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BILL MCALLISTER: Academy’s storied past first began 230 long years ago

By Bill McAllister

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The current Inverness Royal Academy.
The current Inverness Royal Academy.

The French Revolution had founded a republic and put King Louis XVI on trial and George Washington was re-elected as US President in the same year that Inverness Royal Academy was built.

This is the academy’s 230th anniversary, though it was a year later that King George III’s charter added the ‘Royal’ part of its title.

Most of the houses in Inverness had thatched roofs and clay floors when leading lights of the day made donations of £6277 in the space of four years towards the setting up of “a seminary of learning”. Donors included Highland exiles who used slaves on their Caribbean plantations.

A three-acre site in New Street was selected for the academy – leading to the thoroughfare eventually becoming Academy Street – and it stood where clothes shop M & Co and café bar Platform 8 are now located.

The Dominican Friars had founded the burgh’s first school in the Friars Street area in the 13th century then a grammar school was set up in Church Street in 1688, to be absorbed by the purpose-built New Street premises. The current academy is thus part of a seven-century continuum of Inverness education.

The first academy was built in 1792 to plans by Edinburgh architect Alexander Laing, who had designed Edinburgh Royal High School, and its playing fields stretched down to the Longman area.

Being opposite the market, it is said that pupils would pin together the skirts of women studying the food stalls’ produce!

James Weir was the first rector, at a £50 annual salary, and the original curriculum, curiously enough, included practical gunnery and fortifications, though to be fair it was only 46 years since Culloden’s bloodshed. Lessons in navigation were also taught.

As it was fee-paying, few of its first 200 pupils were from poorer parts. All were boys, though within 20 years the first girls were admitted.

Donations were still required, as well as a £70 annual town council grant, and James Mackintosh of Raigmore, based in Calcutta, donated some £3000 in 1808, divided between the academy and the new Northern Infirmary.

The IRA remained in this location – later Burnett’s Bakery and tea room – for more than a century. Railway expansion caused the need to eat into the playing fields and a search began for a new location.

Land at Midmills Road, in the Crown area, was secured and the firm of Alexander Ross and Robert MacBeth was tasked in 1893 to begin work on the two-storey building, apparently designed after a Roman villa.

The pink sandstone building was completed and occupied two years later, when Academy Street was vacated.

Before that, in 1892, the academy’s centenary, Rector George Bruce proposed a school badge be designed. That badge, still on school uniforms today, featured a crown for the ‘Royal’ title, a wildcat as part of the Clan Mackintosh arms, the elephant and dromedary from the arms of Inverness Town Council, and a book and burning torch to denote learning.

The handsome ‘new’ IRA had a science and art school added in 1913 with an assembly hall and other blocks added in 1960 when DJ Macdonald was a distinguished rector.

The advent of comprehensive education saw Inverness require other secondary schools and the academy was “on the move”. Many pupils moved in 1977 to a new building at Culduthel, the rest following two years later.

Growth in that area, and the building’s decline, required another new academy, still at Culduthel, which opened in August 2016. It is fitting that the current IRA has boards depicting the winning Duxes from 1811 to 1972 and the Howden Medal winners from 1922 to 1979.

The school bell, first used in the grammar school then donated to the original academy and eventually on to Midmills, is on display outside the office of present rector Nigel Engstrand.

The bell no longer tolls, but, 230 years on, the academy carries on its valuable role of teaching generations of Invernessians.

Sponsored by Ness Castle Lodges.

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