Dunrobin Castle is a stately home in Sutherland, in the Highland area of Scotland, and the family seat of the Earl of Sutherland and the Clan Sutherland. It is located 1 mile (1.6 km) north of Golspie, and approximately 5 miles (8.0 km) south of Brora, overlooking the Dornoch Firth. Dunrobin's origins lie in the Middle Ages, but most of the present building and the gardens were added by Sir Charles Barry between 1835 and 1850. Some of the original building is visible in the interior courtyard, despite a number of expansions and alterations that made it the largest house in the north of Scotland. After being used as a boarding school for seven years, it is now open to the public.
The lands of Sutherland were acquired before 1211, by Hugh, Lord of Duffus, grandson of the Flemish nobleman Freskin. The Earldom of Sutherland was created around 1235 for Hugh's son, William, surmised to have descended from the House of Moray by the female line. The castle may have been built on the site of an early medieval fort, but the oldest surviving portion, with an iron yett, is first mentioned in 1401. The earliest castle was a square keep with walls over 6 feet (1.8 metres) thick. Unusually, the ceilings of each floor were formed by stone vaults rather than being timber. The castle is thought to be named after Robert, the 6th Earl of Sutherland (d.1427).
Dunrobin Castle was built in the midst of a tribal society, with Norse and Gaelic in use at the time. Robert the Bruce planted the Gordons, who supported his claim to the crown, at Huntly in Aberdeenshire, and they were created Earls of Huntly in 1445. The Earldom passed to the Gordon family in the 16th century when the 8th Earl of Sutherland gave his daughter Elizabeth in marriage to Adam Gordon. After the 8th Earl died in 1508, Elizabeth's elder brother was declared heir to the title, but a brieve (writ) of idiocy brought against him and his younger brother by the Gordons meant that the possession of the estate went to Adam Gordon in 1512.
In 1518, in the absence of Adam Gordon, the castle was captured by Alexander Sutherland, the legitimate heir to the Earldom of Sutherland. The Gordons quickly retook the castle, captured Alexander and placed his head on a spear on top of the castle tower. Alexander's son John made an attempt on the castle in 1550, but was killed in the castle garden. During the more peaceful 17th century, the keep was extended with the addition of a large house, built around a courtyard to the south-west. During the Jacobite Rising of 1745, the Jacobites under Charles Edward Stuart stormed Dunrobin Castle without warning, because the Clan Sutherland supported the British government. The 17th Earl of Sutherland, who had changed his surname from Gordon to Sutherland, narrowly escaped them, exiting through a back door. He sailed for Aberdeen where he joined the Duke of Cumberland's army. On the death of the 18th Earl in 1766, the house passed to his daughter, Elizabeth, who married the politician George Leveson-Gower, later created 1st Duke of Sutherland. In 1785, the house was altered and extended again.
Between 1835 and 1850, Sir Charles Barry remodelled the castle in the Scottish Baronial style for the 2nd Duke of Sutherland. Barry had been the architect for the Palace of Westminster, home to the House of Commons, and was much in demand. The 14th-century tower, and the 17th-century and 18th-century extensions, were retained, and survive within Barry's 19th-century work. Dunrobin Castle railway station, on the Far North Line, was opened in 1870, as a private station for the castle. The present waiting room was constructed in 1902, and is a category B listed building. In 1915, the building was in use as a naval hospital when fire damaged much of the interior, but was confined to the newer additions by Barry. Scottish architect Sir Robert Lorimer was engaged to renovate the house following the First World War. When the 5th Duke died in 1963, the Earldom and the house went to his niece, the current Countess of Sutherland, while the Dukedom had to pass to a male heir and went to John Egerton, Earl of Ellesmere. Between 1965 and 1972, the house became a boarding school for boys, taking on forty boys and five teachers in its first year. Since 1973, the house and grounds have been open to the public, with private accommodation retained for the use of the Sutherland family.
There are 189 rooms within the castle, making it the largest in the northern Highlands. Much of Barry's interior was destroyed by the fire of 1915, leading to the restoration by Sir Robert Lorimer, although he incorporated surviving 17th-century and 18th-century work, including wood carvings attributed to Grinling Gibbons. Externally, the castle has elements inspired by the work of the French architect Viollet-le-Duc, such as the pyramidal roof over the main entrance. The portion built by Barry uses freestone in broadly the same style as the turreted parts from the 16th and 17th centuries, but borrows significant elements from the Château style. A large quadrangular pile of four stories, with towers at each corner, connects to the older castle by a building of three stories and containing the stately apartments. The tallest tower, containing the entrance, is 135 feet (41 metres) high, the round towers being 115 feet (35 metres) high and the clock tower 125 feet (38 metres). St. John's Well, in the courtyard of the oldest portion of the castle, is one of the deepest draw wells in Scotland, at 92 feet (28 metres). There is no indication as to the origin of the name.
Make an entrance through the grand front door just as the Duke would have done after debarking from his yacht in 1850 and coming up the steep hill in a coach and four. The Duke and Duchess wanted to create a great first impression, and it still impresses today. Wonderful flower arrangements throughout the Castle add to the grandeur. The sweeping Main Staircase boasts a collection of hunting trophies, proving that this Castle was one of the largest hunting lodges in Scotland. Dining Room. The room has a Khorassan carpet and the table is set for dinner with Georgian silver. The oak chairs are of Stuart period design and covered in needlework by Duchess Eileen, wife of the 5th Duke. Fine dining indeed! Music Room. Including Venetian Procurator by Tintoretto, Lady Helen Sutherland byMusic Room Henry Smith, Mrs Barry by Kneller, and The Young Female Artist by George Watson.
Breakfast Room. Only the gentlemen had breakfast in this room, while the ladies wereserved in their rooms upstairs. Paintings include a portrait of the Duchess-Countess by Hoppner, The Breakfast by Sir David Wilkie, and John Granville, Earl of Bath by Michael Wright. The portrait of Mary Maxwell by Ramsay is one of the best that he ever painted when at the height of his career. Drawing Room. As with the other principle rooms in the Castle, the Drawing Room Drawing Roomwas redesigned by Sir Robert Lorimer in 1915 after the fire that very nearly destroyed the Castle altogether. The fire was put out by the lucky arrival of hundreds of sailors from Royal Navy ships that were lying off the coast. At the time the Castle was a naval hospital, so they were keen to make sure nothing untoward happened to their shipmates. Library. This contains over 10,000 books. The focal point is the magnificent portrait by Philip de Laszlo of Duchess Eileen. The furniture includes a Chippendale mahogany pedestal library table, 19th century globe by the Edinburgh firm W & A K Johnstone, and a long case clock by J Hanley. Green & Gold Room. In times gone by, the Duchess took her bath in front of the fire in her Green and Gold Dressing Room. In the 18th century the bathwater was simply poured out of the window, but once Victorians built the terrace in 1850, this practice ceased and the water had to be taken away by hand.
Queen’s Corridor. A watercolour by Eugene Lami shows a reception being held at Stafford House (now Lancaster House) featuring Queen Victoria. These parties were very fashionable and were known as Crushes; you put on your finest clothes and stood around chatting for a couple of hours, but you would not be offered food or drink! The Ladies’ Sitting Room. The tapestries on the wall were commissioned for Queen Victoria’s visit in 1872, and a picture of Dunrobin is woven into the centre of two of them. Traditionally this room was used as a quiet place for the ladies of the house to pursue such hobbies as embroidery. Day Nursery. This charming room is also known as the Cromartie Room as Lord Cromartie was arrested here in 1746 having briefly liberated the Castle from the Earl of Sutherland. Lord Cromartie was a Jacobite and supported Bonnie Prince Charlie. Cromartie’s son, brother and nephew were all executed for their role in the 1745 rebellion. Lord Cromartie was spared because of a petition presented to the King by his wife and he was banished to Devon. The toys on display include a rocking horse and a doll's house, which was made for the present Countess of Sutherland's daughter, Lady Annabel. Night Nursery. All the furniture is Sicilian and was brought to the Castle at the end of the 19th century by the 4th Duke who had spent the winter in Sicily in a rented monastery recovering from a bout of bronchitis. This room demonstrates that you get a better class of souvenir if you have a very large yacht!
Seamstress's Room. In the 15th century, the Earl of Sutherland captured a beautiful young girl from the Mackay clan after a battle, and locked her up in the haunted room next to the Night Nursery. He wanted to marry her, but she refused. One night he came to her room to find her trying to escape down a rope of sheets. Enraged he whipped out his sword and cut the rope, causing her to fall to her death at the foot of the tower. Listen out for her weeping and wailing! On the floor below, in the Clan Society Room, there has often been heard an unearthly set of footsteps. On one occasion, a male figure was seen walking along the landing and through the closed door. The footsteps have now moved to the Drawing Room, no doubt displaced by the Clan Society. The Cromartie Stair is fascinating because it has no visible means of support, all the strength coming from the way in which the treads and half landings are inserted in to the wall.
The gardens were laid out in 1850 by the architect Sir Charles Barry, who was responsible for the Victorian extension to the Castle and who designed the Houses of Parliament. Inspiration came from the Palace of Versailles in Paris, and they have changed little in the 150 years since they were planted, although new plants are constantly being introduced. Despite its northerly location, the sheltered gardens are able to support a surprising range of plants, including at the foot of the steps leading to the garden a huge clump of Gunnera manicata, a native rhubarb of South America that has eight foot leaves! The gardens provide the cut flowers for the displays throughout the Castle. A visit to Dunrobin’s garden is of interest to all and most particularly for the connoisseur of the formal Victorian garden. Sir Charles Barry’s layout of the formal gardens below the Castle, with their arrangement into two parterres both laid out around circular pools with fountains were inspired by the gardens of Versailles. Barry had also previously designed a vast Italianate garden for the 2nd Duke of Staffordshire’s estate at Trentham. Dunrobin’s gardens have changed little from Barry’s design of 150 years ago, although new plants are constantly being introduced.
Back then Dunrobin’s head gardener used to manage two walled gardens, including fruit, vegetables and flower borders; back up nursery gardens and greenhouses; and beyond, extensive parkland with walks and coastal views. Although much of this has reverted to woodland, the surviving east walled garden with its three parterres each surrounding a pool and fountain provides the perfect layout to view from the Castle. The gardens also make a fitting foreground to the panoramic view across the Moray Firth to the distant Cairngorm mountains. Make your way down the steps and you will find a jewel of a garden, full of colour, interest and unexpected features, nestling amongst sheltering trees on a raised shingle beach; from here the Castle towering above provides a splendid backdrop. Dunrobin is not a garden that only looks back. A small, dedicated team provides a continuity of generations-old gardening skills with careful use of up-to-date horticultural techniques to maintain, develop and take forward what remains. The design is much as Barry left it but there have been recent exciting refurbishments to the planting and ornamentation. This includes avenues of Tuscan laurel and Whitebeam and the construction of wooden pyramid features. The old method of tree culture, pleaching, has also been re-introduced. A fine line of clipped topiary whitebeams and a maturing line of red hawthorns in wooden tubs are recent developments, which echo the garden’s Italianate origins. Nearby a new garden in the style of a 19th century French potager and featuring 20 giant wooden pyramid plant supports is the boldest project to date and frames a new vista across the garden.
Despite its location so far north, the Gulf Stream of warm sea water that flows from the Gulf of Mexico across the Atlantic brings sub-tropical conditions to western gardens from the Isles of Scilly to the North West Highlands goes on to sweep round Cape Wrath and John o ’Groats making its final influence felt at Dunrobin. The sheltered gardens are able to support a surprising range of plants, including at the foot of the steps leading to the garden, a huge clump of giant rhubarb, Gunnera manicata, a native of South America. This plant attracts much attention as its leaves measure eight feet. A native of Brazil and Colombia, it thrives in the mild winters and shelters between the Castle and the sea. Fuchsias too thrive. Previous head gardeners raised their own varieties and Fuchsia ‘Dunrobin Bedder’ may still be seen in the borders as well as bold clumps of Fuchsia magellanica var. miolinae with its flowers of palest shell pink and great banks of Fuchsia magellanica ‘Riccartonii’ with masses of small crimson and purple flowers. Three box-edged parterres of ascending antiquity carry a succession of colourful floral displays round the garden as the season progresses. April sees early tulips in the lily fountain beds and week by week spring bedding then summer bedding schemes interspersed with displays of perennial geraniums and lilies take the season through to the finish with a blaze of late summer dahlias. Backed by the retaining wall of the Castle terrace the Duchess Border, dating in its present form from the 1920s, is a majestic sight. Long summer days so far north make for exceptionally tall herbaceous plants and between the buttresses of the wall, Californian lilies flower with early 20th century climbing hybrid tea roses, now rarely seen. Also enjoying the warm influence is Choisya ternata the Mexican orange blossom forming clipped evergreen mounds in a sheltered corner, its heavily-scented white flowers attracting butterflies and moths on summer evenings. Beyond the grove of mature trees is a croquet lawn and there is a picnic area at the south-east corner of the gardens.
The Museum in the formal Castle grounds provides a further fascinating distraction. Originally built as a summer house by William, Earl of Sutherland, it was extended by the 3rd Duke. The museum displays the heads of numerous animals shot by the family on safari, ethnographic items collected from around the world (particularly Africa), and an important collection of archaeological relics. Notable among these are the collection of Pictish symbols stones and cross-slabs, These Pictish Stones form a very important collection, giving an opportunity to study the devices carved on stones 1,500 years ago. There is also a section on geology, gold panning at Kildonan, and the coal mine at Brora. The museum retains its Victorian-early 20th century arrangement, making it one of the most remarkable private collections in the British Isles.
Falconry is the ancient art of hunting with birds of prey. A visit to Dunrobin Castle now includes daily birds of prey flying demonstrations at 11.30 and 14:00, on the Castle lawn. See spectacular shows featuring golden eagles and peregrine falcons, both resident birds in the Scottish Highlands. Learn more about other local birds of prey as well as the ancient art of falconry. Additional attractions include more exotic species such as the European Eagle owl. Andy Hughes, their professional resident Falconer demonstrates and explains the different hunting methods used by owls, hawks and falcons in a series of fascinating aerobatic displays. Every show creates superb photographic opportunities. Birds of prey and Falconer are available until 3 pm every day for photographs. Falconry was originally developed as a means of hunting fast or difficult prey as food for the table, and is still practiced for this purpose in many parts of the world today. To train one of these fierce and fabulous wild birds is a long and difficult process and requires patience, expertise and dedication.
The route to Dunrobin is through some spectacular scenery and birdwatchers will want to pause by the salt marshes at Loch Fleet. Brora, Helmsdale, beautiful Kildonan and the 'flow country' beckon from the north. Alternatively, the stoneage excavations at Lairg and the Falls of Shin, with salmon leaping impressively in late autumn, warrant this diversion on the way home. A visit to their popular Tea Room is a must to sample a bowl of hearty home made soup or some freshly prepared sandwiches. They also offer a deliciously wholesome hot meal, tempting homemade cakes and pastries, and local ice creams. Dunrobin Castle has many stairways and steps on all levels that could cause difficulties to their less able visitor. Wheel chair access can be arranged to the Gardens. Assistance dogs are welcome. Passengers for Dunrobin Castle Station should be aware that the station i a request stop. If travelling to the Castle, please inform the guard at the start of your journey that you wish to get off. Passengers joining the train should give a clear hand signal to the train driver as the train enters the station.
Location : Dunrobin Castle, Golspie, Sutherland KW10 6SF
Transport: Dunrobin (National Rail) then 8 minutes. Bus Routes : 906, X98 and X99 stop outside
Opening Times : March to May, September, October - Daily 10:30 to 16:30; Sunday opens at 12:00
Opening Times : June, July August - Daily 10:00 to 17:00
Tickets : Adults £11.00; Concessions £9.00; Children £6.50
Tel. : 01408 633177