The city packed into luminous acres;
a hand-span in the river’s mouth; the castle
a Court-house kept by Flora MacDonald, and crows.
The sea-laid land lays mapped eastwards, anchored;
its rich earth wealthy with farms, and spilled blood.
(Michael Murray, Inverness, 2017)
Eyeing the surrounding landscape for miles around, Inverness Castle looks out across the River Ness from a sandstone cliff at the centre of northern Scotland’s largest and most important burgh. The castle’s position at the heart of the Highlands is emblematic, and expressive of much more than mere topography. It overlooks the beautiful and ancient city of Inverness, bridging the mouth of the river as it enters the Moray Firth: a geographical location that has ensured its place at the centre of political, religious and mercantile life in the Highlands of Scotland for the best part of two millennia. Legend has it that St. Columba converted Brude, king of the northern Picts, at his royal stronghold on Crown Hill in the 6th century, and it was here too that Shakespeare located the murder of old King Duncan by the notorious usurper Macbeth some 500 years later (though in reality Duncan was killed in battle at Pitgaveny, near Elgin, in 1040).
The site of the modern castle was established by King Malcolm III, who built a stronghold here in 1057 after destroying Macbeth’s castle at Crown Hill. The great reforming King David I granted Inverness its status as a royal burgh in the first half of the 12th century. A Dominican friary was founded in the town in 1233 and the first permanent bridge across the Ness was in operation by the middle of the 13th century. All the pieces were in place now to enable the town to flourish, and Inverness quickly consolidated its position as the pre-eminent Highland cultural and trading centre, its harbour bustling with shipbuilding, fishing and exports of fish and cattle, hides and furs, wool and cloth, leaving the port on fast cogs for markets to the south and across the North Sea to Scandinavia or Flanders and the wider Continent.
Inverness’s commercial and strategic importance has always attracted military incursions, and its history is turbulent and drenched in blood. The town and its castle were sacked many times during the Middle Ages, by attackers ranging from marauding Highland clansmen to Scotland’s great patriot-king Robert the Bruce, who destroyed the castle in 1307 to keep it from being used as a bulwark against his authority in the north of the country. Mary, Queen of Scots laid siege to Inverness for three days before it capitulated in 1562. Surveying the environs from atop the castle walls, the pugnacious 20-year-old queen caught sight of a patrol of Royal guards and expressed disappointment that she was "not a man to know what life it was to lie all night in the fields, or to walk upon the causeway with a jack (an armour breastplate) and knapschall (a helmet), a Glasgow buckler (a shield) and a broadsword”. Oliver Cromwell extended and strengthened the castle in 1652, but this structure was taken down again within a decade – only Cromwell’s clock-tower remains today. The garrison fort was reinforced once more in 1725, but was captured by Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Jacobite army in March 1746, and then blown up by government forces after the Jacobites were crushed at Culloden just a month later. With the clans subdued, and London law enforced across the Highlands, relative, long-term stability came to the Inverness for the first time. Trade flourished, and the town’s first bank opened in 1775. A court house and prison were built in 1789 and 1791 respectively, and Inverness Academy was established in 1792. The Royal Northern Infirmary opened in 1804, and the town got its first newspaper, The Inverness Journal and Northern Advertiser, in 1807.
The structure we see on Castle Hill today dates from the 1830s. It was built as a new Sheriff’s court and prison, and was designed by the architect William Burn in a castellated style that pays tribute to Inverness’s turbulent past, whilst proudly defending the dignity of the law that was seen, in Victorian times, as the key driver for a bright and prosperous future. Burn was an ardent admirer of Sir Walter Scott and his castle in Inverness was part of a widespread phenomenon that saw romantic ideas of Scotland and Scottishness being appropriated and repackaged for the popular market. Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert were regular visitors to the Highlands, and their folksy admiration for local rites and customs led to a fashionable resurgence of interest in the region’s history and traditional ways of life. Inverness, with its bustling, well-appointed streets and long-established port, was a natural hub for these developments in fashion and tourism, and when the railways reached the town in 1855, its popular status as the capital of the Scottish Highlands was confirmed. Key infrastructure projects and the opening of important new public buildings - including the municipal gas and water supply systems (established 1826), the Ness Bridge (built 1855), St. Andrews Cathedral (built 1869) and the Town House (built 1882) – simply cemented that status.
It is a status that Inverness retains to this day, with the head offices of Highland Council, High Life Highlands, University of the Highlands and Islands, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Inverness Chamber of Commerce, and many others, plus the regional offices of a great many legal, commercial, social and cultural concerns, ensuring that the millennial city (a moniker bestowed on Inverness in 2000) remains at the beating heart of a region with a larger land area than Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg combined. And at the centre of it stands the castle, noble and benevolent – the enduring master of all it surveys. To find out more about the history and culture of Inverness and its environs, please visit Inverness Museum and Art Gallery on Castle Wynd, near the castle, where you will be able to enjoy fascinating displays on social history, natural history, including geology and palaeontology, applied and fine arts and archaeology. Or make an appointment with staff at the Highland Archive Centre on Bught Road to see documentary artefacts on the history of the region.