Driving on the A9, some 20 miles north of Inverness, high on a hill, a strange, almost alien sight comes into view. This is the Fyrish Monument, commissioned by Sir Hector Munro of Novar and built in 1782. It’s modelled on the gates of Negapatam in India.
In many ways, it’s a testimony not only to upheavals and the traditional Highland way of life but also to the involvement of Highland lairds and the expansion of the British Empire and the years following the failed Jacobite rebellion of 1745 and 46.
Now Sir Hector Munro of Novar, like many of his class and generation would become an officer in the British Army. He joined the 64th Loudon’s Highland Regiment of Foot only one year after that same regiment had taken part on the side of the government army in the defeat of the Jacobite army at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.
The years following the post-Culloden period, the years after the Jacobite rebellion are known mainly for the break up of the old clan system, whereby people in the land, the tenants, the people in the smallholdings – now had no right of tenure as they may have had under the traditional protection of the clan chiefs. Many of the Highland lairds saw this is an opportunity to get rid of the people and replace them with the more profitable sheep grazing. And this resulted in the first phase of the infamous Highland clearances where many people were cleared from the land after generations of existence there in favour of sheep, sometimes involving quite brutal mass evictions.
In 1759 Sir Hector Munro of Novar became a major and the newly formed 89th Highland Regiment of Foot. Now, this is a period when Highland lairds were becoming involved not only in the military but also in commercial enterprises. As the British Empire extended its reach. And in some cases, this included the ownership of slave plantations. There was actually a slave plantation called Novar in Guyana. There was also one called Foulis and one called Alness, all of which are names that are local to this area. And these were owned by one Sir William Munro who was a doctor in Edinburgh. Sir Hector Munro of Novar himself also actually kept slaves here in Scotland. He once issued a warning in a Scottish newspaper for shipmasters not to carry off one of his runaway slaves that he had brought back from Guyana.
In 1760 Sir Hector Munro travelled to India with his regiment where one of his first tasks was to quell a mutiny by his Indian sepoys. He decided to set an example by having each of the 20 mutineers strapped to the front of a cannon and a charge set off, and a cannonball put through the body at point-blank range. This was known as being blown off a gun. With the mutiny quelled, Sir Hector Munro then became victorious in the Battle of Buxar.
Sir Hector Munro was survived by his daughter. He was predeceased by his three sons. One of whom he witnessed being dragged off by a tiger and devoured in the jungle in India. The second son died on a voyage on the way home from India while his third son fell overboard from his ship and was eaten by a shark in the Bay of Bengal.
Sir Hector Munro served as a member of parliament for 30 years for the Inverness Burghs. This was at a time when it only took a handful of votes from the gentry to elect or return an MP. Now with desires to improve his estates at home, Sir Hector Munro of Novar became one of the first landlords, he was a pioneer in the infrastructure of large scale sheep farming. This of course was at the expense of the local population who would have to be cleared from the land to make way for the sheep runs. And in Sir Hector Munro’s case, this was met with resistance by the local population. He sent in soldiers from his 89th Regiment of Foot and had some of the ringleaders of the resistance arrested and tried at the Circuit Justice Courts of Inverness where they were sentenced to transportation for life.
Sir Hector became involved in further military campaigns in India and in 1781, he and his regiment were victorious at the Battle of Negapatam. In 1782, he retired to his Novar Estate where he set about the commissioning and the building of this monument modelled on the gates of Negapatam where his army had been victorious and presumably built to commemorate his conquest there.
Now the context given for the building of the monument was that this would relieve local unemployment and hardship. And so the locals all set to work on the wages of a penny a day, engaged in the backbreaking labour of heaving these stones to the top of this hill, almost 1500 feet high. There’s actually an anecdote that Sir Hector Munro would sometimes have some of the stones roll back down the hill so that the people labouring on the monument would be engaged in extra work and ostensibly earn more wages. Whether this was the actions of a cynical tyrant or that of a benevolent charitable landlord, I guess is open to interpretation.
Ultimately, the Fyrish Monument is nothing more than a folly. It has no purpose, serves no function. In its day it cost something in the region of £120,000, which today would be along the lines of £30 million pounds. We can look at that structure and ask, what is it? Is it nothing more than a monument to a powerful man’s egotism and vanity? Or was it the actions of a charitable landlord who brought much-needed relief to the hardships of the local population? I guess the choice is yours to decide.
Anyone with an interest in history will be delighted with a visit to Scotland. Scottish history is fascinating. This small country has seen ancient civilisations, conflict, and innovation that’s changed the world. Walk in the footprints of dinosaurs on the Isle of Skye. Imagine life as a Viking at the Up Helly Aa festival in Shetland. Stand at the most northerly edge of the Roman Empire at the Antonine Wall. Survey the moody moor where the course of Scottish history was decided with the Battle of Culloden. Visit the University of Edinburgh and see the place that inspired history’s most notable thought leaders like Charles Darwin, James Hutton and Alexander Graham Bell.
The Fyrish Monument is built on top of the Fyrish Hill above Alness in the North East of Scotland.
The monument was commissioned by Sir Hector Munro of Novar and was built by local Highland workers.
Both to commemorate Sir Hector Munro of Novar’s victory at the Battle of Negapatam and to provide work for the local tenants.