Dornoch Cathedral

Written by Chris Thornton | 14th of September 2021
Exterior view of Dornoch Cathedral

The Royal Burgh of Dornoch is a fantastic little coastal village in northern Scotland. My wife and I often stayed at Grannies Hielan Hame near Dornoch over the past 15 years and love to visit the town for a look around its many shops and tourist attractions... and of course, lunch at Sandstone Cafe is a must.

At the centre of Dornoch lies Dornoch Cathedral a 13th Century Parish Church which dominates the town skyline and has greatly influenced its layout and development over time.

The Cathedral itself is a stunning building with interesting features such as the clock tower, magnificent stained glass windows, gargoyles and cemetery. The graveyard is interesting and fun to try and find the oldest dates on the headstones. Today it is a Category A listed building.

Exterior view of Dornoch Cathedral

Dornoch Cathedral's earlier history

1222 - A new Bishop of Caithness

Gilbert de Moravia was the first Earl of Sutherland and related to the Earls of Moray with links to Skelbo CastleDuffus Castle and Moray. Gilbert was elected Bishop of Caithness. Gilbert's predecessor "Adam of Melrose" had been brutally burned to death by the husbandmen of Caithness, Orkney (part of the Kingdom of Norway at the time) so Gilbert wisely moved the bishopric from Halkirk to Dornoch and the protection of King Alexander II of Scotland.

1224/1239 - Construction of the Cathedral

It is unknown exactly when construction began and was completed, but records show it to be between 1224 and 1239. Amazingly Gilbert built Dornoch Cathedral at his own expense and set up hospices for the poor.

1245 - The death of Gilbert

Gilbert died in 1245 was buried at Dornoch Cathedral and was known as one of the noblest and wisest ecclesiastics the mediaeval church produced. Gilbert was the last Scottish saint to appear in the Calendar of Saints, but it is unknown if he was ever officially canonised.

Exterior view of Dornoch Cathedral

1570 - Scottish Reformations

From its completion until 1570, the Cathedral was left in its original state, but in 1570 it was attacked during a clan feud between the Murrays of Dornoch and Mackays of Strathnaver. Fire-ravaged the Cathedral and Gilbert's tomb was sadly vandalised. All that remained was the chancel and transept walls. Almost totally destroyed the Cathedral would languish in this state until 1835.

1835-1837 - Elizabeth, Duchess Countess of Sutherland

Although Sir Robert Gordon partially restored the Cathedral in 1616, it wasn't until 1835 that through the generosity of Elizabeth, Duchess Countess of Sutherland that the work was finally completed, but with the addition of the Sutherland burial vault. Costs were £15,000, which would be £1,370,000 in today's money! Controversially parts of the cathedral were demolished - mainly the nave which was made more narrow and without pillars.

Even though Dornoch was no longer a Roman Catholic Church since the reformations, it still retained the title of Cathedral as a nod to the church's long and storied history.

1866 - Royal Visit

The Prince and Princess of Wales and the Duke of Edinburgh attended a morning service at the cathedral.

The early 1900s - Andrew Carnegie

American industrialist Andrew Carnegie often holidayed at his estate at Skibo, four miles from Dornoch. Carnegie donated two church organs to the Cathedral in 1893 and again in 1909.

Upon his death, three stained glass windows were donated to the church in his memory located on the north side of the chancel. The three windows represent music, peace and literacy, all loved by Carnegie.

Exterior view of Dornoch Cathedral

Worship at Dornoch Cathedral Presbyterian Church

The congregation at the Cathedral church is part of The Church of Scotland, an organisation with 330,000 members and 800 ministers they seek to inspire Scottish people through nurturing and serving their wider community. The parish covers the areas between Dornoch and Embo, as well as the areas around Loch Fleet. The parish has sister churches to help spread their message in the area.

Church Service

There is a service every Sunday at 11 am, conducted by the Very Rev. Dr Susan Brown. I am not religious so have never attended the service, but it seems very popular with people dressed in their Sunday best. The congregation seems to fill the cafes and restaurants after the service so must be great for local business.

Through the generosity of the congregation, donations made to the people of Kamusa in Zambia Africa have allowed them to construct a bigger church with a zinc roof.

Interior view of Dornoch Cathedral

Concerts at Dornoch Cathedral

The Cathedral is well known for its acoustic properties and concerts and choral performances are held throughout the year. See the Dornoch Cathedral diary for more information.

Why does Dornoch have a Cathedral?

Gilbert de Moravia moved the bishopric from Halkirk to Dornoch in 1222 for safety reasons and personally funded the construction of Dornoch Cathedral.

Did Madonna get married in Dornoch cathedral?

No, Madonna married Guy Ritchie on the 22nd of December 2000 at Skibo Castle. However Rev Susan Brown did officiate the wedding. Madonna and Richie did christen their son at the Cathedral.

Elon Musk and Talulah Riley are other famous celebrities who married at the Cathedral in 2012.

Is it possible to get married at Dornoch Cathedral?

Yes, it's possible but there are a few stipulations and costs to bear in mind. Please see the Dornoch Cathedral website for more information.

Exterior view of Dornoch Cathedral


Dornoch is a beautiful village to visit and the Cathedral is the icing on the cake. More information can be found at the Historylinks Museum in Dornoch. Please also read more about Dornoch on my dedicated article here.

Location of Dornoch Cathedral


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