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The visionary architect who left a legacy of great buildings in Inverness and Highlands

By Neil MacPhail

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Aleexander Ross, who transformed Inverness and the Highlands as a visionary architect in a life of extraordinary achievement, died 96 years ago, but much of his memorabilia is now in the hands of his great-grandson.

Angus McCall, who is 70 and still farming near Golspie, spoke to me after Inverness couple Ian and Jane Fraser helped connect us.

“Alexander Ross has been in the background all my life,” Angus said. “He had an amazingly full career. My grandfather, John Alastair Ross inherited a host of artefacts from his father, which passed to my father and on to me. It’s my intention to eventually carry out a full inventory.

“I have the illustrated family ‘bible’, with full lineage, commissioned to mark his marriage, as well as his pocket watch and other watches presented to him. There are various pieces of silverware gifted to him at different stages of his career along with silver candelabra presented by the Building Trades of Inverness and District in March 1904, to mark his 50 years as an architect in the burgh.

“A folder is packed with menus of all the dinners Alexander was invited to over the decades. He also had an interest in photography’s early era and I have an album of photos he took on a visit to St Kilda in 1886.”

It was intriguing to learn from Angus that the master builder was also a keen artist. “I have his sketch books, which included scenes from a trip to Switzerland, and also Caithness and the west coast”, he recalled.

“I have on my wall his watercolour of the Ness, with the cathedral and the castle, and he used some artistic licence by putting Ben Wyvis in the picture.”

Angus’s mother Hilda and her sister Sybil were the daughters of Alastair Ross, Alexander’s son, and they were brought up in Island Bank Road, Inverness. Sybil died in 2008 but her husband John Mayne, Angus’s uncle, still lives there at the age of 95.

Alexander Ross’s productivity extended to family matters as his wife Mary gave birth to 10 children in 25 years from 1866.

In the 1890s, he continued to design and complete local buildings including warehouses and shops in Baron Taylor’s Street, villas in Lochalsh Road, Inverness Music Hall, the burgh’s Free Presbybterian Church, and Ardersier police station. Aberdeen University had given him an honorary LLD in 1891.

On the sacred isle of Iona, Ross built St Columba’s Church and the Bishop’s House in 1893.

Millionaire Andrew Carnegie bought Skibo Castle in 1899 and hired Ross to transform it into the spectacular place it is today. The following year, Ross rebuilt Glenquoich Lodge, between Invergarry and Kinlochhourn, for Lord Burton as one of the era’s most fashionable shooting lodges. When the Loch Quoich hydro dam was built in 1955, however, the waters were raised by 100ft, and the lodge remains hidden in its depths.

In 1899, he created Inverness Music Hall, in Union Street, which became the Methodist Church in 1922 and burned down in 1961.

As his contracts rolled out, the great man completed police stations in Ardersier, Fort Augustus, Boat of Garten, Nethybridge and Mallaig. In 1902, he built the Hugh Miller Institute in Cromarty, where he also completed St Regulus’ Episcopal Church.

The charming St Michaels and All Angels, in Abban Street, Inverness, was completed in 1903.

The La Scala Cinema, in 1913, was one of Ross’s final projects and his final pair, in 1917, were the conversion of Glenalbyn and Dalmore distilleries into wartime US Naval bases. He retired that year – at the age of 83 - although he was president of Inverness Architectural Association from 1917 to 1920.

Ross had retained his energy and vigour, was active in local business and activities, and was hugely popular and respected. His key investment enabled Rose Street Foundry to start and then flourish and he remained a keen geologist and student of local antiquity.

Alexander Ross died at home at Riverfield, Island Bank Road, in May, 1925, at the age of 90, and, fittingly, his funeral was held in St Andrew’s Cathedral, which he designed.

He is buried in Tomnahurich Cemetery.

The master builder leaves a magnificent and enduring legacy.

n Sponsored by Ness Castle Lodge.

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