As towns go Invergordon is comparatively modern. In 1760 it is mentioned in Pocock’s Tour and, according to the Old Statistical Account compiled towards the end of the same century, there was at that time a village of some size upon the Ness of Invergordon, on a dry heath beach where vessels of 100 tons burden could lie with safety most seasons of the year, and load or unload their cargoes close to the shore. Coal and lime were regularly brought to the village by sea. Peat and timber for building were to be had locally on moderate terms and, in the words of the Account, “very few situations indeed in the north of Scotland seem better adapted for a manufacturing village than the Ness of Invergordon”.
In 1819 Robert Southey, in his Journal of a Tour in Scotland, referred to it as “in an important situation, at the ferry by which this part of the country communicates with the Black Isle and so, by another ferry, with Fort George, thus saving a day’s journey”.
In the Second Statistical Account it was recorded that there were two hemp factories in the parish, giving employment to seventy persons. Spinning also gave work to a great many women. Considerable quantities of grain and a good number of cattle were being shipped annually to Leith and London.
Originally known as An Rudha, “the point” or “the ness”, Invergordon received its name from Sir William Gordon, a local landowner of the early eighteenth century. For centuries the estate on which Invergordon now stands was known as Inverbreakie. “the mouth of the Breakie”, and Breakie presumably being the stream which enters the Firth at Rosskeen Bridge, near the old parish church. The earliest mention of Inverbreakie occurs in the thirteenth century when the Castle, about a mile inland from the Ness, was occupied by a Fleming, placed there, it is said, by William the Lion. From a very early period there were a few thatched houses near the spot where the harbour now is. These were known as “The Ferry Houses”.
The Castle and the estate were purchased by Sir William Gordon around the beginning of the eighteenth century. Of Caithness descent, Sir William represented Sutherland in no fewer than five parliaments (1708-1727) and Cromartyshire, as it was then called, in 1741-1742. During his lifetime the Castle, originally a modest dwelling, was considerably enlarged, and at the same time the policies were improved and plans laid for the building of a town near the Ness.
His son, Sir John, who was MP for Cromartyshire from 1742-1747 and again from 1754-1761, and may be regarded as the real founder of the town, succeeded him, his ambitious plans including industrial development, but he was hampered by inherited debt. Sir John died childless in 1773.
This Sir John had a bust carved by Esme Bouchardon, one of the 18th century’s most fashionable sculptors; the bust was carved while Bouchardon studied in Rome and undertook private commissions for many of the great of Europe visiting the city.
The estate then passed on to Lord Macleod, who was a Count of Sweden who, in turn, disposed of the property to the Macleods of Cadboll in 1773. The development of Invergordon quickened. A harbour was built and very soon the village, for it was still only a village, became the main distribution port in the north with connections to most major British ports.
When the old Castle was destroyed by fire a new and very handsome mansion was built by R. B. A. Macleod in 1872. Some years earlier the Castle policies had been transformed into a thing of beauty, “the American Gardens” as they were called, with their profuse display of rhododendrons, stately trees and flower-bordered walks being famed throughout the country. The developing community led to the formation of a Police Burgh in 1864 and R. B. A. Macleod of Cadboll became its first Provost. When the estate was sold about the time of the First World War, the glory of the Castle and the Gardens disappeared, and in 1928 the Castle itself was demolished.
In the early 1900s Invergordon became an official naval base. The firth was thought suitable because of the channel depth and frequently had visits from the Home Fleet. During the First World War Invergordon was a full-scale base for the Royal Navy, providing fuel oil, water and dockyard repairs. The town’s population mushroomed when 6,000 people came to work in the dockyards. The people of Invergordon were exposed to the horrorsof war when, at Hogmanay in 1915, HMS Natal blew up in mysterious circumstances with a loss of over 300 lives. Some Natal gravestones can be seen at Rosskeen churchyard.
In 1931, at the time of the world depression, the British Government announced huge pay cuts. When the Atlantic Fleet returned to the Firth whilst on manoeuvres, meetings of the below-deck crew were held in Invergordon and a policy of passive resistance was agreed – no ships would sail from the Firth. Although this was known as the Invergordon Mutiny, no ships were taken over and no officers captured. Within days, however, the Fleet was slowly leaving and sailing to its home bases in the south. The effect of the ‘mutiny’ had caused a run on the Government’s gold reserves and in the short-term the pay cuts were reviewed and reduced.
During both World Wars the harbour and oil storage tanks were of great value to the Royal Navy. Before, during and after the last War these facilities were improved, but the contraction of the Admiralty after the Second World War reduced the base to a fuelling port.
Invergordon Distillery, the largest grain distillery in Europe, was constructed in 1961 as part of an initiative to bring new industry into the area following the closure of the naval dockyard. An aluminium smelter was also built in the early 1970s, only to close in 1981. The North Sea oil boom of the same period created a large influx of people; Invergordon grew in size with many new housing estates being built to accommodate the workers and their families.