Published: 10/01/2014 12:31 - Updated: 10/01/2014 12:52

Victorians the real vandals of Inverness architecture

Norman Newton in front of one of Inverness's best known landmarks, the Old High Church.
Norman Newton in front of one of Inverness's best known landmarks, the Old High Church.

LOVE Inverness or hate it, few people have any love for the post-war developments that brought us Bridge Street.

Even travel writer Bill Bryson was moved to dub the office blocks of Bridge Street as "awful, awful beyond words" after he visited the Highland Capital.

Yet when it comes to playing havoc with Inverness’s architectural heritage, author Norman S. Newton has worse culprits in mind than the developers who bequeathed us what Bryson called "sensationally ugly" office buildings.

"We often think the major architectural vandals were the planners of the 1960s, but I don’t think that’s true," Newton said.

"I think the real vandals were the late Victorians.

"The Victorians were not in the slightest bit sentimental about architecture. Basically anything from before then was gone. We admire Dunbar Hospital and Abertarff House on Church Street, but apart from then there is nothing from the pre-19th century to be found in the city centre. Medieval Inverness was completely swept away.

"You could argue that the Victorian planners at least knew what they were doing. In the 1960s they didn’t have the vision or foresight to see how Inverness would develop in the future."

Newton, formerly chief reference librarian for Highland Council’s libraries network, has been studying the missing architectural heritage of the Highland Capital for his new book Lost Inverness, the latest in a series from Edinburgh publisher Birlinn Books.

"The brief was to write about the buildings that are no longer here," Newton explained.

"The problem for me is that where in Glasgow and Edinburgh there are hundreds of destroyed or lost buildings to select from, in Inverness — despite common preconceptions — once you get past Bridge Street and High Street, not that much as been lost."

To uncover the lost buildings of Inverness, Newton made use of contemporary descriptions of Inverness from travellers and residents, such as the letters of soldier Edmund Burt who was stationed in Inverness in the years between the 1715 and 1745 Jacobite rebellions.

"He was very interested in the town because he noticed that urban architecture in Scotland was quite different from what he was used to in the south," Newton explained.

"But he was not very complementary. He thought the whole place was a bit grubby — and he probably thought the same about the inhabitants."

A more visual source was Pierre Delavault, the French born art master at Inverness Royal Academy.

He produced a series of watercolours of the town which were printed by the Inverness Courier in 1903 and then re-released in 1969.

Some of these views, such as looking down Queensgate to the building occupied by Hootananny, remain recognisable today. Others show parts of Inverness that have now been lost, such as the old Town House, which was demolished to make way for the current building in 1878, or Queen Mary’s House, the most infamous victim of the Bridge Street redevelopment.

Though Newton points out that the house’s links with Mary Queen of Scots are quite tenuous and that architecturally the late medieval building might be best described as "a guddle", he added: "It was a microcosm of the architectural heritage of Inverness. If it had survived, it would probably have become a heritage centre."

One building that survived the redevelopment of the Bridge Street area — which was prompted by the need to widen the road for traffic using the new Ness Bridge — was the building occupied by the Inverness Courier.

This was due to the uncompromising stance of the paper’s owner at the time, Evelyn Barron, who feared that development was progressing to enrich developers rather than benefit the local community.

In Lost Inverness, Newton quotes a typically forthright Barron editorial from July 1961 where, under the headline "Inverness for sale!" she warns: "These financial and development corporations are not coming to Inverness and serving notices on people because they are in any way concerned with the welfare of the town and its people.

"They are doing so simply and solely because they see opportunities to make a rich financial harvest at the expense of the town and its business community."

Newton, who is originally from Glasgow but has lived in Inverness since 1980, certainly believes she had a point.

"I would never accuse councillors and officials in 1961 of acting corruptly, but I think they got involved with a redevelopment project they were completely out of their depth in managing," he suggested.

"I don’t know if that’s something that might ring a few bells with people about the situation in Inverness today."

As Newton’s book focuses on the buildings that Inverness has lost, he suggests that there might be a worthwhile follow-up to be written, perhaps by a local architect, on the buildings that remain.

"A lot of older buildings have gone or been altered, but I think the more interesting architectural heritage is not in the town centre or the suburbs. There are some very, very interesting houses around Inverness," he said.

"Inverness scores well in domestic architecture, but doesn’t score well with public architecture. Only Inverness Town House would get in a Top 100 of Scottish architecture."

Lost Inverness by Norman S. Newton is published by Birlinn Books.

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