Northern light - Dornoch Castle Hotel
David Pollock takes a relaxing ‘staycation’ in the small historic Highland town of Dornoch
‘One thing we’ve noticed this year,’ says Colin Thompson, owner and manager of the Dornoch Castle Hotel in the Highland tourist haven of Dornoch, ‘is that there have been many more young couples and families staying with us.’ It seems the ‘staycation’ effect is in full flow at Thompson’s hotel, which is bustling with guests of all ages in the first week of August. Down on the vast sandy beach, and even in the early evening light, frisbee-throwers and kite-surfers are still out playing.
Previously you could expect to share Dornoch with coach parties of older visitors, particularly those who have come to eat locally sourced produce at the hotel’s award-winning Garden restaurant or to enjoy a round of golf at the Royal Dornoch Golf Club, consistently voted among the top five courses in the world – not including the United States – by Golf Digest magazine. There might also, if you’re (un)lucky, be a bit of celebrity action on the go: well-publicised weddings just up the road at Skibo Castle have included those of Ashley Judd and Dario Franchitti, and Madonna and Guy Ritchie. The Ritchies also had their son Rocco christened at the grand Dornoch Cathedral, just across the main street from Dornoch Castle (parts of which date back to the 12th century) and the Dornoch Jail gift shop, which sells postcards and trinkets from its claustrophobic cells.
Bathed in the summer sun, the town and the surrounding Sutherland countryside is picturesque and relatively unspoilt, although the drive up (it’s located 45 minutes north of Inverness on the A9) does afford views of several man-made landmarks as you cross the Cromarty Bridge, including a number of oil rigs which have been docked in the Cromarty Firth either for repair or are resting until the price of oil rises.
Less than an hour’s drive south of Dornoch, Ecoventures’ dolphin-spotting speedboats cruise out of the village of Cromarty. They will take you close to the legs of a decommissioned rig, constructed at the fabrication yard across the water at Nigg, which was also the site of a quaint two-car ferry linking the villages. The boat-trip continues past the shipwreck site of the HMS Natal, which was sunk by an explosion during World War I. While dolphins and porpoises can be tricky to spot in rougher waters, speeding in a boat on the open seas and hearing some entertaining local tales makes for a worthwhile couple of hours, even if only the odd seal makes an appearance.
Taking the ferry rather than the roundabout bridge road back up to Dornoch allows for diversions to local textile stores such as the ANTA Factory Shop at Fearn and onto the Pictish Trail up through the eastern Seaboard Villages to the tiny Portmahomack. Those who can’t imagine the Highlands without a drop of good quality alcohol might wish to tour one of the area’s many distilleries instead, including the commercial but sizeable Glenmorangie, or visit the almost comically tiny Black Isle Brewery, makers of one of Scotland’s finest up-and-coming beers. Otherwise, begin where you started the holiday, at the hotel bar – where Thompson’s sons Simon and Philip offer fine whiskies, and will hold forth at length and in detail on which one they prefer the most.
Dornoch Castle Hotel
Dornoch, 01862 810216, www.dornochcastlehotel.com
Cromarty, 01381 600 323
Black Isle Brewing Company
Munlochy, 01463 811871, www.blackislebrewery.com
The Glenmorangie Distillery
Tain, 01862 892477, www.glenmorangie.com
ANTA Factory Shop
Fearn, 01862 832 477, www.anta.co.uk