Perhaps the most magnificent building in the city, Inverness Castle today stands on Castle Hill overlooking the river. Despite its name the castle is not some medieval fortification, withstanding battles and sieges, but a building from the year 1848. The current castle was built as a courthouse and a prison, following overcrowding in the Tolbooth prison, and remained a courthouse until 2019. However, the first castle that was built in this spot dates to the eleventh century during the reign of King Malcolm III; replacing a previous castle that was built close to where Millburn Academy is today.
Castles have always played a part in the history of Inverness; unfortunately for Inverness though this history was often violent.
In 1303 the castle was occupied by forces of King Edward of England during the Scottish Wars of Independence; two years before the execution of William Wallace. However, less than 4 years later, it was recaptured by King Robert the Bruce and damaged as part of his scorched earth strategy. Bruce would go on to win a successful campaign and reward his allies for their assistance. It was Bruce who gave Angus Og (clan chief of the MacDonalds) the title “Lord of the Isles” – a decision that would come to affect his descendants greatly.
Future Lord of the Isles, Donald MacDonald, led a clan raid on Inverness in 1410. His son, Alexander MacDonald, also Lord of the Isles, was invited to a gathering at the castle in 1428 by King James I of Scotland. Here the king was determined to showcase his power and executed three clan chiefs and imprisoned several others who defied his rule – including Alexander Macdonald. Alexander submitted to King James later that same year, but this did not stop Clan Macdonald from returning and the castle was attacked in 1455, 1462 and 1491. It wasn’t until 1493 when King James IV broke peace with Clan Macdonald that Inverness Castle would finally see some relative peace.
This peace would not last; in 1639 civil war broke out across the British Isles as people chose to either side with King Charles I or with his covenanting and parliamentarian enemies – the War of the Three Kingdoms had begun. In 1644 the castle had become occupied by Covenanter troops: supporters of the National Covenant who opposed the King’s grab for power. Their greatest threat was the Royalist general James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, who came dangerously close to capturing the castle following his victory at the battle of Auldearn in May 1645. It wasn’t until February 1649 that Royalist forces seized the castle following the execution of King Charles, but they were forced to withdraw after a fairly sizable Covenanter army approached. The castle was attacked again by Royalist forces led by the Marquis of Huntley but Covenanter forces held them off.
Perhaps the strangest piece of castle history regards the legendary Inverness cheese riot. In 1666 a riot broke out close to the castle after a man dropped a piece of cheese into the river and refused to pay for the damages. This argument turned into a full-scale riot. The town guard was summoned, muskets were raised and shots were fired. Two people were killed and ten people were injured.
This riot opened a new wound in the old enemy of Inverness Castle – Clan MacDonald. It turned out the two killed belonged to the clan and they wanted compensation: £66,000 scots, tax exemption, any Invernessian to submit to a MacDonald, and much more. In the end Inverness only had to pay £4,800 scots, though it is unclear if the cheese was ever paid for.
The old castle finally met its end in 1746 just before the battle of Culloden. After capturing the castle Jacobite forces levelled the structure by blowing it up, killing only the engineer who lit the fuse. From then no castle sat on the hill until 1848 with the building of the current building.
Today the castle provides fantastic views of the city and, although a relatively young building compared to the likes of Abertarff House, it is still a wonderful thing to behold and an intriguing (if bloody) part of Inverness history.
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All the best, The Culloden Team