Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Christmas Adventures - Fort George

While gazing out over the Moray Firth one morning, I noticed a strange feature in the distance. On the farthermost point across the Firth was a strange section of coastline that looked more the stone wall of a castle or fortress.  
Click to enlarge
A little while later, I was reading a tourist brochure on attractions in the Inverness area and thought that a local military fort sounded interesting. I flipped over to the map page and discovered that the attraction, Fort George, was the exact thing I had been looking at across the Firth! Well if that wasn't a good reason to visit...

[In researching this blog post, I realised just how little I know about British history between 1600 and 1800. With each step back in time, I discovered that I needed to take yet another step back in order to better understand the information I compiled. As with any study of history, one is essentially always in the middle of another, bigger, story, and the researcher must always work out just how much of the bigger picture is necessary to gain a good understanding of an event, person, or topic. At the end of the day, there is no right or wrong answer, and it often comes down to personal preference just how much 'bigger picture' or 'background knowledge' is taken into consideration. Thus, forgive me if you find the extent of historical information in many of these blog posts is too much or too little for your liking (Incidentally, if you want more history, pay me to tell it to you or write it for you. I shall be well pleased to do this, and your historical knowledge will increase abundantly as I have ample time for such pursuits as this!).]

So, we come to the story of Fort George, embedded in the larger history of Scotland, and woven into the fabric of the United Kingdom.

In 1685, King Charles II made a deathbed conversion to Catholicism and passed away, leaving his brother to become King of England, Scotland, and Ireland. King James II quickly caused concern amongst his subjects with his increasing religious tolerance and his ties with Catholic France. His daughter, Mary, was the heir presumptive, protestant, and married to her Dutch, protestant cousin, William of Orange. When James II's Catholic wife gave birth to a son in 1688, daughter Mary, her political and religious allies, and her Dutch husband decided it was time to take action and protect the United Kingdom from the Catholic sympathies of the King. 

In June 1688, William of Orange landed on English shore accompanied by an army, set to attack the King's forces. The invaders were soon joined by defecting protestant officers, and the King's other daughter also joined the opposition. King James II was disinclined to launch a counter-attack and instead fled to France, to his ally King Louis XIV. In his absence, parliament refused to depose the King, but did decide that the throne had been left vacant and would thus fall to daughter Mary. Mary and her husband happily took up the throne and ruled jointly for five years (William for a further eight years after Mary's death), and parliament passed a law decreeing that no Roman Catholic would be able to ascend the English throne, nor could any monarch marry a Catholic. 

The attack by William of Orange became known as the 'Glorious Revolution'. It had important consequences for the development of England: most importantly as it ensured that Protestantism maintained its firm footing, largely through the suppression of Catholicism; and it created modern parliamentary democracy after the 1689 Bill of Rights which ensured no future monarch would hold absolute power, and any citizen could petition the monarch without fear of reprisals. Interestingly, the economic and military co-operation between the Netherlands and England would help to shift the dominance in world trade from the Dutch Empire to the British Empire. 

While many Scots soon accepted the new King and Queen, there was a faction of mainly Highland Clansmen who remained loyal to the former King James. Known as 'Jacobites', these supporters viewed the new monarchy as part of an illegal coup d'etat, and set about trying to return James, and later his descendants through the House of Stuart, to the Scottish and English thrones. From 1688 to 1746, the Jacobites took part in a series of  rebellions and uprisings, including two major campaigns in 1715 and 1745.

In the Jacobite Rising of 1745, the grandson of James II, Charles Stuart, attempted to regain the monarchy for the House of Stuart. Charles, also known as 'Bonnie Prince Charlie' and 'The Young Pretender', was supported by a number of clan chieftains  as well as some Irishmen and Frenchmen. While Charles had promised to arrive with troops and munitions, by the time he landed in the Hebrides he had little of either, and lost the support of some chieftains. Nonetheless, on August 19 Charles raised the standard at Glenfinnan in the western Highlands, and set off southwards. The Jacobite force was around 3,000 men at this stage, and was largely supported by the clans MacDonald, McPhee, MacDonnell, and Cameron. Much of the British Army was flighting in Belgium and Germany in the War of the Austrian Succession, and there were few troops available to fight what they thought was a large force of Jacobites. Soon, the rebels had taken Inverness, Perth, and much of Edinburgh, and the English had put a bounty on Charles Stuart's head. Throughout August and September 1745, English and Jacobite forces clashed throughout Scotland, but Charles Stuart had one goal - the monarchy. 

On November 8, a Jacobite army of over 5000 foot soldiers and 500 cavalry entered England. Soon, the forces had taken Carlisle and Manchester, and on December 4, they reached Derby, a town just over halfway between the Scottish border and London. Stuart pushed for an assault on London but there was a fair amount of resistance from the Scottish clansmen, who believed English militia in London would be too strong for the Jacobites. They began their retreat, and, though they continued to battle with British troops, by April 1746 Jacobite success looked a dim prospect. 

On April 17, 1746, Jacobite and British troops met on a boggy moor in Culloden, near Inverness. Despite an impressive 'Highland Charge' against bayonets and muskets, the Jacobites suffered heavy casualties. The Battle of Culloden became the last formal act of the Jacobite Uprising. Many Jacobites were imprisoned and executed, though Charles Stuart escaped to the Isle of Skye, then on to France where he spent the remainder of his life as an exile. 

Following the Battle of Culloden, the British government introduced ruthless measures to prevent such a Rising happening again. Twelve kilometres from Culloden, the ultimate defence against further Jacobite unrest was established. Fort George, named after King George II (1727–60) was designed as the main garrison fortress in the Scottish Highlands. Designer, Lieutenant-General William Skinner, mapped out a complex of ramparts and massive bastions, ditches and firing steps. The defences were heavily concentrated on the landward side of the promontory, from where an anticipated Jacobite assault would come. The remaining seaward sides were protected by long stretches of rampart and smaller bastions.

Aerial view of Fort George,
Photograph of photograph in exhibit at the Fort
Fort George, is the mightiest artillery fortification in Britain, if not Europe. Positioned strategically on a promontory jutting into the Moray Firth, Fort George was intended as an impregnable army base – designed on a monumental scale using sophisticated defence standards. It took 20 years to complete, and, if built today, would cost nearly £1 billion. Within almost a mile of boundary walls was accommodation for a governor, officers, artillery detachment, and a 1600-strong infantry garrison. It also housed a magazine for 2,500 gunpowder barrels, ordnance and provision stores, a brewhouse, and chapel.

(Thanks to Historic Scotland for the above figures. If you want to know more, visit their website)

Later in the 18th century, after the Jacobite threat had evaporated, the Fort became a recruiting base and training camp for the rapidly expanding British Army. It seems to me that Fort George was somewhat of an over-reaction, an expensive show of power by the British Monarchy to any lingering rebellious elements in Scotland. It is perhaps a little disappointing that such an imposing fortress has not seen any conflict, nor had any attack launched against it. It rather feels like it deserves a chance to show off its impregnability!

Fort George is still a working army base today, so it added a touch of excitement to see soldiers walking around the complex. There is a munitions museum on site, and it was crazy to see so many guns on display, and see things like bayonets up close! We also enjoyed wandering around the vast complex, and looking at the canons out on the outer walls. In summer, you can often see dolphins swimming in the Firth, but it was bitterly cold when we visited - there was a light dusting of snow the previous day - and the dolphins were off holidaying in the Mediterranean.

The Dog Cemetery - unfortunately not open to the public
These big houses were once accommodation for VIPs.

The chapel was pretty, and clearly still holds an important place in Army life. We were amused to see the stained glass window (below) which features the only known stained-glass bagpipe-playing angel!!!

One of our favourite parts of Fort George was the historic barrack section, possibly because it was about 4 degrees outside and this was the only section of the complex that was heated....

This area featured three replica rooms based on life for soldiers in the mid-1800s. At this time, soldiers slept five to a room, while married couples shared a room - with only muslin curtains to provide some privacy. The room below is what an officer's room would have looked like, with enough space for a writing desk and an area to entertain visitors.

We were pleased to read the plaque below - the example of a rank-and-file soldier's life was that of a Private Moffat! (I should mention that it was great being in Scotland - in England we're often asked to repeat our name, and always asked to spell it. In Scotland, no one blinked an eye, and understood us first time, every time.)

We would have liked to spend longer poking around Fort George, and listening to all of the excerpts on our hand-held audio guides. Unfortunately it was bitterly cold, but we managed to last for just over two hours. Time to head back to the bothy, to a warm fire and a hot drink.

Hopefully the history lesson was not too dry nor long, but I found it fascinating to learn more about the events that have shaped Scotland, and its relationship with England. Also, our bothy was a mere five minute drive from the battlefield of Culloden, and fifteen minutes from Fort George, so it felt especially relevant to delve into the story of the local area. 

One final note - those Highlanders who took part in the Jacobite Uprisings were by no means a majority, but as a result of their actions, Parliament passed the 'Heritable Jurisdictions (Scotland) Act 1746', which abolished traditional rights of jurisdiction of clan chiefs, took power previously possessed by Scottish lords and gave it to sheriffs, and took away a chieftain's right to call men to arms. Parliament also passed the 'Act of Proscription 1746' which was an attempt to crush the clan system and prevent future rebellion. This Act made the wearing of traditional Highland dress a punishable offence, and forbade Highland Scots from keeping arms. The Act was repealed in 1782.

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