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The Fort

The town now known as Fort William has had many names, suggesting something of its strategic and political importance to the control of the Highlands.

The first settlement in 1654 was called Braintoun after its first governor - there was no town at all until Cromwell's military came to keep the locals in check. In 1690, the year William III's Commander-in-Chief in Scotland called the soldiers' settlement Fort William after the King, the Duke of Gordon also tried to name it Gordonsburgh after himself. Duncan Cameron of Callart later tried to change the name to Duncansburgh. In 1954, a suggestion was even made to change the name to Abernevis to distance the town from its oppressive origins, but this came to nothing.

Throughout the vanities of landowners and governors alike, the town remained to the locals what it always had been: an Gearasdan, the garrison to the Gaelic speakers and to the English speakers, the Fort.

Crime and Punishment

It is easy to forget in the present day how recent it was that corporal punishment was thought fitting and useful both as a punishment and deterrent. Right up until the mid-twentieth century (and the 1970s in the Isle of Man) it was common in many areas of the UK for perpetrators of petty crimes to be sentence to a 'birching'.

This involved having to lie face down on a table with arms tied together underneath, and legs held still by strong straps. A bundle of stripped rods of birch (or sometimes willow or hazel) was then used to whip the recipient's bare buttocks. Occasionally the back and/or shoulders were whipped, and the type, number and weight of branches used (as well as the number of strokes) varied with the severity of the crime.

Birching table

"The birching table pictured is from the old court house in Fort William where the birchings were carried out. It was last used in 1948, when a 15 year old boy was birched for shoplifting"

It was legally required to have a doctor on hand when these punishments were being administered, although this may have been of little comfort to the recipient.