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Down Memory Lane: Public should be given a chance to step into historic Inverness building

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Balnain House is an eye-catching riverside building.
Balnain House is an eye-catching riverside building.

Bill McAllister looks at the history of a prominent Inverness building:

It is close to 300 years old, had two names, wounded from Culloden were treated there – and it gave its name to several streets.

It is 31 years since Balnain House was last open to the general public, after a failed attempt to establish it as a music venue – a great pity for such a prominent building.

The whitewashed four-storey Georgian-style building in Huntly Street is now the regional office of the National Trust for Scotland (NTS), but only those who have business there can enter.

The Laird of Grant, who directed his clansmen to help evict Jacobite forces during the Siege of Inverness in 1715, may have been rewarded with land, for the original building was built in the 1720s.

The Duffs of Drummuir, near Dufftown, are the first documented occupants in 1741 – and it became their town house. William Duff had been a burgess and then civic head of Banff before business took him to Inverness, where he married the town clerk’s daughter.

He went on to be provost three times, and is described as having become "the most eminent merchant in the north of Scotland in his time whose memory was long revered in Inverness".

The Duff family still had the house in 1746 when, following the bloody affair at Culloden Moor, it was commandeered as a hospital to treat wounded government troops. It is said that some Jacobite officers had stayed there the previous day.

The Frasers of Fairfield were the next owners and called their new residence Fairfield House – the name in due course giving rise to Fairfield Road and Fairfield Lane.

Their family stretched back to the 16th century, when Thomas Fraser the Red, presumably from his hair rather than his politics, came to Inverness from the Beauly area.

His great-grandson Finlay Fraser became an owner of property in Inverness, and 19th century author Charles Fraser Mackintosh states that “the fine old house of Fairfield” was built by either Finlay or his younger son David. The family’s fortunes declined, allegedly because of their Jacobite sympathies, and the house also fell into disrepair.

In 1794, the Frasers sold land to Colin Munro, an indigo planter who had made his fortune in Grenada, with the vivid dye extracted in vats. Munro had the funds to transform the ailing house, with a new roof, new rooms and the addition of a conservatory.

A walled garden was introduced and the house’s total grounds reached back from the River Ness to what is now King Street and came complete with a gardener’s cottage. A coach house and stables completed the impressive scene.

The handsome house was given a new title by the Fraser family of Balnain, who bought it in 1825 and named it Balnain House. Colonel Thomas Fraser, of the 83rd Regiment, sixth of Balnain, was the purchaser, and his family used it as their town residence for

35 years.

The Ordnance Survey housed personnel in the mansion in the 1880s when they brought experts north to map the Highlands.

The house was then sold, and converted to six flats, with the attached lands disposed of in separate deals. The much-admired gardens were built over, with Greig Street and Balnain Street established.

Balnain House remained as flats for decades before being abandoned in the early 1960s. It faced being pulled down, but the local civic trust staged a campaign in 1968, which succeeded in saving the building from that fate.

After a venture in the 1990s, NTS took ownership. It would be a fitting gesture if they open its doors for a week some time so locals can have a look inside.

Article sponsored by Ness Castle Lodges.

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