Relocate: Fort William

© Jules C
In this new mini-series 'Relocate' we take a look at different areas of Britain and what they are like to live and climb in. This is the third in the series, Fort William by Dave MacLeod.

Other articles in this series are Sheffield by Adam Long, Catalunya by Pete O'Donovan and North Wales by Jack Geldard.

Fort William, The Outdoor Capital of the UK  © Peter Leeming
Fort William, The Outdoor Capital of the UK
© Peter Leeming

Blue sky day on Ben Nevis, Smiths Route  © Jules C
Blue sky day on Ben Nevis, Smiths Route
© Jules C, Apr 2007
"Don't do it Dave, it'll kill you"

I tried not to look too dumbfounded at Ed's reaction to me mentioning I might be making the big move from Glasgow up to Fort William.

As I tied my rock-shoes for an E8 lead in Glen Nevis, Ed Grindley, local school teacher and local climbing activist of over thirty years quizzed me about my reasons for planning a move to the hub of the western highlands.

"Basically I just want to be where the action is Ed", I said. "I need a place where there's an endless supply of new rock".

As a young climber in Glasgow, as soon as my horizons opened to the wealth of crags all over the highlands, I visited most of them and got to know the immense variety of landscape and character of climbing between one Scottish glen and the next. But one place I kept visiting at least twice as often as everywhere else was Glen Nevis. I'd spent half my life travelling there - I might as well live there.

On both sides of the glen, buttresses of the unusual pitted and glacier scoured rock poke out from the birch and Scot's pine woods. Many things appealed to me about this glen above others (Scotland has no shortage of beautiful rock filled glens). Apart from the scenic beauty which I will never tire of, the biggest thing was probably the sheer number of separate crags and boulders. After so many years spent jumping around this glen, I figured I should have at least seen all the routes, but every year, I find a new place hiding in the birch woods, with new projects.

Living in the highlands in general will appeal to those who like either complete quietude for climbing, or a small and friendly scene, rather than the relative abundance of climbers you'll find in places like Llanberis or the Lakes. To meet someone else at the crag is pretty surprising at the busy crags, and a downright freak accident at the quieter ones. But to find partners to climb with is not as tricky as the numbers of climbers might indicate. Everyone knows everyone, and you won't have to look far to find either locals, or seasonal visitors to meet up with.

Glen Nevis  © Mowglee
Glen Nevis
© Mowglee, Dec 2007
Another major plus point of living in the centre of the action when it comes to climbing is that many of your mates from around the country will come and stay, a lot. If that's what you are into it can be rather handy to have climbing partners arrive super keen just as the weather gets nice. You might well end up seeing good friends more often than you would if you lived up the street from them in the hectic pace of city life (passing ships). Local friends will often pop in for a brew and a chat, something that everyone was always too busy for in Glasgow and a real pleasure.

The biggest potential problem with life in Fort William for a climber would be the collision of our 'maritime' weather conditions and the inflexibility of a 9-5 job. I couldn't imagine it actually. Flexibility, to be able to work when the rain is falling and drop everything when the sun comes out, is about as essential as every other consideration put together. If you do have flexibility for time, you have access to the most beautiful, quiet, unspoiled and adventurous climbing in the UK. If you don't, hair may be torn out because your days off will never, ever fall on good days (the law of sod applies in duplicate in Lochaber).

Most climbers I know arrived without a job and found one after arrival. Finding work is fairly straightforward once you know everyone. In fact, if you have some useful skills, you might find yourself a little overwhelmed with people needing them when you want to go climbing.

So, as long as the key attribute - a flexible schedule - is there, it's an easy place to find your work-climbing balance.

Fort William High Street  © Dave MacLeod
Fort William High Street
© Dave MacLeod

Dan Goodwin on top of number 4 gully, Ben Nevis  ©

Dan Goodwin has lived in Fort William for around ten years after he first moved to the area to work at the local Outward Bound activity centre. He lives in the quiet area of Inverlochy:

"It's a far cry from the early 'Burnside' days where lots of climbers sat watching a distorted TV in sleeping bags, with bronchial coughs due to it being damper inside than out. We had a very open door policy in those days and often for those arriving late in the night an open window policy."

Dan moved to 'the Fort' specifically for the winter climbing: "It was the fact that I had the crucible of British winter climbing - Ben Nevis on my doorstep and being able to finish work and get a few runs in on the pistes."

"The best thing about living here is without doubt walking off the summit of the Ben after a good winters day with one of the famous West Coast sunsets in the distance."

UKClimbing asked Dan for a little insider knowledge on the best pub in town:

"The best pub? 'Grog and Gruel' on the high street has a good bar menu especially the Venison burger and curly fries. It also sells real ales and is the only pub in town that does!"

With an increase in visitors, Dan is concerned about the main road north from Glasgow, the A82:

"The A82 can't cope with the amount of traffic coming up and down from Glasgow and the south, in places it's not even wide enough for two large vehicles to pass. As the main trunk road for people coming to the outdoor capital it really needs to be made wider and the potholes filled. It would greatly reduce the accidents."

Dan runs an instructing business

The housing available around 'The Fort' constantly makes my jaw drop at what's on offer in each price bracket. Quite often it seems too good to be true. Prices seem to be fairly immune from the big fluctuations further south - they just stay on the low to very low side. One bedroom houses start under 80K and two bedroom houses from 90K. 200K will get you more space than you could ever need (for a massive training board), or some locations that seem just laughably good.

The worst thing about Fort William is the way the town has developed historically, having turned its back on Loch Linhe, its best asset. The waterfront redevelopment would give the area a big boost, if it ever goes ahead.

Mark Phillips, local climber

The routine in summer for me is to work until 2 or 3 in the afternoon and then hit the crags, glen or mountain, it doesn't matter too much. Long summer evenings go on for ever and ever. Last summer I was going up to Echo Wall near the top of Ben Nevis, leaving the house at 3pm and having 6 hours work on my project, coming down in the last light for midnight. Jogging back down Tower Ridge and out from the CIC hut into the warm sunset is just glorious - can life really be this magical!?

When the weather is driech in summer a lot of climbers will go paddling or biking (of course this area is just as good for these sports as climbing). I know nothing about these myself I must admit. When it's crap I clear my work and then go to the ever-dry boulder or sport climbing spots like Sky Pilot, The Anvil or Steall. The other option is to escape the rain altogether - the east or even the extreme west often escapes the wet when The Coe is swimming. The Ardnamurchan crags, or in the east Crag Dubh and the Gorms are only an hour away.

When the weather is fine and options are unlimited, they really are unlimited. This could be a long article if I attempted even a run through. For example, to lump "the north west" into one term seems so silly when we are talking about several guidebooks worth of climbing on so many different rock types on mountains, sea cliffs, outcrops and boulders, accessible in a couple of hours. As well as the climbing that has been developed, I could also talk about the crags yet to be touched. Remote of course, but also amazing and very sought after if adventurous exploratory new routing is your thing. This year I'm off into Knoydart to start on some new crags. I'll report back later.

One of things we really noticed from our move from Glasgow was how much more we felt the change of seasons. After the magic days of orange and red trees in the Glen have passed and the November deluge is in full swing, it's a good time for training. Those who don't like training tend to get frustrated with it, or get on a ryanair at this time of year. But like anything, if you are touched more by the lows of the dark and rainy months, your spirit is lifted all the more in the glorious spring sunshine (usually while skiing or pounding plastic ice on the Ben in April). Personally, I'm more just impressed by the monsoon spells than depressed by them. But then again, I love locking myself in the boulder wall and training hard.

Fort William as seen from Loch Linnie  © UKC Articles
Fort William as seen from Loch Linnie
The Ice Factor scene is a diverse one; local hones like Blair Fyffe and Dumby pulling hard on the 45 degree board; Glencoe MRT coming in en masse once a week; Fort William-based climbers car-sharing when "the Glen" is wet or midged and a growing group of local youngsters, many of whom have been introduced to climbing by ourselves. Add to this our seasonal staple; the washed-out winter warrior!

Jamie Bankhead - The Ice Factor

Speaking of training, the Fort just got a lot better with the addition of a small but perfectly formed bouldering wall at Alan Kimber's place (Calluna) in town. It's a very friendly and chilled place and with the local instructors piling in off the hill each afternoon, a great place to get the inside info on how the winter conditions are shaping up. The much larger climbing centre at The Ice Factor is about 35 minutes away in Kinloch, via a nifty road to drive down Loch Leven. The leading wall is not bad although the route turnover is best measured in aeons. The bouldering room is a different story, with a brilliant large steep wall with more good problems than you'll ever complete. The locals have a constant stream of new problems to show you and it's nice and cool for working hard. If Ewan tells you this is an easy one, don't believe him. The gang usually mix up visits to each, often car sharing for raids on the Ice Factor.

If you like winter climbing then you really are spoiled living in the Fort. Obviously, the endlessness of the Ben, the Coe and Meggie are right on the doorstep, but you'll still only need to roll out of bed at 6.30 to hit the Norries and Torridon/Applecross or Skye are perfectly fine for day trips if you are up early. What more should one say? Perhaps the only threat is getting lazy and saying "not quite perfect, I'll wait till tomorrow".

You better have your affairs in order by the middle of March though, because little work gets done in late March and April if you are a highland 'all-rounder'. The sun is out, the ice is fat, the boulders are crisp, the sunny crags are bone dry. There's nae chance you'll find a climber behind a desk for very long!

Descending Ben Nevis  © ckmoffat
Descending Ben Nevis
© ckmoffat, Nov 2008

Additional notes for Fort life

  • Take extra time for shopping, you'll meet at least three friends in Morrisons.

  • Always have a decent brush for cleaning rock in your bag. You'll find new routes a lot.

  • In summer, you'll look at the wind forecast more than the rain. No wind means midges, and you don't want that.

  • In Glasgow you might not get into the best pubs wearing a Gore-Tex. In the Fort's establishments you'll not see too many without one.

  • It's hard to diet for F9a in the Fort. Bacon Rolls from Lochaber Farm Shop's cafe and cakes from the sidings cafe in the train station are tricky to avoid.

Fort William

Any Rock?
Are you kidding!? Check out the following list of guidebooks...:

Rockfax Guidebooks:
Deep Water 2007
Mike Robertson's award winning Deep Water guide, covering DWS on the English South Coast, Pembroke, Scotland and throughout the world.
Other guidebooks:

Most Popular Climbs:

Local Climbing Walls:

Local Climbing Businesses:

For a longer list of climbing businesses, try:

Night Life?
Try this pub listing website:


Job Opportunities?
You could try:

Estate Agents?

Special thanks go to all the contributing photographers in this piece. The stunning night time panoramic at the top is by Pete Leeming, you can see more of his Scottish panoramic photos on his website:

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6 Jul, 2009
a definite lack of responses compared to the Llanberis and Sheffield articles....perhaps that is a good thing for the locals!
7 Jul, 2009
7 Jul, 2009
If you google "Fort William is a dump" you will get a fair number of hits. Living in the area though not in the town itself I know the town well and have to say that there is little wrong with it that an MLRS battery couldn't sort out. I moved here for reasons other than climbing but naively thought doing more climbing would be an incidental bonus. In fact I have put on several stone since moving to the "outdoor capital of the UK" and am well on track for clinical obesity. To be fair Lochaber has some beautiful places and I have managed to get routes in regularly if infrequently although my partners come from Ayrshire, Devon, Fife etc. Maybe I am just a miserable bastard with BO and a repellent personality but I am yet to meet any climbers that live in the area that aren't professionals in some sense. In that respect it has been a bit like moving to Amsterdam and looking for a girlfriend, I imagine. Having lived elsewhere in the north of scotland I have to say that Fort Willie is probably one of the grimmest places to live north of the highland fault line. I haven't actually lived in Milnafua or the Ferry so I can't say for sure if the Fort is No.1 minghole I'm afraid. Clearly Dave MacLeod agrees with this to some extent as he has moved from Claggan to Letterfinlay! I read in the Lochaber News the other day that the boss of OCUK has sacked it. Maybe they will be headhunting me now!
8 Jul, 2009
Steady on old chap.... The Fort might not be Venetion in it's architectural style but all Dave's points hold firm. With more that a lifetime's worth of world class winter climbing, mountain rock, cragging, bouldering, hillwalking and running on the doorstep you can't deny that it's an awesome place to live if the outdoors is your thing, and with the addition of the training wall at Kimber's it's even better now. I lived in the Fort for a year and a half (now in Aviemore for work) and definately miss the ease of access to high quality cragging and boulders.
8 Jul, 2009
I'd also have to say steady on! I lived in the Fort for the Winter and Spring, I have seldom seen more beautiful sunrises and sunset than those from Glen Nevis and on The Ben. Nobody in their right mind would move to Fort William for the town, you move there for the surroundings. The shear number of top quality boulder problems and trad routes, not to mention possibly the best F8b in Scotland (Stolen), means it's hard not to head outdoors when the weather is good. In early Spring bouldering up the Glen was so pleasantly peaceful, I'd seldom see another soul until the evening. That said there is definitely an active scene, all of whom are friendly and welcoming, from the guys at OB at Loch Eil, folks from the Coe and the Fort Bill residents (including Dave - ok ex-town resident now). The Calluna Wall is an excellent wee training venue if you have any imagination and the Ice Factor bouldering wall has the best 45 board I've seen North of the border. Contrary to DH3631, I was without doubt at my strongest just when I left Fort Bill, thanks mostly to the top quality bouldering in Glen Nevis, and helped not-a-little by the super-psyched local crowd. Dave maybe fails to mention Fired Art, NevisSport Cafe, and Cafe 115, all three of which are located on the high street providing reasonable coffee and cake, where you can usually find a climber or two if the weather is rubbish. If it's only drizzling, head up to the top carpark and go for a run through upper Glen Nevis, it'll make you realise what an awesome place you're in, not to mention work off the cake. DH3631, sounds like you could do with trying this a bit more often?!
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