Dornoch parish covers c. 53 square miles and includes the Royal burgh of Dornoch, the former fishing village of Embo, and nearly twenty small crofting townships and hamlets. Dornoch is the parish's largest settlement as well as being the county town of Sutherland and once the seat of the Diocese of Caithness, it has one of Scotland's smallest Cathedrals.

One of the major difficulties encountered in telling the story of Dornoch (both parish and burgh) is that the area’s history is rather disjointed. There are long periods of inactivity where nothing significant seems to occur, that are punctuated by episodes of much importance. Presenting a coherent picture of Dornoch’s past is not made any easier by the absence of archaeological and documentary evidence. An archaeological survey of the parish or burgh has never been under-taken and many of the early written records have been either lost or destroyed. What evidence remains – at least prior to the 18th century – is fragmentary, based on scraps of official documents, Norse Sagas, place- names, legend and tradition, plus a less than reliable 17th century account of the Earls of Sutherland, a few minor archaeological finds and the topography of the area itself.

The picture does become much clearer by the 18th century, simply because many more (although not all) of the official records relating to the town managed to survive. What follows is a simple take on the chronological account of Dornoch’s development from earlier times to the 20th century.
Dornoch is blessed with a marvellous museum, Historylinks, which you should fit in to your itinerary.

A Pre-History

Exactly when man settled in South-East Sutherland is unclear, but the discovery of Neolithic chambered cairns at various sites around the Parish, indicate the area was occupied over 400 years ago.
Local tradition credits the Ulster monk, Finbarr (St. Barr) with converting the inhabitants to Christianity during the C6th, possibly 540 AD. Although there is little substantiating evidence to support the claim, it is thought that Dornoch’s first church, which pre-dates the cathedral, stood at the East end of the present day cemetery, and was known as St. Barr’s church.

The diocese of Caithness was probably established by King David I between 1147 and 1151, and the earliest recorded Bishop of Caithness was Andrew, a Benedictine monk from Dunfermline.
Whatever early religious settlement there may have been in Dornoch, they would surely have been disrupted by the Norse raids on the Mainland during the latter half of the C9th. These Viking raiders from Norway settled in Orkney and then moved South into Caithness and eventually into SE Sutherland (The Southern Lands).

Dornoch Parish & Cathedral

A Brief History

The earliest mention of Dornoch occurs in a mandate of King David I sometime between 1136 and 1153 at Abernethy. The King commands of Rognvald, the Norse Earl of Orkney; to… respect and maintain the monks and their men dwelling in Dornoch and their goods, and wherever they come among you, that you permit no-one to do them harm or insult them.

At the start of the C13th the Parish of Dornoch was granted to a Hugh Freskin of Flemish descent, who had been previously given land in Moray. He then adopted the surname ‘de Moravia’*, or in its Anglicised form, Murray. Finally, around 1211, Hugh granted the area stretching from Skelbo to Invershin to his kinsmen, Gilbert de Moravia, who was Archdeacon of Moray.

In 1224 Gilbert was made Bishop of Caithness, and spent his life building Dornoch Cathedral, which held its first service in 1239, six years before his death in 1245.

Despite the powerful presence of the church in SE Sutherland, the area did not enjoy a peaceful future for the following five centuries. In 1570, the town and cathedral were burned by The Earl of Caithness, supported by the Mackays of Strathnaver and the Sutherlands of Duffus. The cathedral remained roofless, until 1616, when Sir Robert Gordon re- roofed and repaired the chancel and transepts, although for the next two hundred years the cathedral continued to be used without a nave. However, Dornoch was still given Royal Burgh status by Charles I in 1628, in a vain attempt to encourage foreign trade.

In 1655, Dornoch was occupied by Royalist troops in the struggle against Cromwell, and as they retreated, laid waste to the area, and the building suffered yet again. In 1680 the cathedral was again roofless, but eventually in 1714 was repaired and re-roofed for a second time. During the rebellion of 1745, when Dornoch was occupied first by the King’s army and then by the Jacobites, much damage was done to the principal buildings of the burgh, it was said that men & horses were stabled in the cathedral. By 1769 it was ruinous again, though yet again rebuilt for a third time in 1772.

During the C18th pigs were allowed to roam at will in the churchyard. Booths and tents for the town fairs were also erected, some of the poles were driven deep enough to reach the coffins. In 1815 the churchyard was enclosed by a wall, and a road along its south side was built. At this time in particular Dornoch was quite impoverished, and though the building remained in a very poor condition, the people of Dornoch kept things going.

In 1833, shortly after the death of the Duke of Sutherland, his wife the Duchess-Countess, agreed to re-build the cathedral, work began in 1835 and was finished in 1837.

The notorious Highland Clearances of the early C19th saw the introduction of sheep farming on an unprecedented scale, which meant that hundreds of local families were forcibly cleared from land farmed by their ancestors for generations. Many left Sutherland altogether, and although Dornoch suffered less than other areas, the bitter memory still arouses controversy today.

In the latter part of the C19th, with the introduction of the rating system, which allowed local authorities to raise finance directly from inhabitants, the improvements of the parish were no longer dependent on the goodwill of the Dukes of Sutherland.

The advent of the motor car and the coming of the railway in 1902, made the area much more accessible. Further improvements to the transport network have enabled visitors from all over the world to travel to the Highlands and Sutherland.

Many visitors return to this beautiful and tranquil town year after year. Like the first Stone Age settlers, thousands of years ago, and the Celtic, Pictish and Flemish immigrants after them, they have all left their mark on the parish, and have contributed in some way to make Dornoch what it is today.

If you would like to find out more about Dornoch take a look at Undiscovered Scotland's informative pages or our own website