Welcome to Nairn
Nairn lies on the coast of the Moray Firth, 15 miles east of Inverness. This area is steeped in history and legend and dotted with ancient monuments. Across the firth to the north-west lies the Black Isle, where the Brahan Seer was executed for his Nostradamus-like predictions; east lies Moray, the ancient power base of the legendary MacBeth, and the historic town of Elgin; and south west, near Grantown on Spey, lies Lochindorb Castle, once the home of the infamous Wolf of Badenoch. Nairn’s beautiful sandy beaches and elaborate Victorian buildings are testament to the town’s success as a seaside resort, a success which has been achieved in no small measure thanks to its claim to be the driest and sunniest part of Scotland. Nairn has even been dubbed the ‘Brighton of Scotland’ by some of its many admirers. Such fame disguises the fact that the town is of ancient origins, which stretch back at least as far as the early middle ages.
The first traces of humanity to be found on this part of the coast date back much further. The most famous remnants from the stone age are undoubtedly the magnificent Clava Cairns, situated around 12 miles to the west, near Inverness. These are some of the best preserved Neolithic burial chambers in Scotland, dating from some time between 1500 and 2000 BC and provide invaluable insights into the lives of Scotland’s early peoples, whose religion revered the changing seasons and the elements. Two of the tombs contain passages aligned to the mid-winter sun and all are ringed by stone circles. They are believed to have been built for members of the region’s Neolithic elite, possibly members of a ruling caste, or priesthood.
The kingdoms these peoples formed became ever more complex through the centuries. By the 8th century AD, Nairn was part of Pictland, a kingdom which incorporated large swathes of Scotland. However, in the 9th century, Pictland was in decline due to Viking attacks from the north and Scots attacks from the south. At Forres, about 6 miles west of Nairn, the 7 metres high Sueno’s Stone is believed to originate from these final days of the Picts. It is also the tallest and perhaps most complex piece of early medieval stonework in Scotland. The fierce battle, which the carvings so beautifully depict, is believed to have been fought between the local warlords of Moray against the encroaching Kingdom of Scotland in the 9th century.
By far the most famous of Moray’s later warlords was MacBeth. According to Shakespeare’s play, MacBeth was Thane of Cawdor and had his seat in Cawdor Castle where he murdered King Duncan, in 1040, to claim the throne of Scotland. In reality, it is far more likely that Duncan was wounded in battle before being taken to Elgin Castle to die. As Cawdor Castle was built much later, it could not have born witness to the events described by Shakespeare. Nonetheless, this spectacular fortress remains a fascinating building, originally begun in the 14th century for the later thanes of Cawdor, and is one of Nairn’s major attractions.
By the time of MacBeth, Nairn had been settled for many centuries. The first records of settlement mention a monastic cell established in the 4th century AD. Around 1000 AD the Norse settled Nairn. King Alexander I (c.1078-1124) granted the townspeople certain trading rights under a royal charter and had a castle built in the early years of the 1100s. The castle, demolished in 1585, was on the site of today’s attractive Castle Square.
Later medieval Nairn would have been a interesting place culturally. Nairn was the commercial centre in a region which marked the boundary between Gaelic speakers to the west and Scots speakers to the east. The Gaels were also defined by their clan system and an economy based on pastoral farming and fishing, as opposed to the largely arable economy of their eastern neighbours. These two groups came together in Nairn; King James VI (1566-1625) is said to have remarked that Nairn was remarkable in that Gaelic was spoken at one end of High Street and Scots at the other. With foreign vessels calling at Nairn’s harbour, the town may have been very culturally diverse indeed. Sadly, in the aftermath of the battle at nearby Culloden in 1746, the Gaelic culture and therefore Nairn’s bilingual culture, was largely swept away.
The most significant period in Nairn’s development began in the 19th century. The first stage of this development was the construction by Thomas Telford of Nairn Harbour in 1820. The result was the expansion of the port and its facilities ,which allowed, by the mid 1800s, for over 60 vessels to be permanently based there. Nairn’s Fishertown Museum tells the story of the lives of the 400 families supported by this growing industry.
The next stage of development was heralded by the arrival of the railway from Inverness, which did much to open up the town’s industries to investment and the town’s attractions to visitors. One important figure in Nairn’s emergence as a tourist destination was Dr John Grigor, who promoted the town by claiming that bathing in seawater was beneficial to one’s health, much in the same way that Dr Richard Russell had done in Brighton. The elegant tree lined avenues, which characterise much of the town, owe their existence to this period of Victorian confidence.