There are several places called Fort George across the world, and two in the UK. I’m not writing about the one in Guernsey today, but rather the one in the highlands of Scotland. It’s not technically a castle because it is a military installation, and was never intended as a high-status residence, but it’s interesting enough that I thought I would bend the rules a little.

Photograph by Stephen Branley

Photograph by Stephen Branley

A New Kind of Fortress

When gunpowder weapons were first developed they had many benefits, but they lacked the power of a trebuchet. Sieges therefore remained as they pretty much always had done, only with more smoke and loud bangs – cannons were primarily an anti-infantry weapon, and thus useful in defence but not really in bringing down a castle wall. Castle designs changed somewhat to accommodate gunpowder, and where one once would have seen arrow slits castles were being built with gun loops and cannon ports.

Over time, though, cannons got more powerful, and were able to make big holes in stone walls. The mobility and relative accuracy of cannons made the old castle designs far less useful and so designs changed. Clearly the walls needed to be thicker and better able to absorb impacts, so earthen ramparts were used. The previously popular round towers were problematic for related reasons – a large bomb called a petard could be comparatively safely placed at the base because there was an area which could not be easily seen from anywhere inside (to be hoist on one’s own petard was to be blown up by one’s own bomb – they were also, more dangerously, used to blow open gate houses and portcullises). Because of this bastions were built which were angled and protruded beyond the walls in such a way that they allowed a clear field of fire across the entire area.

The designs which would influence Fort George started to appear in Italy as early as the 15th century, so they are sometimes known as the “Italian design”, but they were more commonly known as bastion forts or star forts due to their distinctive shape.

When the jacobite rebellions threatened England, England pushed back hard. They wars were basically about who should sit on the throne, and whether they should be Catholic or Protestant. The major uprisings were in 1715 and 1745, and both were defeated. In the second major rising, the Jacobites had blown up a previous fort on the site of Fort George, so in 1746 a new one was comissioned. It was completed by 1748, and was outrageously expensive – especially considering it never actually saw conflict as the Jacobites never managed a major rising again.

However, Fort George is the best preserved star fort in the British isles – other similar styles of fortification have been built in the British Isles, but all of them have been partially or completely demolished, either in combat or through reclamation of land and materials. Fort George, however, is still in use today. It sits on land sticking out into the Murray Firth, giving it control over sea access to Inverness, and allowing it to be resupplied by sea if necessary. The walls are sloped to deflect artillery, and are several yards thick, plus they have bunkers inside to protect the entire garrison from artillery fire. Landward approach is across flat, open ground, and there is a wide ditch with a narrow drawbridge. Outside the fort are redoubts, or smaller fortifications (the largest of which protects the bridge into the fort). These, along with the gun emplacements on the bastions built into the walls, provide a first line of defence. Even approaching the fort would be extremely dangerous and breaching the walls would be nigh-impossible with the technology of the time. Inside the fort there are barracks, storehouses, training grounds, and other buildings a regiment would need to survive for an extended period under siege.

Star forts were really the last gasp of the castle. As technology moved on warfare became less of a static affair – in the 20th century the advent of tanks and mechanised infantry, as well as air power, rendered the idea of a static point fortification like a castle somewhat obsolete.  


The Black Watch

I mentioned above the Fort George is still in use today. It is the home of the Black Watch, a famous and much decorated regiment of Scottish Highland Infantry. The name comes from the same time period as the construction of the fort, but its meaning is unclear – it could refer to their dark tartan, or to them being seen as “black hearted” traitors to Scotland. Either way the name stuck, and is now seen as a badge of honour. The military regiment wasn’t formed as a distinct unit until 1881, however. Since then there have been several military reorganisations, but the Black Watch has remained as a name of some repute.

Since their formation they have fought in both World Wars, the Korean war, the Iraq wars, and many other conflicts. They were also prominently involved with the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Many of their number have been awarded medals, and the regiment as a whole has been commended on several occasions.

It was not until 2007 that they moved into Fort George. In 2016 it was announced that the fort’s use as a military base was to cease in 2032 because, as the then defence secretary Michael Fallon put it, the Highland Rebellions are over!


In Your Games and Stories

Fort George has several facets which could make it useful as an inspiration:

It was a new design of fort, indented to counter new technology. Is there a new development in your world which makes old defences far less useful? What would a fort designed to protect from magic look like? Maybe it would be inscribed with warding runes, or maybe magic can be grounded with certain metals, leading to lightning rods being attached to the walls.

Star forts are a very distinctive shape. Others, such as Star Castle on the Isles of Scilly, have appeared on flags, and in some cases the grassy embankments have become public parkland. If a star fort were a stately home or royal residence, the walls could be ornamental gardens when not at war and could blend beautifully into any formal gardens or park land – or perhaps the garrison there are known as much for their flower arranging as for their combat prowess!

Fort George is home to an elite military unit. They are well regarded by the establishment, but no doubt feared by their enemies – there are tales of German troops in the Second World War fleeing at the sound of bagpipes because it meant the Highlanders were coming! Such an iconic regiment could be defenders of righteousness and light, or the enforcers of a totalitarian rule, or anywhere in between depending on the needs of your tale.

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