Architecture People

Dornoch Cathedral + Dornoch Castle Sutherland

Highland Reel

Dornoch Cathedral Sutherland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

In the year 2000, pop star Madonna had her son Rocco christened in Dornoch Cathedral the day before she got married to film director Guy Ritchie at nearby Skibo Castle. They divorced in 2008. In 2010 billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk married actress Talulah Riley in Dornoch Cathedral. They divorced in 2012. As a congregation of the Church of Scotland, which is Presbyterian, the church is actually not the seat of a bishop but retains its ‘cathedral’ title since historically it was the seat of the Bishop of Caithness. Previously, Dornoch was probably best known as the last place a witch was burnt in Scotland. The town is very smart with attractive sandstone buildings and a 15th century castle which is now a hotel.

Dornoch Cathedral Spire Sutherland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

According to John Gifford, writing in The Pevsner Guide Buildings of Scotland Highland and Islands, Dornoch Cathedral is: “Much restored and partially rebuilt 13th century church of the diocese of Caithness. Gilbert de Moravia was made Bishop of Caithness circa 1223 and soon after began the erection of a new cathedral at Dornoch. The choir was presumably completed by 1239, when the bones of Bishop Adam were translated there from Halkirk, and Bishop Gilbert himself was buried there in 1245. William, Earl of Sutherland, is said to have been interred in the south transept in 1248, but the nave was probably not roofed until 1291, when Edward I granted 40 seasoned oaks from Darnaway Forest for the fabric of the church. In 1428 a papal indulgence was accorded to visitors contributing to the restoration (perhaps the rebuilding or reconstruction of the nave) of the church and to be ‘collapsed in its fabric, desolate and destitute and in need of costly repairs’. The cathedral was burned by the Master of Caithness and Mackay of Strathnaver in 1570 and the roofless nave’s north arcade destroyed by a gale in 1605. Repair of the choir and transepts was begun by John, Earl of Sutherland, and carried on by his brother Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun (the Tutor of Sutherland) in 1614 to 1622, and further repairs made in 1714, 1728, 1772 to 1775 and 1816.

Dornoch Cathedral Fountain Sutherland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

In 1835 to 1837 Elizabeth, Duchess and Countess of Sutherland, undertook what she described as ‘a plain and correct restoration’, reroofing the nave’s central vessel (but demolishing the remains of its side aisles) and fitting up the choir as a monument to her husband. Drawings for the scheme were produced by William Burn; but the Duchess, disliking his ‘modern gothic in bad taste and ‘useless plans of ornament’, dismissed him before work began, and the executed designs were by Alexander Coupar, the Superintendent of Works on the Sutherland estates, assisted by William Leslie. Advice was provided by Francis Chantrey and sketches by the Duchess. Further work was carried out in 1924 to 1927, when harling and plaster were stripped from the walls to expose their naked rubble to the gaze of the prurient.”

Dornoch Cathedral and Dornoch Castle Sutherland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley