Dornoch

Written by Chris Thornton | 10th of November 2021
Visit Dornoch in the Scottish Highlands

Dornoch is a beautifully picturesque town in the north Scottish Highlands, on the east coast. Located a short distance off the A9 it can be easy to drive past, but pull in when you see the signs if you are on the North Coast 500, it is a great wee village with a great deal to offer.

My wife and I first discovered Dornoch on a trip up to Grannie's Hielan' Hame at nearby Embo. We walked along the long sandy beach between the towns and explored this 1000-year-old village complete with jail, courthouse, castle and cathedral.

The town itself is very pretty with many old cottages around the centre. They are built from a brown/honey-coloured stone which is very aesthetically pleasing.

One of the many pretty cottages in Dornoch

Castle Street

Dornoch Cathedral

Dornoch Cathedral dominates the village taking up centre stage along Castle Street. Built in 1224 it is the main feature in the village and everything seems to sprout off from there with the castle and old town jail just across the road from Cathedral Green. Please read more about Dornoch Cathedral in my dedicated article.

Exterior view of Dornoch Cathedral

View of the castle hotel

Dornoch Castle

Although named a castle, this was actually a palace built for the Bishops of Caithness in 1500. Today it is a very popular hotel on the North Coast 500.

The Jail retail store at Dornoch

Old Town Jail

This 19th-century jail was transformed in the year 2000 into a shop containing many fine items such as clothes, accessories and gifts. The 5000 square foot retail space does a good job of retaining the historical elements of the jail as well as showing off their lovely products in a contemporary way. You can still view the cells and learn how prisoners were treated at this time. It is a lovely shop, but very expensive!

Inside the Old Town Jail

Cocoa Mountain

A relatively new addition to the town, this shop/cafe deals with everything chocolate and was featured in the popular TV show Dragons Den. Try the hot chocolate which they say is the best in the world! An expensive but worthwhile treat.

High Street

This street has many bakeries and small cafes, including the awesome Sandstone Cafe. On the east side is the Dornoch Bookshop which is nice for a look around and stocks some great children's books. They sometimes have a little coffee kiosk outside too!

Dornoch Bookshop

View of the cathedral from the other side of Dornoch

A brief history of Dornoch

The area at Dornoch has been settled for at least 7000 years with evidence of neolithic farmers building chambered cairns similar to the ones found at Clava Cairns.

The medieval settlement was established around 540 and credited to Saint Finbarr of Caithness and Ulster. Evidence of this settlement has been found at Schoolhill with the possible ruins of a church in the Cathedral graveyard.

Vikings would have invaded the early Dornoch settlement around 850 and into the 9th century. Eventually, peace was achieved and the Vikings coexisted with locals and integrated into the community. Place names such as Skibo, Skelbo and Embo show the lasting legacy of the Viking presence in the area.

In 1224, Gilbert de Moravia begins the construction of the Dornoch Cathedral.

Very little information exists of Dornoch from 1300 to 1600.

In 1570 there were bitter feuds between the Earls of Sutherland and the Earls of Huntly, resulting in the burning of the town and cathedral which would lay in ruin for decades to come.

The status of Royal Burgh was conferred on Dornoch in 1628 by Charles I, with the help of Sir Robert Gordon, who also made extensive repairs to the Cathedral.

In 1727, Dornoch bore witness to the last execution of someone charged with witchcraft in Scotland. Janet Horne was accused of turning her daughter into a pony and getting Satan to shoe the horse! Suffering from dementia Janet was in no fit state to defend herself from the accusations. A witch's stone exists in a private garden and marks the site where she warmed herself by the fire in blissful ignorance of what was to come.

The Jacobites were active in Sutherland in 1746 and occupied, looted and burned Dornoch in March of that year before they moved on to the historic Battle of Culloden.

The 19th century saw Dornoch become a hub of government as well as a refuge for victims of the infamous Highland clearances.

As time passed Dornoch developed itself more and more for tourism, with Golf being the main attraction in the mid-1800s. American industrialist Andrew Carnegie at nearby Skibo castle bolstered the areas appeal as a wealthy tourist destination.

The Courthouse

Golf Courses at Dornoch

Dornoch is a fantastic base to stay if you are a golf lover, with its very own expansive Royal Dornoch Golf Club to which many golfers from around the world make the pilgrimage to play on the natural links. Golspie Golf Club is also a short drive to the north... both courses have stunning scenery and fantastic views out to sea.

8th hole at Royal Dornoch Golf Course | Golf courses in north Scotland

Historylinks Museum

There is an absolutely fantastic museum in Dornoch which is one of the very few rated 5 star in Scotland. It can be found south of the Cathedral on "The Meadows" street. It has a great deal of information on Dornoch and the local area, including the witch hunt mentioned above.

Where is the best place to eat in Dornoch?

We really loved Sandstone Cafe (formerly Dornoch Patisserie), the food is fantastic and made with love... it's worth a visit for the cakes alone! Read more with the dedicated article on Sandstone Cafe here. If you're looking for fine dining The Court Room or Luigi's Restaurant are good, further along Castle Street.

Glazed Ham, Cheddar and Tomato Panini at Sandstone Cafe

Where is the best place to stay in Dornoch?

We haven't stayed yet, but the Dornoch Castle Hotel looks fantastic. You will probably need to book far in advance due to its popularity but how fun would it be to stay in a real castle for a night? They also have a fine selection of Whisky!

The Court Room restaurant

What time of year is best to visit Dornoch?

As always in Scotland, the spring and summer are probably best. The Dornoch area does seem to almost have its own micro-climate, we have stayed in July and it has been unusually warm. On a couple of occasions, we would have thought we were in Spain with the warm sunshine and golden sandy beaches. The beach from Dornoch to Embo is spectacular.

Tourist board

Are there any castles to visit near Dornoch?

Dunrobin Castle is a short drive from Dornoch, and it is one of the finest castles in Scotland. On the way to Dunrobin exists the fascinating ruin of Skelbo Castle, you can also stop at the layby below the castle and see seals basking on Loch Fleet. Skibo Castle also lies to the west of Dornoch. Please click these links to read more about Dunrobin Castle and Skelbo Castle.

The Big Burn Walk at Golspie and the Falls of Shin further to the west near Bonar Bridge are also lovely places to visit near Dornoch.

Celebrity visits to Dornoch

Madonna had her son christened at Dornoch Cathedral in December of 2000 and was married at nearby Skibo Castle. Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk was married at the Cathedral in 2012.

Picture of Dornoch in the Scottish Highlands

Conclusion

Dornoch is a perfect stop on your trip around north Scotland, with many great places to stay and a plethora of superb food options, it should be high on your list.

Location of Dornoch

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