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.