James Thomson Monument

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At the western end of the high street is a memorial to a man who died in the Crimean War administering medical care to the wounded.

The needle, as it is often referred to, is a 50-foot obelisk with an aspect straight down the high street, and even though so tall and prominent, is often ignored. Perhaps because it is disguised by its avenue of cherry trees, or maybe because it’s forked off from the main thoroughfare.

Nevertheless, the story of the man it is dedicated to is an interesting one.

The inscription reads:

To the memory of Assistant Surgeon James Thomson. Born at Cromarty on the 8th March 1823 and deceased in the Crimea on the 5th October 1854.

He served with the 44th Regiment at Malta, in 1850, when the cholera broke out and shortly proved fatal to all the surgeons of the Corps, himself alone excepted.

The skill, fortitude and humanity, displayed by him, in arresting the progress of that disease, gained for him the praises of the Commander-in-Chief.

He was present with the same regiment in the Battle of Alma, in 1854, and a few days afterwards, when the British were leaving the field, he volunteered to remain behind with seven hundred desperately wounded Russians. Isolated from his countrymen and endangered by the vicinity of large bodies of Cossacks, ill-supplied with food and exposed to the risk of pestilence, he succeeded in restoring to health about four hundred of the enemy, and embarking them for Odessa. He then dies from the effects of excessive hardship and privation.

This public monument is erected as a tribute of respect for the virtues of an officer whose life was useful and whose death was glorious.

But why is it in Forres?

There’s no mention of, or link to Forres in the inscription, so what prompted it to be built here.

A monument was proposed for Dr Thomson’s home village, Cromarty. However, this was blocked due to a dispute between the landowner and Thomson’s father.

However, the ancestral owner of Castlehill, James MacGrigor, who happened to be the head of the British Military Medical Services and a good friend and admirer of the young surgeon, allowed the monument to built where it is.

As many locals know, the Castlehill Gardens is the site of the supposed Forres Castle. Old maps show this location but very little evidence survives to show any of the castle building. The land beyond the monument drops steeply down to the Burn of Mosset, and a small patch of land where the house of Alexander Donald Smith lived before he left for Canada.

History of the monument

The monument is believed to have been unveiled around November 1857. The blocks of Peterhead granite were made by Messrs MacDonald & Co of Aberdeen prepared the blocks and the structure was built by an Elgin contractor called Urquhart.

Further information

While researching for this article, we found a significant source of information from the Medical News of 1 December 1967. It provides more detail.

James Thompson. Newspaper cutting re his death in the Crimea after single-handedly nursing 750 wounded Russians. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0). Source: Wellcome Collection.

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