Established on a prehistoric sea terrace at the base of the Cluny Hills, Forres has been a key settlement in the prosperity and development of Moray. There is debate as to whether the ‘Varris’ noted by Ptolemy on the chart he compiled following the Roman circumnavigation of Britain in AD86 was modern day Forres. It is clear that Forres would have been an ideal area to settle with its access to the Moray Firth, fertile flood plain soil and defensive hills. What can be verified is that there was significant Pictish activity within the area. Take a stroll to the East of the town and between the old and new routes of the A96 you will be in the shadow of one of the most magnificent Pictish standing stones in Europe. Standing over 20 feet tall, the Sueno’s Stone, was unearthed in 1726 and is estimated to have been carved in the 9th or 10th century. The front of the cross depicts a large celtic cross with intricate scroll work on the sides of the stone. The back is split into four panels depicting an important battle in the area. Various theories have been presented regarding the battle, such as the victory of the Pictish/Scots over the Norse at nearby Burghead. What is apparent is that it represents a significant historical event within the area.
Shakespeare’s ‘Scottish Play’ written at the start of the 17th century, set much of the initial scenes within Forres, and has immortalised the characters of Duncan and Macbeth. With a mix of fact and fiction ‘Macbeth’ locates Duncan’s castle here. Interestingly Shakespeare portrays Duncan as strong and wise, while in reality he was rather weak and ineffectual. It was MacBeth who was respected for his strong leadership qualities and would rule successfully for 17 years after defeating Duncan, not at Birnam Hill in Perthshire, but at Pigaveny, near Elgin, in 1040.
As the years rolled on Forres established itself as a major trading settlement within Moray supported by Royal Burgh status granted by King David I around 1140 AD. This was an effort by the monarchy to ‘civilise’ Moray and Forres was granted specific charters to trade to encourage commerce and economic improvement within the area. Having suppressed a revolt by the men of Moray, David I greatly reduced the powers of the local rulers and was keen to establish Forres as a major power base within the region. By the 14th Century Forres was a typical medieval Burgh comprising of a High Street, castle, tolbooth, and a church. As with many towns the castle would eventually be abandoned as the economic and political climate evolved. Today if you wander along to the west end of the High Street you will encounter a lovely public park displaying the 56 foot tall Thomson Monument. This was the location of Forres Castle, which played a key part in the town’s development and was a residence of early Scottish Kings and for 300 years would be the power base for the sheriffs of Moray.
Forres would see its fair share of unrest and violent political and religious struggle down the centuries exemplified by Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan, more commonly recognised as the ‘Wolf of Badenoch’. Following a dispute with the Bishop of Moray in 1390, the ‘Wolf’ attacked and burned the original St Laurence Church situated on Forres High Street in a whirlwind orgy of ‘retribution’ throughout Moray.
The 15th century would usher in a period of relative peace, stability and growth for Forres. The rule of monarchy would be consolidated, by granting Forres a Royal Charter setting out the rights and privileges awarded to the local population. The church would become the focus of life, and grow in power and wealth. Thatched houses of stone and wood in the Burgh would now be built up to two or three storeys high.
The Clergy would continue to gain more land in the 16th century and Forres would continue to prosper and grow in population. The tolbooth on the High Street (probably originally a modest building and not the magnificent structure built in 1838 that you view today) would be the focal point for the collection of taxes, seat of local government, the court and the prison.
Until 1810 building in Forres had entered a period of decline, many properties having stood since the 17th century. However, the effects of high taxation over previous years to fund the various conflicts that Britain was involved in were now diminishing. Forres would enter a period of economic growth and regeneration and by the 1820’s Forres was beginning to expand rapidly with the building of new villas in the outskirts of the town. Many of the grand buildings that we view today on the High Street and throughout Forres were constructed over this period.
The Great Flood of 1829 was to devastate Forres with many of the population having to scramble to higher ground on the Cluny Hills. Despite this natural disaster Forres would be transformed in the 19th century into the form that we view today with many of the public institutions exhibiting neo-classical design based upon simplicity and symmetry. The introduction of the railway to Forres would transform its economy, new hotels were erected, roads improved, agriculture was extremely lucrative with the means to ‘export’ produce by rail. Forres could rival any other similar town in Scotland.