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History of Inverness Castle

Eachdraidh Chaisteil Inbhir Nis

Inverness Castle comprises of two castellated buildings. The first dates from the 1830s and was built for purpose as a courthouse.  The second, completed in the 1840s, served as the prison.  Sitting on the banks of the River Ness at the heart of Inverness, the castle is easily the most prominent structure, towering above the city and allowing for fantastic views beyond.

A view of Inverness Castle and River Ness (Credit: Cook Collection, Inverness Museum & Art Gallery, High Life Highland)
A view of Inverness Castle and River Ness (Credit: Cook Collection, Inverness Museum & Art Gallery, High Life Highland)
Inverness Castle main entrance (Credit: Am Baile High Life Highland)

The castle occupies the site where the original mediaeval fortification once dominated the burgh of Inverness.  It alternated in size and architecture over the centuries, with its usage often being adapted to suit the needs of the day. In its long and tempestuous history, the previous castle was set ablaze more than once by the mighty MacDonald Lords of the Isles, saw entry refused to Mary, Queen of Scots and endured a number of sieges.  The castle, having been reinforced in the early 18th century to accommodate British Government Troops, was finally destroyed by Jacobites at the command of Charles Edward Stuart, prior to the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

The original well from the mediaeval fortress can be found in the grounds of the current castle, and the beautiful statue of Flora MacDonald, completed in the 1890s by Inverness sculptor Andrew Davidson, looks over towards the River Ness from Castle Hill.

The area where the present day Inverness Castle stands is known as Castle Hill. It has seen many changes over the centuries and some notable historical events relating to the site are shared below.

Early times

A fortification has existed in Inverness since at least the sixth century CE when St Columba visited the fortress of the Pictish King Brude, but it was on the other side of the river at Craig Phadraig.

1000s

The first castle on this site was an earth and timber one with a ditch and earth ramparts. It was established by David I, son of Malcolm III.  Malcolm had destroyed the Castle of his rival, Macbeth, at nearby Crown Hill.

1400s

During the Scottish Wars of Independence, the occupation of the castle changed hands twice, between the Scots and those loyal to the English.  In 1308 the castle was retaken by Robert I (the Bruce) and destroyed to prevent any further military use. The Earl of Mar started rebuilding the castle in 1412, with stone for the first time. During a visit to Inverness in 1428 James I summoned, then arrested and imprisoned Alexander, the Lord of the Isles, along with other Highland chiefs who had defied him. It sparked a series of reprisal attacks in 1455, 1462 and 1491.

1500s

Mary Queen of Scots was denied entry to the castle in 1562 on the orders of George Gordon, Earl of Huntly. Mary’s supporters laid siege to the castle and after three days captured it. The Keeper of the Castle, Alexander Gordon, was hanged.

1600s

During the War of the Three Kingdoms, the castle was occupied by Covenanting troops before being taken by Royalists in 1649. It survived these attacks and was redeveloped into a five-storey tower house.

Oliver Cromwell built his citadel in Inverness containing a hospital, granary, ale houses, and taverns, at a spot nearer the river’s mouth that he felt was more strategic than the castle, but this new structure was taken down within a decade. Some of the stone was subsequently used to build the future ‘Fort George’, here on Castle Hill, and the first stone bridge across the river.

1700s

During the 1715 Jacobite Rising, Inverness Castle was occupied by a Jacobite garrison which fled after Hanoverian supporters threatened to raze it to the ground. Following the Rising, the castle was fortified and renamed Fort George (after George I).

The garrison fort was reinforced once more in 1725 but captured by Prince Charles Edward Stuart (popularly known as Bonnie Prince Charlie) and his Jacobite army 20 years later. Following defeat at the Battle of Culloden, the Prince ordered the destruction of the castle to prevent it falling into the government’s hands.

1800s

Inverness Castle and the Old Stone Bridge, Pierre Delavault, c1840s; Highland Libraries/www.ambaile.org.uk Inverness Castle and the Old Stone Bridge, Pierre Delavault, c1840s; Highland Libraries/www.ambaile.org.uk
Image courtesy of Pierre Delavault / Highland Libraries

The castle lay derelict until the early 19th century when it was decided Inverness needed a new courthouse and jail. It was constructed in two phases, the courthouse in the 1830s and the prison in the 1840s. The perimeter walls were built in 1839.

This same period saw the creation of the Northern Institute, a forerunner to today’s Inverness College and University of the Highlands and Islands.

Those arrested after the Battle of the Braes during the Crofters’ War were tried at Inverness Castle. Defended by the Town Clerk, Kenneth Macdonald, they were convicted and fined but not imprisoned.

Unveiling of Flora MacDonald Monument, 1899; Highland Photographic Archive/Inverness Museum and Art Gallery/www.ambaile.org.uk Unveiling of Flora MacDonald Monument, 1899; Highland Photographic Archive/Inverness Museum and Art Gallery/www.ambaile.org.uk
Image courtesy of Inverness Museum & Art Gallery

To many people Flora MacDonald is a great Highland heroine. A statue of her, installed in 1896, is positioned in front of the castle so she scans the landscape to the west, awaiting the return of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

1900s

Castle landslide, 1932; www.ambaile.org.uk Castle landslide, 1932; www.ambaile.org.uk
Image courtesy of Highland Folk Museum

In 1932 a landslip caused the castle’s retaining wall to collapse, also damaging the buildings below. Although there were no injuries, people were made homeless and afterwards the west side of Castle Street was cleared and left as the sloping bank we see today.

Police patrol cars, 1957. Highland Photographic Archive/Inverness Museum and Art Gallery/www.ambaile.org.uk Police patrol cars, 1957. Highland Photographic Archive/Inverness Museum and Art Gallery/www.ambaile.org.uk
Image courtesy of Highland Photographic Archive

Castle Hill was the home of the Inverness-shire Constabulary until 1975 when it relocated to Old Perth Road.

The castle remained the home of the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service from the time it was built until the Courts moved to new purpose-built premises elsewhere in Inverness in 2020.