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Dornoch was a former royal burgh renowned for its golf course, the last place a witch was burnt in Scotland and is long sandy beaches. Few people had heard of or visited Dornoch before Madonna chose to have her son christened in the Cathedral in 2000. Now it is a popular stop on the tourist route and can get busy with coach tours.

Bypassed by the busy A9, it is surrounded by fertile agricultural land and overlooked by distant mountains. On the Dornoch Firth, it is surrounded by sandy beaches.

The history of the town is sketchy as there is a lack of documented and archaeological evidence. The Norse invaded and settled the area in the C9th intermarrying with the local population and there are many Norse place names. The first direct reference to a settlement is in the C12th, when David I founded the Diocese of Caithness during the C12th century. Originally based at Halkirk in Caithness, the seat of the diocese was moved to Dornoch in 1224 when Gilbert de Moravia was made bishop and he was responsible for building the Cathedral.

Dornoch was very much on the border of the Kings of Scotland who had control of the south of Scotland and Norse Earls who held power in the North. In 1245, a group of Danes landed at Little Ferry to the north of Embo. The Earl of Sutherland asked Richard de Moravia (Bishop Gilbert’s brother) to engage the Danes and hold them in check until he assembled a strong enough force to come to Richard’s aid. The Danes were routed on the arrival of the Earl. However, Richard was killed and was buried in Dornoch Cathedral.

During the C16th there was a power struggle between the Earls of Sutherland and the Gordon Earls of Huntly. Other local families took advantage of this to pursue personal vendettas, resulting in a disastrous fire in 1570 that destroyed much of the town as well as the Cathedral which was left as a roofless shell.

The town was made a Royal Burgh in 1628 by Charles I.

The start of the C19th marked many changes in the town and the present street plan reflects these changes. There had been outbreaks of cholera and smallpox. The route of the old burn was diverted and a new bridge built. Many of the turf houses were cleared and replaced by stone buildings, especially around The Square.



The old Tolbooth and Council House weredemolished and the Jail and Council Chamber relocated to Dornoch Castle. The Duchess of Sutherland paid for the restoration of the Cathedral.


The parish of Dornoch suffered less extensively from the clearances carried out on behalf of Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland and her husband, the Marquis of Stafford (later 1st Duke of Sutherland). The nearby estate of Skelbo was cleared, and along with families that had been removed from other parts of the county found refuge on the edge of Dornoch in the area now known as Littletown.



A light railway arrived in 1902 linking Dornoch to the main line. This brought an increasing number of visitors to the town attracted by the golf courses, scenery and sea air. Wealthy visitors either rented house for the summer months or built their own residences. The Sutherland Arms and Station Hotels were built for the less wealthy. The railway closed in 1960 following improvement in road transport.

Dornoch suffered terribly from the loss of a significant number of young men who were killed or wounded in action during the two World Wars. Foreign troops were stationed in and around Dornoch during both WW1 and WW2. Canadian troops established logging camps in the area, while Norwegian and Indian troops were billeted here during WW2.

Dornoch is a vibrant and busy town with a good range of shops serving as the local service centre for the area. With its sandy beaches and golf, it is still popular with visitors.


The Visitor Information Centre in the Dornoch Hub on Argyll Street has lots of information about the area including a heritage trail leaflet.

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A walk around Dornoch

Dornoch Map.jpg

I began in The Square, a large open area in the centre of the town.


The Visitor Centre is in the Hub on Argyll Street.

The Jail, Courthouse and Castle are along Castle Street.


The History Links Museum is on The Meadows, behind Dornoch Castle. Near it is one of the original wells supplying Dornoch.


The Jail is a large splendid building by The Square. It was built in 1850 with eleven cells for criminals, two rooms for civil prisoners [usually debtors], a sick room, an exercise gallery, airing yard, and accommodation for a keeper. There were complaints the jail was not secure and there were many escapes. The running costs and the lack of crime in the area meant that the government decided it was not worthwhile keeping Dornoch Jail open and it was closed just thirty years later. There are cells in the police station on Argyll Street for the temporary detention of prisoners. The Jail building has now been transformed into a retail space selling upmarkert clothing, jewellery, homewares and gifts.


Next to it is the Courthouse, which had a courtroom on the first floor with a public viewing gallery. It was sold in 2013 and is now a restaurant.


Dornoch Castle Hotel is next to it. This was built around 1500 as the residence of the Bishop. It was never intended for military purposes, or as a public building



It was gifted to John Gordon, 11th Earl of Sutherland in 1557, but was damaged by the fire of 1570. It was restored in the early C18th as a school and jail, and later was also used as the courthouse. It was the headquarters of the Sheriff of Sutherland.
For a while it was a hunting lodge for visiting sportsmen, before becoming a hotel in 1947.

Opposite these buildings is Dornoch Cathedral (#3) dating from the C13th. It was burnt down in the fire of 1570, leaving only the chancel walls and transepts standing. It was fully restored by the Duchess of Sutherland in 1835. In front is an ornate painted cast iron drinking fountain given by Miss Georgina Anderson in 1892. It commemorate the switching on of the public water supply that year, replacing polluted wells. Clean water was brought from hill lochs and sewage was flushed away in sealed drains.


Overlooking the Cathedral Green is Cathedral House, a solidly built stone house dating to around 1820.


Near it is the original post office building, which has now moved into Michell’s Chemist on High Street.


Bridge Street leads north off the Square with Democh Burn running down the side. Set back from the road is the Masonic Hall, Lodge of St Gilbert, dating from the end of the C19th.



Further along Bridge Street at the junction with High Street is the Carnegie Free Library which was gifted to the burgh in 1906 by Andrew Carnegie. (He also funded a lighting system for Dornoch Cathedral as well as a new organ in the Cathedral). The building is still the library and housed the council chamber until 1975.



The remains of the Mercat Cross is on High Street by the churchyard wall. It marked the place where the market was held. As well as a weekly market, by the C17th, Dornoch had seven country fairs , some lasting 2-3 days.

Mercat Cross.jpg

Over the wall in the cathedral grounds there is a flat rectangular stone known as the Plaiden (cloth) Ell. An Ell was the standard 37 inch cloth measurement used at Fairs and Markets held on this site since mediaeval times. It is one of the very few Ells to survive.

Littletown is reached along Church Road past Dornoch Free Church.Tenants cleared from their crofts during the Highland Clearances settled here. There houses can still be seen along Carnaig and Well Street. Initially they would have lived in small turf cottages but these were later replaced by single storey stone buildings. Some of these were later extended with dormer windows. There are some gaps where cottages have been demolished.



The Witch’s Stone is in the garden of the end house on Carnaig Street is dated 1722 (although the execution actually took place in 1727) and marks the place the last execution for (alleged) witchcraft took place in Scotland..


Janet Horne and her daughter were arrested in Dornoch in Scotland and imprisoned on the accusations of their neighbours. Janet was showing signs of senility, and her daughter had a deformity of her hands and feet. The neighbours accused Horne of using her daughter as a pony to ride to the Devil, where she had her shod by him. Stumbling over the Gaelic of the Lord's Prayer at her trial was seen as proof of her guilt. The trial was conducted very quickly with the sheriff judging them both guilty.They were sentenced to be burned at the stake. The daughter managed to escape, but Janet was stripped, smeared with tar, paraded through the town on a barrel and burned alive in 1727.
Dornoch Cathedral

Dornoch Cathedral is set in a walled grassy kirkyard in the centre of Dornoch. Now the parish church and Presbyterian, it is no longer the seat of the Bishop although it retains
the title of cathedral as it was historically the seat of the Bishops of Caithness.

The cathedral is a cross shaped C13th building of red sandstone with steep roofs and a small central tower with a short stumpy spire.



David I founded the Diocese of Caithness during the C12th, based at Halkirk in Caithness. The seat of the diocese was moved to Dornoch in 1224 when Gilbert de Moravia was made bishop, following the brutal murder of this two predecessors. Gilbert was responsible for funding and building Dornoch Cathedral. Work began with the chancel followed by the transepts and tower which were completed after Gilbert’s death. He was buried under the crossing. Funding may then have run out and it could have taken another 200 years to build the nave. The nave then followed.

The cathedral was set on fire in 1570 during a clan feud between the Murrays of Dornoch and the MacKays of Strathnaver. This destroyed the nave, the roof of the rest of the building and Gilbert’s tomb was desecrated. The choir and transepts were repaired and reroofed in 1616 and a wall was built to shut off the remains of the nave.

Dornoch ceased to be the seat of the Bishops of Caithness in 1690 after the abolition of the episcopate in the Church of Scotland, although the title of Cathedral was kept.

The church was only fully restored in 1835-7, funded by Elizabeth, Duchess-Countess of Sutherland. Little work was needed on the chancel and transepts apart from replacing the roof. The remains of the nave were demolished and completely rebuilt.


In 1866, the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland were present to welcome the Prince and Princess of Wales

The organ now in the north transept was given by Andrew Carnegie and was the first organ installed in the county of Sutherland.


The plaster on the walls was removed in 1924 revealing the stonework. It also revealed two of the original pillars of the side aisle in the wall to the west of crossing.


The pale cream plaster ceiling was painted for the Christening of Madonna’s son Rocco in 2000 and still looks very smart with its carved bosses. Artificial lighting makes it glow golden.


At the back of the nave is the sarcophagus of St Richard de Moravia, brother of Gilbert, who was killed in the Battle of Embo about 1240.



On the walls are older memorials rescued from the Medieval building.


The Sutherland family were buried in the south transept until the C19th when a family crypt was built under the Quire.


Steps lead up to the high altar with carved round arches on the base.



The three lancet window at the east end commemorate the 4th Duke of Sutherland (1851-1913). They show Faith on the left holding a lighted lamp. Love, in the centre, is Christ holding the world. Hope, on the right, stands by an anchor.


The three windows on the north wall of the chancel commemorate Andre Carnegie who stayed at nearby Skibo Castle every year. They represent music, peace and literacy.

The stained glass windows on the north wall of the nave date from the early C20th and commemorate important locals.



The lovely window in memory of Elizabeth Mackay, first woman elder of the Cathedral dates from 1995. The two figures are Queen Margaret teaching King Malcolm to read.


On the south wall is a modern stained glass window of Bishop Gilbert installed in 1989 on the 750th Anniversary of the consecration of the cathedral, and consecrated in the presence of Prince Charles in his role of Duke of Rothsay.

The carved pulpit dates from 1911.


The stone font standing on marble legs is probably a bit earlier.


The church is open daily and is worth visiting.


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