Fort William is a small town in the Highlands with a population of approximately 10,500. But don’t let it’s peaceful, unassuming presence fool you. This picturesque town is a great jumping-off point for numerous day trips around the Highlands of Scotland.
Fort William itself is a lovely place to explore. On cold, rainy days, the smell of burning peat fills the air, which I found strangely appealing.
High Street is the main shopping street in Fort William. It’s lined with amazing clothing stores, bakeries, art galleries, pubs, and more.
If you’re looking to try some authentic haggis, there’s bound to be a restaurant or pub along High Street that offers it on the menu. We ate at the Grog and Gruel, which served both standard haggis and vegetarian haggis:
Day Trips from Fort William
You can easily use Fort William as home base while you check out some day trips around the region. Renting a car makes it much easier to get around. And once you get used to driving on the left side of the road and learn to maneuver through the numerous roundabouts, it’s actually quite a nice way to see the sights.
1. Ben Nevis Distillery
The Ben Nevis Distillery opened in 1825, which makes it one of the oldest licensed distilleries in Scotland. The distillery is open for tours as well as whisky tastings.
When you enter the Visitor’s Center, you’ll meet this imposing fellow: Hector McDram. He’ll teach you all about the “Legend of the Dew” through an audio-visual presentation before your guided tour begins.
The tour is a great introduction to learning about the process of whisky distilling and aging. After the tour, you can indulge in a whisky tasting. (Just remember not to drink and drive!)
While advance reservations might not be necessary, I would recommend contacting them ahead of time for tour times and availability to avoid disappointment.
Distance from Fort William: Approximately 2 miles (5-10 minute drive depending on traffic)
Children (Under 18): £2.50
Groups 15+: £4.50
Tasting Tour – £18.00 pp
(3 Ben Nevis Malt Whiskies)
Executive Tour – £30.00 pp
(Reserved min. 24hrs in advance)
Hours of Operation:
Monday to Friday 0900hrs – 1700hrs
Extended Summer Hours
Easter – October
Monday to Friday 0900hrs – 1700hrs Saturdays 1000hrs – 1600hrs
June – July – August
Monday – Friday 0900hrs – 1800hrs
Saturdays 1000hrs – 1600hrs
Sundays 1200hrs – 1600hrs
2a. Glenfinnan Monument and Viaduct
If you ever watched the Highlander movies or series, you’ll remember that both Connor and Duncan MacLeod were born in Glenfinnan. (I watched the show obsessively and dreamed about strolling along the Seine in Paris while rocking a full-length trench coat.) But Glenfinnan is known for much more than just the birthplace of fictional immortals.
Here comes a brief history lesson:
In 1714, Queen Anne, ruler of England, Scotland, and Ireland, passed away. She’d been the last monarch of the House of Stuart, and had no living children to inherit her title. The 1701 Act of Settlement excluded Catholics from the English and Irish thrones, which meant that the throne had to go to a Protestant. This limited the people in line who could succeed Anne. Her second cousin, George I, of the House of Hanover, inherited the title of king. The loss of the royal title from the House of Stuart didn’t sit well with the Jacobites – those who believed that the thrones of England, Scotland, and Ireland rightfully belonged to the House of Stuart.
The Jacobite rising of 1745 began at this location in Glenfinnan. The uprising was an attempt by Prince Charles Edward Stuart, (aka “Bonnie Prince Charlie”) to re-claim the British throne for his father, James Francis Edward Stuart and depose King George II.
Although the Jacobite army won a few battles along the way, they were defeated by William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. The battle only lasted about an hour, and in the end, between 1,500 and 2,000 Jacobites had been killed or wounded.
The Glenfinnan Monument was erected in 1815 to memorialize the Jacobite clansmen who fought and died in their attempt to return the throne to Prince Charles Edward Stuart.
The Glenfinnan Viaduct may also look familiar to Harry Potter fans. This railway made famous by the movies overlooks the Glenfinnan Monument and Loch Shiel.
The railway opened in 1901 to connect Fort William and Mallaig. The bridge boasts 21 arches, and is also the longest concrete railway bridge in Scotland. You can take the Jacobite Steam Train between Fort William and Mallaig. For more information, check times and prices here.
Distance from Fort William: 17 miles (30 minutes by car)
Admission to the Glenfinnan Monument:
One adult family £7.00
Hours of Operation:
Visitor Centre 10.00–16.00
2b. The Church of St. Mary and St. Finnan
I’ve labeled the Church of St. Mary and St. Finnan as 2b. because it’s ridiculously close to the Glenfinnan Monument, while being a separate attraction. This Catholic church is just a short drive from the Glenfinnan Monument, and is worth a side visit.
The church was built between 1870 and 1872 in the Gothic style. It overlooks Loch Shiel, which affords some really beautiful views.
A few photos of the modest but stunning interior:
The rose window above the altar was installed in 1995. Also note the peeling paint. Although the proximity to the loch is a picturesque location, the moisture in the air wreaks havoc on the interior of the church.
A closer view of the rose window:
The church also has a small plaque inside dedicated to the Highland emigrants to Canada:
Location: Immediately to the south-west of the A830 “Road to the Isles” from the Glenfinnan Monument towards Glenfinnan Station.
3. Caledonian Canal
The Caledonian Canal is the furthest attraction from Fort William, but is still worth the excursion.
The initial concept for the canal was to create a safer route for ships, including those of the British navy. The project was approved in 1803, but the scope and cost were vastly underestimated. Initially it was expected to take seven years to complete and cost around £474,000. But it actually took closer to nineteen years and cost £910,000!
The canal runs approximately 97 km in length, but only about one-third of it had to be man-made. The rest of the canal is a natural formation between four lochs – Loch Dochfour, Loch Ness, Loch Oich, and Loch Lochy.
The canal has 29 locks to control the flow of water. This is what they look like:
By the time the canal reached completion, shipbuilding technology had advanced, and the new, larger-hulled ships were too big to pass through the canal. Use of the canal increased during WWI to transport mine-building equipment and components. But overall, the canal didn’t see the expected traffic for commercial uses. It did, however gain popularity with tourists. You can now book various boat cruises along the canal, or rent a canoe and explore the waterways on your own. It’s also used for boat races and expeditions such as Sail Caledonia.
Distance from Fort William: Approximately 34 miles (One hour drive)