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Issue 60 - Capital Ideas

Scotland Magazine Issue 60
December 2011


This article is 6 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Capital Ideas

Charles Douglas takes us round this noble Highland city.

Although Inverness was only granted its city status in 2000, true Highlanders have always considered it to be their Capital irrespective of such distinctions. For centuries, Inverness has been central to the intrigues, fortunes, tragedies and triumphs of great northern clans such as the Frasers, the Mackenzies, the Munros and Clan Chattan. Many a high drama has been played out here.

And with its enviable central location at the mouth of the River Ness as it spills into the Moray Firth, Inverness continues to provide an enticing magnet for visitors and shoppers from the far north, south, east and west.

If it is great antiquity that you are seeking, however, Inverness is not the place to linger over-long, albeit there are plenty of historic sites to be found in the surrounding landscape. Despite there having been a town here for almost 900 years with a Charter granted by King David I around 1140, the successive raids and pillages of the warring northern factions has expunged much of what there was to seen over the centuries. Only a few sites of seriously ancient historic interest remain.

Having written that, however, a castle has certainly stood overlooking the river on the same spot since the twelfth century, when a fortification was raised here to control the Highlands by Malcolm III, the slayer of Macbeth. However, the red sandstone fortress that exists today was built by the architect William Burn in 1837, with the north block added in 1847. Prior to this, Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s Jacobite army had blown up the previous Hanoverian Fort in 1746. Today, Inverness Castle serves as Inverness Sheriff Court House. The castle is therefore not open to the general public as such, but the grounds are, and there is a fine statue to be seen of Flora MacDonald, the heroine of the aftermath of the 1745 Uprising, her eyes gazing longingly towards the west and her beloved Hebrides.

And meanwhile, the original Old Court House and Jail, which is situated in Courthouse Square, serves as a Heritage Centre. The adjoining Georgian tollbooth steeple, which was erected in 1791, rises 45 metres to where three impressive bronze bells hang in the spire.

Without doubt, the oldest building to be found in Inverness is Abertarff House in Church Street, dating from 1592. At one time this was the town house of Colonel Archibald Fraser of Beaufort and Abertarff, (son of Lord Lovat of the 1745 Jacobite Uprising). It remained Fraser property until the mid-nineteenth century when it was acquired by the National Commercial Bank of Scotland who remained the owner for about 100 years. Fully restored by the National Trust for Scotland in 1966, it became that organisation’s regional headquarters until the Trust moved to Balnain House in Huntly Street. It is currently being leased out as offices.

Balnain House itself was built as a town house around 1726 in early Georgian style. After the Battle of Culloden, it was used as a hospital for Hanoverian soldiers, later housing the Royal Engineers when completing the 1st Ordnance Survey.

Inverness Town House, on the corner of Castle Street and the High Street, was built in 1880. Nearby there is a cross mounted on the Clachna- Cuddain Stone, otherwise the “Stone of the Tubs”, where the washerwomen of old used to rest their tubs carrying them to and from the river. Considered to be the city’s most impressive building, it now serves as the Inverness area office of Highland Council.

In 1921, the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, was on holiday at Gairloch in Wester Ross when he learned that Irish nationalists had rejected British dominion. Rather than travel back to London, and knowing that the King was on a visit to Moy, he called a meeting of the British Cabinet at Inverness Town House, the first to have ever taken place outside of London. Out of this meeting arose the ‘Inverness Formula’, which created the basis for the discussions at the seminar where the Treaty created the Irish Free State.

Given twenty four hours, there are a number of other visitor attractions in Inverness that should certainly not be missed. Falcon Square is one. Named after John Falconer, who opened Falcon Foundry at Inverness Rail Terminus in 1858, the building was dismantled and relocated to create the square which houses Laura Ashley and Pizza Express. Inverness Library, built in 1841, was originally erected with Doric columns and pediments to house Bell’s Institution, and the school remained in the building until 1937.

Inverness’s Victorian Market was previously known as the “New Market”. It was built in 1870, rebuilt after a fire in 1890, and connects all four surrounding streets to house a variety of local shops. The entrance from Academy Street has Corinthian arches and carvings on the keystones.

Here you will find a specialist range of shops, for the most part smaller businesses, owner- operated, and, in the majority ,offering products and services that you will generally not find on the high street.

A visit to the Castle Gallery in Castle Street is especially recommended Dunbar’s Hospital dates from 1668 and is named after Provost Alexander Dunbar, who endowed it as a hospital for the poor, and as the Grammar School which remained there until 1792. Subsequently it has served as a public library and now houses flats, a shop and a day centre.

Inverness Cathedral , which remains open to the general public throughout the year, was built in Gothic Revival style between 1866 and 1869 to a design by Alexander Ross. There are also a number of imposing churches in Inverness, each individually emphasising the changing trends of Highland worship over the past millennium.

The Old Gaelic Church, for example, was originally erected in 1649, but rebuilt in 1792 and reconstructed before becoming the Greyfriars Free Church. It now houses a second-hand bookshop and café; The Old High Church is the original Parish Church of Inverness dedicated to St Mary. A place of worship has stood here on St Michael’s Mount since the 12th Century. The base of the bell tower is thought to date from the fifteenth century. the top from the seventeenth.

Jacobite soldiers taken prisoner after the Battle of Culloden were confined in the church and some were executed in the graveyard. The current church was built in the 1770s.

The Free North Church dates from between 1889 and 1892 and was decorated in Gothic style.

It has the highest steeple in Inverness, a dominant feature beside the River Ness. The congregation of St Columba High Church was established in 1843, and the present church opened in 1852. Alas, a fire in 1940 left only the walls standing, but the congregation, servicemen and prisoners-of-war, collaborated to refurbish the interiors and it was reopened nine years later. Built in 1837 in perpendicular Gothic Revival style, St Mary’s is the first Roman Catholic church to be built in Inverness after the Reformation.

At the heart of Inverness community life is the Eden Court which was officially opened as a theatre in April 1976. At the time, the glass design, by Scottish architects Law & Dunbar-Nasmith, was considered strikingly modern.

Created to house all types of performing arts from opera to popular music, concerts, ballet, modern dance, drama and films, the riverside building was sited in the grounds of what had been the official residence of the Bishops of Moray. However, by the turn of the century, it became apparent that the existing accommodation was far from adequate.

By this stage, Eden Court was successfully attracting visitors from all over the region, not just to watch but also to participate in community events and the arts education activities on offer.

Following a major appeal and two years of closure, Eden Court eventually reopened in November 2007 as the one of the best equipped arts centres in the country.

Happily, the Victorian Bishop’s Palace and 1976 theatre, both Grade-A Listed, were retained, and two new extensions added providing a second theatre, two new cinemas, two dance and drama studios and three floors of purpose built dressing rooms.

The architects Page/ Park have brought together buildings from three different centuries to create the biggest arts centre in Scotland.

As has been mentioned before, Inverness provides the perfect base from which to explore the glories of the Scottish Highlands, notably Loch Ness and the Great Glen. However, given only twenty four hours, that is impracticable, and it is infinitely preferable to try and make the best of the time available. A short stroll, for example, will take you to the picturesque Ness Islands, linked by several old bridges. At Craig Phandrig, two miles to the west, is a hill fort which is believed to have been visited by Saint Columba around 570AD.

For lunch and dinner, Inverness is well catered for with several first rate hostelries. Nico’s Sea Food and Grill House in the city centre specialises in fresh, locally sourced ingredients.

The glass-fronted Kitchen Restaurant, also on the River Ness, has fine views of Inverness Castle, three dining rooms and a roof terrace. Locals especially enjoy Number 27 in Castle Street; the Crazy Horse Shop and Coffee Shop in the High Street; the Phoenix Bar & Flames Restaurant on Academy Street; the Filling Station also on Academy Street; Girvans Restaurant in Stephens Brae; The Joy of Taste Restaurant on Church Street, and the Waterfront Bar & Restaurant on Huntly Street.

For those in search of alternative cuisines, there is the choice of the Cinnamon Indian Restaurant on Milburn Road; the Aspendos Mediterranean Turkish Restaurant on Queensgate, and the Rajah Indian Restaurant on Post Office Avenue. On Kngsmill Road, the Heathmount Hotel and Restaurant offers an a la carte menu in the evening, soup and a sandwich at lunch time, and a hearty meal mid-afternoon.

Enjoy your twenty four hours!