Dunrobin Castle was one of the first places my wife and I visited on our first tour around the Dornoch area. We had seen it across the Dornoch Firth from Embo as this large white building, only getting the smallest hint at its true grandeur.
Up close you can truly appreciate the scope of one of Scotland's great houses, often called the "Jewel in the crown of the Highlands". Located in the northern Highlands overlooking the Moray Firth and Dornoch Bay, Dunrobin Castle is one of the oldest continuously inhabited houses in Scotland, dating back to the early 14th century.
It has been in the Sutherland family for over seven hundred years and is still home to Lord Strathnaver / Earl of Sutherland - Alastair Charles St Clair Sutherland who resides in the private wing.
Perched on a terrace high above its walled garden it resembles a French château, complete with conical towers and chamfered windows. The front of the castle looks entirely different to the rear, I guess due to the additions to the castle over hundreds of years which even includes a clock tower.
Dunrobin is a magnificent castle with architectural influences from Sir Charles Barry who designed London's houses of parliament - and Scottish architect Sir Robert Lorimer. It has 189 rooms!
Dunrobin Castle History
Here is a very brief outline of the history of Dunrobin Castle ordered by date.
1235 - The creation of the Earldom of Sutherland, it's possible an early medieval fort existed at the site of the castle.
1401 - First mentioned as the ancestral home of Clan Sutherland, one of the most powerful families in Britain.
1512 - Following the death of the 8th Earl of Sutherland the castle went to Adam Gordon through marriage.
1427 - The name Dubrobin may have originated from Robert, the 6th Earl of Sutherland meaning "Robin's Hill" in Gaelic.
1600 - At a more peaceful time, the castle was extended with a large house.
1746 - The castle was captured by the Jacobites as the Sutherlands were always supporters of the government... however the Earl escaped to Aberdeen by boat and later returned to reclaim the castle. Dunrobin was the last castle in Scotland to be taken in war.
1807 - George Levenson-Gower, the first Duke of Sutherland initiates the infamous Highland clearances.
1870 - Dunrobin Castle gets its own private railway station, still maintained today and is a category B listed building.
1914 - During the first world war, the castle was used as a naval hospital.
1915 - A fire extensively damages the interior of the castle and Sir Robert Lorimer was given the task to renovate the castle.
1940 - The castle was again used as a hospital during world war 2.
1965 - Dunrobin Castle has a short run as a boys boarding school.
1972 - The school was closed and the castle went back to private accommodation for the Sutherland family.
1973 - The Castle and gardens are opened to the public.
Interior Tour of Dunrobin Castle
The self-guided tour around Dunrobin Castle is fantastic. You follow a one-way system around the interior of the castle, taking in many fine sights and rooms along the way. You can take your time and make your way around at your own pace without feeling too rushed. Strategically placed information boards around the circuit provide much-needed insight into each area of this wonderful castle.
Although the tour is not guided there are some staff members in some of the rooms who are more than happy to tell you about the room and answer any questions you might have.
Our entry to the castle was quite reasonably priced at £36.50 for a family of five, the tickets themselves make for a nice souvenir.
Entrance hall and staircase
The first area you arrive at is the entrance hall with its grand large staircase complete with chandelier, portraits and stags heads adorning the walls.
This grand dining room was designed by Sir Robert Lorimer in the early 1900s after a fire damaged the castle in 1915. There is a Khorassan carpet on the floor and a fine silver dining set made in Georgian and Victorian times. The 22 Jacobean style dining chairs each have their own unique family coat of arms.
The Music Room
The centrepiece of the Music room is a beautiful grand piano, it would have been great to hear the acoustics of the room with all its wood panelling. There are many fine paintings on the walls, including one of an Irish Chieftain - Sir Neil O'Neil, 2nd Baronet of Killeleagh.
The Drawing Room
This room is home to many fine items of furniture, the centrepiece being an XVI French table made by Joseph Baumhauer between 1745 and 1772. The walls are adorned with beautiful tapestries depicting scenes from Greek life.
Housing over 10,000 books, Dunrobin is home to a fine library with many rare books. Items of interest include a globe of the world and a Georgian reading rest. The room is beautifully lined with sycamore wood throughout to the specification of Sir Robert Lorimer.
The Ladies sitting room
Another room with walls decorated with fine tapestries, commissioned for a visit from Queen Victoria in 1872.
The Military Room
A fascinating room containing a range of weapons, uniforms, medals and flags of the 93rd Highlanders.
The Gift Shop
At the end of your tour, you can visit the gift shop containing a wide variety of items related to the castle and Scotland including tote bags, chocolates and jams. It was a welcome change to see the items here were not ludicrously overpriced like many places. We purchased some fridge magnets (our new goal for each new place we visit). The till ladies were really nice and chatted with the kids enthusiastically.
Dunrobin Castle Gardens
Walking around the Victorian gardens at Dunrobin is very peaceful and serene. The gardens were designed by Sir Charles Barry and arranged into two parterres with circular pools with inspiration taken from the gardens of Versailles. There are many opportunities here to get fantastic photos of the castle. The best place for a family shot is at the fountain in the main parterre with the castle in the background.
It's possible to walk around all areas of the formal garden and there are a lot of hidden details, such as gravestones from a horse cemetery and a greek sacrificial altar.
The Falconry displays in Dunrobin Castle gardens are one of the highlights of a visit to the castle. There are two displays daily at 11.30 am and 2.30 pm featuring Peregrine, Gyrfalcon and Harris hawks. You can learn about how these birds of prey hunt and survive from the resident falconer. On our visit, there were also owls and some other varieties of birds.
The Falconer swings a baited line around his head (like a cowboy) and the birds swoop down and grab it, it really shows off the hunting prowess of these fine birds. The kids really loved this show and it was highly educational.
Just to the side of the gardens is a Victorian Museum. It is an interesting place full of curios and stuffed animals from the local area as well as animals shot on safari trips to Africa. The museum also includes an important collection of Pictish stones. I have never actually been into the museum despite visiting the castle on multiple occasions... the taxidermy just makes me feel really uncomfortable for some reason.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does anyone live in Dunrobin Castle?
Yes, Lord Strathnaver / Earl of Sutherland - Alastair Charles St Clair Sutherland currently resides at Dunrobin Castle in the private wing.
Can you go inside Dunrobin Castle?
Yes, there is a fantastic self-guided tour around many rooms.
Is Dunrobin Castle haunted?
What good would a Scottish castle be without its very own ghost story? Dunrobin is said to be haunted by the daughter of the 14th Earl - a young woman named Margaret. The earl did not approve of her suitor and she was no longer allowed to see him. This prompted an escape attempt from an upstairs window where she, unfortunately, fell to her death.
She is said to roam the upper corridors of the castle, wailing about her lost love and early demise.
Are there any nice walks near Dunrobin Castle?
The Big Burn Walk is a brilliant walk a short distance away from the castle. The walk follows a gorge with waterfalls, bridges and streams, a truly pleasant walk. The coastal walk is also great with views of the castle.
It's also possible to walk from Dunrobin all the way to the summit of Ben Bhraggie, to see the (much-maligned) Duke of Sutherland statue.
Golspie Golf Club offers excellent facilities if you would like to partake in a few rounds on your visit to Golspie.
A visit to Dunrobin Castle makes for an excellent day out in the northern highlands. Not only for the enormous magnificent castle and gardens but the history on offer. The falconry display adds to the perfect day out. Dunrobin is a must-see on your visit to Sutherland and is my second favourite castle in Scotland.