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BILL MCALLISTER: Changing face of Inverness' own white house Abertarff House over the years

By Bill McAllister

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Abertarff House has not always been such a visible part of the city centre.
Abertarff House has not always been such a visible part of the city centre.

Inverness’s oldest non-church property was built when Elizabeth I was on the English throne, Sir Francis Drake was sailing the Spanish Main and Sir Walter Raleigh was preparing to go in search of El Dorado.

Abertarff House is now neatly preserved in its small garden set back from Church Street. But modern viewers are seeing it from a new angle compared to its late 16th century origins. For the house was actually up a lane called Abertarff’s Close, behind two streetfront houses which, when they were demolished in 1950, opened up a fresh perspective on Abertarff House, then rather shabby and in disrepair. Previously, it could only be seen through an archway.

It deserves its enhanced prominence for its great age, style and survivability through a period when many notable Inverness buildings vanished.

Canmore, the website of Historic Environment Scotland, describes Abertarff House as having been built “circa 1592” – which would make this year its 430th birthday.

A “skewput”, or bottom stone of the circular stair tower is inscribed with the date 1594, which may well be its completion, and also bears initials AS and HP, with the date 1681, which is assumed to be a later marriage lintel. Another lintel with the same initials and date was on the gable end of the adjoining property, now occupied by Sams restaurant.

By then the property was owned by the Schevez – later Chivas – family, who owned land in Kinmylies and Muirtown as well as several houses on Church Street in the 17th century, so the AS surname was likely Schevez.

The name came from Schevez in Aberdeenshire – later Tarves – and William Schevez, described as a “physician and astrologer”, became Archbishop of St Andrews in 1477.

The house design, with its entry door in the tower, and corbie-stepped gables is typical of the Scots Domestic style.

Archibald Fraser of Lovat was at Petty School in 1746 and watched the nearby Battle of Culloden unfold. His father, Lord Lovat, was executed the following year. Fraser later served as British Consul in Tripoli and Algiers. In 1782, on his brother’s death, he inherited his seat as MP for Inverness Burghs.

That same year, Fraser was the new owner of Abertarff House, following a spell in the ownership of the Warrands of Warrandfield.

Fraser had built Boleskine House, overlooking Loch Ness, as a hunting lodge in the 1760s.

In 1806, Fraser acquired lands of Auldcastlehill and in 1815 completed a mansion on Crown Avenue which was at one stage also called Abertarff.

His five sons having died before him, Archie left it to a favourite grandson.

An eccentric who “sank into habits of over-conviviality”, according to one who knew him, Fraser owned Abertarff House at the time of his death in December 1815. He was “the last of the Lovats”.

The house became dilapidated over time and the Commercial Bank acquired it as part of a land purchase to build in what is now Hootanannys. The bank generously passed Abertarff House to the National Trust for Scotland in 1963 along with a cheque which paid for significant restoration by 1966.

It became the trust’s regional headquarters before this role was transferred across the river to Balnain House.

An Comunn Gaidhealach leased it as its base for a number of years but it is now back in trust care.

In recent months a new café has begun serving coffee and cake in the house, which now accommodates a free exhibition on old Inverness thanks to trust volunteers.

Sponsored by Ness Castle Lodges.

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