The beautiful vision of the ‘fairytale’ Dunrobin Castle, seen here from across the bay during our visit to Portmahomack, had tantalised us with the reported splendour of its architecture and gardens. Now, we had arrived at the gateway of its estate.
(1800 words, a twelve minute read)
(Above: Dunrobin Castle through a long lens…)
Dunrobin Castle is the most northerly of Scotland’s great houses and the largest in the Northern Highlands, having nearly two hundred rooms. It has been home to the Earls, and later, the Dukes of Sutherland since the late medieval age. It lies just north of the beautiful coastal town of Dornoch, on Scotland’s far northeastern coast. It is said that, in terms of Scotland’s history, Dunrobin is ‘about as connected as you can get‘.
Leaving the Inverness region behind, we were finally on our way to Orkney to begin the second part of the trip: Ancient Orkney, but not without stopping to see this masterpiece about which we had heard so much. It wasn’t entirely a diversion from the Pictish Trail, the castle actually marks its most northerly point.
Dunrobin has its own museum, which houses one of the best collections of Pictish stones on the whole coast. The clarity of the markings on these stones is said to be unsurpassed, so we were excited to be coming face to face with some of the best examples anywhere in the world.
The original building at Dunrobin had been a much simpler square-section fort. The family wished to create a house in the Scottish Baronial style, which had become popular among the aristocracy, who were inspired by Queen Victoria’s new residence at Balmoral. From 1835 onwards, two leading architects were commissioned (at different times) to work on the re-design of the castle: Sir Charles Barry, who was responsible for the Houses of Parliament in London; and Scottish architect Sir Robert Lorimer. Their work speaks for itself, and, though the subsequent image of Scotland’s highland culture was largely manufactured during Victoria’s reign–to the delight of the monarch–the beauty of Dunrobin speaks for itself.
The towering conical spires stand out on the horizon, as we had seen from the Tarbat Peninsula across the waters. Now, we were approaching them from the rear of that view, down the long drive which forms a rustic entrance for visitors.
There is no town of Dunrobin. The castle is located near to the attractive village of Golspie, on the main A9 route to the northern tip of Scotland. We had tickets for the evening ferry from that coast to Orkney’s main port of Stromness, so we couldn’t afford to be late. No-one in the party had driven that far north before, but we knew the final fifty miles of the journey involved steep winding roads that hugged the rugged coast and took longer than a glance at the map might suggest. It was sobering to think that we were now on the same latitude as southern Norway…
(Above: our run of good weather had ended. From here to Orkney we were to be rained upon, in true Scottish fashion!)
Ahead of us was the entrance to the castle. We donned our Covid masks and signed into our time-slot. We had exactly one hour to take in as much as we could. Sadly, this would be aided by the closure of the museum, as there were not enough staff available to keep it open during the current period of the virus. Our borrowed photographs (above) would have to suffice. No, matter; Orkney was to provide a rich harvest of archeological treasures of the people who, in their movement south, became the Picts.
(Above: the staircase up from the entrance room does not disappoint – nor does the rest of the castle)
Dunrobin Castle has been home to the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland since the 13th century and was first mentioned as a stronghold of the family in 1401. The Earldom of Sutherland is one of the seven ancient earldoms of Scotland, and the Sutherlands were one of the most powerful families in Britain with many important matrimonial and territorial alliances.
(Above: Dunrobin is, inevitably, a historical celebration of hunting; something I have little time for if it is done as a ‘sport’. However, taken in the context of history, it is an important element of life on the Sutherland estate)
The Earldom of Sutherland was created in 1235 and a castle appears to have stood on this site since then, possibly on the site of an early medieval fort. The name Dun Robin means Robin’s Hill or Fort in Gaelic, and may have come from Robert, the 6th Earl of Sutherland who died in 1427.
To do justice to the sumptuous interior of Dunrobin would take several dedicated posts. To make this review shorter, I have restricted my reporting to a few of the rooms, leaving room for what is beyond them on the seaward side!
(Above: the beautiful library, ornamented by the ‘rugs’ on the floor, but true to the aristocratic history of its time. The guide did point this out, cautiously, so there is a consciousness of modern sensibilities within the team at Dunrobin)
The Library is a classic example of the interior of Dunrobin Castle. It was converted from a principal bedroom by Sir Robert Lorimer, The entire room is lined with sycamore wood. The Library’s focal point is the portrait by Philip de Laszlo of Duchess Eileen. Born Lady Eileen Butler, elder daughter of the Earl of Lanesborough, she married the 5th Duke of Sutherland in 1912. The Duchess, who was Mistress of the Robes to Queen Mary, died in 1943. The romantic story is a classic example of the complex bloodline of those who have lived here.
(Above: The music room. Still in use for small concerts, it also houses a collection of fine paintings, including the portrait of a Venetian Procurator by Tintoretto)
The earlier castle’s keep was encased by a series of additions from the 16th century onwards. In 1785 a large extension was constructed. Remarkably this early keep still survives, much altered, within the complex of the later work, making Dunrobin one of the oldest inhabited houses in Scotland.
(Above: the dining room is the foremost example of a major Victorian public room. It is laid out for dinner in exactly the same way it would have been in 1850. It contains an extensive collection of family portraits)
I took many more photographs, but space will only allow so many. But there’s another reason to be economic with the interior’s real-estate here: the magnificent gardens… even in the drizzling, cold rain that was now a continuous backdrop to our exploring.
My wife, Bernie, was with us on this trip. She is a trained horticulturalist and had dearly wanted us to visit Dunrobin, if only to see the world-renowned gardens. Even the rain didn’t dim the splendour.
(Above: it’s quite shocking… you turn a corner of the balcony terrace and suddenly, as the castle’s ground base drops away, there’s this!)
The gardens were laid out in 1850 by the architect Sir Charles Barry, who was also responsible for the Victorian extension to the Castle. One look from above shows that inspiration came from the Palace of Versailles near 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 an excellent education in the design of a formal Victorian garden.
Sir Charles Barry was a man of many talents, and had previously designed a large Italianate garden for the 2nd Duke of Staffordshire’s estate at Trentham, in Staffordshire. Dunrobin’s gardens have changed little from Barry’s design of 150 years ago, although new plants are constantly tested, then introduced if hardy enough.
(Above: a few more steps and it broaden to this full view of the parterre landscape below)
Make your way down the stone steps and there emerges a jewel of a garden, full of colour, interest and unexpected features. From below the towering castle provides a splendid backdrop.
(Above: one of the parterres in all its glory…)
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 been re-introduced.
Despite Dunrobin being 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 the UK’s western gardens, from the Isles of Scilly to the North West Highlands, from where it goes on to sweep round Cape Wrath and John O’Groats before making its final landing at Dunrobin. The sheltered and warmed gardens are able to support a surprising range of plants.
(Above: and throughout this, you can look back at the castle and be constantly delighted by the thousand different views)
(Above: that’s Bernie, sheltering under the terrace in the distance. unaware of the cameraman at the end of the avenue, she was actually texting to tell me that our hour was up…)
Knowing we had a long drive ahead, we decided to risk a short visit to the cafe in the castle before setting off. A cup of tea and a piece of cake seemed in order – we’d not had time for lunch, and were due for dinner in the quayside hotel in Stromness, “If the boat was on time,” they’d said, ominously!
We were glad we did, because the cafe is built in what was the estate’s private fire station, and the photographs are some of the best of the trip…
A brief twenty minutes later, we were on the road again, bound for the port of Scrabster and the Islands of Orkney beyond… The Pictish Trail was over. Everyone had loved it. Now, tired but happy, we were on our way to a much more ancient land with an entirely different ‘feel’.
To be continued…
Other posts in this series:
Part Eight, This is Part Nine.
©Stephen Tanham, 2020.
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.
The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.