Many people who come to Lochaber want to know what the name means, where it came from and what the boundary covers.

Lochaber is a geographical district in the West of the Scottish Highlands, and formally today it is a District of Highland Region of Scotland, covering 4,648 km2. It has a population of about 19,000 of whom 11,000 live in Fort William, the only large town. Outside Fort William the population density is only 1.7 per km2, making Lochaber one of least densely populated parts of Europe.   However, the origin of the name, and the history of its use to cover a sizeable region of the West Highlands, are obscure and controversial.

The earliest reference to Lochaber as a district comes from a book, Life of St Columba, written by Adamnan during the 7th century. Tradition and etymology suggest that the word Abar, from Irish Gaelic, meaning ‘marsh’, is the most likely origin of the name: Loch of the marshes. Historically Lochaber refers to a marshland at the heart of the Lochaber district. So where does, or did, this ‘marshland’ exist?

It seems most likely that it refers to the Blar Mhor, the ‘large marsh’, a flat area of boggy ground immediately to the North-west of Fort William, where the River Lochy enters the sea, and the Great Glen becomes Loch Linnhe. The flat area is a glacial outwash plain which formed as a glacier retreated up the Great Glen. Boulders were deposited from the retreating ice and an ever-changing system of rivers at the snout of the glacier deposited a mixture of gravel, sand and fine clay particles forming a level floor.  Work on the Blar when building houses has found deposits that confirm this.

The Blar has been a flat, wet, marshy, landscape for a long time. The earliest evidence of humans in Lochaber has been found on the Isle of Rum and dated to around 9,500 years ago. The Great Glen was an important route in the Bronze Age (4,000 years ago) and at that time was wooded. The Blar Mhor would have been a key site for humans living in, and passing through, Lochaber, for a long time.

The last time Lochaber was under glaciation, only 12,500 – 11,500 years ago, there was a small, 1km thick ice-sheet centred on Fort William. The landscape of Lochaber, it’s mountains, corries, arêtes,   and classic glacial features such as U-shaped valleys, were finally shaped, plucked and smoothed at this time. The highest mountains, like Ben Nevis, would have poked through the ice-sheet forming Nunataks.  A glacier excavated the plane of fractured rocks along the Great Glen Fault and formed a series of Loch’s which are now joined by the Caledonian Canal.

A glacier in Greenland. Picture taken by Professor Ian Parsons, Director of Lochaber Geopark.

The Blar Mhor situated between Corpach and Fort William along the A830. Image courtesy of Bing Maps.


Main source of human history:

MacCulloch, D. (1971). Appendix 1: Derivation of the Name Lochaber. Romantic Lochaber, Arisaig and Morar. Lines Publishing.