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After opening the doors to Downton Abbey, these designers now have the keys to Inverness Castle

Inverness Castle is being transformed into what the local council hopes will be a world-class visitor attraction.
Inverness Castle is being transformed into what the local council hopes will be a world-class visitor attraction.

The design team behind the project to revamp Inverness Castle have promised a tourist attraction that will make people “laugh, cry and think”.

Consultants Mather & Co have been appointed to help transform the landmark into a world-class visitor attraction in a major step forward for the ambitious project.

The company beat international competition to become the exhibition and content design partner.

Sarah Clarke and Chris Mather from Mather & Co at Inverness Castle. Picture by Sandy McCook

It has promised an attraction that will use cutting-edge technology, while being sustainable and Covid-proof.

The company’s previous successful and innovative attractions around the world include Downton Abbey: The Experience.

It uses holographic and audio-visual technology to take visitors inside the grand home and meet characters including Mrs Hughes and Carson.

Its other projects include the R&A World Golf Museum at St Andrews, which includes a 360-degree digital theatre, a special effects cinema at The Silverstone Experience and a 4D film at the Royal Mint Experience.

Will Inverness Castle become a show-stopping attraction?

The castle project will use the theme ‘Spirit of the Highlands in 100 Stories’ to tell the story of the castle and the Highlands in imaginative and unexpected ways.

It will also encourage people to visit other locations across the region.

It has not yet been revealed what the castle attraction’s special features will be.

However, the design tender invited bidders to create a “show-stopping” attraction in the main courtroom in the castle’s south tower and said there is potential for a digital or real life seannachie (storyteller).

Hi-tech methods including projection mapping, holography, virtual reality and augmented reality will be considered to interpret the Highlands’ music, language and landscape.

Downton Abbey: The Exhibition. Picture by Mather & Co

There is also potential to incorporate a Great Tapestry of the Highlands, a project being developed with the team behind the Great Tapestry of Scotland.

High Life Highland, which is managing the project for Highland Council, received 60 notes of interest in the design tender, with 13 bids, including some from the US.

Project director Fiona Hampton said it is a major milestone for the development which aims to help the recovery of tourism.

“The potential is enormous. We see it as important to helping regenerate the city centre, being significant in the post-Covid recovery and contributing to the reinvigoration of tourism in the Highlands.

Castle design will be ‘future-proof’

“We also want this to be a place where local people will love to come.”

She said the project has learned from the pandemic to incorporate Covid-proof elements.

“We’ve used the experience to influence the design of the building to make it a bit more future-proof.

“A lot of tourism businesses are having to cut capacity and invest in infrastructure. But we have designed in a way that if we find ourselves in this situation again, we are more prepared.”

So what will be the show stopping elements? Chris Mather, CEO of Mather & Co, said he has not yet decided.

“We have nothing specific in mind at the moment. Technology is moving so quickly.

“It will be something story-based, with a rich narrative that makes you laugh, makes you cry and makes you think.

Fiona Hampton, Director, Inverness Castle – Spirit of the Highlands. Photo Sandy McCook

“You’ll leave with a nice, warm feeling about what you have just seen.

“When this brief came out we thought this is not just another castle, this is an opportunity for us to stamp our mark and do something truly different, innovative and sustainable.”

Sarah Clarke, the company’s managing director, added: “We always want to create something bespoke to the place.

“We will visit lots of places and talk to people. Until we’ve done that we don’t want to say it will be this or that.

“We want to get the story and build the content and then we can frame that content.”

Inverness Castle: A gateway for tourism?

MSP Fergus Ewing, co-chair of the Inverness Castle Delivery Group, welcomed the appointment of Mather & Co.

He said: “Their wide experience across a varied range of visitor attractions throughout the world will be a welcome contribution to the development of the castle as a gateway for tourism in the Highlands, as well as a place that locals and visitors will be keen to visit again and again.”

The transformation of Inverness Castle is supported by £15 million Scottish Government and £3 million UK Government investment.

It is part of the Inverness and Highland City Region deal, supported by up to £315 million from the UK and Scottish governments, the council, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and University of the Highlands and Islands.

Castle exterior artist impression. Picture by Highland Council

For many years the castle housed criminal courts, but Highland Council now owns the landmark building following the move of the law courts to the Inverness Justice Centre.

The three-phase vision includes new galleries, museum displays, shops, restaurants, bars and cafes, a hotel and public spaces.

The plans, discussed by councillors in April, also feature a roof terrace on the south tower, other plant-filled terraces and a light and airy new link between the castle’s two buildings.

A further terrace projecting out onto the west bank of the castle will form an external viewing platform and dining area overlooking the River Ness.