Fort William in Gaelic is An Gearasdan, the Garrison. Strategically placed where the Great Glen meets the sea, it has been a strongpoint since the Inverlochy Castle was built by Clan Cameron around 1270.
Around 1690 the Old Fort was built with 20-foot (6m) stone walls. It was part of a chain along the Great Glen to pacify the Highlands, the others being Fort Augustus and Fort George at Inverness. It was named after King William of Orange; the town, originally Maryburgh after his Queen, was renamed not just to match the fort but also commemorating William Duke of Cumberland, the man who laid waste the Highlands with extreme cruelty after the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden.
In 1691 McIain, chieftain of Glencoe, came to the Old Fort to sign allegiance to King William rather than to the headquarters of the hated Campbells at Inverarary. This mistake was made the pretext for the Massacre of Glencoe the following year: the orders to the redcoat soldiers were signed here.
In 1725 the fort became even more important as the terminus of General Wade's road up the Great Glen. In 1746 it held out against a siege by 1,500 of Bonnie Prince Charlie's Jacobites and 200 French artillery men, who bombarded the fort from Cow Hill.
The fort itself then lost its military importance; but the town became ever busier as a transport hub: the Spaghetti Junction of the Highlands. Around the year 1800, tens of thousands set sail from here for Canada and elsewhere, evicted during the Highland Clearances. The song Lochaber No More commemorates their grief at their forced departure.
The Caledonian Canal opened in 1822, and for the next 100 years the harbour became the trading and transport centre for the entire West Highlands, with travel by sail or steamboat being far more practical than overland. The arrival of the railway in 1894 made the port even busier: with casual disregard for history, the railway yard was built over the remains of the Old Fort itself.
Briefly, the town became an industrial centre. The Alcan Aluminium smelter, exploiting the harbour and the high lochs and reservoirs for hydro-electricity, opened in 1929 and still produces 40,000 tons of metal a year. Another factory converted forestry plantations to wood pulp from 1964 to 2008.
But today, tourism at the foot of Britain's highest hill trumps all other income for the town. You have to look around quite hard to find a business, whether cafe, car dealership or distillery, that's not named after Ben Nevis.
From the far corner of the car park, cross the A82 and go up to the right of a school to join a tarred path under trees. This leads up to Lundavra Road. Turn uphill to the top of the town and across a cattle grid with a kissing gate alongside to a gate on the left signed ‘Keep Clear 24hr Access’.
This is the Peat Road, formed by sledges bringing peat for fuel off the hill. It rises over the moor to bend left past a path on the right signed for Glen Nevis (Point 3). But for now, continue ahead along the smooth track to the radio mast on Cow Hill, turning up left for the summit with views down on to Fort William and along lochs Linnhe and Eil. Keep ahead down rough heather to rejoin the track you came on, and return along it to the side path for Glen Nevis.
Follow this well-made path into woodland. Ignore a path to the left, and later a boardwalk path right; the main path descends steeply to reach a forest road. Go straight across to a continuing path with the thistle waymarker of the West Highland Way.
At the valley floor, an old burial ground, with atmospheric beeches and table tombs of the early 19th century, is up on the left – a gate and footbridge give access to it. The main path soon leads to the Glen Nevis road. Turn left along the pavement for 130yds (118m) and cross to a footpath under trees to Ionad Nibheis, the Glen Nevis Visitor Centre.
Follow the riverbank beside the car park to a footbridge signed ‘Ben Nevis Path’. Cross and follow a small path to the left, downstream. With the road just ahead, a riverside path forks off to the left. The path and road rejoin after 0.5 miles (800m) and lead down to a green metal footbridge.
Cross to a short track past a curling pond. Turn right, down the Glen Nevis road to a roundabout, and keep ahead into Fort William. Bear right past the entrance to the station.
Here an underpass on the left leads into the main street, but the walk bears right, across the car park of the Morrisons supermarket to a roundabout. Beyond is the old fort, now the start point for the new Great Glen Way. The pavement alongside the loch leads back to the car park.
Tracks and paths, mostly wide and well built
Moorland hill, riverside and town
Keep on lead through town; be aware of semi-wild cattle around Cow Hill summit
OS Explorer 392 Ben Nevis & Fort William
Large pay-and-display car park at south end of Fort William
Glen Nevis Centre and town centre
Walking in safety
Read our tips to look after yourself and the environment when following this walk.
Also in the area
About the area
Apart from the Orkneys and the Shetlands, Highland is Scotland’s northernmost county. Probably its most famous feature is the mysterious and evocative Loch Ness, allegedly home to an ancient monster that has embedded itself in the world’s modern mythology, and the region’s tourist industry. Monster or no, Loch Ness is beautiful and it contains more water than all the lakes and reservoirs in England and Wales put together. The loch is 24 miles long, one mile wide and 750 feet deep, making it one of the largest bodies of fresh water in Europe.
At the very tip of the Highlands is John o’ Groats, said to be named after a Dutchman, Jan de Groot, who lived here in the early 16th century and operated a ferry service across the stormy Pentland Firth to Orkney. In fact, the real northernmost point of the British mainland is Dunnet Head, whose great cliffs rise imposingly above the Pentland Firth some two miles further north than John o’ Groats.
The Isle of Skye is the largest and best known of the Inner Hebrides. Its name is Norse, meaning ‘isle of clouds’, and the southwestern part of the island has some of the heaviest rainfall on the whole of the British coast. Despite this, it’s the most visited of all the islands of the Inner Hebrides. It’s dominated from every view by the high peaks of the Cuillins, which were only conquered towards the end of the 19th century.