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As you drive south on the A99 from Latheron, lush green pastureland extends to the edge of craggy cliffs that drop sharply into the sea. By the time you get to Brora and Dornoch, the cliffs have given way to great curves of sandy beaches. Along this stretch of indented coastline are remnants of tiny fishing villages that were settled by people who were forced off their land in the clearances.

Coastal village of Berriedale 

Helmsdale is one such village. Set up largely as a salmon fishing and curing village, it was fairly isolated until the early 19th century when evicted families were moved here, some to work in the burgeoning herring industry, others to work as small holders on land so barren it could not sustain all the newcomers. (As you leave Helmsdale to the south, the Emigrants’ Statue commemorates these tens of thousands of displaced people, many of whom ended up in Canada and the USA.) At the height of the herring boom, the little harbor saw as many as 200 boats in season but, as in Wick, when the larger boats moved in with innovations that dramatically increased their catch, the herring were over-fished and the industry died out. Now only a few boats fish for lobster, crabs and langoustines, while anglers fish for salmon and trout in the Helmsdale river.

Crow stepped gable, Helsmdale – an architectural style introduced to the east of Scotland from the Low Countries in the 16th century

The picturesque little village was even sleepier than usual when we breezed through on a Sunday morning, though fortunately Thyme and Plaice was open for our morning coffee ritual, after which we continued south until we reached Dunrobin Castle, ancestral seat of the ubiquitous-in-these-parts Sutherland family. The north-eastern aspect of Dunrobin is like a Loire Valley château or something you’d expect to see in Disneyland, though from the other side – where tourists enter – the facade is more Scottish Baronial Revival. I saw the postcard view only from afar, because after our (self-guided) tour of the castle none of us felt like going outside for any reason other than walking to the car and turning the heating on. And lest ye think I am a warm-weather wuss, which I will allow, I could not help noticing that even the staff at Dunrobin were all wearing thick sweaters and standing mighty close to space heaters, whence they exhorted us to watch the falconry display and visit the museum. Incidentally, the family doesn’t live in the stately pile either, probably because it’s too damn cold……

Dunrobin Castle, the west facade and public entrance 

Most of Dunrobin today dates from the mid-19th century and is the work of Sir Charles Barry, who also designed the Houses of Parliament at Westminster. In WWI the castle was used as a naval hospital and not long after the end of the war, a fire gutted the roof and much of the interior. The re-building and renovations were carried out by Scottish architect Sir Robert Lorimer, a great proponent of the Arts and Crafts style, the results of which are seen today. Before the castle was opened to the public in 1973, it served as a boarding school for boys. Given its fairytale exterior of turrets and towers and conical spires, the interior is comparatively restrained with tastefully appointed wood paneling, ornate ceilings, tapestries and family portraits, some of which are by noted painters Franz Winterhalter, George Romney, Allan Ramsay and John Hoppner. The drawing room, which was not affected by the fire, and the dining room which was re-created as it was in the mid-19th century, are particularly elegant.

Drawing room with tapestries and Canaletto paintings

Dining Room

The history of the Sutherland family as it pertains to the title and lands of the Earls of Sutherland versus the Dukedom is an intricate birthright issue – do pardon the pun – unless you’re familiar with the intricacies of the British and Scottish peerage system, in which case it’s a doddle. Elizabeth, the current Countess of Sutherland and clan chief, inherited both the title and Dunrobin when the 5th Duke of Sutherland died in 1963 without male issue. But as the dukedom can only be inherited by a male, the title of 6th Duke of Sutherland went to a distant cousin (of the Duke, not Elizabeth), the 5th Earl of Ellesmere, who himself died without male issue in 2000. The 7th and current Duke is his first cousin once removed. It all seems unnecessarily complicated and ridiculously anachronistic. If the eldest child of the King or Queen of the realm is now the heir apparent regardless of gender, shouldn’t the peerage follow suit? Or perhaps they already have, I can’t say I follow all this too closely, to be honest.

Main Parterre

Anachronistic or not, I quite enjoy an occasional wander through the country estates of the nobility because it’s all part of the nation’s long and messy and frequently inglorious history. Also, such powerful families did not get to be where they are by meekly following the rulebook and doing the right thing at all times, and there’s inevitably a dodgy nugget of family history somewhere. The saga of the 3rd Duke of Sutherland, for example, was a very expensive mess for his offspring who had to deal with the outcome of his scandalous second marriage to Mary Blair. Mary and the duke were both still married to other people when they began their intrigue. Mary’s husband conveniently died in a hunting accident while out shooting with the Duke, and when the duchess, from whom he had long been estranged, finally gave up the ghost, the pair married an unseemly four months later, in a coastal backwater in Florida in a hastily-constructed church. In 1889 this must have been the equivalent of getting hitched at 3:00am in a Las Vegas wedding chapel with an Elvis impersonator officiating and two witnesses picked up off the Strip. But Mary was one of life’s fortunates who could fall down a sewer and come up smelling like a rose and she came out of the debacle with her own castle, which is a story in itself. But back to Dunrobin and the Sewing Room.

Detail of tower, west facade, Dunrobin Castle

Dunrobin would not be a Scottish castle if it didn’t have a ghost and this one emanates from the Sewing Room, also known as the Haunted room. The story goes that in the 15th century the Earl of Sutherland wanted to marry a beautiful young woman from the Clan MacKay, who did not want to marry him. Unwilling to accept this, he kidnapped her and locked her in the sewing room. When she had the effrontery to try and escape by climbing down a rope of knotted sheets, he sliced the rope through with his sword and she fell to her death. Seemingly, it is not uncommon to hear unexplained footsteps from the sewing room, in the room directly below it.

Dornoch Castle

From Dunrobin we carried on south to Dornoch, our next stop for the night. Dornoch is famous for its golf course and its beach and in my opinion, is also one of the most charming villages in the whole country. Golf was introduced to Dornoch in 1616 by monks from St. Andrews monastery, and ever since I read that I cannot unsee the vision of a passel of rotund Friar Tucks in brown habit and tonsure whacking away at golfballs between daytime prayers and Vespers. Dornoch was elevated to regal status in 1906 and by some estimates the Royal Dornoch Golf Club is the seventh best course on the planet. It remains below the radar in the USA because it’s a wee bit out of the way.

The center of Dornoch clusters round Dornoch Cathedral which dates back to the 13th century when Gilbert de Moravia who became Bishop of Caithness in 1222, moved the seat of the bishopric to Dornoch and began building the cathedral at his own expense. In 1570 the cathedral was burned by the MacKays during a clan battle and when it was partially rebuilt in 1616, the side aisles and nave were abandoned and a wall built to close them off from the rest of the church. When the cathedral was renovated in 1835 the architect demolished the severed areas, and rebuilt only the nave. The original 13th century stonework was hidden beneath plaster.  A further renovation in 1924 removed the plaster which revealed the original 13th century stonework, still visible today.

Dornoch Cathedral

The cathedral has 28 stained glass windows, several of which are modern, one strikingly so. Three commemorate Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-born, Pittsburgh steel magnate, who attended services here when holidaying at Skibo, a castle outside of Dornoch that he purchased in 1898. In 2003 the castle was bought by an American private equity firm which operates Skibo as a private members-only club for the über-wealthy. Opposite the cathedral is Dornoch Castle which is now a hotel with a very good restaurant, an excellent whisky bar of many rare whiskies, and an on-site distillery.

Dornoch Castle and old Courthouse from the Cathedral

Next to the castle is the old Carnegie Courthouse where there are more whisky cellars, a spa and the Courthouse Café which was so busy for Sunday lunch that it was the only place on the whole trip where we had to wait in line for a table. Behind the bar is a large mural of 62 historical figures and celebrities associated with Dornoch, that includes Carnegie, and Madonna and Guy Richie who were married at Skibo Castle. A schema of the mural at each table tells you who’s who. I forgot to look and see if Janet Horne was on it – poor Janet who was burned as a witch in Dornoch in 1727, has the unfortunate distinction of being the last person to be tried and executed for witchcraft in Britain.

Cathedral Square, Dornoch

J and I both liked Dornoch, so much so that J decided he could also live there. I am a bit skeptical, because although it is undoubtedly lovely and there’s all those long walks on the beach with the dogs to be had, a new-found passion for golf to discover, a splendid little bookstore, friendly people, whisky galore and great restaurants, there’s the matter of the cool temperatures, chill winds, horizontal rain and having your central heating on for eleven months of the year…….. and J doesn’t like the cold. But if we do find a house in Dornoch we’ll call in to see George MacLean of Castle Close Antiques to furnish it.

Glenmorangie Distillery, Tain

You can’t do the NC500 and not visit a distillery, so we went to the Glenmorangie Distillery, one of the better known distilleries, which has been around for 170 years and is located near Tain. The tallest stills in the country were closed for cleaning, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t sample and buy the end product. Word of caution – in Scotland the permissible Blood Alcohol Content for driving is lower than in England and the USA, and just one generous tasting sample will likely put you over the limit. If you are driving, ask for your post-tour tasting sample to be poured into a takeaway vial.

Quite aside from the whole process of whisky-making, Glenmorangie has invested in an anaerobic digestion plant, a new method of waste water treatment using a membrane filter, that reduces the final biological discharge into the waters of the Dornoch Firth by more than 90%. In addition, when the distillery waste water from the digester is passed through the membrane filter, natural processing bacteria is returned to the digester where one by-product is a nutrient-rich fertilizer that is used on the surrounding barley fields. Meanwhile, methane gas from the digester goes through a biogas boiler producing steam and hot water which is reducing the distillery’s reliance on fossil fuels by 15%.  As a final step, DEEP – Dornoch Environmental Enhancement Project – a collaboration between the distillery, Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and the Marine Conservation Society – will restore oyster beds in the Firth which were destroyed in the 19th century. The aim is to generate a habitat of oyster reefs large enough to sustain a substantial population that will filter the remaining percentage of waste water that is discharged into the Firth. This technology is not only beneficial to the environment, it is exportable which helps others and generates cash for more research, which creates work.

Falls of Shin, a well-known salmon leap in autumn

When King Malcolm III proclaimed Tain a sanctuary town in 1066, he also gave it Royal Burgh status, thereby making it the oldest royal burgh in Scotland. The sanctuary was marked by four crosses within the boundary of which people could request the protection of the church, in this case St. Duthac’s. This noble exemplar was brushed aside in 1306 when the Earl of Ross and his men kidnapped the wife and daughter of Robert the Bruce and handed them over to Edward I of England. (You will have noticed perhaps, a tendency towards treachery in these parts where the clans regularly sold out their rivals for money and land. Revenge inevitably followed, which in turn triggered more back-stabbing.) It was a Monday morning and the streets of Tain were empty because everyone was at Greens, a stylish restaurant of Scandinavian-like decor in tranquil tones of slate blue and cream, where we indulged in scones with cream and jam. Before leaving Tain for Inverness, our last stop, we walked down Castle Brae to the acclaimed Browns Gallery which has an eclectic collection of contemporary Scottish art.

St. Duthac Collegiate Church, Tain

Oystercatchers at Kilmuir on the Moray Firth

Inverness has a population of approx 52,000 and is the largest city in the Highlands. It is also one of the fastest growing cities in Europe. After lunch at The Mustard Seed we sauntered up to the castle and through downtown Inverness. In a tartan shop I came across three MacIntyre tartans; MacIntyre ‘Modern Red’ which I didn’t recognize and is perfectly hideous, MacIntyre Ancient Hunting which I had always understood was the clan tartan, and MacIntyre Modern Hunting. Since then I have come across three other ‘Macintyre’ tartans which makes me wonder about the reliability of the whole identity plaid business. With some justification, it seems.There are precious few documented tartans before 1745, when the wearing of clan colors was outlawed by the English after the rout of the Stuart Royalists at Culloden. I think the romanticized version of tartan-clad Highlanders is a bit of tourist fodder and if I am any example, most Scots don’t even know what their clan tartan is.

Inverness seen from the Castle grounds

Inverness Castle, now the Sheriff Court. The statue is Flora MacDonald of Bonnie Prince Charlie and 1745 fame.

Our last Highland ramble was in the tiny hamlet of Kilmuir which took about five minutes because it consists of a single row of white-washed houses, each of which has an unobstructed view over the turbid waters of the Moray Firth. On the rocks just above the tideline, a pair of oystercatchers waited patiently, biding their time before prying loose a few limpets for supper.

The village of Kilmuir with the Kessock bridge and Inverness in the background. The bridge straddles the neck of water between the Beauly and Moray Firths

Old phone box at the edge of Kilmuir