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Dornoch, Sutherland

Historical Description

DORNOCH, a royal burgh, the county town, and a parish, in the county of Sutherland, 201 miles (N. N. W.) from the city of Edinburgh; containing 2714 inhabitants, of whom 451 are in the burgh. This place is supposed to have derived its name, Dor-Neich or Dor-Nach, signifying in the Celtic language a horse's hoof, from the slaughter of a Danish general, who made a descent upon this part of the coast in 1259, and was encountered by William, Thane of Sutherland, who, having lost his sword in the battle, seized the leg of a horse lying on the ground, with which he killed his adversary, and put his followers to flight. It is of considerable antiquity, and in 1150 was an episcopal city, the residence of the bishops of Caithness, within whose province the county of Sutherland was included, and of whom Andrew is supposed to have erected the cathedral. His successor, Gilbert Murray, who was consecrated in 1222, greatly enlarged and beautified the church, in which, upon his decease in 1245 at Caithness, where the bishops had also a residence, a statue was erected to his memory, under the designation of St. Gilbert. All the glass used in the erection of the cathedral is said to have been made at Sydderay, about two miles from Dornoch. After the death of John, Earl of Sutherland, and his countess, who in 1567 were both poisoned at Helmsdale at the instigation of the Earl of Caithness, Mc Kay of Far, taking advantage of the minority of the young earl, then only fifteen years of age, invaded the county of Sutherland, set fire to the town of Dornoch, and laid waste the barony of Skibo. The young earl, who then resided in the castle of Skibo, was, through the persuasion of the bishop, given up to the Earl of Caithness, by whom he was carried off, and, although but fifteen years of age, married to his daughter, aged thirty-two; "an unfit match indeed", says Sir Robert Gordon in his history of the Earls of Sutherland. In 1570, the town and castle were besieged by the Laird of Duffus and his adherents; but being obstinately defended, they set fire to the cathedral, which, with the exception only of the tower, was completely destroyed. In 1614, the Earl of Sutherland commenced rebuilding the cathedral, which for many years served for a place of worship; but subsequently falling into decay, it was restored by the late Duchess-Countess of Sutherland, during the years 1835, 6, 7, 8, and 9, at a great expense; and though its restoration, unfortunately, was not entrusted to competent hands, it still forms one of the most interesting religious edifices in the kingdom. The lower portion of the structure contains the tombs of the ancient earls, and those of the late Duke and Duchess of Sutherland.

The TOWN is situated on the western shore of Dornoch Firth, at the south-eastern extremity of the parish, and consists of several spacious well-formed streets; the houses are of a very inferior order, little better than humble cottages, and though the county town, the place has only the appearance of an insignificant hamlet. It has been much improved within the last few years by the removal of some ruinous and unsightly buildings. There is a respectable inn, of late years handsomely enlarged, at which the mail stops daily in its passage to and from the north; a post-office is established, and there are also a branch bank, a savings' bank, and a friendly society. Near the town are perhaps the finest links in Scotland, and admirably adapted for games and exercises: the shore, too, is excellent for sea-bathing. No trade or manufacture is carried on: even the market has been long declining, and is now but little frequented. Fairs are held on the first Wednesdays in February, July, November, and December, for cattle; and also on the third Wednesday in March, and on the 20th of July (O. S.), if on Wednesday, or if not, on the first Wednesday after. The town was erected into a royal burgh in 1628, by charter of Charles I., under which the government is vested in a provost, four bailies, a dean of guild, a treasurer, and eight councillors. It is also the residence of the sheriff-substitute, sheriff-clerk, and procurator-fiscal. There are no incorporated trades or companies, nor have the burgesses any exclusive privileges; the jurisdiction of the magistrates, though equal in extent to that of other royal burghs, is little more than nominal, and few if any causes either civil or criminal are brought for their decision. The tower of the ancient episcopal castle is appropriated as a court-house, and for the public offices and public records of the county; and a new county prison has been erected, possessing every requisite for the classification and employment of the prisoners. Dornoch is associated with Cromarty, Dingwall, Kirkwall, Tain, and Wick, in returning a member to the imperial parliament; the number of qualified voters is thirty-eight. It also sends for itself a commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. As already observed, Dornoch is the county town; but its very uncentral locality and other disadvantages render it far from convenient to the inhabitants of the shire generally, as the seat of the administration of the law, and of the public affairs of the county.

The PARISH is bounded on the east and south by Dornoch Firth, and on the north-east by Loch Fleet, and is about fifteen miles in length and nine in breadth. Its surface towards the sea is generally flat, and in other parts diversified with hills of no very considerable height. The principal rivers are, the Carnaig, which rises to the south of Torboll, and flows through a strath into Loch Fleet, near the sands of Torboll; and the Evelix, whose source is near the head of the valley through which it flows, between richly-wooded banks, into Dornoch Firth near the Muckle ferry. The coast, with the exception of a few small rocks at Embo, to the north of the town, is flat and sandy. At the south extremity is the Muckle ferry, connecting the parish with the county of Ross, and which the north mail crosses daily: it is a most inconvenient and dangerous impediment to travellers, and apparently the passage and landings might be much improved. Along the northern boundary is Loch Fleet, forming an excellent harbour at Little Ferry, about three miles east of which an earthen mound nearly 1000 feet in length has been constructed by the parliamentary commissioners, at a cost of £12,000, affording communication between the parishes of Golspie and Dornoch. The rivers contain trout, which are also found in several small lakes among the hills. Though generally light, the soil varies from a sandy moss to clay alternated with sand; the crops are oats, barley, wheat, potatoes, and turnips. The system of agriculture has been greatly improved within the last few years; extensive tracts of waste have been reclaimed and rendered profitable, and more than 6000 acres are now arable and in good cultivation. The farm-buildings are mostly substantial and comfortable; and attached to several of the farms are threshing-mills, some of which are driven by water. The cattle pastured are of the Highland black breed; and the sheep chiefly of the Cheviot, lately introduced. The annual value of real property in the parish is £3336.

There are many thousand acres of woodland on the Sutherland estate, consisting of Scotch fir, larch, birch, alder, and various hard-wood trees, all in a thriving state. Large additional tracts of moor ground, formerly bearing nothing but heather, and almost valueless, are also being annually planted. Coal has been found at Clashmore, and freestone of good quality for building occurs in various places; near the town is a large quarry, and at Embo and in other parts of the parish are quarries on a less extensive scale. Skibo Castle, a modern structure, erected on the site of the ancient castle of that name, is a handsome family residence: in its vicinity is some very rich alluvial land. The chief villages are, the fishing-village of Embo, situated on the coast between the town of Dornoch and the Little ferry; and the pleasant village of Clashmore, in which is a commodious inn, about three miles to the north of the Muckle ferry, and the same distance from Dornoch. For ecclesiastical purposes the parish is within the bounds of the presbytery of Dornoch, synod of Sutherland and Caithness. The minister's stipend is £266. 13., with a manse, and a glebe valued at £10 per annum; patron, the Duke of Sutherland. Dornoch church, formerly the cathedral, is a venerable structure containing 1100 sittings. A place of worship has been erected for the members of the Free Church. The parochial school is held in a portion of the episcopal palace; the master has a salary of £34, with a house and garden, and the fees average £6. Another school is held in a handsome school-house erected by the Duke of Sutherland within the last few years. There are still some remains of the ancient castle of Skelbo, on an eminence rising from the sea near the Little ferry; and the cross erected in commemoration of the exploit from which the burgh is supposed to have taken its name, and to which the common seal has an allusion, is, though much defaced, still remaining. In the parish are also two singular standing stones or pillars, about eight or nine feet high, and in a line with a similar stone in the adjoining parish of Criech: they are evidently of ancient date, but no tradition is now extant as to what their purpose was.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of Scotland, 1851 by Samuel Lewis