Like many things around Inverness, the NMP is one of those places which we who grew up in Inverness simply took for granted – because it had always been there and was part of the landscape. When going there for Central School Sports Day back in the 1960s, we thought nothing much about the location, although even then the grandstand looked a fair bit dated.
Despite being a “park” we never really thought of it as a true “park” – any more than we considered Broadstone Park or Farraline Park to be a true “park” – although in each case they had begun life as grassy parkland. The same applied to the other “parks” in town, namely those three football teams, at Telford Street, Grant Street and Kingsmills. Like the football parks, the NMP had a wall round it, and access was limited to set dates, so it was clearly not a real “park”. Such is the logic of the child!
REAL parks were Bellfield (a proper park with paddling pool, tennis courts and putting greens) and The Bught, and of course Fraser and Walker Parks “up the hill” – they all had at least unrestricted access to the grassy areas.
But NMP really WAS a park once upon a time – part of “The Little Green” which stretched from Young Street to Ballifeary. (Muirtown Green was better known as “The Big Green” back in the day, when there was hardly a house between Greig Street and the Canal)
Until the 19th century, Inverness was quite a small and compact town – surrounded by its two Greens, plus the Capel Inch, the Longman, and the Crown or Barnhill. The land along the east side of the river (Island Bank Road) had also not yet been developed. So green fields abounded, with the occasional “big hoose” holding sway. Bear in mind that Ballifeary and Culcabock were then villages well out into the countryside (each with their own wee County Police Station) and The Haugh too was a separate entity outwith – although right alongside – the Burgh. Hence why Inverness now has two Fraser Streets – each was in a separate entity!
The Little Green back then would have been just that, green fields, and a good part of it would have comprised drying greens where the laundry (especially bed sheets) of the great and the good would be dried and bleached in the sun by an army of ladies. This “cottage industry” continued for many years until commercial laundries cornered the market. For many years the river banks on both sides opposite the Cathedral were adorned with bedlinen drying and bleaching in the sun (and watched over by a “night shift” of ladies ensconced in an adjacent attic.
In the 1867 Ordnance Street Map – the first of its kind produced for Inverness – the Town boundary is seen to run along the back of Planefield Road, and then (for reasons unknown to me) cut across the NMP and then back, taking in part of the Cathedral site before crossing the river and heading up View Place to run along the top of the Crown (then Barnhill)
So, returning to the Northern Meeting Park – “it did exactly what is said on the tin” . It was the Park for the Northern Meeting – or rather for the sporting side of the Meeting. The other side of the Northern Meeting – the dances and banquets – were housed in the Northern Meeting Rooms in Church Street (the ugly concrete building which replaced it in the 1960s housed the Record Rendezvous and the Social Security Office, among other things).
The “Northern Meeting” was conceived as just that – a “meeting-up” of like minds. It arose from a getting together in 1788 of thirteen Highland gentlemen who gathered in Inverness. Their purpose was to discuss how life in the north of Scotland might be cheered up and enlivened. Highland life had been largely in the doldrums following the Battle of Culloden and the strict regime imposed thereafter, which saw an embargo on all things deemed Highland (and thus outlawing much of the traditional Celtic culture).
As the Northern Meeting website recalls:-
During the course of their “conversation at length on the subject” the Gentlemen resolved to hold an annual meeting “for the purpose of promoting a social intercourse” and agreed among other resolutions recorded by Dr John Alves, the first secretary, that “the Object of the Meeting is Pleasure and Innocent Amusement”. The week-long gathering was intended to be free of political views, business ambitions and all the mundane worries of the time. .
The first Northern Meeting went very much as the thirteen gentlemen had envisaged. The company assembled at Mr Beverley’s Inn at 4.0pm, where they dined. For the rest of the week dinner was held alternately in Mr Beverley’s Inn and Mr Ettles’ Hotel. After dinner the company would move to the Town Hall for the Ball, which commenced at 8pm and finished at midnight. Great attention was paid to the formality of dress and the correctness of the dancing – qualities to which The Northern Meeting has adhered down to the present day.
During the day the gentlemen would ride to hounds; affording ample time for the ladies to visit and catch up with the local gossip! As time went on other diversions were introduced, such as horse racing at Fort George and Dunain Croy. Later, in 1835, sports and games were held at Dochfour, and two years later they were moved to the fields of the Longman and opened to the public. In 1864 the Northern Meeting’s own park was established in Inverness, which provided the venue for the Games for the next seventy years. However, by the 1930’s the Games had become ever more difficult to run, because the Northern Meeting lacked the resources and staff to compete with the many other corporate-run events in the Highlands. With the onset of World War II the Games ceased, and in 1946 the Northern Meeting Park was sold to the Inverness Burgh Council. .
Northern Meeting’s own park was established in Inverness in 1864, which provided the venue for the Games for the next seventy years.
However, by the 1930’s the Games had become ever more difficult to run, because the Northern Meeting lacked the resources and staff to compete with the many other corporate-run events in the Highlands.
With the onset of World War II the Games ceased, and in 1946 the Northern Meeting Park was sold to the Inverness Burgh Council. The Park has remained in the ownership of the local Council ever since, now being Highland Council
So nowadays, the Northern Meeting Games and the Dances are no more – but the name lives on in the Northern Meeting Solo Piping Competition, held annually in town.
Apart from one grandstand which is no longer there – more details later – the Northern Meeting Park, built in 1864, is largely as it was when built, and the Pavilion Building (and Boundary Walls too) form a Listed Building (Listed Building No. 51129)
The Listing Building is described in detail on http://portal.historicenvironment.scot/designation/LB51129
“1864-5. 2-storey, 13-bay, rectangular-plan, symmetrical, gabled, 1,000-seat grandstand with Italianate street frontage of domestic appearance and open elevation with tiered seating between gabled end bays facing meeting ground. Harled with painted ashlar dressings. Overhanging eaves.
“ARDROSS STREET ELEVATION: 2-storey, 15-bay elevation. Central 2-leaf timber-panelled front door with fanlight, mullioned side lights, bracketed cornice and pediment. 5 bays flanking to each side with regular fenestration at ground floor only and blind gablets rising from eaves with short ridge stacks. Slightly advanced end bays with 2-leaf timber panelled doors in corniced round-arched architraves with prominent keystones and fanlights; corniced string course and round-arched window above.
“MEETING GROUND (S) ELEVATION: 13-bay open elevation to seating area; roof supported on cast-iron columns; ornamental timber fretwork panels between columns with highly ornamental cast-iron cresting in same style. 6 tiers of raked seating with timber benches; panelled boxes at rear. Gabled end pavilions with round-arched doorways at ground and double round-arched windows with prominent keystones at 1st floor. Late 20th century single storey, flat-roofed extensions to outer left and right.
“Large-pane glazing in timber sash and case windows. Tooled, coped ashlar stacks with assorted clay cans. Grey slates with lead flashing. Cast-iron rainwater goods.
“BOUNDARY WALL AND GATEPIERS: high, ashlar-coped, random rubble boundary wall. Stop-chamfered, pyramidal-capped gatepiers to various entrances (some 20th century); wrought-iron gates dated 2000.”
Note: The Building listing is also accompanied by a “Statement of Special Interest”:-
“The pavilion is a fine example of a little-altered mid 19th century covered grandstand, and may indeed be the earliest and best surviving example of such a building in Scotland. The street elevation, with its simple Italianate detailing is very striking, and its rather domestic aspect is an interesting solution of how to integrate such a building into the streetscape. The park elevation, with its fine fretwork panelled front and nicely-detailed end pavilion is also good, and the retention of the historic wooden benches is also particularly worthy of note. The games were a very popular event and the high boundary wall was necessary to control the numbers of people attending.
“The pavilion was built for The Northern Meeting, a society established in 1788 to encourage reconciliation in the aftermath of the battle of Culloden in 1746. The land for the park was purchased by the Northern Meeting in 1864 since when it has been the home of their annual highland games. Prior to this date the Northern Meeting held their games at various locations in the town, erecting a temporary grandstand each year. The pavilion cost £1709 to build. The Northern Meeting Park was sold to Inverness Town Council in 1946.”
So the park, and its buildings have a great deal of historical interest – the information probably unknown to many folk, but these folk still have fond memories of events in the park..
I recollect that the commemorative gates with “2000” included were inserted in advance of the Millennium Celebrations held within the Park on the evening/night of 31.12.1999 and into the 1st January. These were necessary, in order to assist with crowd control and Health & Safety, as the existing gates were not considered suitable for mass evacuation of an anticipated attendance at the event, far larger than previously achieved attendance levels. Remember that generally at Games and Sporting events, the (modest-sized) crowd would be ranged around the boundaries but the Millennium Concert meant a huge crowd mostly gathered throughout the park.
Because the walls were part of the “Listed Building”, it meant applying for Listed Building consent, and thus the gates designed had to be appropriate. Hence the fancy gates – at considerable expense – instead of simple wooden gates, but in retrospect they do enhance the wall and at least afford a view of the park itself. which large wooden gates would not have done.
It is believed that the Pavilion complex (1864) was designed by Alexander Ross, the renowned Inverness Architect (and Provost), who also subsequently designed the buildings on either side of it, namely the Cathedral Church of St Andrew (1866), and the Collegiate School (later County Buildings, now the original part of Highland Council Headquarters)(built 1873-1875) and also all the houses and terraces opposite it (Ardross Street).
Ross was a phenomenally productive architect, acting for the Matheson dynasty – and also he designed many schools, churches, and other domestic and commercial buildings – and even police houses – around the Highlands and Islands.
As was mentioned earlier, the then Burgh boundary cut through (at an angle) both the Park and the Cathedral site, whereas the Collegiate School was (presumably deliberately) built right up to – but just outside – the Town boundary. There would have been no problem with the Cathedral s (and the Meeting Park’s) inclusion (partially) within the Town Council’s area – but the Collegiate School was a different matter, since the School’s location in the County area meant the Town Council had no control over the educational establishment!
The Collegiate School
The Park at one time had a West Stand (not built at the outset and not there as early as 1867), which was adjacent to the Collegiate School. That stand had a relatively flat roof which was apparently very popular as an observation platform – and also as a vantage point for commercial photographers to take shots of funeral parties assembling (or catching up) in Ardross Street, preparatory to the ceremonial march up Cemetery Road to Tomnahurich.
The West Stand can be seen in the background above.
The West Stand was subsequently removed, (during the middle part of the 20th century) perhaps because of Heath & Safety concerns, given the flat roof which could accommodate a considerable number of people but rapid evacuation would have been a nightmare, and the potential of the roof to support such a load would have been very doubtful. The current small tea-stall stands on part of its site. The West Stand still appears in the 1950 OS map. According to the online history of Inverness Highland Games:- http://www.invernesshighlandgames.com/history.htm
– “in 1947 the Town Council agreed to sell the Public Grandstand from Northern Meeting Park to Inverness Thistle Football Club for £750”.
(I must say however that the stand at Jags park from my memories of it in the 1960s bore no apparent resemblance to the one depicted in the old photos of the West Stand which I have located)
The Park is considered to be the site of the earliest formal Highland Games in Scotland, and was the venue for the Inverness Highland Games for many years.
As the Inverness Highland Games website relates:-
“From 1949 – 2009 our Games were held at Bught Park; before the Committee moved the it back home to Northern Meeting Park in 2010 as interest in the world’s oldest Highland Games stadium began in the run up to the 150th anniversary of its opening began to grow. Following four years at Northern Meeting Park; which involved the much needed and much appreciated loan of the Highland Council Car Park and Eden Court Theatre Gardens; as soon as the wonderful Anniversary Games were held in 2014, the Games were quickly relocated back to Bught Park in 2015 where they remain to this day.”
When built in 1877, the Central Primary School (which had newly relocated from Queen Street) had considerable park land behind it which was subsequently swallowed up for housing development. As a result the school soon had nowhere to hold its school sports and so (certainly as late as the 1960s) the school pupils and staff would walk to the NMP for their Sports Day. To this day three nearby primary schools (Central, Bishop Eden and St Joseph’s) make regular use of the park’s facilities.
Apart from the Northern Meeting Games (latterly the Inverness Highland Games), the Park ahs also hosted many and varied events over many years. As well as being the home pitch of Northern Counties Cricket Club continuously from 1864, it has hosted a variety of events over the years, including Scout Jamborees, and Military displays.
More recently it was the venue for Armed Forces Days, the Marymas Fair, Massed Pipe Bands events, music concerts, the Inverness Tattoo, sporting matches (football, cricket and others), annual Hogmanay concerts, police dog displays, plus the 2000 Millennium festivities – and the celebrations to mark Inverness Caledonian Thistle FC winning the Scottish Cup in May 2015.
Thus it will be seen that the Northern Meeting Park has played an important part in the social calendar of Inverness for more than a century and a half – and hopefully will continue to do so for a long time to come. It is particularly heartening that grass roots local interest in its preservation has arisen ,with a plan to seek to move it into public ownership.
A campaign has begun, seeking to transfer ownership of the Park from Highland Council to a community-run group – with the aim of making greater use of the field and breathing new life into its dilapidated buildings. This can only be a good thing, and would provide more access to the public – green spaces in the City Centre are few and far between and it is so important that this jewel be made more use of.
You can read more about the plans for moving the NMP into public ownership at the Facebook page of the Northern Meeting Park Group
(Research – Dave Conner)
(old photos/postcards – public domain)
Further reading about the formation and history of The Northern Meeting can be found in ” The Northern Meeting : 1788 – 1988″ by Angus Fairrie.