Scotland #4: the familiarity of Fort William

Scottish Highlands landscape

When we arrived at Fort William we recognised the atmosphere of the town immediately: it’s like Penzance.

Drizzle, mist, guesthouses, council estates and, of course, pubs.

The tricky thing about running a pub in a town like Fort William is that for half the year, there’s too much of a particular type of business: tourists who often don’t know how it all works and probably want dinner.

Then, for the remaining six months, there’s not enough business. You’re left with a handful of locals rattling round mostly empty pubs, if they can afford to go out at all given the seasonal nature of the employment market.

Also, a focus on local breweries, potentially laudable, too often means mediocre beer, or worse.

In this kind of environment, proper pubs can struggle to find a real identity, or deliver consistent customer service.

After a quick recce, we decided we might as well tackle #EveryPubInFortwilliam and we think we managed it.

A collage of pubs in Fort William.

The one everybody recommended was The Grog & Gruel. We didn’t have a good time on our visit between grumpy service, farting dogs and pass-agg encounters with Canadian tourists determined to nab our space. But it’s certainly a nice looking, pubby pub, and we can imagine having fun there under different circumstances.

The Volunteer Arms has a neat, traditional pub exterior with notes on the architectural significance of the interior. In fact, inside, we found it pretty plain and pleasingly down-to-earth. A friendly welcome on the first visit brought us back twice more, even though the beer was nothing special (a great excuse to drink Tennent’s). The appeal, we think, was that it felt like a city pub transplanted to the Highlands, and the balance of visitors and locals felt right.

The Ben Nevis kept trying to make us Dine but when we caved into pressure and ordered food, brought us the wrong stuff. We came twice, though, lured by a view over Loch Linnhe and a nice, manageable selection of whisky served in fancy glassware.

The first time we tried to visit the Maryburgh we were all but chased off by a strange man who blocked the alleyway to the door and stared us out with an unnerving Pennywise grin. The second time, we had to dash through a curtain of water from a broken gutter above the entrance. It wasn’t really worth the effort – this windowless basement isn’t a pub for out-of-towners and we only spoiled the mood with our anoraks and English accents. Still, more Tennent’s.

The Crofter was a bit Wetherspoony, but less slick. Someone growled at us because we blocked access to his vaping kit on the bar for two seconds while we ordered our drinks. The bar staff seemed to have end-of-the-season ennui despite it being early June. We drank Tennent’s.

Cobb’s is a strange looking modern pub by the railway station, above an outdoor supplies shop. We didn’t expect much from it but found not only good beer (Cairngorm Trade Winds) and friendly service but also a high standard of performed bar chat among the regulars: “He was an engineer before he retired. Any bridge you’ve ever heard of that fell down, he designed it.” The interior wasn’t anything special except that when the sun hit the skylight just right, it picked out one old gent at the bar with a heavenly beam.

Garrison West fancies itself a bit – all gin, craft lager and boardgames. We visited in the afternoon lull and found it friendly enough, if half asleep. The large range of beer seemed to have been chosen based on localness and the ‘craftness’ of the branding rather than any assessment of quality.

Finally, the elephant in the room: the local Wetherspoon branch, The Great Glen. It was permanently busy, from breakfast to closing, with locals and tourists. What did it do well? A huge sign in multiple languages explaining the ordering process by the door. Vast amounts of seating, albeit cramped in places. Huge windows avoiding that sense of leaping over a cliff-edge on choosing to enter. Orders by app, avoiding the need to speak to staff at all – handy if your English isn’t great. On the downside? It could have been in Teignmouth or Tenby, despite the typically careful application of Gaelic on signs.

Overall, we’d say Fort William isn’t a place you come especially for pubs or beer, though there’s enough choice that you’re bound to find one or two that will do the job between rambles.