Located at the north-eastern end of the Great Glen, Inverness has long been an important artery of trade and movement through the otherwise harsh and inaccessible Highland area. The city was once home to the Pictish King Brude, who St Columba converted to Christianity in around 565 AD, and there has been a settlement there ever since. Today, the city and the surrounding area is full of historic and prehistoric sites which attest to the city’s multi-faceted past.
From the striking Inverness Castle perched high above the River Ness to the ancient stones at Clava Cairns, Inverness is packed full of historic sites for any history lover. Here’s out pick of 8 essential historic sites not to miss when exploring ‘The Sneck’.
1. Inverness Castle
Situated overlooking the River Ness, Inverness Castle was built in 1836 upon the site of an 11th century defensive structure that was besieged, destroyed and even rebuilt on multiple occasions. The red sandstone structure, which is built in an early castellated style, was built by various 19th century architects.
The castle is perhaps most famous because it is heavily referred to in Shakespeare’s Macbeth as the site of Macbeth’s murder of King Duncan. In reality, a record from 1040 tells us that Macbeth reportedly murdered King Duncan at a castle on Auld Castlehill, a few miles south from the more modern city. In April 2017, the north tower of the castle was opened to the public as a viewpoint, and at present, only the castle grounds and north tower are open to the public. Until March 2020, the castle was home to the Inverness Sheriff Court: however, it has now been moved to the Inverness Justice Centre.
2. Fort George
Located near Ardersier to the north-east of Inverness, Fort George is one of the finest examples of 18th-century military buildings in Britain. It was initially built to control the Scottish Highlands in the aftermath of the Jacobite rising of 1745, replacing a Fort George in Inverness that was constructed after the 1715 Jacobite rising. Nonetheless, the army base has never fired a shot in anger, and has never been attacked. It later became a recruiting base and training camp for the rapidly expanding British army, and between 1881 and 1964 it served as the depot of the Seaforth Highlanders.
Today, it remains a garrison for the Black Watch, 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland (3 SCOTS). The star-shaped fortification remains virtually unaltered and is open to visitors with exhibits demonstrating the fort’s use during different periods. Vast in scale, the fort would cost nearly £1 billion to build and equip today.
3. Culloden Viaduct
Designed by Murdoch Paterson and built by the Highland Railway, Culloden Viaduct was first opened in 1898 as part of the Inverness and Aviemore Direct Railway. It is still used today as the main rail link into the Highlands. The 29 span viaduct crosses the wide valley of the River Nairn, and at 1800ft is the longest masonry viaduct in Scotland.
Also known as the Nairn viaduct, the Category A-listed structure was built in sandstone. Today, the viaduct offers a spectacular view, both from a train travelling over it, and from beneath. Situated close to Culloden Battlefield and the Clava Cairns, it forms an essential part of any historical day out.
4. Inverness Town House
Located between Castle Street and Castle Wynd, the Gothic-style Inverness Town House is a municipal building that is occasionally open for tours. Designed by William Lawrie in 1882 and modelled on the McManus, a museum and art gallery, the house was built to replace the very first town house in Inverness which was built in 1708 and demolished some 150 years later. A 1685 burgh coat of arms from a bridge that once crossed the River Ness was recovered, and is now embedded in the ashlar stone in the townhouse. The townhouse was updated in 1898 when stained glass windows were installed to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, and it was later extended in 1907. It didn’t undergo another refurbishment until 2018.
Today, The Inverness Town House is known for its impressive art collection. It is occasionally open to the public by appointment to schedule a tour, and is well worth the effort.
5. Old High Church
The oldest church in Inverness, St. Mary’s, the Old High Church, was built in 1770. However, the small hill that the church stands on has been used as a place of worship for much longer: St Columba is said to have preached from there in AD 565. Tradition has it that St Columba converted the Pictish king Brude to Christianity, who then allocated him the plot of land to build a simple wooden structure. There have been several churches on the site in the time since, with the oldest part of the present church, the base of the tower, dating to the 14th century, making the tower the oldest structure in Inverness.
Today, the church is known for its fascinating interior which includes a memorial to the Cameron Highlanders and an organ made by Henry ‘Father’ Willis, a famous 19th-century organ maker. The church holds regular services and is also open to the general public during select hours.
6. Culloden Battlefield
Culloden Battlefield is the site of the final battle of the Jacobite uprising, resulting in the defeat of the Jacobites by British government forces. The Battle of Culloden was the culmination of years of fighting for succession to the British throne. Other factors, such as war with France and issues of religious denomination also fuelled national divides at the time and were all interlinked. The conflict raged between the supporters of the House of Stuart – known as the Jacobites – who wanted to reinstate the exiled King James II’s son James Stuart, and the House of Hanover.
The battle was fierce, bloody, and over in less than an hour. The result was a defeat for the Jacobites, who fled from the battlefield. It would be their last attempt to reinstate the House of Stuart to the throne. Today, Culloden Battlefield stands as a memorial to this important event. There is a visitor centre with plenty of information about the battle, a 360-degree immersion theatre, and tours of the battlefield. Along Culloden Battlefield there are many memorials, including graves of the clans who fought there and the Memorial Cairn, erected by Duncan Forbes in 1881. Elsewhere the restored 18th century Leanach Cottage can be explored, whose roof was crafted from heather grown on the battlefield.
7. Clava Cairns
Situated just outside of Inverness, Clava Cairns, or the Prehistoric Burial Cairns of Bulnuaran of Clava, are a group of three Bronze Age cairns, or burial mounds. Remarkably well-preserved, Clava Cairns are thought to date back around 4,000 years. The burial mounds were used in two periods, and in around 2000 BC a row of large cairns was built, three of which are still standing today.
Excavations have revealed that there was once farming on the site before any of the monuments were built, and the settlement was directly replaced by the cairns, with some of the material used to build them being taken from the demolished houses. Over time, several more stones were added, many with cup and ring markings. Today, it is a popular attraction, not least because it is likely the inspiration for the site Craigh na Dun, the standing stones that form a time-travelling portal in the popular television series Outlander.
8. Hugh Miller's Birthplace
A fossil hunter, folklorist, man of faith, stonemason, geologist, writer, editor and social justice campaigner, Hugh Miller was one of 19th century Scotland’s most famous figures. The humble thatched cottage where he was born in 1802 was built by his great grandfather, while the Georgian villa next door was built by his father.
Visitors today can enjoy an audio tour around the cottage, which features descriptions, many in Hugh’s own words, of his life there. Next door, the museum contains artefacts relating to his life such as fossil discoveries, manuscripts and his mallet. Behind the museum is Miller’s Yard: Garden of Wonders, which serves as an educational site about natural history.