Review: Fort George


Open 9.30am-5.30pm daily (April to September) and 10am-4pm daily (October to March)
Ardersier, Inverness, IV2 7TD
+44 (0) 1667 462 834

Fort George is an imposing reminder of a turbulent period in British history. Its commanding position on the Moray Firth in northern Scotland symbolises the British government’s determination to impose its will on the Highland population after the Jacobite wars. With its striking star-shaped design, it is one of the best-preserved examples of 18th-century fortification anywhere in Europe.

Fort George from the air. With its striking star-shaped design, it is one of the best-preserved examples of 18th-century fortification anywhere in Europe.

Completed in 1769, more than two decades after the final crushing of Stuart hopes at the Battle of Culloden, it was by then redundant as a deterrent against further rebellions. Over its more than two hundred years of service, however, it has fulfilled a number of roles, as a strategic defence against French invasion, a training camp, and a prison.

Even though it is now also accessible to the public, Fort George remains an army barracks. It offers an unrivalled insight not only into the military architecture of its time but also into the contribution made by Scotland’s regiments to the British Army.

Suppressing the Jacobites

Fort George was constructed against a background of uprisings against the Hanoverian Protestant monarchy, seeking the restoration of the joint English and Scottish crown to the Catholic Stuart line. The last and most famous of these was the insurrection headed by Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745-1746, fuelled by an unfulfilled promise of French supplies and money in support of the Jacobite cause.

Designed by Lieutenant- General William Skinner, Fort George consisted of a complicated network of sloping ramparts, ditches, massive bastions, and gun emplacements.

As confidence wavered, the Stuart army withdrew to Scotland to meet a crushing defeat at the hands of forces led by George II’s younger son, William, Duke of Cumberland. On 16 April 1746 at Culloden, a site five miles from where Fort George would be built, the Jacobite rebellion was decisively beaten, sending Bonnie Prince Charlie into permanent exile.

After the victory, the British crown quickly recognised that existing fortifications needed significant investment and improvement to counter any further disturbances. This led to the construction of a network of forts throughout the Highlands, a project in which Fort George would play a vital role. A new location was chosen, 11 miles from Inverness, where the original Fort George had stood until it was destroyed by the Jacobite army.

The outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854 saw Fort George refortified as a coastal defence battery. This included the installation of state-of-the-art artillery.

Lieutenant-General William Skinner, chief engineer for northern Britain, was commissioned to draw up plans for the new structure. He drew on a vast knowledge of military design principles that could be traced back to 16th-century Italy.

Fort George’s design consisted of a complicated network of sloping ramparts, ditches, massive bastions, and gun emplacements, enabling coverage of the surrounding land and sea approaches. It was a formidable fortification which, as it turned out, would never have to fire a shot in anger.

Construction began in 1748 and would take more than 20 years to complete. This mammoth task was undertaken by the Adam family of engineers, who were famous for work carried out at Edinburgh Castle. Due to its remote location, most of the building materials had to be shipped in by sea. The fort spanned 42 acres and its ramparts were more than half a mile in length. The project would be delivered over budget, at a cost of £200,000, which was greater than Scotland’s Gross National Product in 1750.

The principal bridge to the main gate. The bridge is a 1980s reconstruction from the original design. It spans a 50m-wide ditch, part of the fort’s considerable defences.

A variety of roles

Once the fort was completed it was retasked as a recruitment and training camp for regiments recruited in Scotland to bolster the rapidly expanding British Army. These units went on to serve throughout the British Empire. The fort also had a brief stint as a prison for Irish political prisoners after the 1798 rebellion.

By 1800, the future of Fort George was in doubt, as advances in artillery led the effectiveness of its defences to be questioned. It was eventually earmarked for closure. With the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854 and a threatened French invasion in 1860, this decision was reversed, and it was refortified as a coastal defence battery, with state-of-the-art artillery. Simultaneously, it became a focal point for the revival of home militia regiments in the Highlands.

From 1881 to 1961, the fort become the regimental depot for the Seaforth Highlanders, an amalgamation of the 72nd and 78th Highlander regiments. It has continued in use through various reorganisations, and today is the home of the Black Watch, 3rd Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland.

The fort today

Fort George is run by Historic Environment Scotland as a public attraction and offers excellent access for visitors, with of course some restrictions given that it remains a working army camp. It provides a first-rate impression of a soldier’s life during the various periods of its history.

The fort is home to the Official Highlanders Regimental Museum, which explores the life of a Highland soldier from the 18th century to the present day.

Located in the south ramparts is a reconstructed barracks, showing the cramped living conditions of the Georgian and Victorian garrison. Their strictly regulated routine, combined with the remoteness of the location, led soldiers to refer to it as ‘Fort Misery’.

The fort possesses a range of impressive defences. An attacker approaching from the fort’s only landward side would have first encountered the glacis, a sloping earthen bank designed to absorb artillery fire. Behind this lay the imposing ravelin, a triangular outwork considered virtually impregnable. It is linked to the main gate by the principal bridge, a 1980s reconstruction from the original design, which spans a 50m-wide ditch.

Beyond is the rampart, with its bastions of earth encased in stone. Artillery mounted here would have given the fort an impressive ability to defend itself.

The fort was expansive and self-sufficient, housing ordnance stores, an armoury, a bakery, and a brewery, as well as a chapel and a garrison school.

The fort is home to the Official Highlanders Regimental Museum, access to which is free for paying visitors to the site. This is situated within the lieutenant-governor and fort major’s house, which is one of the imposing buildings that greet you as you enter through the main gate. The museum guides visitors through the life of a Highland soldier from the 18th century to the present day. It explains the complex process of amalgamations that mark the history of the Highland regiments.

Here, too, are the stories of notable individuals, such as Lieutenant-General Sir John Moore, who created Britain’s first permanent light infantry regiment with a unique training regime. The museum has an impressive collection of 11,000 artefacts from every major conflict in which the Highlanders have fought.

Dating from the late 1700s, the Seafield Collection is an impressive array of military weapons and equipment, on display in the Grand Magazine. These include a range of firearms, swords, and uniforms, along with pikes that were issued as an economy measure when muskets were in short supply. These items were used to equip locally formed regiments during the French Revolutionary Wars in order to counter the threat of invasion.

Today run as a public attraction, Fort George has fulfilled a number of roles, including as a strategic defence against French invasion, a training camp, and a prison.

The Grand Magazine is an impressive structure that housed the fort’s gunpowder and was designed to withstand a direct hit from a 13-inch mortar bomb. An important lesson had been learned when Fort Augustus, on Loch Ness, had suffered a direct hit and was destroyed during the 1745 rebellion. Beyond lies the Ordnance and Provisions Stores, used to hold ammunition, the armoury, a bakery, and a brewery. Standing alone is the fort’s chapel, containing a noteworthy three-tier pulpit. At one stage this building doubled up as the garrison school.

A stroll along the ramparts will afford you excellent views of the surrounding landscape and also of the buildings within the site. From the Point Battery, at the seaward extremity of the fort, you can look out over the Moray Firth. It is a great place from which to spot bottlenose dolphins or porpoises on a calm day.

A visit to Fort George is highly recommended. Its well-preserved buildings and defences stand as a monument to the ruthless military power that ensured Jacobitism remained a lost cause. •

Ben Goodlad is currently a serving RAF Engineering Officer and has a keen interest in military history.
Images: Crown Copyright (HES) Historic Environment Scotland.