Inverness Castle sits on a rocky outcrop overlooking the River Ness. The castle we see today was built in 1836 but there have been defensive structures on this site, or nearby sites, since the 11th century. Throughout the years, these forts played a prominent part in Scottish history. They were attacked many times, set alight, blown up, captured and retaken.
To get a sense of these times, visitors a few years ago, could ‘enlist’ (for a small payment), take the King’s Shilling and learn something of a soldier’s lot in these barracks.
Today the castle is closed and surrounded by fencing, but visitors can at least stroll round the outside of the mellow pink sand stone building.
This latest fortification overlooking the town was built after fires and explosions left earlier forts in ruins. Unmarked by signs of attack, it has all the features of a castle in a child’s storybook. On one short approach road there is a statue of Flora MacDonald who helped in Bonnie Prince Charlie’s final escape after the rout of his army at nearby Culloden. Topping a stone column, she appears to be shielding her eyes as she looks to the west down the Great Glen. A plaque on the base of the statue reads,
‘The Preserver of Prince Charles
Edward Stuart will be mentioned in history.
And if Courage and Fidelity be Virtues, Mentioned with Honour.’
On the approach to the Castle from the High Street side you’ll find the entrance to the museum and art gallery. In the museum, a prominently positioned glass case safeguards an acquisition from H.M. the Queen. Stamped with a wax Great Seal, a scroll reads that Inverness henceforth has the status of a city and all such rank, liberties, privileges and immunities as incident to a city.
In the accompanying congratulatory letter H.M. has written of her enjoyable visit and sends her best wishes to the citizens of Inverness on an important occasion in the history of the city. The new title City of Inverness was officially declared on 19th March 2001.
The museum also contains exhibits of natural history and human endeavour. There are records and highlights from pre-historic times through years when Inverness was the capital of the Pictish kingdom and onwards into its present role as hub of the highlands.
Upstairs, there are fine examples of local arts and crafts from the 17th century to the present day.
From outside, the museum building is box- like, totally unremarkable, in contrast to the Town House dominating this part of the High Street. Completed in 1882, the Victorian stone edifice, all pointed arches and round turrets reaching for the sky has recently been cleaned and refurbished. It’s a prestigious venue catering for civic functions, civil marriages and concerts.
Nearby, spanning the river, Ness Bridge replaces earlier structures that collapsed or were destroyed by floods. Walk to the far side and turn left to head upstream. Riverside pavements are tree-lined and street lamps prettified with hanging baskets of flowers in summertime. Formal plantings and large boxes of dahlias add more splashes of colour on Bishop’s Walk by St. Andrews Episcopalian Cathedral. Behind the church a sign advertises the bookshop and teas while ahead a suspension bridge beckons.
From the bridge there are views far up and down river. The crossing leads to Ladies’ Walk. A local source suggested the name came from a time when Inverness streets, unlike now, were less than sanitary, but ladies dressed in the ground swishing fashions of the day could stroll unhindered along the Walk, cleaned specially for their benefit.
In front of the red sandstone war memorial there is a small garden set back from the riverside. Ornamental trees and surrounding flower- beds are proof of applied tender loving care. Inside railings, a polished black stone commemorates Nurse Edith Cavell. A plaque on the railings gives the information that in August 1915, having been charged with assisting 130 persons to escape from Belgium, Edith Cavell was court martialled, condemned to death and shot on 12th October 1915.
Continuing along the walkway leads to a short bridge and the Ness Islands in the middle of the river. Here paths meander past ancient trees including giant Californian redwoods. Well-sited benches tempt strollers to stop to enjoy the antics of ducks or fly casting fishermen who stand thigh deep in the sweep of water.
On the last island, another short bridge leads across to a path on the opposite side of the river and Bught Road. Walking the riverside path will take you to Whin Park which has a boating pond, a variety of children’s play areas and a miniature railway.
A last bridge crosses to Canal Park where steps rise to the path between the River Ness and the Caledonian Canal. Continuing south along the towpath would eventually lead to Loch Dochfour and Loch Ness and a possible sighting of the famed monster.
Turning back to town, the leisure centre, swimming pool, ice rink and Highland Archive and Registration Centre are within easy reach of Café Botanics, an ideal lunch stop, which champions local produce. The café opens onto the Bught Floral Hall, a colourful walled garden with glass houses. In one glass house, a miniature desert has been created with cacti and other plant species from the world’s arid regions.
Bught Road becomes Ness Walk and follows the river by the Eden Court theatre where the art gallery offers an excuse to sample the bar or restaurant.
Continuing along to Ness Bridge completes an extended U-shaped tour back into the city centre.
Opposite the Town House, Church Street has a number of buildings of notable antiquity. The Tolbooth Steeple housed a jail as far back as 1436 and a court house. This was where the infamous Patrick Sellar was charged with culpable homicide, fire raising and cruelty during the Strathnaver clearances. Although he was acquitted by a jury of his peers, the plaque on the wall states that he will always be guilty in the eyes of the Highlanders.
Near the middle, of Church Street is Abertaff House, the oldest secular house in Inverness (there are some older churches) which has survived from 1593 and is now the Highland office of the National Trust for Scotland.
Near the far end of Church Street a gate opens to the grave yard behind St.Stephen’s Church.
Only a few yards further on, housed in the old Gaelic Church (1793), you could spend the best part of a day in Leakey’s Second-hand Bookshop which houses Scotland’s largest collection of rare and second-hand books and maps.
On the opposite corner from Leakey’s, is MacGregor’s Bar which serves food, drink and traditional music.
It’s hardly ancient history but there’s a café on Church Street where The Beatles played – according to a poster in the window.
Inverness - it has everything.
First published in The Glasgow