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.
A quiet lane, just off the main square leads up to Links House, a charming five-star hotel run by the same people behind the Courtroom, which is set out across three buildings: the main house, formerly the church manse, the Mews to one side and Glenshiel House to the other, where you’ll find five of the hotel’s very grand suites, plus its penthouse Mallart apartment.
Only opened in 2013, though looking like it’s always been here thanks to the period buildings, Links House offers another great reason to come to Dornoch, aside from the golf, though of course enthusiasts are very well catered for – the golf course is just next door and there is even a room for storing your clubs and other sports gear.
But even those who have no interest in golf will find themselves at home in the library with its honesty bar, or in the drawing room opposite, where you can enjoy afternoon tea fireside. You can even have a cocktail outside overlooking the mini golf. And when it comes to bedtime, you’ll sleep like a king or queen, as all the beds have Royal Warranted Hypnos mattresses.
A 10-minute walk through the golf course will bring you to the town’s long strip of golden beach, backed by sand dunes, which leads onto Embo Sands. Dornoch Beach is often empty, with the exception of the occasional dog-walker, and thanks to its microclimate it enjoys more frequent warm weather than the west coast.
Back at the hotel, the opening of the new Mara restaurant was sadly postponed because of the pandemic. This year it hopes to open properly with award-winning chef James McDonald at the helm. McDonald describes his cooking style as “European in method but heavily influenced by local ingredients and provenance”, so expect lots of fresh seafood, seasonal vegetables and locally-reared steaks.
Staff can arrange deer-stalking trips and other outdoor activities, but the beauty of Dornoch is that it is a great location to base yourself for a few days, a week or more, while dipping your toes into other places along the North Coast 500 route.
Dunrobin Castle, the fairytale ancestral home of the dukes and earls of Sutherland, is just 12 miles north and there are also lesser-known places that are worthy of a visit: Brora Distillery, which closed in 1983, is due to reopen this September; while the Falls of Shin is one of the best places in Scotland to watch salmon leaping upstream – a wonderful spectacle of nature. Some guests even like to take the 60-mile cross-country pilgrimage to the Kylesku Hotel, one of the best places to eat in the whole of the Highlands, with beautiful lochside views to boot.
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