While Scotland’s islands and west coast are regularly lauded for their beaches, Dornoch’s sheltered golden sands, on the east coast of the north Highlands, are not to be overlooked
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The northern Highlands have received lots of press in recent years, most notably because of the runaway success of the North Coast 500, an existing 500-mile driving route (more or less) that was cleverly repackaged as a must-visit itinerary that takes in Sutherland, Caithness and Wester Ross.
But travellers along the NC500 are often too preoccupied with making good time as they head north to John O’ Groats from Inverness up through Easter Ross, that they bypass one of the local secrets of the east coast section: Dornoch.
If you’re a keen golfer, you may have made your way here, since Royal Dornoch is a championship golf course regularly voted one of the best in the world. However, until recently, few others have passed through this well-heeled town.
Well, that’s not entirely true. In 2000, Madonna and Guy Ritchie chose nearby Skibo Castle, once owned by Scottish-American industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, as the location for their wedding, having christened their son, Rocco, in Dornoch Cathedral the day before, leading to a Madge-effect of replica trips for a few years.
This passing episode in the town’s history is marked by a mural in the Courtroom restaurant in the town centre. Created by artist Sandy Noble, Madge can be spotted staring out over diners as they tuck into some Cullen skink
or a venison steak, along with other famous people and well-known local characters. There’s lots of fun to be had identifying who’s who.
Across the town square from the Courtroom is Dornoch Cathedral. Founded in 1224, it suffered bad fire damage in 1570 and the tomb of the cathedral’s founder, Gilbert de Moravia, the Bishop of Caithness, was also desecrated during a clan feud between the Murrays of Dornoch and the Mackays of Strathnaver.
The cathedral was partially restored in 1616, with a full restoration funded by the Duchess of Sutherland in 1835. Pay particular attention to the stained-glass windows to the north side of the chancel – representing music, peace and literacy, they were later donated in memory of Andrew Carnegie, who spent many summers at his Skibo estate.
The town square with its smart sandstone buildings is refined and very pleasant to the eye, but you’ll have to venture a little away from the centre to discover why Dornoch has earned its stripes as a holiday destination.
This is an extract. Read the full feature in the March/April 2021 issue of Scotland, out on 19th February.
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Published six times a year, every issue of Scotland showcases its stunning landscapes and natural beauty, and delves deep into Scottish history. From mysterious clans and famous Scots (both past and present), to the hidden histories of the country’s greatest castles and houses, Scotland‘s pages brim with the soul and secrets of the country.
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