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Inverness, 2 Bridge Street, Town Steeple

Steeple (18th Century)

Site Name Inverness, 2 Bridge Street, Town Steeple

Classification Steeple (18th Century)

Alternative Name(s) Tolbooth; Church Street, Town Steeple

Canmore ID 75318

Site Number NH64NE 163

NGR NH 66647 45218

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
Canmore Disclaimer. © Copyright and database right 2022.

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Administrative Areas

  • Council Highland
  • Parish Inverness And Bona
  • Former Region Highland
  • Former District Inverness
  • Former County Inverness-shire

Architecture Notes

Architect: Alexander Laing. Foundation stone laid 22 August 1789


Publication Account (1996)

This impressive steeple, 43m in height, is situated on the N side of Bridge Street, at its junction with High Street and Church Street and about 100m E of the bridge over the River Ness. It was built in 1789-91 on the site of a steeple of about 1690, and adjoined on the W a court-house and jail which were begun in 1788 on the site of the tolbooth and were replaced in 1853 by a three-storeyed block containing shops. From the first decade of the 18th century the burgh had a separate town-house on the S side of High Street, 30m SE of the steeple, and this was rebuilt in Gothic style in 1878-82.

The ashlar-built steeple comprises seven highly-modelled stages, the lowest forming a plinth with a round-arched doorway flanked by matching windows in the S wall. The next stage rises through two floors; there are elongated Venetian windows with blind centres in the Sand E elevations, and round-arched windows break through triangular pediments above. The third stage, which rises above the adjoining building, has paired angle-pilasters enclosing round-arched louvred openings and supporting a heavy cornice. A prominent moulded course, on which the pilasters are super-imposed, encircles this stage at the impost-level of the openings. A clock-face with a carved label dated MDCCXCI (1791) breaks through the pediment on each fa

The ground floor is occupied by a shop from which a stone dog-leg stair rises to the second floor. On the first-floor landing an archway, now blocked, led originally to the courthouse. From the second floor a series of wooden ladders affords access to the clock-chamber. The clock's chassis was made in Inverness in 1931 , and the mechanism by James H Bridger of Glasgow. The bell-chamber contains three bells known locally as the 'Skellats' or tin-pans. The oldest bears the date 1658 and is 0.38m high by 0.52m in diameter. The second is inscribed: I HOSSACK, LEICESTER, INVERNESS 1759, and the third is inscribed: LONDON.


In 1436 Christine Makferry sold to the burgh of Inverness a piece of land in the NW angle of Bridge Street and Church Street, by a charter which was endorsed ' the charter of the tolbuth'. A substantial steeple existed by 1593, when it was described as 'the house and fortalice called the steeple of Inverness'. In 1663 instructions were given to 'thattche' the tolbooth steeple, and about 1690 it was rebuilt by James Dick at a cost of 3,000 merks, using stones from the demolished 'blew bridge'. This work was completed by 1692 when Thomas Kilgour, watchmaker, repaired the town clock and set it up 'in the new steeple of the tolbuith'.

Meanwhile, some of the functions of the tolbooth were being housed elsewhere. A prison-cell was incorporated in one of the spandrels of a new bridge built over the Ness in 1683-5,7 and in 1688 the council resolved 'that the Bridge house should be reserved for the townes use ... to be a Counsell House and Chamber for the common clerk of the towne and for other uses necessary for the towne' .This building, which was probably part of the gateway at the E end of the bridge, itself became unsatisfactory. In the first decade of the next century the council acquired a property fronting the High Street at the foot of Castle Wynd, where a three-storeyed town-house with a seven-bay arcaded N front was built. This contained the council-chamber on the first floor and the guildry room above it, and in the 19th century there was a reading-room on the ground floor. Two armorial panels of 1686 from the old bridge, formerly set at second floor level in the N front of the town-house, are built into the gables of the present town hall, which was erected in 1878-82 to designs by the local architects Matthews and Lawrie. Two painted wooden armorial panels of 17th-century date from the old tolbooth are also preserved in the town hall.

In 1732 repairs were carried out to the steeple, which included a charter-room and a prison-room. The steeple, as well as the adjacent tolbooth and the new town-house, had shops on the ground floor. In 1786 the court-house in the tolbooth was described as 'very antient', and its jail as comprising 'only two small cells for criminals, and one miserable room for civil debtors ', and a year later they were 'very old and incapable of repair' . Since they served not only the burgh and county of Inverness, but the other counties of the Northern Circuit, an appeal was made to these counties and to government for assistance to rebuild them, and the burgh bought adjacent ground to enlarge the site. By April 1789 the new court-house and jail were 'now building' and by May 1791 they were 'now completely finished'. The contractors were John Symens, mason, and William MacDonald, wright, at a price of £1,497. The accommodation in 1818 included four cells, a 'black hole' and four rooms for debtors, a guard-room, a jury-room and a witness-room. The court-room, which measured 10.2m by 5.5m, was used for 'the sittings of the Sheriff Court, the Burgh Courts, the Justiciary and Jury Courts and the County Meetings'.

In 1789 the adjacent steeple was described as 'dangerous ... very old and judged by many to be insufficient', and it was proposed 'that nothing can be so proper for pulling down and rebuilding it as the present, because it might be properly connected with the new court house and jail now building'. The foundation-stone was laid in August 1789 and it was completed two years later. The steeple is said to have been designed by the Edinburgh architect Alexander Laing and the upper part was built by Alexander Stevens, an expert in the construction of spires. The cost of £1,598 was raised through subscriptions, loans and the sale of the old materials, as well as from burgh funds, and Sir Hector Munro MP subscribed an additional £105 for the clock. The upper part of the spire was displaced by an earth tremor in 1816 and it was restored in 1828, as Hugh Miller thought, 'to its state of original insignificance'. Despite minor repairs, it remains little altered except for the removal of the upper series of vases.

By 1818 the jail was considered overcrowded, but although it was condemned in 1836 as cramped and ill-ventilated, a new prison was not completed until 1848. Prominently situated on the site of Inverness Castle, this castellated building by Thomas Brown adjoined William Burn's County Buildings of 1833-5, which housed new court-rooms. The old jail and court-house were replaced in 1853, despite local criticisms of 'the absurdity of attaching a steeple to a row of drapers' or grocers 'shops', and the eight-bay Victorian frontage was retained when the N side of Bridge Street was redeveloped in 1967.

Information from ‘Tolbooths and Town-Houses: Civic Architecture in Scotland to 1833’ (1996).


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