The thing to do at Fort George is to walk along the great grassy ramparts and bastions that surround and defend it. Built of earth and faced with sloping stone walls, they were designed to absorb the impact of artillery shells. When the place was built, in the mid-18th century, these fat earthy banks were at the sharp end of military engineering. And they needed to be, because this part of Scotland was at the sharp end of military activity; when construction started in 1748, memories of the Battle of Culloden, fought just a few miles away in 1746, would have been very fresh indeed. Culloden was the famous victory of the Hanoverian army of King George II over the Jacobites under Bonnie Prince Charlie.
The ramparts today are a tremendous place to stroll, with lovely views out over the Moray Firth (a good place for dolphin spotting), and the hills around Inverness. They also offer the perfect vantage point to take in the size of the fort within, a point that Chris Whatley stresses.
“It is stunning in its scale. It’s the largest artillery fort in Britain, possibly the largest in Europe. It cost about 200,000 pounds, which is about a billion now. So in scale and cost, it exemplifies the extent to which the Hanoverians were concerned about the Jacobite threat even after Culloden. It represents the power of the Hanoverian State but it also reflects their concern at the threat of the Highlanders associated with the Jacobite cause.”
In case you’re rusty about your Hanoverians and Jacobites, the roots of the story go back to 1689 and the accession of William and Mary to the thrones of Scotland and England in place of James VII and II (see Brixham). In 1707, England and Scotland were joined in union by act of parliament, and then in 1714, the crown of the new united nation passed to King George I, the German-speaking elector of Hanover. At that point, the Jacobites, supporters of the exiled son of King James, took the opportunity to rise up against George in a bid to get their man back on the throne.
They failed, but agitation continued into the reign of King George’s son, George II, with James VII and II’s grandson, Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) as the figurehead for the resistance, which was particularly strong among the Highland Scottish clans. Matters came to a head at Culloden when the Hanoverian king’s troops defeated Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobites, destroying the cream of the Highland clans’ warriors in the process.
The site of the battle at Culloden is certainly worth visiting, to walk over the boggy ground where so many died and particularly for the 360 degree battlefield immersion room in the smart new visitor centre, which is quite an experience. But perhaps the more enduring memorial is Fort George, which was the Hanoverian state’s response to the threat of the rebellious Scottish Highlands.
It’s obvious from the moment you pass under the gatehouse, with the arms of George II prominently and magnificently displayed above, that the awesome size of the place was designed to cow anyone who harboured further thoughts of revolution after Culloden. The enormous parade ground immediately inside the gate emphasises the troop strength within. In a sense, says Chris Whatley, “this is the Glorious Revolution still being acted out, the ongoing civil British war, probably the most impressive material remnant of that period”.
1600 men would have been housed in the fort, but as it turned out, they were never called into action to quell another revolt. Culloden was the last battle fought on British soil, and perhaps surprisingly, within just a few short decades, those Highland troops were at the heart of the British imperial war machine, as Chris Whatley reminds us.
“While in the 1740s and 1750s the highlanders were viewed as disloyal, understandably so, that changed in the second part of the 18th century as so many of these soldiers were recruited into the British army and performed sterling service on the part of Britain, as for example in the American wars of independence. So by the end of the century Highland warriors were celebrated”. (See Commando memorial at Spean Bridge.)
That military tradition continues to this day, as Fort George is still an active military base. You’ll see soldiers in uniform about the place, and if you’re lucky you might hear the bagpipes of a military band rehearsing inside. In fact most of the solid stone buildings inside the fort are off-limits to the visitor as they are still used for army purposes. Some parts have been made up as 18th-century barracks and guardrooms, while the Grand Magazine with its gunpowder barrels and the old prison cell, the Black Hole, are open to the public. Frankly, even if all the doors of the barrack blocks were firmly closed, there would still be enough to see from the ramparts to merit a visit.
As Fort George was never called upon to defend against a renewed Jacobite assault, the military engineering of these defences quickly became outdated. By the end of the 18th century, it probably wouldn’t have been able to stand up to an attack using the latest artillery weaponry. However in the 19th century, the fear of French invasion prolonged the fort’s life as it was rearmed to face the possibility of a naval assault up the Firth. It’s worth remembering as you tour the ramparts that it was not a foreign force that the fort was first designed to deal with.
“While it’s on a peninsula, the threat it was designed to repel was not external, it was within Scotland itself,” notes Chris Whatley. “A lot of people stand on the ramparts and imagine it was designed to defend against French invaders but in fact the defences are primarily internal facing.”
Fort George stands therefore in testimony to the early days of the British project, when the strength of the bonds of union between England and Scotland were being tested.
Nominated by Chris Whatley, professor of Scottish history at the University of Dundee. His many books include History of Everyday Life in Scotland, 1600-1800 (Edinburgh University Press, 2009)
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