Ft. William, Scotland: The Heart Beneath Ben Nevis

As I traveled to Ft. William, I was excited to see what I would find.

I have to admit that the bus ride from Skye to Ft. William offered some of the most picturesque moments in the highlands, but I wasn’t able to photograph them.

Perhaps that’s why I felt somewhat underwhelmed when I got to Ft. William.  I was also hungry and hadn’t had any coffee and was starting to get a pounding headache.

After I ate and had a morning cup, I headed to the tourist information center right next to the bus and train terminal.  I got a map and a little advice from Margaret Rose, a pleasant lady who had lived in grown up in the area, lived in Glasgow for a while, and then returned here.

She said, “I’ve always been an islander in my heart,”

I thanked her and secured some lodging after a little looking, tended to my headache, and started walking.

My first impression of Ft. William was that it was tourist hub for the western highlands and, of course, for Ben Nevis.  Ben Nevis is the tallest mountain in the United Kingdom, and it looms above the town.

They’ve set up the town’s center for walking traffic and shopping, and they’re even constructing a new strip mall just down the road.

The fort, for which the town is named, is the ruin of a ruin,  There’s little left beyond a stretch of wall and a path.  There are information signs around it explaining the history of Ft. William and the Jacobite assault on it.

As a strategic location for warfare or for trade, Ft. William would certainly be a prize.  It’s perfectly located at the lower end of the Great Glen Way and would be a great staging area for an army looking to push north or south.

I decided to head about a mile or so out of town to Inverlochy Castle, and, along the path, I happened upon an unusual sight.

There was a series of bike paths with make-shift jumps.  I saw a young man attempting to roll a rather large rock up a hill.  I immediately stopped and offered to help.

When we got the rock up the hill, we introduced ourselves.

Josh is studying to be an adventure tour guide and attends university in Ft. William.

Josh is an 18 year old student who is attending the University of the Highlands and Islands.  He’s from Falkirk, which is outside of Edinburgh, and he plans to become an adventure tourist guide. I asked him if he wanted to work in Scotland.  He said that he’s dreaming of working in Canada one day.

I continued on along the river and eventually found the ruins of Inverlochy Castle, which are in a fairly good shape.  They’re right by the river, the train tracks, and the Stramash Centre for Excellence in Outdoor Learning. I saw a lot of kids playing on the Stramash playground across from the castle.  There were also three sheep grazing just along the castle wall. (Check out the video below.)

It was a perfect example of what I had seen throughout much of Scotland, a sense of of history meshed with the modern and always with sheep nearby.

I thought about heading back to Ft. William, but I opted to continue down the trail.  I soon emerged on the main road and saw the Ben Nevis Distillery across the street.

I knew it was getting later, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to take a quick look.

And that is when I got the most pleasant surprise of my day in Ft. William–Tom the mash man.

I walked into the reception area, and there was an amiable fellow there to greet me.  He said that the last tour had already started, and I said that was fine and that I was just looking around.

He said, “Would you like to have a drink?”

I laughed and said that I was never one to turn down good scotch.

Tom took me to the tasting table and poured me a few drams–the 10 year old, the 12 year old, and the “peaty,” as he called it.

Tom works at the Ben Nevis Distillery and is just a super cool guy!

We chatted.  I told him about my visit to the Highland Park Distillery in Kirkwall.  I called him by the name on his jacket, and he quickly corrected me.

“No.  That’s not my name.  I’m Tom.  I’m a masher.  I make the beer from which we get the spirit.”

Now, I had already felt that I had stumbled into a huge bit of luck just to meet Tom and get to have a bit of scotch, but I was about to get an even bigger treat.

Tom said, “Let me show you where I work.”

And, with that, I received an impromptu and very informative personalized tour of the Ben Nevis Distillery.

Tom opened the vats where the beer was being made and explained the process of how to make good whiskey in great detail.

I asked him if he liked his job, and he laughed.

“Oh, aye.  I get a bottle each month with my check and three at Christmas time.”

He explained that the barley came from Aberdeen, that it was malted in Inverness, and that it was shipped here for the distilling process.

“We use the Ben Nevis (river) to make the whisky.  That’s why the whiskey is fresh.  Because the water is so fresh.”

As he showed me the casks and warehouses (the largest holds 50,000 casks), Tom pointed up to the mountain and asked if I had noticed it.

I laughed and said yes.

“I love watching the planes refueling midair as they pass over Ben Nevis,” he said.

As we walked back to the front lot, I told Tom about my plans to eventually travel to Japan.

“Oh.  Ben Nevis is owned by a Japanese company–Nikka.  The same company that makes Asahi beer.”

Tom told me that he was a Ft. William man, and, like most people I’d met in Scotland, he seemed quite content with his home.

I thanked him again, and he said that it was nothing at all.  Of course, he was wrong.  He had demonstrated a real love for his work, the spirit he produced, and his community.

Whatever doubts I had earlier with my visit to Ft. William had a evaporated like the alcohol does in the distilling process.

As Tom said, “It’s all about getting to the heart of the good spirit.”

Until my next post, keep looking to the heavens and seeking your own star.



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