The familiar tinkle of my alarm echoed round my sleepy head. It was 5.30am on a Saturday morning, and I unravelled myself from my cocoon without struggle or resistance. In true Looney Tunes style I flew around the room like the Tasmanian Devil, ensuring I had all necessary electronic devices and their chargers. And a waterproof.
This could only mean one thing; I was off on an adventure.
Introducing Fort George…
Fort George is named after George II; the Hanoverian King who sat on the British throne when the fort was commissioned. The King’s son, William Augustus – the Duke of Cumberland – and his vast Hanoverian army brutally defeated the opposing Jacobites at Culloden in April 1746. Despite this victory, there was still an underlying fear the Jacobite army would reform and rebel again. As such, they decided they would build themselves an impressive new fort. Tad paranoid, you might say.
This fort would be a primary base for the government army in the Highlands. From here they could enforce their post-Culloden extirpation of the Highland clan culture, and stay protected from any violent retaliation. It was going to be big, it had to be impenetrable, and an ideal location was required. Who was going to pull this off?
Meet Lieutenant-General William Skinner – a Chief Military Engineer – who was tasked with designing the fort. He chose a stretch of headland near the fishing village of Ardersier to stage his work, and it was here that Skinner would execute a meticulous design, which could not only withstand an attack, but could actually repel artillery. Extending from the mainland out into the Moray Firth, this narrow piece of land was perfect for the strategic positioning of the fort. The Adam family were enlisted to collaborate with Skinner and bring his design to life. So it began.
The Adam family (there goes the Addams Family theme tune in your head!) were renowned Scottish architects, famed for their work on a number of public buildings in Edinburgh and beyond during the 18th century. The Jacobite Risings caused a surge in demand for the construction and reinforcement of fortifications to police the Highlands and strengthen the military garrisons around the country. The Adam family’s skills and expertise secured them work in Fort Augustus, Fort William and Fort George, and on a number of castles.
Between William Skinner and the Adams, Fort George was a military masterpiece in the making. That’s not to say their differing backgrounds didn’t cause any minor creative disputes. Brothers John, Robert and James Adam had adopted their late father’s unique architectural style and naturally wanted to add a little flair to the aesthetics of the fort. You can almost imagine the look on Colonel Skinner’s face. He was a military man, there to ensure it met its practical, defence purposes; he wasn’t interested in the pleasant intricacies.
I have to say, I’m with the Adams on this one, and can totally relate; I was recently involved in a very serious domestic ‘discussion’ when I favoured the purchase of novelty hairy coo cushion covers over a practical saucepan hanger for maximum storage in the kitchen. Of course I compromised, and agreed we could buy saucepan hanger – after the cushions.
Skinner and the Adam brothers struck a perfect balance, and created something resilient and robust, which was quite the seaside spectacle. Who would’ve thought something which was essentially erected for war could be so beautiful?
It didn’t happen overnight, mind you. Construction commenced in 1748, and over the course of 22 years 1,000 men worked tirelessly on-site to complete Fort George, even through harsh weather conditions. No expense was spared and the cost exceeded the country’s annual gross domestic product at the time. Splash out why don’t you! Considerable effort and cost for something which wouldn’t actually serve its initial purpose.
Fort George today
Fort George offers an insight into the history of the British military from the 18th century right through to today. Despite my eagerness to run off around the ramparts with my camera, we started our visit with a guided tour, courtesy of Ron.
The tour started at the miniature bronze model of the fort, where Ron gave us an overview of the fort’s orientation and the key design features. We entered the fort over the iconic drawbridge, enjoying Ron’s detailed and interesting commentary as we wandered around. Ron himself was in the military for 22 years and was based in Fort George for 18 months around 1988. I asked if he liked it, to which he responded he got to return home every Saturday to watch the football. Happy days! Before we set off to explore independently, Ron finished our tour at the military dog cemetery, one of only two in Scotland; the other is at Edinburgh Castle.
We meandered through the exhibits, where the visual and textual displays tell the story of the fort, its history, construction and the soldiers who spent time there. We read about the Words of War discovering the origin of several popular phrases we use like ‘face the music’ and ‘drop a bombshell’. We also watched a couple of videos before heading to the café for lunch. Far from a bog-standard cafeteria, lunch featured some posh fizzy refreshments and a haggis, cheese and sweet potato toasted stromboli. Yum!
To walk off the totally necessary millionaire’s shortbread at lunch, we admired the inside of the Chapel, visited the Highlanders Museum – the largest regimental museum in Scotland – and wandered leisurely around the perimeter of the ramparts, keeping a watchful eye on the Firth for dolphins. We had no luck with the latter, but were still treated to bonnie views back along the coast and over to the Black Isle.
Visiting Fort George? Remember to share your photos with us @welovehistory! Fort George is one of the attractions taking part in the Ticket Giveaway (26 & 27 November), get your free tickets before Friday 5pm.