5 Days in Dornoch Travel Itinerary
I first visited the Dornoch area in 2006 with my girlfriend and future wife, Janette. Her parents owned a caravan within Grannie's Heilan' Hame Holiday Park, which was great for a cheap holiday. Over the next ten years, we thoroughly explored the area around Dornoch; it's still one of our favourite places to visit today, and we still go there with our three daughters each summer.
Dornoch is a historic town located in the Scottish Highlands. Specifically, it is in the council area of Highland and lies on the north shore of the Dornoch Firth, a broad estuary opening out into the North Sea.
As with all my travel itineraries, I do the things I like to do! Pick and choose from the daily activities for what you like best; at minimum, it will give you some ideas for your trip to Dornoch.
Where is Dornoch?
Dornoch is approximately 45 miles (72 km) north of Inverness. The town is known for its beautiful cathedral, sandy beaches, and the Royal Dornoch Golf Club, which is often considered one of the best golf courses in the world. The town has a rich history and boasts several historical buildings, adding to its charm as a travel destination.
How to get to Dornoch?
Dornoch is most easily accessed by travelling north from Inverness on the A9 motorway. It only takes about an hour to reach Dornoch, but the drive is lovely, with much to see; it crosses multiple bridges and passes scenic mountain ranges.
Because it only takes an hour to drive from Inverness, I have suggested some places to visit on day 1 of the travel itinerary.
Day 1 Inverness to Dornoch (1 hour, 4 minutes / 44.2 miles)
Inverness is the only city in the highlands of Scotland and is where most of you will start your journey to Dornoch. It takes just over an hour to reach Dornoch, and you will remain on the A9 motorway and follow the NC500 route in an anti-clockwise direction.
Chanonry Point and Fairy Glen Falls
You will cross the Kessock Bridge first to reach The Black Isle. If you fancy a detour at this stage, consider heading east to Fortrose to visit Chanonry Point (the best place to spot Moray Firth Dolphins) and The Fairy Glen Falls forest walk, which takes in two beautiful waterfalls.
You will cross Cromarty Bridge from the Black Isle and pass Evanton and Alness.
Optional locations after crossing the Kessock Bridge
Redcastle on the Beauly Firth
One of the lesser-known castles near Inverness, Redcastle, can be found on the north side of the Beauly Firth, west of Inverness. Accessed from the Tore roundabout travelling southwest on the A832, Redcastle is a stunning ruin, fenced off, but a lot can be seen from the accessible paths.
Rogie Falls is a worthwhile waterfall, but it is a 17-minute / 13-mile detour from the main route to Dornoch. The waterfall is worth visiting, the biggest draw being the forest walks and the bridge spanning the gorge, giving the best possible view of this grand spectacle.
Alness has a brilliant walk nearby to the Fyrish Monument if you fancy stretching your legs on the way to Dornoch. The walk takes about 2.5 hours over 3.75 miles and ascends the hill to a stone monument. The views out to the Cromarty Firth are breathtaking, and it's possible to see many oil rigs and wind turbine jackets moored here.
If you're getting a tad peckish on your way to Dornoch, The Storehouse (once called The Storehouse of Foulis) is a great place to stop and get some higher-end food. It's also possible to spot seals in the Cromarty Firth from the car park.
Glen Morangie Distillery
If you fancy checking out one of the north's finest distilleries, Glenmorangie can be visited just after Tain and before the Dornoch Firth Bridge. This distillery has a brand new visitor centre and four tours of varying lengths and costs. If you're looking for a beautifully branded bottle of whisky, Glenmorangie has some of the best bottle designs I've seen.
Arriving in Dornoch
After crossing the Dornoch Firth Bridge, you will notice a right turn to Dornoch on the A949. If you pass the petrol station, you have gone too far. The A949 will take you past Dornoch Primary School and then into the town centre.
Where to stay in Dornoch?
There are many fine hotels and B&Bs in Dornoch, but we have always stayed at Grannie's Heilan' Hame caravan site located a short distance away in Embo. Camping pitches are also available.
Other options include:
Dornoch Station Hotel
Royal Golf Hotel
Woodlands Bed & Breakfast
Dornoch Castle Hotel
The Eagle Hotel
Day 2 Dornoch
After our travels yesterday, let's explore Dornoch itself today! There is so much to see in this quaint Highland village.
This 13th-century cathedral dominates the centre of Dornoch, with every other street radiating out from it. Dornoch Cathedral is a lovely building, and walking around the town centre gives multiple unique views of it, an excellent place for photography.
The cathedral is normally open to visitors during daylight hours; worshippers are welcome every Sunday at 11 am. The stained glass windows inside are stunning.
Dornoch Castle Hotel
Right across from the cathedral, this historic building is now a hotel. You can stop here for a coffee or lunch or appreciate the architecture. The bar also has a fine collection of Scottish Whisky!
Grab some lunch at Sandstone Cafe
This is our favourite place to eat in Dornoch! Sandstone Cafe has lovely paninis and a vast selection of homemade cakes. Our kids always have the Children's Platter, which includes small sandwiches with cucumber, carrot, celery, raisins and popcorn arranged on a platter. I would have called this a "wee feast" when I was a child!
You can find Sandstone Cafe on High Street near the Co-op convenience store.
Walk the Town
Stroll around the picturesque town, exploring local shops, cafes, and historic buildings. Here are some of the best places to check out on St Gilberts Street and High Street:
The Old Town Jail - a 19th-century jail, now transformed into a high-end shop selling clothes and gifts. There is a small area showing the jail cells and how prisoners lived.
Carnegie Courthouse - Once a functioning building for the justice system, Carnegie Courthouse has been revamped for general public use and is home to Greens Restaurant - a lovely place for a meal with its exciting decor and high ceilings.
Cocoa Mountain - A shop and cafe dedicated to all things chocolate! Famous for their pitch on Dragon's Den, Cocoa Mountain lays claim to the best hot chocolate in the world; why not try it and see if you agree?
Dornoch Bookshop - This charming bookshop has something for everyone; we often buy a book for the kids when we visit. Sometimes, there is a little refreshments cart parked outside too!
Architecture - Dornoch is home to some of the loveliest little cottages in Scotland; just walking around and taking photos of them is fun.
Dornoch Stores - this shop has recently been revamped and offers many lovely food products from all over Scotland. This is also a great place to grab an ice cream.
Found on "The Meadows" just south of the centre of town, you can visit the Historylinks Museum. While it looks small from the outside, it's absolutely packed with information about Dornoch and the local area. Fictional legends like the Dragon of Dornoch are covered, as well as St Gilbert, the founder of Dornoch Cathedral. My favourite section was the Viking jewellery, which included bracelets and gold rings.
If you are interested in golf, there is a recreation of a golf professional's workshop set up within the museum where you can see all the tools used to make golf clubs.
In an unassuming garden on Carnaig St, a small stone can be found that marks the spot where the last condemned witch in Scotland was burned alive. This is a rather sad story about a woman named Janet Horne, who suffered mental health issues, and because her disabled daughter had a malformed hand, Janet was accused of witchcraft and was killed. It's awful stuff, but interesting history.
Spend the late afternoon at the sandy Dornoch Beach. It's a great relaxing place, with dunes and a view of the Dornoch Firth. It's possible to walk from Dornoch Beach and around the bay to Embo Beach; why not stop at Grannie's Heilan' Hame shop for ice cream?
Day 3 North of Dornoch
Let's leave Dornoch and travel north to some lovely sights nearby. Let's leave for Embo first, leaving Dornoch on Station Road and travelling north. This road is long and winding and has some areas with passing places. Look for this right turn to Embo.
The small village of Embo (named by the Vikings, no less!) is a great place to visit, mainly for Grannie's Heilan' Hame Holiday Park and the expansive golden sands of Embo Beach. There is a play park at Grannie's, which is free to use, so it's a nice place to stop with kids and then go for a walk.
Retrace your steps out of Embo, and turn right (left takes you back to Dornoch). Follow this road northwards, and you will eventually arrive at Loch Fleet.
Loch Fleet National Nature Reserve is an area of outstanding natural beauty. This shallow tidal basin is home to many forms of birdlife, seals and otters. The road on the south side of Loch Fleet follows the loch closely, and there are a few dedicated spots to stop and take in the scenery.
The seals of Loch Fleet can often be seen basking on a sandbank in the middle of the loch.
You might think you can only access the south side of Loch Fleet, but the far side is fantastic for exploring and accessible by travelling south from Golspie.
At the first major stopping point on the south side of Loch Fleet, if you look to your left (southwards), you will see the crumbling ruin of Skelbo Castle at the top of a hill. This castle isn't the easiest to reach on foot, so I wouldn't attempt it, but it's a lovely subject for photography from the road and ideal if you have a drone.
Let's leave Loch Fleet now, continue west along the south of the Loch and rejoin with the A9, turning right. Follow the A9, crossing the bridge over the River Fleet; you will arrive in Golspie.
I love Golspie; it seems like such a chilled-out little town with lovely hotels and B&Bs. The main popular attractions are:
Golspie Golf Club - An 18-hole golf course designed by James Braid which looks out onto the Dornoch Firth.
Golspie Beach - While not as impressive as Embo Beach, a walk along Golspie Beach is a lovely way to spend some time.
Golspie Stone Shop - On our first visit to Golspie some 20 years ago, my wife bought me a large chunk of bismuth at this lovely shop. There are so many crystals here to browse, and enthusiastic staff available to answer questions.
Duke of Sutherland Monument - A monument to the Duke of Sutherland, an infamous figure in Scotland's north, known for forcefully evicting people from their homes so he could use the land for sheep farming. It's a bit of a hike at 6 miles but rewarded with absolutely stunning views.
Let's continue by leaving Golspie and travelling northeast on the A9.
At the far side of Golspie is Dunrobin Castle & Gardens, which is up there with the most picturesque castles in Scotland. Instead of the usually large ruinous stone-constructed buildings, Dunrobin is more like a French chateau than a Scottish castle.
The castle has a self-guided tour through a large section of the interior, but there are guides within some of the rooms who can answer any questions.
The gardens of Dunrobin Castle are my favourite area. Walking down into the gardens is something special, and looking back towards the castle over the pond must be the finest view on the estate. The gardens also offer a brilliant falconry display twice a day, a museum containing some creepy stuffed animals, and a fine collection of ancient Pictish stones.
If there's one castle you visit in the Dornoch area, it should be Dunrobin; it's an utterly beautiful building.
Big Burn Walk
The Big Burn Walk is one of my favourite short walks in the north. Located near Dunrobin Castle, you can access the small car park in less than 2 minutes by car or walk there from the Dunrobin car park. It's also possible to access the Big Burn Walk from Golspie itself.
What's unique about the Big Burn Walk is its meandering path through a beautiful gorge. Wooden bridges crisscross the stream and eventually take you to a large waterfall within a hidden grotto.
Let's head back onto the A9 and head east to our final destination of the day - Carn Liath Broch.
Carn Liath Broch
Parking for Carn Liath is on the north side of the A9 on your left. A short walk west to the road crossing will take you on the path to this ancient roundhouse.
Carn Liath Broch is over 2000 years old and was a type of storage and defensive structure for settlements in north Scotland during the Iron Age. It's a fascinating site to explore, and information boards are available. Visiting Carn Liath is free.
Day 4 West of Dornoch
Let's head west out of Dornoch again and join onto the A9. Initially, we will travel southwest and then leave the A9 to join the A949 heading west. For your interest, Skibo Castle is on your left, a short distance along the A949, but today, it is a private members club only open to the richest of visitors.
Staying on the A949, you will eventually reach Bonar Bridge, known for its picturesque modern suspension bridge. The town has much to offer, including a golf course, a Spar convenience store, and the popular Crannog restaurant.
Just over the bridge to the west, you can find "The Hub", a cafe and soft play centre, ideal if you have small children.
If you want to continue southwest to Ardgay, there is a lovely forest walk at Gearrchoille Wood and fishing options with TroutQuest.
Balblair Mountain Bike Trails
Leaving Bonar Bridge and travelling north on the A836, you will come upon Balblair MTB Trails; this is your route if you love mountain biking. There are also walking areas and picnic tables.
Falls of Shin
Continuing north on the A836, look for a left turn to the A837. Cross the Shin Bridge and take the right turn along the B864. The road will follow the River Shin, and you will eventually arrive at the Falls of Shin Car Park.
The Falls of Shin is our leading destination for today! The main attraction is the large, powerful waterfall, where between May and September, it's possible to see salmon leaping up the raging torrent to reach their spawning grounds further upstream on the River Shin.
In addition to the waterfall, the site has a great deal to offer:
A gorgeous cafe and gift shop.
A large car park with areas for motor homes to stay overnight.
Electric car charging points.
A large adventure playground.
Beautiful forest walks.
The food at the cafe here is all sourced from the local estate; you can definitely taste the difference!
Lairg / Loch Shin
After the Falls of Shin, you can opt to travel further north to Lairg, which is found on the shores of Loch Shin. The Ord Archaeology Trail at Lairg offers a walk to some of the best prehistoric sites in north Scotland, including chambered cairns from 3000 BC. If archaeology isn't your thing, the views over Loch Shin from the trail are magnificent. Start your walk from the brilliant Ferrycross Visitor Centre.
Highland Shooting Centre
Another optional activity, if you have time, is a visit to Highland Shooting Centre, which is about 15 minutes west of the Falls of Shin via the A837. The biggest draw for tourists would be the clay pigeon shooting, which lasts one hour and costs £80 per person. All shooting targets are clay pigeons; there is no game shooting here.
Day 5 South of Dornoch
If you are staying for a 5th day in Dornoch, a few sites to the south are worth your consideration. Follow the A9 south from Dornoch and cross the Dornoch Firth Bridge to Tain.
Tain Museum is a small but interesting museum found within the churchyard in central Tain. The displays include information on the Tain silversmiths, the Highland Clearances, Pictish stones and medieval life in Tain. The staff are super knowledgable and enthusiastic. No fees are charged for entry, but donations are accepted.
Tain Links Play Park & Alexandra Bridge
Near Tain Golf Course, you can find a good-sized play park and a small skate park. Walking past the play park, you will come across Alexandra Bridge and walk across it to access the far bank of the River Tain. The bridge is a little rickety, though!
Tarbat Discovery Centre
Leaving Tain via Ankerville Street, travelling east, let's head to Portmahomack, home to the Tarbat Discovery Centre.
This interesting museum is located within an old church building. Mostly dedicated to the Pictish community who once lived at the site, you could easily spend a couple of hours getting lost in the history. Entry is £5 but 100% worth it!
To the north of Pormahomock is a popular viewpoint for dolphin spotting. A small car park can be found here, but sadly there is no guarantee of seeing the dolphins when you visit.
Tarbat Ness Lighthouse
Leaving Portmahomock on "Golf Course Road", travel northeast to visit Tarbat Ness Lighthouse. The building isn't publicly accessible, but it's a nice place to take a little road trip. If you decided to stay at Grannie's Heilan' Hame, this is the lighthouse you can see shining across the Dornoch Firth at night.
It's possible to walk past the lighthouse and reach Wilkhaven Point, another great place for dolphin spotting, but the real attraction is the scenic walk to the most eastern part of the Easter Ross peninsula.
An optional place to visit, this time southeast of Tain, is the Shandwick Stone. This ancient Pictish stone is encased in a protective enclosure, but it's still possible to see this amazing artefact's fine details clearly. Parking is quite limited near the access point for the stone.
FAQs on travelling around Dornoch
Here are a few frequently asked questions about travelling around the Dornoch area:
Is Dornoch Scotland worth visiting?
Yes, Dornoch, Scotland, is definitely worth visiting, especially if you appreciate history, natural beauty, golf, and the charm of a quintessential Highland town. Here are some reasons why Dornoch is considered a worthwhile destination:
Historical Significance: Dornoch has a rich history, evident in its beautifully preserved buildings. The 13th-century Dornoch Cathedral is a notable example. Historylinks Museum, just off the town centre, is well worth visiting to learn more about the town's history.
Royal Dornoch Golf Club: The Royal Dornoch Golf Club is a major attraction for golf enthusiasts. It's frequently ranked among the top golf courses in the world and offers a classic links experience on a championship golf course.
Beautiful Beaches: The sandy Dornoch Beach is a serene spot ideal for walks, picnics, or simply enjoying the sea views. The adjacent dunes also provide a picturesque backdrop. Walking from Dornoch Beach to Embo Beach is also highly recommended.
Natural Beauty: The surrounding landscapes, including the Dornoch Firth and nearby natural reserves like Loch Fleet, offer stunning views and wildlife spotting opportunities.
Whisky Distilleries: The Scottish Highlands are renowned for whisky, while in Dornoch, you're within reach of several distilleries. A short drive away is the town of Tain, home to the famous Glenmorangie Distillery.
Unique Shopping & Local Crafts: Dornoch offers a range of boutique shops where you can find unique gifts, crafts, and local products.
Charming Atmosphere: The town has a laid-back, peaceful atmosphere, perfect for those looking to escape the hustle and bustle of larger cities.
Proximity to Other Attractions: Dornoch's location in the Highlands is a great base or stopping point for exploring other parts of northern Scotland, including the North Coast 500 route, one of Scotland's most scenic drives.
Do you get midges in Dornoch?
Midges aren't as bad on the east coast as on the west, but midges can bite you anywhere in Scotland. Read my Midge Survival Guide for mitigating problems from this annoying pest.
Can you visit Dornoch Cathedral?
Yes, it's possible to visit both the cathedral interior and the cemetery.
Is Dornoch on the NC500?
Yes, Dornoch is just off the North Coast 500 route, a short distance east of the A9 motorway.
Where is the best place to buy food near Dornoch?
Central Dornoch does have a Co-op convenience store directly west of the cathedral; however, it's a little expensive with touristy prices. Consider the Lidl, Tesco or ASDA in the nearby village of Tain for a cheaper alternative.
Where is the best place to stay in Dornoch?
We love the caravans at Grannie's Heilan' Hame Holiday Park at Embo. If you decide to stay here, it's worth stumping up the extra cash to stay in a caravan that has a sea view. Sitting on the balcony over your caravan, looking out to the sea is truly lovely.
Where is the best place to buy fuel near Dornoch?
Evelix Service Station is the closest fuel point near Dornoch; prices can vary, and Evelix can sometimes be cheaper or more expensive than the superstores in Tain. If you are looking for the cheapest prices, drive through Tain on your way to Dornoch and take note of the fuel prices at ASDA and Tesco.
If you're not too fussed with the price, Evelix is the most convenient for fuel at Dornoch and also has a nice cafe.
Key information on the Dornoch Travel Itinerary
Dornoch is a quaint town in north Scotland on the east coast.
The town has much to offer in terms of history, restaurants, beaches and accommodation.
North of Dornoch has many lovely places to visit, including Loch Fleet, Skelbo Castle, Golspie, Dunrobin Castle, The Big Burn Walk and Carn Liath Broch.
West of Dornoch has lovely driving routes alongside the Dornoch Firth up to Bonar Bridge.
The Falls of Shin is a lovely place to visit, great for food, forest walks, and the roaring waterfall.
Tain has a great deal to offer south of Dornoch.
I hope this travel itinerary for the Dornoch area has given you some ideas for your trip to this beautiful area of Scotland.
The locations mentioned in this itinerary are on the North Coast 500 route, so it could be combined with a longer trip, taking in more of the route travelling anti-clockwise around North Scotland.
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