Walking round the centre of
Welcome to Inverness!
Let me introduce you to a few historic sites… including 5 pubs, the remains of a monastery, executions, daring escapes, Scotland's best bookshops, a camel and an elephant.
At the top of Church St, where it meets Bridge Street (just as it becomes High Street), is the Tolbooth Steeple. Built in 1791, it is 150' tall, with walls 5' thick at the base. An earth tremor in 1816 damaged the spire, so it is now a little wonky. The larger of the 2 spheres on the spire is said to contain a bottle of whisky, from Inverness's Millburn Distillery, now closed down.
In the 1792 "Bliadhna nan Caorach" (Year of the Sheep) tenant farmers led a protest against the Highland Clearances, driving more than 6,000 sheep off the land around Ardross. The Black Watch was mobilised to chase down the ringleaders. 5 men were imprisoned in the Tolbooth, found guilty and sentenced to deportation. They mysteriously escaped and disappeared. Also imprisoned here was the notorious factor, Patrick Sellar. He was charged with culpable homicide, fire raising and cruelty during the 1814 Strathnaver Clearances. He was acquitted at the time. After the trial, Robert Mackid, the sheriff-substitute of Sutherland who brought the charges was a ruined man and had to leave the country and write Sellar a grovelling letter of apology. In 1989, EU Highland Society retried Sellar and found him guilty.
Turn right onto Bridge St and head towards the river. On your right is the Gellions. Reputed to be the oldest establishment of its kind in Inverness, the Gellion's Hotel was named after its female founder. It has the dubious distinction of hosting the infamous William Topaz McGonagall, possibly Scotland's worst poet. His gravemarker in Greyfriars' Churchyard in Edinburgh inspired JK Rowling to use the name "McGonagall" in her Harry Potter books. McGonagall's tediously lengthy ode to his hosts in Inverness begins:
'Twas on the 16th of October, in the year 1894
I was invited to Inverness, not far from the sea shore
To partake of a banquet prepared by the Heather Blend Club
Gentlemen who honoured me without any hubbub.
Cross over Bridge Street and head up to Castle Wynd, just before the Town House. On the gable wall of the Town House, you can see a carved representation of the town's coat of arms. This was carved in 1685 and was moved here when the Ness Bridge (where it was originally) was taken down. Notice the supporters on either side of the shield. The camel and elephant represent trade with the East in mediaeval times.
The pavement in front of the Town House is called the Exchange and used to be much larger. On the left of the front door is the Clach na Cuddain (Stone of the Tubs). Women used to rest their tubs here on their way to and from the river with washing. This apparently modest feature, now embedded in the base of the market cross is a large, blue-ish stone with a long history of being revered. In 1411, Donald of the Isles burned Inverness and the townsfolk rejoiced that the stone had escaped. Earlier, a seer predicted that as long as the stone survives, Inverness will too. On either side of the Town House door are two modern, stone-carved wolves. These were made to replace the wolves on the roof of the building which were lost during renovation and found again and reinstated once the new wolves were completed. They have received a mixed response from the public.
Dander along High Street as far as the large circle in the cobbles outside the Royal Bank of Scotland. Take a left down Inglis St and you are on Academy St. This street was once the line of the defensive ditch or "fosse" which surrounded the mediaeval burgh of Inverness. The side with the hostel on it was the location for commercial activities like tanneries, making leather and using the chemicals from human waste in the process. Their effluence ran into the fosse on the other side of what is now Academy St and it became known as the "Foul Pool". By 1792 it was drained for development.
My father and grandfather ran a restaurant here with a rose window facing the end of the street. The window will be displayed in Inverness Castle when it opens in 2025, once the current renovations are complete. My daughter and I were commissioned to write an audio piece to celebrate it. This piece combines a new musical composition on harp with spoken words from reminiscence and ephemera. You can listen here: https://discoverhighlandsandislands.scot/en/spirit-360/christina-stewart Be warned, though! It is 10 minutes long, so you may need a seat and a cup of tea.
As you come down Academy Street, you will see M&Co on the right. This building is the Academy after which the street now takes its name. The academy opened in 1792 and received a royal charter to become Inverness Royal Academy (the local IRA). It had extensive grounds which were later encroached on by the railway.
About two-thirds of the way down Academy Street, look over at the Rose St Foundry building. Look up! The impressive mosaics at the top of the building are original (and repaired) and celebrate its origins as the home of AI Welders (formerly Northern Agricultural Implement Foundry).
To the left of the Rose St Foundry is the Phoenix Bar, which features a classic Scottish layout with an island bar and an original terrazzo spittoon trough running round the base. The owners have only recently stopped using the traditional floor covering of sawdust. The water engine used to raise the beer from the cellar has been converted to electric and can be seen in an illuminated case, high upon the rear wall.
Opposite the Phoenix is Blackfriars pub, which takes its name from the nearby remains of the monastery of Dominican Friars. The monastery was established by King Alexander II in 1233. By the mid 1500s, there were only 5 Dominicans in residence and the friary was in a ruinous state. Oliver Cromwell robbed out much of the worthwhile stone to build his citadel near Inverness Harbour. It took 5 years to build the citadel and it was demolished 4 years after completion.
Only one column remains from the friary. To find it, go to end of Academy St, cross both lanes at the lights, turn left towards the river on Friars' Lane, then right onto Friars' Street. Part way down on the right, largely enclosed by the old exchange building, is the Friars' Yard graveyard. The reddish, octagonal pillar is the last vestige of the friary.
Turn back up Friars' St and ahead of you is the Old High Church with its square tower. The mound on which the church stands is known as St Michael's Mound. It is from here that St Columba preached to the locals in 566. He had come to convert Pictish King Bridei (Brude). En route, he encountered a water monster which had recently killed someone and Columba cursed it never to kill again. As far as we know, Nessie never has! This was the first recorded sighting of the Loch Ness Monster.
There has been a church here for over 900 years. The lowest part of the tower dates from the 1300s. A victim of the plague is said to be laid to rest in the tower in a lead lined coffin. In 1705, a curfew was introduced and the bell in this tower was rung at 5pm to mark its start.
Some government troops were held prisoner in the tower prior to Culloden. After the battle in 1746, the Duke of Cumberland and his victorious troops freed the prisoners and brought their Jacobite captives here for execution. It is said that wounded government troops could watch the executions from their hospital beds across the river at Balnain House. The low stones used by the firing squad to steady their muskets and to prop up the prisoner for execution are still in the graveyard and there are musket ball marks on the wall of the tower.
Carry on up Church St, the oldest part of Inverness. Booklovers will find it hard to resist Leakey's bookshop, a wonderland of secondhand books what was once the Gaelic church (unfortunately, not open on Sundays!) If it is a warm day, you might wish to stop at Miele's ice-cream shop on the left.
Immediately adjacent to Miele's is Dunbar's Hospital with it's arched door way and crowstepped gables. It was built in 1663 as an almshouse and hospital. Stones were robbed out of Cromwell's citadel to build it. The armorial panel above the door and the dates above upper windows show dates of redevelopment. Given to the Kirk Session in 1687, it also became the Grammar School until the Academy was built.
Bow Court next to Dunbar's Hospital features distinctive arches. It was built for the town's Incorporated Trades and at one time housed the Headmaster of the school next door and was a hostel for the boys (yes, just boys) attending.
If you cross the road here and go down to the river, you will see the "Bouncy Bridge" Properly called the Greig Street Bridge (after the street on the other side), this bridge has a tendency to bounce as you walk across it. It was made int he Rose Street Foundry, back in 1881. From halfway across, the visitor has a clear view upstream to the castle and downstream across the Friars' Shot, where the Domincan Friars "shot" their nets to catch fish in the river. The River Ness is still a popular salmon river and you may see fishermen in their waders in the middle of the river if the tide is not too high.
Further up Church St on the righthand side is Abertarff House, the oldest secular building in Inverness. Dating from 1593, it was occupied by the Frasers of Lovat. It is recognised as a good example of Scottish domestic architecture or 16th and 17th centuries, sporting crowstepped gables and a circular, stone, stair tower.
Next door is Hootenanny's pub. It started life as the Inverness branch of the Commercial Bank of Scotland in the 1820s. By 1941, this was one of 11 different banking companies serving Inverness. You can still see the holes on the façade, between the letters of "Hootenanny's", where the fancy lettering once was.
On the left hand side of the street you will see the R&B pub, the Highlander, Perk Coffee shop and then the enterance to the Victorian Market. Going in this close takes you past the tiny "Malt Room" whisky bar and the Market Bar and through the doors into what was the old Fishmarket. It has been recently renovated and reopened as a mini food court, often with live music. Time for a wee seat and some sustenance to round off your walk around Inverness Centre.