A History of Inverness

By Tim Lambert

Dedicated to Tim and Bec Raynes

Inverness in the Middle Ages

Inverness is often called the capital of the Highlands. Inverness means the mouth of the River Ness. It is an ancient settlement. In the 6th century AD, St Columba is supposed to have visited the Pictish king Brude at his fortress there. Centuries later, in 1040, Macbeth is supposed to have murdered King Duncan at his castle, which stood on the site of Auld Castlehill.

Early in the 12th century, King David I (1124-1153) made Inverness a royal burgh. He also built a new castle. In the late 12th century King William the Lion gave Inverness 4 charters. (A charter was a document granting the townspeople certain rights). From 1180 a ditch and a wooden stockade surrounded Inverness.

Medieval Inverness flourished. Many fishermen operated from Inverness and from the 13th century there was a shipbuilding industry there. Inverness was also a busy little port in the Middle Ages. The main exports were wool, fur, and hides. By the middle of the 13th century, there was a bridge over the River Ness.

For centuries there was a wooden fort at Inverness but King David built a stone castle. This was largely destroyed by Robert the Bruce in the early 14th century but it was rebuilt early in the 15th century.

In 1233 a Dominican Friary was founded in Inverness. The friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach. Dominican monks were called blackfriars because of the colour of their costumes.

The Middle Ages were a troubled time for Scotland. It was a violent and lawless age. Inverness suffered several disasters. Disaster struck when the Abbot of Arbroath’s men burned the friary and part of Inverness. (That was easily done since the buildings were of wood with thatched roofs. On the other hand, if they burned they could be easily rebuilt.)

Then in 1411 when Donald, Lord of the Isles, burned part of the town. Inverness suffered another disaster in 1429. In 1428 the King arrested the Lord of the Isles, Alexander MacDonald, and some clan chieftains in Inverness. After his release, the Lord attacked Inverness and partly destroyed it. However, Inverness recovered and continued to prosper.

Inverness in the 16th century and 17th century

During the 16th century and the 17th century, Inverness was a busy port and market town. In 1591 it was granted a new charter called the Golden Charter.

In 1562 Queen Mary came to Inverness. She tried to enter the castle but the governor refused to admit her as his family disagreed with the Queen. She stayed somewhere else in the town but later the governor was hanged.

Abertarff House was built in about 1593. Then in 1644, the wooden bridge over the Ness collapsed. However, it was replaced by a stone bridge which survived until the 19th century. Then in 1652-1657, during the English occupation of Scotland, Cromwell’s men built a citadel in Inverness but it was demolished in 1662. Today only the clocktower (Cromwell’s Clocktower) remains.

Dunbar’s Hospital (almshouses) was built in 1668 by Provost Alexander Dunbar, using building materials from the citadel. The Old Town Cross or Old Mercat Cross was erected in 1685. Nearby is the Clach-na-Cudainn or stone of the tubs. Women would rest there coming from washing their clothes.

Inverness in the 18th century

Inverness Castle was enlarged in the early 18th century by George Wade. The Jacobites captured the fort in March 1746. However, after the Jacobites were crushed at Culloden in April government forces laid mines under the fort to destroy it. It is said that the Frenchman in charge of laying the mines was killed himself when they exploded early. After the collapse of the Jacobite rebellion, the government erected Fort George some miles from Inverness.

Several new buildings were erected in Inverness in the 18th century. Balnain House was built in 1726. The Court House was built in 1789. In 1791 a steeple was built to be part of Inverness prison. It still stands. Inverness Academy was built in 1792.

However, most of the houses in Inverness in the 18th century were still simple huts. Most had thatched roofs and many had clay floors.

During the 18th century, Inverness continued to be a busy port and market town. Citadel Quay was built in 1732. There was also a flourishing brewing industry in Inverness. Whiskey distilling first became important in Inverness in the late 18th century. The first bank in Inverness opened in 1775.

Inverness in the 19th century

Thornbush Quay was built in 1817. The Caledonian Canal was built in 1822 to link East and West Scotland. However, it was not a great success. Yet the railway reached Inverness in 1855 and it boosted the town because it made it much easier for tourists to reach Inverness and easier to transport goods from the town to other parts of Britain.

Many new buildings were erected in Inverness during the 19th century. The Royal Northern Infirmary opened in 1804 and a new ‘castle’ was built in Inverness in the years 1834-1846. West Church was built in 1834 and St Andrew’s Cathedral was built in 1869. It was designed by Alexander Ross. The Town House was built in 1882.

There were several improvements to Inverness in the 19th century. Inverness gained its first newspaper in 1808. Inverness gained gaslight and a water supply. However, even at the end of the 19th century many houses in the town had thatched roofs and some still had clay floors. The first public library in Inverness opened in 1883.

Meanwhile, the Ness Bridge, which had stood since the 17th century was destroyed by a flood in 1849. It was replaced by a new bridge in 1855. Meanwhile, a second bridge called Waterloo or Black Bridge was built in 1808. Infirmary Bridge was built in 1879.

During the 19th century, industries in Inverness included shipbuilding, rope making, sail making, tanning and wool. In 1817 a sheep market began in Inverness.

Inverness in the 20th century

By the early 20th century Inverness had a population of 21,000. Inverness doubled in size during the 20th century. Meanwhile, the British cabinet met outside London for the first time in 1921 when it gathered in Inverness Castle.

In the 20th century, industries in Inverness included distilling, shipbuilding, tweed, and engineering. In the late 20th century industry diversified. Inverness also continues to be a busy port. Today the main imports are oil and timber.

Furthermore, tourism is now a major industry in Inverness. Eden Court Theatre opened in 1976. The Inverness Kiltmaker Exhibition opened in 1994. Inverness is also a regional shopping centre. Eastgate Centre opened in the 1980s. Meanwhile, a new Ness Bridge was built in 1962. Kessock Bridge was built in 1982.

Inverness in the 21st century

A view of Inverness

Inverness was made a city in 2000 and the Eastgate Centre was greatly enlarged in 2003. In 2022 the population of Inverness was 51,000. The motto on the town’s coat of arms is Concordia et Fidelitas (Concord and Fidelity).

A Timeline of Inverness

Early 12th Century King David makes Inverness a royal burgh

Late 12th Century King William the Lion grants Inverness charters confirming the townspeople’s rights

1220 Inverness is a busy port. There are also many fishermen in the town.

1223 A Dominican friary is founded in Inverness

1411 The Lord of the Isles burns part of Inverness

1429 Inverness is partly burned again

1591 Inverness is still a flourishing port and town. It is granted a new charter called the Golden Charter.

c 1593 Abertarff House is built

1668 Dunbar’s Hospital is built by Provost Alexander Dunbar

1726 Balnain House is built

1732 Citadel Quay is built

1746 Inverness Castle is captured by the Jacobites. Later government forces use mines to destroy the castle.

1775 The first bank opens in Inverness

1789 The Court House is built

1792 Inverness Academy is built

1804 The Royal Northern Infirmary opens

1808 Inverness gains its first newspaper

1817 Thornbush Quay is built

1822 The Caledonian Canal is built

1834 West Church is built

1855 The railway reaches Inverness

1869 St Andrew’s Cathedral is built

1879 Infirmary Bridge is built

1882 The Town House is built

1883 A public library opens in Inverness

1921 Inverness has a population of 21,000. The British cabinet meets in Inverness.

1962 A new Ness Bridge is built

1976 Eden Court Theatre opens

1982 Kessock Bridge is built

2000 Inverness is made a city

2003 The Eastgate Centre is enlarged