Balnagown Arms Hotel:

The inn around which Ardgay village was built

Once described as one of the best known hotels of the Highlands “where royalty and statemen have frequently stayed”, the Balnagown Arms Hotel started off as a farm house converted into an inn in 1817 to serve people travelling along the new Telford road.

The hotel in the early 1900s. © Donald Brown
By 1909 the main building has been extended and an additional gable hidden to the rear (with extra chimney pots visible) has been erected. There are two new porches and the windows on the right have been
turned into bay windows. © Donald Brown
Staff of the hotel possibly taken in the late 1930s. Back row: Kate and Teenie Mackenzie (Dounie), Bell Calder (Airdens),? Ross, Mina Calder (Airdens). Front row: Lizzie Cameron (Fearn) Lizzie McKinnon (Achue Airdens) Katie Ross (Rosehall). © Donald Brown
Two receipts of 1906 and 1911 (marked as paid and signed by hotel owner John Macleod) for a supply of whisky and other items for Amat Estate. © Donald Brown
One of the earliest postcards of Ardgay (early 1900s) featuring the Hotel, before the renovations. © Neil Anderson
Lovat scouts outside the hotel. © Donald Brown

The 9th Report of the Parliamentary Commissioners for Roads and Bridges reported in 1821 that ‘a new inn affords good accommodation.’ The New Statistical Account in 1840 mentions the Balnagowan Arms Inn. Rev Hector Allan, minister, presbytery of Tain, wrote an article in August 1840 about the Parish of Kincardine and stated that “The only licensed inn in the parish is situated at Ardgay and is conducted in an exceedingly orderly and respectable manner.”

The inn belonged to Balnagown Estate. In 1865 was leased to Mr Colin Fraser from Invergordon. In August, Mr Fraser advertised the inn in the Inverness Advertiser and Ross-shire Chronicle: “superior” posting department and “carriages, dog-carts, gigs (…) with steady drivers to be had on the shortest notice.” He also issued tickets for angling in the River Carron.

Up until 1871, Ardgay – then Bonar Bridge Station – was the end of the railway line. An 1870 article on the Saturday Inverness Advertiser describes “the scream of the steam whistle and the smoke from Mr Fraser’s admirable hostelry, the Balnagown Arms, give out frequently the only signs of life or animation of any kind.” The traffic in the station during the low season was described as a “beggarly account of empty benches”, but the author of the article was “hopeful of better days, when the line will be made to stretch further north.”

The hotel was advertised to let “from Whitsunday, 1871” in the Elgin Courant, and Morayshire Advertiser. Tenants were asked to apply to John Forsyth, factor of the Balnagown Estate. In 1875 the farm steading attached to the Balnagown Arms Inn was destroyed by fire, with an estimated damage of £700.

In the early 1880s, the hotel was purchased by John MacLeod. John and his wife Donaldina MacLeod soon built a good reputation and the business bloomed. An account of a night of entertainment at the hotel – which started at 10pm and finished at 5am! – was published in the Invergordon Times and General Advertiser in 1888: “this was the fourth entertainment of this kind given by Mr and Mrs MacLeod during the short time since they have come to the district, and undoubtedly they prove themselves by their amicability and liberality as deserving of the high esteem in which they are held by the entire community.” In 1889 the hotel advertised “salmon fishing in the Carron, and sea-trout fishing the Kyle of Sutherland free of charge.” Up until its destruction in the 1940s, Balnagown hotel guests’ salmon catches regularly appeared in the press.

In 1889 the hotel advertised “salmon fishing in the Carron, and sea-trout fishing the Kyle of Sutherland free of charge.”

It was the venue for many events, from concerts on behalf of the Ardgay-Bonar Curling Club, to meetings of the Sutherland Volunteers – chaired by Mr John MacLeod – or the Kincardine Mutual Improvement Society. Crucially in May 1892, it hosted a meeting of the Joint Committe of the Ross and Sutherland County Councils in which they decided the structure of the new (second) Bonar Bridge. The group was able to visit the site, about a mile from the hotel.

By the 1930s the hotel has once again been extended and curiously now one of the new windows in the roof has a chimney built in front of it. © Donald Brown
Fishermen at the hotel. © Donald Brown
Balnagown Arms Hotel dish. © Donald Brown
Rear of the hotel. We can see windows of the three stories, and several farm buildings around the hotel, including the Barn and Bothy, the only buildings standing nowadays. Behind the barn is the old Ardgay Hall. © Donald Brown
Stackyard at Ardgay Farm, connected to the hotel, 1940s. From left to right: Fergus Macleod (Balnagown hotel owner) holding on to his nephew Neil Anderson, Hugh Macgregor, Miss Heap, Sinclair Coghill, Jock Mackenzie (Dounie), David Mackay (postmaster). © Donald Brown
Postcard of Ardgay in the 1930s. © Donald Brown

By 1909 the building had undergone extensive renovations. In 1922 John MacLeod passed away and his nephew Fergus MacLeod alongside his wife Mina (nee Anderson) took over the business.

The previous decades saw the parish centre move from Kincardine to this junction of roads by the hotel, marking the beginning of ‘Ardgay’. The visiting clientele was composed to a great extent by upper middle class guests who would return every year for the fishing and shooting seasons and stay for several weeks. The hotel played a central role in the village and the business was thriving when a fire started on the roof of the hotel on Saturday 24th July 1943.

The visiting clientele was composed to a great extent by upper middle class guests who would return every year for the fishing and shooting seasons and stay for several weeks.

Bunty Cameron (later Bunty Gordon) recalled that she was working late at Ardgay Post Office that evening when Mary MacGregor who worked at the station bookstall burst into the office exclaiming that smoke was pouring through the slates of the hotel. The ladies, like so many other Ardgay people rushed over to see if they could help in any way. Bunty remembered seeing men climbing up onto the roof and lifting the slates to try to pour water on the fire. This unfortunately let air get to the flames and exacerbated the situation.

George Ross from Mid Gruinards was 16 years old at the time and was heading to a dance in Ardgay village hall when he and his friends saw the smoke billowing through the roof and rushed along to help. A pump had been taken down to the Dornoch Firth but unfortunately there was limited water supply since the tide was receding.

George and his friends entered the blazing building and assisted in trying to save some of the furniture including a huge table from the hotel kitchen. The table would neither go through the door or out of the kitchen window so the window was quickly knocked out and the table salvaged. There was a gallant attempt to save a decorative porch, however George remembered that this had to be abandoned as the flames were extremely intense and swirling around the structure. A number of items were rescued from the building including some crockery with the Balnagown Hotel crest which was occasionally used by staff serving in the Lady Ross many years later.

When the supply of sea water failed the fire got out of control and the hotel was burnt to the ground

The Aberdeen Weekly Journal reported: “At first the firemen drew an ample supply of water from the Dornoch Firth, and it was hoped to save a large part of the building. The tide, however, receded rapidly beyond reach of their appliances. New sources of water were obtained from reservoirs and storage tanks, but these became exhausted and supply from a burn a mile away was utilised. Unfortunately, when the supply of sea water failed the fire got out of control and the hotel (…) beautifully furnished and belonging to Mr Fergus McLeod was gutted. Helpers managed to save a number of valuable antiques. Damage is estimated at £25,000.” (Equivalent to £1,200,000 today)

The ruins of the hotel lay in the village for many years until they were cleared away to build The Lady Ross in the late 1950s. From the north gable wall of the hotel ruins, a large quartz stone, the Clach Eiteag, was recovered and eventually displayed in the centre of the village. The boulder is mentioned in the Balnagown Arms Hotel entry of OS Ross and Cromarty Name Book (1871-1876) “A large quartz Stone built into the foundations of this house gives the name to an annual market held here.”

By Silvia Muras and Donald Brown

Last Updated on 10 June, 2022 by Kyle Chronicle

1 thought on “Balnagown Arms Hotel”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top