Featured image of Inverness Castle

the complete history of inverness castle

Inverness Castle built with red sandstone is an imposing sight in an equally imposing site. It sits high on cliffs that look down on the River Ness as it approaches the Moray Firth. The City has been the ‘’capital of the Highlands’’ for some centuries now and the centrepiece of the City is the Castle that looks over it.

Inverness Castle from across the river
Inverness Castle from across the river. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Medieval History

The Middle Ages were wild days. Every settlement needed to consider defence as attack and invasion were ever-present. That certainly applied in the North of Scotland, a clan-based society where there was little respect for a neighbour.

Similarly, coastal areas were prone to attack from overseas. Back in the 11th Century, Inverness was the scene of a memorable battle against Vikings from Norway, Biar nam Fienne. The Scots were led by Malcolm III and the actual site of the struggle was on land belonging to the McDonald Clan.

Natural defences were often the reason for settlements developing. In the case of Inverness, as it is today, cliffs overlooking a river are as natural as it gets. They present an ideal place for fortifications and it was no surprise that locals decided to create their defences there. The Castle that you see today is 19th Century, but it stands on a site where defences were first built in the 11th Century. Since then, there have been a few different castles or fortifications.

Records show that Malcolm III of Scotland was responsible for the first castle in the middle of that century.  Another king, Robert I (Robert the Bruce) effectively destroyed it early in the 14th Century so that it could never be used by his enemies. 

Inverness had become a royal burgh early in the 12th Century and that merely added to its attractiveness for an attack. It was often clans from the Western Isles that caused Inverness the most trouble. You see Inverness was the centre of Highland culture, a trading burgh with a busy port. Locals had plenty of work ranging from shipbuilding and fishing to trade and commerce. Contacts included Scandinavia and the Low Countries to the south. 

Flora Macdonald and Inverness Castle
Flora Macdonald and Inverness Castle. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Over the years, many people sought to take Inverness Castle. In 1187 it was Donald Ban and his islanders who attacked with the defenders led by the Governor’s son, Duncan MacIntosh. Both died during the struggle. Clan Donald also had designs on Inverness and its castle. 

James I hosted Parliament in Inverness Castle in 1428 and called Highland Chiefs, seemingly to seek peace. He captured them, one by one as they arrived, and they were not allowed to communicate with each other. Several of the 50 Chiefs were executed. Once Alexander, Lord of the Isles was released a year later, he gathered an army to lay siege on the Castle, having burnt down Inverness itself. 

Mary, Queen of Scots

He failed but it was a different castle over a century later that was besieged by opponents of Mary Queen of Scots. The Earl of Huntly, George Gordon, completed it in 1548 and died in 1562. That same year another siege, this one successful, was undertaken by the Queen’s supporters. Mary had been refused entry and after the Munros and Frasers took the Castle, she hanged the Governor because of his refusal.

The Jacobites

The Castle was subject to further sieges, two in the middle of the 17th Century, after which Cromwell strengthened it. Within a decade, his work was gone and only the tower he was responsible for remained. 

Jacobites used the Castle as barracks in 1715. The Act of Union had been passed a decade earlier with the Act of Settlement agreeing that Catholics would be excluded from taking the throne of England and Ireland. The last Stuart King of England had been James II who was deposed in 1688.

His daughter Mary was a protestant with a protestant husband William. As Mary died childless, succession headed to Germany. George I was the son of a protestant Sophia of Hanover. The Hanoverian succession did not sit well with surviving Stuarts who sought French support for their claims.

Unfortunately for the Stuarts, the French had agreed to recognise George as part of the peace treaty ending the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714. The Stuarts, therefore, sought help from Rome, Pope Clement XI. The Jacobites fought successfully in the north of Scotland, as evidenced by their use of Inverness Castle but there were problems elsewhere.

In November, the Jacobites had significant success at the Battle of Preston before reinforcement arrived, leading to their surrender. James, the Old Pretender, arrived the following month.  By that time, his forces had dwindled, and he was soon on his way out of Scotland as many of his supporters were tried and hanged. 

Inverness Castle was strengthened once again in 1725 but two decades later came the second Jacobite rebellion. Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Young Pretender, captured the Castle, hoping to win the throne for his father. The timing of this Jacobite rising corresponded to a time when the British army was busy in Europe and initially there was a good deal of success. However, the Jacobites overstretched themselves by going into England in the hope of support.

The Battle of Culloden
The Battle of Culloden. Source: Wikimedia Commons

His defeat at Culloden early in 1746 finished the campaign. Charlie escaped to France, dying in Rome in 1788 without another serious attempt on the throne. The defeat also resulted in the English Government blowing Inverness Castle up. 

That was not the only aftermath of the defeat as Jacobite sympathisers. They were sought out, lands were confiscated, some were hanged and many more were transported, never to return.

Peace & Prosperity in Inverness

There followed a period of relative calm in the Highlands with the clans defeated. Inverness grew and prospered with the Castle you see today one of the 19th Century developments. 

Three architects were responsible for its design. William Burn designed the Sheriff Court, Thomas Brown the District Court intended as a prison and Joseph Mitchell the walls which enclosed the bastion. 

Burn designed this castellated style in 1836 and it helps tell the history of siege and struggle over previous centuries. It became County Hall with the next phase a dozen years later was initially the gaol before becoming the Sheriff Court.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited this part of Scotland regularly which added to the public interest in the Highlands and its history. The statue of Flora MacDonald and her dog was erected in front of the Castle in 1899, two years before Victoria’s death. Flora is credited with helping Bonnie Prince Charlie to evade the English despite her not being a Jacobite supporter herself. 

Charles Edward Stuart
Charles Edward Stuart. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Inverness Castle in Fiction

William Shakespeare used ‘’poetic licence’’ to tell the story of Macbeth killing Duncan in Inverness Castle in 1040. Duncan died in battle near Elgin. Macbeth’s castle was elsewhere, on Crown Hill. Malcolm III destroyed that before selecting this site overlooking the River Ness for a new one. 

The Castle Today

Inverness Castle is in use as a Sheriff’s Court as well as having some administrative functions so public access is limited. The public can go into one of the towers. At its summit, there are tremendous 360-degree views over the surrounding area. Even on the ground floor, there are some great views over the River to Inverness and its cathedral.

Some of the memorable dates and events in history can be found on little posts around the site. Their layout provides an accurate timeline over the centuries since the first fortification was built.

You may enjoy our other articles on Scottish castles.

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