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A Bríef History of Dingwall by David MacDonald

Dingwall owes its place-name to Norwegian Vikings who ruled northern Scotland from about the end of the ninth century AD. Dingwall, at the sheltered head of the Cromarty Firth and a place from which the west coast could be reached by way of easy overland routes along the river valleys, became a significant place of Viking administration and decision making. In Norse the name Dingwall means meeting place.

Positioned on the frontier between Norse held northern Scotland and the kingdom of the Scots, Dingwall was fought over by both sides. It is believed that during one of these periods, when it was in the hands of the Scots, this is where Macbeth was born in 1005.  It is also thought that the town of Dingwall was first created by the Norse Earl Thorfinn the Mighty around 1050.

Control of the area by the Scottish Kings was not finally achieved until about 1200. In 1226 King Alexander II erected Dingwall into a royal burgh with trading rights throughout Scotland and overseas. The layout of the old town centre is recognisably medieval. There are still buildings gable-ended to the High Street with narrow lanes (locally termed closes or courts) running between them.

The fortress at Dingwall, probably first established by the Norse, became one of the thirty royal castles of the Scottish kingdom. During the War of Independence the Castle was garrisoned by the forces of Edward I of England. It was captured for Robert Bruce by William, Earl of Ross. From the Castle in 1314 the Earl led the men of Ross to play their part in the Battle of Bannockburn. In reward King Robert in 1321 granted the Castle with the town and lands of Dingwall to the Earl of Ross.

The Castle became the main residence of the Earl of Ross, who met with the lords of his council on the moothill of Dingwall, just as earlier the Viking Earl and his chieftains had done.

In 1411 Angus, Lord of the Isles, unsuccessfully sought to win his claim to the earldom by seizing Dingwall Castle. Eventually in 1438 Alexander, Lord of the Isles, was recognised as Earl of Ross.

Alexander settled in Dingwall where he lived as a great prince. From there, as one of the two Justiciars of Scotland, he ruled the whole of Scotland north of the Tay. His son John was not as successful. He unwisely made a secret treaty with Edward IV of England to share Scotland between them. When James III, King of Scots, discovered the existence of that treaty, he had the earldom confiscated in 1475. Ever since, the second son of the monarch has held the title of Earl of Ross. The Castle and the burgh again became royal possessions.

Favoured by the Crown, the power of Clan Mackenzie spread throughout Ross. No longer needed for control of Ross, the Castle of Dingwall was abandoned by the Crown about 1600. The Castle slowly fell into ruin and was used as a quarry until it was finally levelled in 1817, leaving visible, but few, fragments.

With administration of Ross no longer centred on Dingwall Castle the town after 1600 slipped into a state of poverty, but clung on to its status as a royal burgh. Events in the eighteenth century brought the beginnings of a revival in the town’s fortunes.

The 1707 Treaty of Union ended a Parliament in Edinburgh, but maintained Dingwall’s right to play a part in the sending of a member to the United Kingdom Parliament at Westminster. Each of the northern Scottish royal burghs – Dingwall, Tain, Dornoch, Wick, Thurso and Kirkwall – had one vote in the election of an MP to represent all five of them. Dingwall town council became notorious for accepting bribes in return for its vote. In 1730 money for that vote was used to build Dingwall’s Town House. By the same means in 1774 Dingwall built its first town clock on the central tower of the Town House. It stood there until 1906, when the present clock tower, a near-replica of the first, was erected.

Feuding between Mackenzies and Munros for Dingwall’s parliamentary vote led at times to violent riots on Dingwall High Street. In 1740 the wife of a Mackenzie councillor was fatally shot when Munro troops opened fire along the High Street.

In 1745 the Provost of Dingwall, the Earl of Cromartie, led his Mackenzie clansmen out in rebellion to join with Prince Charles Edward Stewart. Defeat of the Jacobites at Culloden brought an end to clan violence. In its work of bringing a new order to Ross the Sheriff Court at Dingwall became one of the busiest in Scotland. Defending illicit distillers and smugglers made Dingwall lawyers both prosperous and unusually numerous for a small town.

Towards 1800 agricultural changes created commercial farming and much increased consequent business to the market town. The construction of parliamentary, or Telford, roads in the early nineteenth century made Dingwall the busiest route centre in Northwest Scotland. In 1843 Dingwall, the road centre of Ross, gained full recognition as County Town.

In 1817 a canal was excavated to bring larger ships into the town. The Dingwall designer and builder of the canal ignored Telford’s advice that, to avoid silting, the River Peffery should not flow through it. In 1840 use of the mudded Canal was abandoned.

Railways made Dingwall the key northern Scotland junction, leading to its further growth as an agricultural market and retail centre. Permanent livestock markets were established in the town about 1890. In 2003 these marts relocated to modern premises and freed an extensive town centre site for a large superstore.

Following the South African War of 1899-1902 and then the Great War of 1914-18 three striking memorial monuments were erected. They remain prominent landmarks in the town centre. An impressive stone tower erected in 1907 in commemoration of a local hero, “Fighting Mac”, Major-General Sir Hector MacDonald, from its hilltop site looks northwards over the town


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