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.
When Barbour first approached me about taking them on a tour of Southern Scotland, I was a little curious as to why they had chosen to explore this often overlooked part of the country. After a bit of research it turns out that Barbour has quite a few connections to the area that I hadn't realised before, including the fact that the company founder, John Barbour, was actually raised on a farm in Galloway before moving across the Border and opening his first Barbour store in South Shields.
The clothing range is known for its use of tartan which was first incorporated as a lining in their original oilskin coats to celebrate John Barbour's Scottish roots. The Barbour name originates from Ayrshire in the South West of Scotland and the first exclusive Barbour tartan was inspired by incorporating the Ayrshire District tartan 'sett' in the design. They now have seven exclusive tartans that feature heavily in their products.
These connections also explain why Sam Heughan of Outlander fame makes an ideal choice as Barbour's first Global Brand Ambassador as he was born in New Galloway, not far from the farm where John Barbour lived.
Still run as a family business which is proud of it's heritage, I can understand why the south of Scotland is important to Barbour and I was delighted to have another excuse to promote some of the hidden gems that make this part of Scotland worth adding to your travel itinerary. With four days to explore, I decided that our first stop would be Castle Douglas, an 18th Century market town that is also designated as Dumfries and Galloway's Food Town, the perfect place to showcase some local Scottish produce.
Irvings Homestyle Bakery
There is nothing like the smell of baking to start off a foodie themed day and a trip to Irvings Homestyle Bakery didn't disappoint with hunger inducing aromas wafting through the air! Situated in a little retail estate, the small shop at the front is just a taster of what goes on behind the scenes and we were lucky enough to be shown around by Keith Irving, the second generation of the family business.
Large rotating ovens were hard at work, along with the many employees that the business has been able to take on thanks to their success. It is hard to believe that this thriving operation started with Keith's mum, Mrs Irving, baking biscuits in her kitchen to sell in the farmhouse shop.
Mrs Irving is still on hand to make sure the baked goods retain the look and texture you would expect to find in a farmhouse kitchen and it was lovely to meet the enterprising woman who started everything off, using recipes handed down through generations of her family. It was very inspiring to see mother and son beaming with pride for their business which has expanded from humble beginnings to supplying retailers, hotels and restaurants.
It would have been rude not to leave without a pack of Scottish shortbread which went down a treat with a cup of tea back home on Bute.
In House Chocolates
There's nothing like a mid-morning coffee and chocolate fix to keep your energy up during travel adventures and In House Chocolates in Castle Douglas town centre sent me into chocolate heaven! The owner Gillian Warden has developed and produced several Gold Winning chocolates and the shop is filled with tempting creations such as Violet Creams, Drambuie Truffles and Belted Galloway shaped chocolates that were just too cute!
If choosing your chocolates isn't hard enough, then the 25 types of coffee ground to order or 14 teas available will only add to your dilemma.
If like me, you prefer to travel with your furry companion rather than leave them at home, you are probably always Googling for dog friendly accommodation and activities. I know I spend about half my time researching for dog friendly places in Scotland where Willow can enjoy a holiday too.
Dornoch on the north east coast of Scotland promotes itself as a dog friendly destination so when the lovely people at Visit Dornoch invited Willow to put that claim to the test she happily accepted and obviously I persuaded her to take me along!
Our dog friendly visit got off to a promising start when staff at the new visitor centre were happy for Willow to join me as I gathered up all the local leaflets and info for our stay. We had 3 days in Dornoch to check out the best human and dog friendly things on offer and here's what we managed to get up to...
AWARD WINNING DOG FRIENDLY BEACHES
Not only are all these beaches dog friendly, they have all been awarded a Keep Scotland Beautiful Beach Award which recognises excellence in beach management, access and facilities, cleanliness and safety.
Dornoch Beach was our first stop, simply because Willow LOVES the beach and I must admit to being partial to a walk along the sands myself. Thankfully it ticked all the boxes and more. I was wowed by the beautiful expanse of clean golden sand that fringes the Dornoch FIrth and Willow was delighted to find plenty of doggy chums to run about with and space to chase her ball.
Dornoch Beach is definitely a place that can be enjoyed equally by humans and their canine companions.
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