Revealing the ‘spirit of the highlands’


Head shot of Prof David Worthington smiling
Prof David Worthington

Professor David Worthington is the Head of the Centre for History at the University of the Highlands and Islands.  He shares his delight in the seeing the spirit of the highlands project come to life and explains how to get involved.   

It was a bright, sunny Saturday morning in September when I saw the vibrant red hoardings around Inverness Castle for the first time. I took my time to absorb the drawings, photographs and text which combine  to tell the story of the Castle Hill area, and detail the inventive plans for the conversion of the former courthouse and prison into a modern visitor attraction over the next four years.

Despite many projects having halted due to the impact of COVID-19, this Highland Council initiative managed by High Life Highland – a delivery organisation which provides cultural, leisure and learning services on behalf of the Council – continues to advance. It is entitled ‘Inverness Castle – Spirit of the Highlands’ -and is the biggest single heritage development in the Highland region of the last century. 

It was exciting to see the hoardings – for which myself and a colleague at the University of the Highlands and Islands, Professor Hugh Cheape, were text advisors – in place. I was also proud to see references on them to the university’s innovative approach to education and research, as “encouraging new ways of living, working and learning in the region”.

Writing and images on a large permenent exhibition with Inverness Castle building in the background
A view of a part of the ‘Spirit of the Highlands’ hoardings

The university is a proud project partner, with aligned aims to support economic growth in the region, and we are an active contributor towards ensuring the creation of a sustainable, viable and ‘must-see’ attraction that will show the spirit of the Highland past, present and future, including its creativity, culture, and natural environment.

After centuries of being marginalised, the communities that the university serves in the Highlands and Islands, Moray and Perthshire, while still experiencing some massive social and economic challenges, have begun to see signs of cultural renewal.

Towards this end, the university signed a memorandum of understanding in 2016 with High Life Highland and we’ve now worked together on several significant projects.   

For the Dornoch-based Centre for History, where I work, this has involved a range of collaborations and co-productions on public history projects of various types. To highlight a few: a collaborative PhD with Highland Folk Museum; our part in the inspirational ‘Inverness Rare Books’ project; public exhibitions at the Highland Archive Centre, and several other book launches, lectures and joint events held at High Life Highland museums, libraries and archives.

It is immensely gratifying that one of the outcomes of our research and teaching collaborations with them is to show the agency – the resilience and, sometimes against all odds, vitality – of Highland communities, and to help inspire the ‘Spirit of the Highlands’ concept.

A view of a part of the ‘Spirit of the Highlands’ hoardings

Ultimately, the ‘Inverness Castle – Spirit of the Highlands’ development, is one of the largest cultural projects to be undertaken in the Highlands, and our staff, students, graduates and communities have a unique opportunity to engage with it from now until 2024 and beyond.

Many of our students have had the opportunity to work on this ‘live’ project in some shape or form already. We’ve seen architectural technology students based at Inverness College UHI presenting digital and true-to-scale physical models of their initial concepts for the Castle Hill area, a student studying BA (Hons) art and contemporary practice on placement with the Creative Director of the Castle Hill Project, Bryan Beattie and a BA (Hons) contemporary film making in the highlands and islands student supporting the ‘call for stories’ promotional video, which is narrated by Julie Fowlis, the university’s alumnus of the year in 2013.

Myself and Katie Masheter, Curriculum Development Employer Engagement Officer and many others at the university are fortunate to be working with, and learning much from, the dedicated Castle Hill transformation project team.  Together we continue to nurture a range of new and exciting plans that we trust will see this link strengthen further.

Uncovering your story

Talking with Bryan Beattie, Creative Director, he sums up why it is so important :

“The whole project is intended to reflect the Spirit of the Highlands, a fantastic challenge that ranges from intangibles like the warmth of the welcome or beauty of a landscape, to specifics like the type of food and drink from the area. Story will bind all aspects together – not a conventional history but a crowd-sourced one, using the authentic voices and lived experience of contemporary Highlanders and those who’ve chosen to make the area their home.

Personal story is a direct way of connecting the visitor with the local, finding your own experience reflected in the life of another. It’s a typically bold Highland statement – looking for the connection with friends, neighbours and visitors, and then exploring those links in an entertaining way in a special environment.

The geographic location of the Castle – a striking red sandstone Victorian building overlooking the river – make it a natural magnet for visitors. This development will build on that and create something that locals will also use regularly. A venue has to earn that type of loyalty from its community, but by trusting them to provide the stories that are interpreted within it the `Spirit of the Highlands’ project is making a clear statement of intent.”

Your turn. How do I get involved?
Everyone has a story to share. What kind of stories? Stories about people you might have heard at a ceilidh: the uncle or aunt who worked on the hydro schemes from afar and decided to stay; the sibling that set up the local fèis, the neighbour that kayaked the Great Glen in record time…
The stories of each community too, large and small: the local events that shaped it;  how it has become involved or entangled in global histories; about its singing sands or Viking graffiti, the things that give it a distinctive fingerprint.

Material collected will become an ‘Autobiography of the Highlands’, a unique collection of stories held in a digital archive, all told by the people who live, work and visit here. If you have any ideas you feel could help, or questions about the project do contact the dedicated team at

You can also follow and share the projects advancement through social media channels, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.   With thanks to the Inverness and the Highlands City Region Deal and The Highland Council for their support of the Inverness Castle redevelopment and to Creative Scotland for the Spirit:360 project.

Prof David Worthington is a University of the Highlands and Islands representative on the Inverness Castle Project Delivery Group and chairs the separate University of the Highland and Islands and High Life Highland advisory group to the project.

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