Bill McAllister on the past – and possible future – of one of Inverness city center’s lesser-liked areas
The remains of the medieval defensive outer ring of what used to be called Royal Castlehill can be found under the concrete carbuncle on the south side of Bridge Street, along with the rubble of old 600-year-old enclosures.
A potential archaeological treasure awaits you if and when Upper Bridge Street, and perhaps part or much of Lower Bridge Street, is demolished in the years to come.
Travel writer Bill Bryson called Bridge Street “sensually ugly” – but when Old Street was demolished in the early 1960s, it was a popular decision as many properties were run down, overcrowded, and poorly equipped. The street also needed to be widened as the A9 ran alongside it and the old sandstone arched bridge was increasingly unsuitable for traffic, necessitating a new junction and a wider Bridge Street.
If it had been suggested that there would be a Friars Shott crossing and a Kessock Bridge creating a new A9 road, then the realization of Bridge Street might not have happened. Hindsight is a 20/20 vision. At the time, many considered that development brought essential modernization to a growing town.
The facade that has disappeared from Bridge Street consisted mainly of 18th or early 19th century buildings, between which pendants – or alleys – led to older properties, including the Albion Hotel and the Watt’s Hotel, the latter being a temperance room. The first houses had gardens at the back, but these were built. Demolition work in 1962 uncovered a lintel at number 5, for example, dated 1666, while a building leaning against the steps of the castle was dated 1756.
The handsome Workmen’s Club, with its classic columns and arched windows, built by local architect John Rhind, would have been 150 years old this year if it hadn’t been bulldozed.
The Alexander Ross Museum and Library in last week’s column was also razed. At the junction with Castle Road, facing the river, blocks of buildings known as Castle Tolmie – which had replaced the buildings of the same name demolished in 1900 – were demolished. Across the street, Queen Mary’s House was demolished in 1968, its vaults are now The Den nightclub.
Bridge Street had actually been widened in 1817, but what suited the horse and cart was increasingly unsuitable. Inverness City Council published a development plan for the district in 1959 and a public inquiry was held before the plan was given the green light in 1962.
Upper Bridge Street was seen as a way to bring foot traffic above the busy road and provide new civic space. New housing estates were emerging on the flanks of the town and modern architecture was seen as reflecting the way forward for the town center.
What made many people against development was the alleged flush of corruption. Decisions taken in private caused trouble, although many of them were due to commercial confidentiality, not allowing rival bidders to know what each was offering. The advisers staged walkouts twice in 1961, with a lot of dark mumbling about bias in favor of a particular bidder.
Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck was chairman of Murrayfield Real Estate Company, the Edinburgh developer who secured the contract for the Â£ 250,000 project at another closed-door board meeting. Worse, the council announced the award at a press conference to which local newspapers were not invited – a classic self-imposed goal.
The council was actually demonstrating a laudable vision with a 20-year overhaul to adapt central Inverness to 20th century goals – the new Ness Bridge, the widening of Upper Academy Street and the Eastgate Center shopping mall would follow. .
But the first phase, Bridge Street, had sparked controversy and there had been more criticism when Murrayfield’s high rents meant new stores were slow to let. Do you remember Presto there, our first downtown supermarket?
In 2018, Highland Council announced the acquisition of the south side of Bridge Street to support the conversion of Inverness Castle into a major gateway for visitors and a ‘must see’ attraction.
The board said it would take up to 10 years to bring up a new version.
Will Bridge Street be leveled again? We wait and see.
Sponsored by Ness Castle Lodges.