My blog today is set a very long way north of London, but its subject – Fort George on Scotland’s Moray Firth – must have represented a great comfort to Londoners recovering from the shock of the ’45, Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s attempt to regain the throne of his grandfather, James VII of Scotland, II of England.
Charles, known as the Young Pretender or, more romantically as Bonnie Prince Charlie, had led his troops as far south as Derbyshire, causing widespread panic throughout England before he retreated back to Scotland with the realisation that the expected English support was not going to be forthcoming.
The forces of George II in London reacted with brutal force. Charles’s army was slaughtered in the Battle of Culloden in less than an hour on 16th April 1746 and the Young Pretender fled, the hopes of the Stuarts fleeing with him.
The government was not going to take any more chances with Jacobite sympathies in Scotland and put in place an ambitious plan to extend the military roads across the country and to build fortifications that would ensure a rising could never happen again.
The old Fort George in Inverness had proved inadequate against the Jacobites and the town council was objecting strongly to having two thousand “wild and licentious” soldiery located in the heart of their respectable town, so the new fort was eventually located on a spit of land jutting out into the Moray Firth at Ardesier, a safe eleven miles away from Inverness’s citizens and commanding an excellent strategic position guarding the mouth of the Firth.
Fort George was begun in 1748, planned by Lieutenant-General William Skinner and built under the direction of the architectural dynasty of the Adams family – father William (who had worked on Edinburgh Castle), then son John and eventually even John’s brother Robert Adam, one of Britain’s most famous and fashionable architects.
The 42 acre fort cost £200,000, equivalent to £20 million now and more than Scotland’s entire GNP for 1750. It only ever saw one shot fired in anger – and that was by a panicky night-time guard firing on a cow that was approaching the outer defences. As a result the fort appears almost exactly as it did when it was completed and it is one of the most impressive fortifications of the period in Europe. To add to the atmosphere for the modern visitor it is still in use for troops who have been accommodated into the historic fort without adding to, or damaging, the original building.
Today one can view the complex and seemingly impregnable series of outer walls, bastions and moats, designed to put any attacker under withering cross-fire.
Inside the walls the buildings are handsome and impressive, from the Governor’s house to the barracks (still in use for their original purpose, although with fewer men in each large room and more modern heating and plumbing!) to the gunpowder magazine, the stores and the simple chapel.
The recreated corner of one of the barrack rooms shows the draped blanket that was the only privacy a married couple had in a room sleeping eight men. In contrast one of the senior officers enjoys a room to himself with larger window panes and a smart fireplace.
The chapel contains many standards of regiments who have been stationed at Fort George, some of them from the early 19th century. The icing on the cake for me was the re-enactor in the dress of the original Scottish regiments garrisoned there who allowed me to try out all his weapons, including his musket and whose tales of the fort really brought it to life.