The following brief history of Fortrose has been written by Elizabeth Sutherland, an eminent local author and historian. Please do not copy or use any or all of this text without written permission of the author.
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Its name comes from the Gaelic and means 'Under the Promontory'. Its older name Chanonry , Place of the Canons, gradually went out of use after the Reformation in 1560. Perhaps it should have been called Mackenzie-town for the church lands were seized by the Mackenzies after the Reformation. Their lairds all built houses in the town. Their chiefs, the earls of Seaforth, owned the local castle, demolished by Cromwell's men, and were all provosts of the Royal Burgh.
As far as we know the town was created by the building of the beautiful red sandstone Cathedral circa 1250. The choir, chancel and chapter house and at least part of the nave were probably completed between 1280 and 1290, but due to the Wars of Independence when every man was needed to defend his country, the rest was not completed until the 14th and 15th centuries. The canons lived in wooden manses built around the cathedral green called after the Ross and Cromarty parishes they also served, while the Bishop's Palace was described as 'magnifick'.
All that remains today is the South Aisle built in the late 14th century by Euphemia, Countess of Ross, who is buried in one of the three canopied table tombs within the chantry chapel. The other two are ascribed to pre-Reformation bishops, John Fraser and Robert Cairncross. The west section of the aisle is filled with Mackenzie memorials including that of the 'last Lord Seaforth' and his four sons who all pre-deceased him according to the Brahan Seer prediction.
The bulk of the Cathedral fell into disrepair during the troubled period after the Reformation (1560). The Regent Murray stripped the lead from the roof, the Kintail Mackenzies camped in the steeple, and in 1662 the 3rd earl of Seaforth set fire to the thatch and surrounding wooden houses by shooting pigeons in a high wind. Although Cromwell's men were blamed for its dilapidation, it was in fact the townsfolk who pilfered the crumbling stones to rebuild their own houses.
The Chapter House, recently restored by Historic Scotland, has had many uses over the centuries as chapel, tollbooth, council chamber, burgh court, school, church, prison and Freemasons' Lodge. It was here, allegedly, that the 17th century Brahan Seer was accused of witchcraft by Isabella, wife of the 3rd earl of Seaforth, and condemned to be burned in a spiked tar barrel. His monument may be seen by the Lighthouse on the Ness.
The only surviving relic of the Fortrose Castle ,which may have stood on the site of the present Co-op Store, is a stone dormer pediment with a coat of arms and a coronet set into the gable wall of a cottage in Station Road. It bears the initials CBS which may stand for Countess Barbara Seaforth, wife of the second earl, who lived in the castle in the early 17th century .
Fortrose was created a Royal Burgh by James II in 1455. Early Town Council minutes are taken up with keeping the streets and wells clean especially the 'muck middens' dumped on the ruined Cathedral green. One of the Council's tasks was to organise the annual fairs. Some 30 years ago the popular Sf Boniface Fair was revived and is now held on the second Thursday in August on its original site in Cathedral Square.
By 1584 there was a Grammar School in Fortrose. The school master earned all of twenty pounds Scots a year. (About £1 12/6d) In 1622 Fortrose was spoken of as a town 'flourishing in the arts and sciences, being at that period the seat of divinity, law and physic in this comer of the kingdom'. Charles 1 proposed to build a university here, but sadly he lost his head.
Fortrose Academy was formed from the old Grammar School about 1791. There were three masters who taught a varied curriculum which included the three 'rs', classics, navigation, book-keeping and perspective drawing. Before the present building with its handsome sandstone tower was opened in 1896 classes were held in the Chapter House and in Seaforth House, once a home of the Seaforth Mackenzies, in Academy Street.
The beautiful sandstone tidal Harbour was built by Thomas Telford in 1817 at a cost of £4,000 and in 1879 a wooden pier was added for about the same cost. In those day the harbour was the busiest part of the town for everything and nearly everybody travelled by sea. The harbour area also supported a distillery, the Eilean Dubh and in 1868 the Fortrose Gaslight Company provided gas to the few who could afford it. Unfortunately it went bankrupt after five years.
The opening of the Black Isle Railway in 1894 brought an abrupt end to the Black Isle Steam-ship Company and by 1914 the busy pier was quiet. In 1927 the last of the wooden jetty was swept away in a storm. Today however the stone harbour shelters the colourful craft of the Chanonry Sailing Club. Still remembered with affection, the Black Isle train, part of the Highland Railway, ran between Fortrose and Muir of Ord where it was usually necessary to change trains to travel to Inverness or Dingwall. In its hey-day the train was crowded with farm women taking eggs and chickens to the market, fisher wives from Avoch, shoppers, commuters and schoolchildren. The goods trucks were crammed with coal, cattle, timber, fish, potatoes and grain not forgetting the Royal Mail. By 1960 the railway too became redundant in favour of the road transport, and the branch line was closed.
Situated on the Ness, the Black Isle Combination Poor-House was opened for custom in 1861. The term 'combination' meant that the Poor-house combined in its complex a hospital and an asylum. It catered for vagrants, jobless and the destitute and was run like a prison by a governor and matron under the administration of an Inspector of the Poor. A family called Gillanders, father, son and grandson held this post successively from 1845 until the law was changed.
When the Chapter House became too ruinous for services, a new Church of Scotland was built in 1821. When this became redundant with the Union of the Churches in 1929, a handsome new building was erected at the foot of the East Watergate. The old church then became Fortrose Town Hall. Today it is adorned with the magnificent portraits of the Seaforth Mackenzies which were gifted to the people of Fortrose in the 1950's after the demolition of their ancestral seat at Brahan.
The oldest church building is St Andrews Scottish Episcopal Church whose grassy site overlooking Fortrose Bay was gifted by Hector Mackenzie of Flowerburn in 1790. Opened for worship in 1827 it was described then as a building far in advance of its time and is architecturally one of the finest Episcopal churches in Scotland. Older still is St Andrews Church Hall in Academy Street built by Sir Alexander Mackenzie of Coull whose marriage stone dated 1788 is set above the lintel. Coull's Chapel, as it was called, fell into disrepair and was for a while 'a roofless ruinous tenement' until bought by St Andrews Church in 1897 for the Sunday School.
The Catholic Church in Cathedral Square was once the Drill Hall erected by the people of Fortrose for the local Volunteers over a century ago. Recently it was acquired by the Catholic Church and dedicated to St Peter and St Boniface in honour of its illustrious neighbour.
Opposite St Andrews Church stand the Deanery built on the site of the old Manse of Rosskeen. It was once the town-house of the son of Sir Alexander Mackenzie of Avoch House, discoverer of the Mackenzie River who is buried in Avoch Churchyard. The old Fortrose Bank is said to have been housed in a hut still standing in the garden.
The oldest inhabited house, Rose and Angel Court in Rose Street, (now divided into two dwellings) has a fine stone arched pend and cobbled forecourt and is a good example of Scots burgh architecture. Another attractive old mansion is St Katherine's in Union Street. In the front wall two stones bear the inscription M.ER.Burnet AD 1558. Master Robert Burnet was the last pre-Reformation parson of Contin and a canon of the cathedral.
Fortrose was once famed for its shoemakers, some 30 of them in 1800, whose business premises were in and about the High Street closes. Once called 'the garden city by the sea', Fortrose is still renowned for its beautiful and prolific gardens many of which are now opened to the public for charity during the summer.
The Chanonry of Ross, C.G.Macdowell.1963
The Black Isle: A Portrait of the Past. Elizabeth Marshall. Protheroe. 1992
Discovering the Black Isle, Douglas Willis. John Donald. 1989
Fortrose: A Garden City by the Sea, 'St Duthac'. Gilmour 1912
The Brahan Seer
Coinneach Odhar Fiosaiche (Sallow Kenneth The One who Knows) was according to the Gaelic oral tradition allegedly born in the 17th century either in Strathpeffer or on the Isle of Lewis. He spent much of his life in the employment of Kenneth, 3rd earl of Seaforth around Brahan Castle where his gift for the 'second sight' earned him both privilege and respect.
He is best known for his predictions foretelling the industrial changes in Inverness, the disastrous Clearances and the downfall of many clans especially the Seaforth Mackenzies. He was accused of witchcraft by Countess Isabella of Seaforth, tried in Fortrose, found guilty and burned in a spiked tar-barrel on Fortrose Ness. His memorial stone may be seen close to the Lighthouse.
Although there is no contemporary documentary evidence of his life or death in the 17th century the legend is still widely credited throughout the Highlands. There is however evidence of a Coinneach Odhar who was indicted for witchcraft in 1577.
You can purchase the following books by visiting the web site of Constable & Robinson and searching under the authors name.
The Prophecies of the Brahan Seer by Alexander Mackenzie. ed. Elizabeth Sutherland. Constable Publishers 2001: ISBN 0-09-478460-4
The Seer of Kintail by Elizabeth Sutherland. Constable Publishers, London 1996: ISBN 0-09-476030-6