Sniffing out the best of Fort William with Highland Soap Co.

Friday 11 June 2021
Post in collaboration with Highland Soap Company

What to do in Fort William when it inevitably rains? Soap making, cinema and good food are at the top of my list. The Highland Soap Co's new visitor centre offers a fragrant retail paradise alongside the opportunity to get crafty and make your own bespoke soap. Local provenance abounds with food from its larder as it does at The Highland Cinema's cafe bar.

My Dad's long standing Dad joke about Fort William is that as you walk down the High Street you can hear all the jackets breathing (feel free to groan). To be fair he does have a point as there are multiple outdoors shops selling a plethora of breathable walking and climbing kit. However there's much more to Lochaber's capital than its position in the shadow of Ben Nevis may have you believe. After an 18 month covid induced lull I was delighted to be invited on a press trip by Highland Soap Co. to sniff out the best of Fort William. I even brought along Foodie Loon to experience their new Visitor Centre and Larder Cafe, although to be fair the pull for him was more likely a trip to Hogwarts on the steam train over the Glenfinnan viaduct.

If Family Fortunes asked 100 people to name things that the west coast is known for I reckon midgies, rain and stunning scenery would be right up there. I very much doubt that food would get a look in and certainly not soap. Both have been combined in the new home of The Highland Soap Company at their imposing Visitor Centre & Larder Café at the northerly entrance to Fort William between the River Lochy and Inverlochy Castle. Here with dramatic views over Ben Nevis is where they make all of their products. The family run business was founded 20 years ago by Emma Parton who began the enterprise in her kitchen and has now been joined by business partner Archie MacDonald. Between them they have grown the enterprise whilst still retaining it's original ethics of organic, natural, sustainable and small batch.

Building upon their existing six shops (Aviemore, Pitlochry, Spean Bridge, Oban, St Andrews and Fort William high street) the Soapworks visitor centre and larder is the latest step towards further growth and diversification. Located on the site of the former British Aluminium Social Club it offers a stylish retail space, factory tours, soap-making classes and home-cooked food, coffees and cakes within the Larder cafe. It opened briefly in December before the second lockdown and already earned a place in the hearts of locals as a destination for both shopping and eating. Reopening post 2021 lockdown it's sure to be a magnet for tourists albeit this year more likely to be staycationers than those visiting from abroad. It's doggy friendly so 4 legged visitors are also made very welcome.

The imposing building is light, bright airy and stylish and of course it smells amazing! It roughly comprises of three parts - the workshop/factory, retail space and the larder cafe with outdoor seating area (and a bright red phone box!). Whilst the retail element naturally contains their own extensive product range there's a great selection of books, pottery, cards, gifts, food, drink, homewares and more. A viewing window lets you see into the workshop whilst an enormous sink allows you try out the full range of soaps and narrow down your favourites. Scottish ingredients and scents aboud - raspberry, nettle, heather, whisky, honey, seaweed, honeysuckle, bog myrtle and more. The product range includes soaps, hand wash, hand sanitizer (as loved by Phillip Schofield), shampoo, conditioner, body wash, bubble bath, creams, lotions, lip balms, diffusers and candles. 

A refill section is a large part of the offering in both the visitor centre and their other shops. Bring your empties to be filled up at the zero waste area which also includes soap offcuts and shampoo bars. Environmental credentials are an important part of the business with the use of organic and natural ingredients and sustainable packaging including some sizes of bottles made with sugarcane rather than traditional plastic to reduce impact. 

We were guinea pigs for their new soap making class which has now officially launched to the public. Costing £25 a head, the whole experience lasts about an hour, plus a further twenty minutes for the soap to set at the end whilst you have a coffee. Firstly you learn about the process before choosing your fragrances, colours and botanicals to create your own personal soaps and pour them into moulds. Following this is a behind the scenes tour of the workshop, soap making rooms and packing lines. This was my favourite bit (can you tell I used to LOVE going through the round, square and arched windows on Play School!)  As your soap sets its time for a coffee in the Larder Cafe before you return to the workshop to package your creations. The workshops are suitable for age 16+ (8+ when accompanied by a paying adult) and are a maximum of 4 people so you get a really hands on personal experience. You can check availability, book and pay online at Highland Soap Company Soap Making Workshops

The process reminded me somewhat of my gin blending experience at Eden Mill. I guess there is a similarity in sniffing and selecting the botanicals to come up with your own 'potion' whether that be alcoholic or soapy. Foodie Loon opted for Whisky, Heather and Grapefruit naming his creation 'Glen Jess'. My 'Foodie Quine - Gin & Juice' soaps contained a cocktail of Juniper, Grapefruit and Lemongrass and a sprinkle of ground nettles. I got creative with my mixing and poured my first soap before adding the nettles for my second, and colour for my third. Cellophane, labels and ribbon finished them off perfectly. 

The accommodation on our trip was The Garrison Hotel. This is the former Fort William police station and you can if you wish stay in one of the converted jail cell bunk rooms. If this sounds like your thing they have some very interesting plans up their sleeves to make this even more of a 'Prisoner Cell Block H' experience. We stayed in a more conventional room which was stylish, comfortable and a wee bit quirky. Always great to visit somewhere with my Tunnocks Teacake suitcase and find them on the guest tray. Of course the toiletries in the bathroom were supplied by none other than Highland Soap Co. The hotel breakfast menu very much exceeded my expectations, both reading and tasting much more like that of a city brunch spot than a Highland hotel. With restrictions easing on the first day of our stay we were delighted to be able to enjoy our first post lockdown indoor drinking experience in their bar.

Local entrepreneur Angus MacDonald read an article many years ago where research found that the two things that can help regenerate a struggling town centre are a cinema and a bookshop. So in an act of philanthropy he opened both on Fort William High Street - The Highland Bookshop and The Highland Cinema. The cinema opened September 2020 and is located right in the middle of the High Street in Cameron Square. It's design is reminiscent of a highland bothy with red corrugated roof and stone walls. The front of the building is a cafe bar which has quickly built a reputation as the place to go in town for cocktails. The rear houses two cinema screens seating an impressive 109 and 62 respectively. However the piece de resistance in my eyes in the Lotus Elan race car. Now that's what I call a drive in movie! Alas we were in Screen 2 for our first cinema experience in well over a year, so no shiny red race car for me.

Harry Potter wasn't even a twinkle in JK Rowlings eye the last time I journeyed on the West Coast Railways Steam Train from Fort William to Mallaig. I was sure that my parents must have recorded our trip for posterity but alas no photographic evidence exists. In comparison to my 1980's trip I took a multitude of both photos and videos of this great railway journey. So much so they deserve a separate post so watch this space! Suffice to say our trip on the Jacobite/Hogwarts Express was truly magical and thankfully no Dementors as we crossed the Glennfinnan Viaduct. The following day we viewed the train from a different angle as we boarded Souters Lass of Crannog Cruises and did their hour long steam train cruise. This is just one of their cruises which leave from Fort William town pier. Alas Ben Nevis was shrouded in cloud but had fantastic views of the loch, spotted some local wildlife and enjoyed the informative live commentary. It was really emotional watching the train and waving to the passengers, I think Foodie Loon may even have had a damp eye.

I've made little mention of food thus far - perhaps because there was so much of it or perhaps because I'm saving the best until last. I'll let you decide. We kicked off our trip with coffee and cake at The Larder Cafe, we also enjoyed lunch there and a 'Taste of Fort William' event. The food and drink throughout was fantastic with plenty of seasonality and local provenance on show. In these covid times instead of a buffet we enjoyed 'small bites' with our coffee and 'a taster of' lunch. The cakes and bakes are either produced in house or come from Stiff Peaks a small local patisserie. 

Dinner on our first evening was at The Highland Cinema Cafe Bar and was a far cry from the overpriced hotdogs and nachos of multiplex cinemas. The menu comprises of sharing platters, pizzas from an Italian wood fired oven, and Scottish Tapas - ‘Biadh Beag’ (‘small dishes’ in Gaelic). We sampled it all! In particular the Ghillie and Stalker platters both looked and tasted amazing. I could not get enough of the MOWI salmon, smoked mussels and the beer cheese in particular but I did leave enough room for a small box of popcorn whilst watching the movie. It has to be done!

The 'Taste of Fort WIlliam' Event held in The Larder Cafe on our second evening provided us with further insight into the ethos of Highland Soap Co's food offering and a chance to meet some of their local producers and suppliers. It was particularly lovely to catch up with Anja Baak of Great Glen Charcuterie. I've long been a fan of her products (see my recipes for Scottish Mussels with Cider and Venison Chorizo and Orzo Risotto with Chorizo) Their wild venison charcuterie from nearby Roy Bridge features strongly on the menu alongside butchery from Lochaber Larder and fish from Iain Stewart. Standout items for me were the open steak sandwich with blue cheese dressing and the crispy fish tacos. This was all washed down with beers from Glen Spean Brewery and alcohol free Feragaia cocktails. 

Our trip certainly shone a light on what Fort William has to offer in addition to being Scotland's outdoors capital. It might have helped that we encountered zero midgies and a lot of sunshine during our stay but whatever the weather there's plenty to see, do, eat and drink in the town that won't require you to don a waterproof jacket - breathable or otherwise. 

For an alternative viewpoint of our trip you can read P&J Journalist Susan Welsh's piece at From a cinema with a restaurant to a soap factory with a cafe, Fort William has it all for foodies

Disclosure: We visited Fort William as  guests of the Highland Soap Co. 
As always, all views expressed are my own.
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