Sitting on the edge of the Dornoch Firth and positioned off the busy main A9 road and popular North Coast 500 route, means that Dornoch is the kind of town that might easily get overlooked in your travel plans. I know I was guilty of bypassing at speed on my journeys through this part of the country in my haste to get north. Recently I was persuaded by Visit Dornoch to take the 5 minute detour from the bustling A9 (yes, it really is only 5 minutes!) and discover just what this small historic town has to offer. It turns out that despite its small size there was more than enough to keep me occupied for my 3 day visit and there was still quite a few things I didn't manage to see by the time I was due to leave. If you are planning a trip along the North East of Scotland and especially if you are undertaking a road-trip on the North Coast 500, here are 10 reasons why the 5 minute detour to Dornoch is a worthwhile one.
1. Follow in the footsteps of pop royalty at Dornoch Cathedral
If it was good enough for Madonna to have baby Rocco baptised in, then it was surely worth me taking a 5 minute detour from the A9 to find out just what makes the 13th Century Dornoch Cathedral deemed worthy of a pop superstar.
Open daily to visitors, you will find a bright, peaceful space decorated with 27 beautiful stained glass windows, that gives little clue to the Cathedral's turbulent past. Founded in 1224, a clan feud in 1570 between the Earl of Sutherland and the Earl of Caithness resulted in the Cathedral being set on fire and partially ruined, with repairs not carried out until 50 years later. This was far from the end of the Cathedral's troubles, with another fire set during the Civil War in 1655 and further damage caused during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745-46.
Repair and restoration was finally undertaken by the Duchess of Sutherland in 1833 who wanted to make a suitable resting place for her husband, the first Duke of Sutherland.
Dominating the town centre, the Cathedral is hard to miss and an interesting and tranquil place to visit.
2. Experience woodland trails with a difference
How do you make an already great walk in the woods even more fun for all the family? By adding a sculpture trail or a natural playground of course! Dornoch has not just one but two interesting woodland walks with a difference.
Skelbo Woods - A circular 1.5 mile trail around Skelbo Woods will take you through a scenic forest plantation, a pretty pond, over Skelbo Burn and back again, with a view towards the coast thrown in for good measure. If that isn't enough of a reason to visit, then hunting for the hidden sculptures along the way is guaranteed to keep you entertained, I particularly loved finding Action Man parachuting from a tree!
Camore Woods - Pine trees and purple heather are the first thing that welcome you to Camore Woods. Hidden further in the forest are the remains of more than 25 hut circles and chambered cairns, evidence that this was a popular place to live 2-3000 years ago. Add to that some imaginative play areas with tunnels, a fort and even quoits and all ages are guaranteed to find a walk here fun and engaging.
3. Tee off at one of the world's best golf courses
St Andrews may be the birthplace of golf in Scotland but Dornoch can make a claim as the birthplace of Donald Ross. A name that might mean little to non-golfers should be a familiar one to golf fans around the world, particularly those in the USA. The first golf Professional at Dornoch, in 1899 he emigrated to America and went on to become one of the finest golf architects, designing over 500 courses in America, Scotland, Canada and Cuba.
If a golf break in Scotland features in your holiday itinerary then you have a very good reason to detour to Dornoch as Royal Dornoch's Championship Course is currently ranked 5th in the world and number 1 in Scotland by Golf Digest. With several neighbouring golf courses in the area, you have plenty of choice if you need an excuse to air your clubs.
I'm not a golfer but I did enjoy the novel golf bag planters that added a splash of fun and colour around the town.
4. Go shopping in jail
The former County of Sutherland jail dates back to the 19th Century but you won't find any prisoners there today. The cells have been replaced by 5000 sq feet of contemporary gallery and retail space, filled with quality art, clothes, accessories and gifts. As you browse through the various departments of Jail Dornoch, look out for the historical features that have been retained as a reminder of the building's former function.
The town centre itself is mainly made up of independent shops and businesses with many specialising in local and Scottish made gifts.
5. ...and eat your lunch in court
The last thing I expected when I went for lunch at the historic Carnegie Courthouse building, was to find such a cool and modern space which would fit well in trendy quarters of any city. The contemporary industrial touches and bright feel to the place make it perfect for lunch or just relaxing over a coffee. Look out for the mural featuring famous people from Dornoch's history and you might even spot a certain pop superstar hidden among the crowd! Tucked away upstairs above the visitor centre, it really is worth seeking out.
6. Take a walk on the wild side
Seals, otters, pine martens and wide variety of bird life are just some of the local inhabitants that you might spot in the woods or by the coast in and around Dornoch. With the Loch Fleet Nature Reserve on the doorstep you are guaranteed to discover a plethora of wildlife among the sand dunes, mudflats, coastal heath and pine woods that make up this nature reserve managed by the Scottish Wildlife Trust.
7. Wander through the ages on the Historylinks Trail
Did you know that the last execution for alleged witchcraft in Scotland took place in Dornoch? This is just one of many facts you will discover on the Historylinks trail that directs you around the town to sites of interest from Dornoch's past, with a few macabre inclusions! I followed most of the recommended route and found it a fun way to get to know the town and see some of the pretty scenery along the way.
It all starts at the Historylinks Museum, a good place to visit before setting off to get an overview of Dornoch's history through the ages. You can pick a trail leaflet up at the museum or print off this online copy before you go.
8. Relax on an award winning beach
Award-winning, miles of golden sand, dog friendly and perfect for paddling or swimming, do I need to sell it to you anymore? Dornoch Beach has everything you could ask for and the view isn't bad either!
9. Sample the local whisky
Dornoch sits on the doorstep of Glenmorangie, and Clynelish whisky distilleries, so fans of Scotland's amber nectar are already in for a treat. However, take a detour into Dornoch town centre to Dornoch Castle Hotel and you are in for a real treat. The hotel's Whisky Bar has a huge range of malts including rare and vintage bottlings which have helped it gain international acclaim. It is also currently ranked as No 1 Whisky Hotel of the year by WhiskyBase. You can even join one of their special whisky tastings of 6 vintage malts and having developed one of the best whisky bars in Scotland they are now in the process of building their own distillery in the grounds of the hotel, watch this space...
Stop by Carnegie Whisky Cellars in the Carnegie Courthouse where you can shop for specialty whisky and for £8.50 you can even test your whisky knowledge by trying a blind tasting of 2 malts and a blend.
Dornoch also holds an annual whisky festival where you can celebrate the range of whiskies that are produced in the Northern Highlands with tastings, tours and distillery events.
10. Explore Dornoch's dog friendly attractions
If you're looking for a destination where your four legged friend can have as much fun as you, Dornoch certainly fits the bill as I found out. Miles of clean sandy beaches, walking trails, dog friendly businesses and accommodation ensure that you and your furry companion won't be short of things to do. Check out myblog post with lots of dog friendly Dornoch suggestions.
These are just 10 reasons to convince you to take a detour to Dornoch but there are many more great things about the area that I will leave you to discover for yourself! If you have any more tips for 'must do' things in the area please add them to comment box below :-)
I was kindly invited to experience the area by Visit Dornoch however all opinions are genuine and personal as always :-)
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