It’s believed Columba preached to the Picts
Roy Pedersen gives us a sneak preview of his new book, The Port of Inverness, a celebration of 175 years as a trust port
The vibrant and far famed Highland capital city of Inverness has many fine attributes. For all of its colourful history, its university, its clean and green setting, none is more characteristic than the shining River Ness, the swift flowing waterway that connects deep Loch Ness and its legendary “beastie” with the sea. The name Inverness, after all, from the Gaelic Inbhir Nis, means mouth or confluence of the Ness.
Let us stroll along the river bank downstream from the city centre, dominated by the castle, past a number of churches, bridges and then a more commercial quarter to find one of Scotland’s most sheltered natural deep water harbours that lines the last S bend of the Ness before it debouches into the Inverness Firth and thence to the open sea.
The Port of Inverness has a recorded history of some 800 years and was undoubtedly operational long before such records can tell, but this haven is no sleepy historical backwater. The port today is a busy, modern, thriving facility that handles a growing trade both domestically and with Scandinavia, the Baltic and the European Union generally.
Along the quays can be seen oil tankers and dry cargo vessels handling a wide variety of cargoes – petroleum products, timber, paper, salt, processed timber, grain, locally manufactured Sterling Board and much else, including renewable energy components.
Cargo handling is facilitated by up-to-date high-capacity mobile cranes, transit sheds and substantial areas of open storage. In addition to this essential commercial activity, the port also caters for leisure and pleasure craft at its purpose built marina.
The port and town have long complimented each other, one aiding the prosperity of the other, and indeed for much of its history the harbour was run by the town council. Since 1847, however, the port has been operated by the Inverness Harbour Trust, established by Act of Parliament in that year, such that today the port is a vibrant, profitable, independent entity unconnected with local or national government or any external commercial concern.
It is to celebrate 175 years of the trust’s endeavours that this book has been created. Inverness’s position as the most north easterly crossing point of the Great Glen, controlling movement north – south and east – west, has given it a strategic importance since ancient times.
For that reason, Inverness was the capital of the 6th century Pictish King Brude or Bridei MacMaelchon, who was, we are told, converted to Christianity by Colm Cille, popularly known as Columba. The Picts were a seafaring nation, so, while there is no confirmatory documentary evidence, the sheltered haven at the mouth of the Ness must have been an important Pictish maritime base, with good timber nearby that could be floated down the river to the estuary where ships could be built, launched and assembled as a fleet. Then and for a millennium thereafter, the estuary was an island strewn delta whose backwater, the Abban, flowed as far west as Clachnaharry.
No doubt the business of ships and seafaring continued at the mouth of the Ness through the subsequent centuries. Then sometime between 1130 and 1153, Inverness was made a Royal Burgh by King David I. This enabled trade to be regularised and dues to be levied, not least at the harbour. The main axis of the burgh connected its three vital elements – the castle, the parish church, now the Old High where, of old, Columba is believed to have preached to the Picts, and the harbour through which the town’s riches flowed.
The earliest known reference we have to the Port of Inverness is by Matthew Paris c 1200 – 1259, an English Benedictine monk, chronicler, artist and cartographer, based at St Albans Abbey in Hertfordshire.
For a monk, he got around a bit, in 1248 he was sent from Paris to Norway to take a message from Louis IX to Haakon IV where he was invited to superintend the reformation of the Nidarholm Abby near Trondheim. Among his extensive writings, Paris states that a large ship, described as ‘marvellous’, was built in 1249 at Inverness for the French Count Hugo de Chatillon of St Pol et Blois, in which he and his companions from Boulogne, Flanders and the Low Countries could be carried to the Crusades.
While Paris was a gifted illustrator, it is a pity that he left no image of the Count’s ship. We may assume, however, that it was a typical northern trading ship of the period and could accommodate at least four knights, with retainers and possibly horses, on a voyage from, say, Boulogne to the Mediterranean. ■
Info: The book was commisioned by The Inverness Harbour Trust and will be published in November at £10
The harbour in 1695 with three ships at the Old Pier and boats on the Maggat. From John Slezer’s prospect