. The result was a state-of-the-art fortress which was not finished until 1769, 21 years after the building work had begun, and at a cost twice over the original budget. Of course, by this time, the threat from the Jacobite cause had dwindled, and the fortress remained untested in battle. 

Sir John Carr was impressed with what he saw: " This fortress has a high reputation for the admirable skill which has been displayed in its construction....The view from the ramparts is very grand and very melancholy; the German Ocean rolls with violence through the narrow strait, which almost separates the great and lesser Friths(sic), and the eye wanders in gloom among the bleak and wild mountains of the upper Highlands rising in sullen majesty from the opposite shore." Carr was disappointed to find that the Govenor of the fortress was absent, but he experienced "every attention and politeness from one of the officers....Fort George may be considered as a town in itself; there is none in its neighbourhood. The traveller will find a good inn in part of the barracks."


Visiting some 30 years earlier, the Reverend Charles Cordiner was less impressed: 

"I took the inclosed(sic) sketch of Fort-George, a modern fortification, founded after the year 1745, to secure a passage into the firth of Inverness, and to form a place d'armes in case of any future rebellion. The expense was immense; and by the change of events since that time, it appears a mere useless memorial of the state of that turbulent period."

"New Fort George", an engraving from the Rev. Charles Cordiner's "Antiquities and Scenery of the North of Scotland", 1780.