The best things to do in Dornoch

Written by Chris Thornton | 12th of September 2022
Best things to do in Dornoch

Dornoch is one of the first stops on the famous North Coast 500 road trip in north Scotland; however, it's worth staying a little longer than a quick stopover. There are so many things to do in and around Dornoch, including beautiful beaches, castles, museums and nature reserves with many different species of wildlife to see.

Read on to find out my list of the best things to do in and around the Royal Burgh of Dornoch.

Dornoch Beach

The tranquil golden sands of Dornoch Beach stretch from the town to the nearby village of Embo and further to the Loch Fleet nature reserve. To the south, you will arrive at the mouth of the Dornoch Firth, a stunning area of wild natural beauty.

I have personally seen seals, dolphins and moon jellyfish on this beach.

This stunning stretch of coastline has been given a "Seaside Award" for its clean bathing opportunities. Dornoch Caravan & Camping Park lie a short distance from the beach, and Royal Dornoch Golf Club and its associated golf course run most of its length.

Dornoch Castle Hotel

Perhaps the most famous hotel in central Dornoch, it's easy to see the attraction of staying the night within this imposing-looking structure. Initially built in the 1500s as a home to the bishops of Caithness, its tumultuous history includes being burned, ruined and rebuilt as a school and prison, then later a court house and headquarters of the Sheriff of Sutherland.

Since 1947 it has been run as a luxury hotel and is famous for its castle tower rooms. Please have a look at the Old Courtroom room; it definitely looks the part.

The ghost of Andrew McCornish is said the haunt the hotel, hanged for stealing sheep!

Funnily enough, Dornoch Castle Hotel is located on "Castle Street" along with Dornoch Jail and Carnegie Courthouse, both also worthy of your time.

Dornoch Castle Hotel on Castle Street.
Dornoch Castle Hotel.

Dornoch Cathedral

The main feature of Dornoch is its large cathedral in the centre of the town. Everything seems to have been built around the cathedral and the castle.

Dornoch Cathedral is an interesting place, the cemetery has many old graves, and the cathedral's design is unique and steeped in history.

Elon Musk, the world's richest man, married here in 2012. Pop singer Madonna and her husband Guy Ritchie had their son Rocco christened at Dornoch Cathedral in the year 2000.

Dornoch Cathedral within the quaint town of Dornoch.
Dornoch Cathedral.

Historylinks Museum

Not far from the bustling town centre, Historylinks Museum is a hidden gem of a place brimming with the local history of Dornoch and the surrounding area. It's pretty small and unassuming but has some very interesting items inside, including medieval jewellery, Viking artefacts (including a beautifully made bracelet) and even a golf club workshop recreation.  The museum also includes information on Janet Horne, the last witch to be executed in Scotland.

Children get in free, so it's well worth taking them along to learn some of the fascinating histories within this 5-star Dornoch museum.

Historylinks Museum, visit Dornoch, it's a lovely place.
Historylinks Museum.

Cocoa Mountain Cafe

Famous for its appearance on the hit TV show Dragons Den, this cafe claims to have "the best hot chocolate". Why not pop in and try it for yourself, along with one of their chocolate brownies? Great coffee is served here, too, if you don't have a sweet tooth!

Cocoa Mountain, one of the top attractions in Dornoch.
Cocoa Mountain.

Sandstone Cafe

Sandstone Cafe is our favourite place to eat in Dornoch. The food is absolutely delicious, and the cakes are to die for... try their apple pie with extra cream and ice cream!

Located directly next to the cathedral, it's a real treat at lunchtime.

Sandstone Cafe in Dornoch in Scotland, Great Britain.
Sandstone Cafe.

Royal Dornoch Golf Club

Not far from Dornoch Beach is Royal Dornoch Golf Club. Founded in 1877, this course is ranked 13th in the world and is high on the list of pro golfers worldwide. 18-holes, challenging terrain and stunning views over the Dornoch Firth, what's not to love?

The golf course at Dornoch.
Dornoch Golf Club.

Dornoch Firth

The area around the Dornoch Firth is an area of stunning natural beauty and is designated as a national scenic area - one of forty in Scotland.

Ospreys, otters, and seals are a common sight in the waters of the firth.

Dornoch Firth Viewpoint (also called Cadha Mòr or Struie Hill Viewpoint) is a fantastic vantage point to take in the scenery of the fifth; find it on the B9176 / Struie Road.

Grannies Heilan Hame & Embo Beach

Grannies Heilan Hame is a caravan site and holiday park located directly next to the small town of Embo and shares its beautiful golden beach.

My family and I often spend a week at "Grannies" in the summer months every year; it's the perfect seaside holiday in north Scotland. The weather is often fantastic, the beach is great for the kids, and the facilities include a swimming pool, play park, crazy golf and a chip shop!

Caravan view at Embo Beach.
The view of Embo Beach from a caravan at Grannies Heilan Hame.

Skelbo Castle

On the Golspie road, Skelbo Castle is a craggy old ruin built on the hill overlooking Loch Fleet. This castle was built by the same castle builders that built Duffus Castle in Moray and has links to Gilbert de Moravia, who built Dornoch Cathedral.

Skelbo was famously purchased by Russian billionaire Mikhail de Buar to buy the title of "Baron". After his death, there has been much contention over the current ownership of the castle, leaving it to languish in a state of disrepair.

The ruin of Skelbo Castle.
Skelbo Castle.

Loch Fleet

The meandering single-track road passing Loch Fleet has many places to stop, and you should, as this is a stunning area of natural beauty with much wildlife to be seen. The most popular are the seals, which can be easily seen on the sand banks and shallow waters of the loch... but more recently, ospreys have made their home here and can be seen fishing - a most impressive sight.

Seals basking at Loch Fleet, north Scotland.
Seals of Loch Fleet.

Dunrobin Castle

Located north of Dornoch and near Golspie, Dunrobin Castle is known as the most northerly of Scotland's great houses. It truly is a fairytale castle and is a must-see while in the Dornoch area.

Not only is there a fantastic self-guided tour around the castle, but the gardens are also lovely and include a falconry show twice per day. Just off the garden is a museum with many local artefacts, including engraved Pictish stones.

Dunrobin Castle.
Dunrobin Castle.

Big Burn Walk

Not far from Dunrobin Castle is the Big Burn Walk, one of our favourite walks in the Scottish Highlands. This scenic route takes you down into a deep valley within an ancient forest; small bridges crisscross the gentle stream below and take you to a large, beautiful waterfall.

This walk can be taken from Golspie, the castle, or its dedicated car park. The walk can also be combined with a much longer hike to the Duke of Sutherland monument high on Ben Bhraggie, which overlooks many of the places mentioned in this article.

The main waterfall at the Big Burn Walk.
Big Burn Walk waterfall.

Carn Liath Broch

If you're interested in Scotland's ancient history, there is a well-preserved 2300-year-old Broch about 5 minutes drive further north from Dunrobin Castle. Brochs were used as storage and defensive structures; settlements were usually built around them. There are thought to be as many as 500 brochs around north Scotland and the Scottish islands.

The Carn Liath Broch is well worth a stop while on the NC500 or just as an added extra after visiting Dunrobin Castle or the Big Burn Walk. There is a dedicated car park and informational boards provided by Historic Environment Scotland.

Carn Liath Broch.
Carn Liath Broch.

Golspie Golf Club

Golspie has an excellent golf club with beautiful sea views over the Dornoch Firth - this is an exceptional place to play golf. Renowned course designer James Braid improved upon this already fantastic course in 1926, adding to its popularity in the golfing world.

The clubhouse also serves excellent food and some of the best whiskies available.

Golf courses near Dornoch, Golspie Golf Club.
Golspie Golf Club.

Fyrish Monument

Driving along the A9 on the NC500, you will likely catch a glimpse of this strange monument, high on the hill near Alness. From a distance, it kind of looks like a cross between stone henge and figures holding hands, but as you get closer, it resembles a castle battlements.

Constructed by Sir Hector Munro as a folly in 1782 to keep locals at work, it resembles the Gate of Negapatam from Madras, India.

The walk to the monument is not to be sniffed at 3.75 miles, but well worth it for the breathtaking views over the Cromarty Firth and Ben Wyvis in the far distance. It's often possible to see many oil rigs in the firth.

Fyrish Monument
Fyrish Monument.

The Falls of Shin

This waterfall is around 30 minutes northwest of Dornoch. The Falls of Shin is known for its salmon leaping up the falls from May to September, looking to lay their eggs further upstream. There is a dedicated viewing platform where you can view the falls and salmon leaping if you're lucky.

The site also has an excellent restaurant/visitor centre, play area and forest walks. The food at the restaurant is exceptional, with most of it being sourced from the estate itself.

Salmon jumping at the Falls of Shin.
Salmon jumping at the Falls of Shin.

What are the best day trip destinations from Dornoch?

Other than those mentioned in this article, here are some great day trip destinations from Dornoch:

  • The Fairy Glen Falls - A wonderful walk through a forested valley with two lovely waterfalls, well worth the detour from the NC500.

     

  • Chanonry Point - By far, the best place to see dolphins in Scotland is Chanonry Point. This peninsula of land juts out into the Moray Firth and is perfect for watching the dolphins feed. There is a dedicated car park directly next to the lighthouse.

  • Duke of Sutherland Monument - it's a fair hike to get to the top of Ben Bhraggie and the statue of the Duke of Sutherland. The Infamous Duke was responsible for much of the Highland clearances over the northern Highlands.

  • Rogie Falls - A bit of a drive but a lovely destination for a forest walk and to take in a spectacular waterfall from the suspension bridge.

  • Redcastle - A little-known ruined castle on the shores of the Beauly Firth. You can't enter the castle, but it's a nice area and a short walk for those with poorer fitness levels.

Chanonry Point with lighthouse.
Chanonry Point, a great place to see dolphins.
 
The dolphins of Chanonry Point.
Dolphins!
 
Rogie Falls.
Rogie Falls.
 
Redcastle near Inverness.
Redcastle.
 
The Duke of Sutherland Monument.
Duke of Sutherland monument looking back towards Dornoch.

Conclusion

My wife and I love the Dornoch area and return yearly with our young family.

For some reason, the weather always seems to be favourable in the summer months, the kids love the beaches, there are great eateries in Dornoch, and with history everywhere you look, you are never short of something to see or do while visiting Dornoch.

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