FROM a fine dram to its resident ghost, Dornoch Castle Hotel makes a great base for exploring Sutherland, finds Alison Gray.
Looking for somewhere suitably spooky to spend Halloween weekend? You could do worse than book a berth at Dornoch Castle Hotel in Sutherland, which has its own resident ghoul, an unfortunate sheep rustler who was imprisoned in the 15th-century keep, which was once a jail.
You’ve got to hope that the spirit likes his whisky, as, if that is the case, he is sure to spend most of his time in the bar, leaving you unmolested in the sanctuary of the Tower Room.
This is one of the hotel’s two deluxe rooms and is located in the oldest part of the castle. The room is incredibly atmospheric with a four-poster bed and a splendid fireplace. The castle has been a hotel since 1947 and has had only three owners. Built for the Bishop of Sutherland it has served as a private residence, a school, a jail and courthouse before it became a 25-bedroom hotel.
Located opposite the magnificent 12th-century Dornoch Cathedral, the hotel is ideally placed for weddings, as well as for golfers – it’s an easy putt from the Royal Dornoch Championship golf course – and those who like to sample the water of life. In the hundreds of years it has been in existence, the cathedral has no doubt played host to all kinds of important historic events, but perhaps the most famous occasion in recent years was when Madonna and Guy Ritchie had their son christened there in 2000.
If you are interested in such things, the ghost has a name. Andrew McCornish was imprisoned in the dungeons of Dornoch Castle for stealing ewes and rams from nearby estates. He’s been haunting the castle ever since – with his first sighting recorded at the end of the 19th century when the daughter of the Sheriff Substitute of Sutherland who jailed the unfortunate thief first set eyes on him. Marion Mackenzie claimed to see the grey-haired man with a “weird face,” thick grey stockings and knee breeches sitting in her father’s study when she came in from the garden to get some honeycomb for tea one day.
After running for help from her family, they returned to an empty room. But Andrew’s ghost reappeared later that night next to the bed of Marion’s uncle, the minister of Avoch, while he was sleeping.
Marion’s uncle woke up and told the ghost that if he did not go away he would call his brother the sheriff. The ghost swiftly departed the room and never visited again.
After listening to his brother and daughter’s description of the ghost, Sheriff Mackenzie recognised it as McCornish. Despite the ghost’s disappearance the castle’s new owner in 1922 took no chances and had the place exorcised before he moved in.
Paranormal investigators have visited the hotel since and although they might not have come across Mr McCornish in person, they have recorded odd noises and changes of temperature during various studies. Evidence of real ghosts, or just the idiosyncrasies of an historic building? Perhaps you will be brave enough to visit and come to your own decision.
You’re going to eat and drink well at the hotel, so it makes sense to get out into the autumn air and enjoy the colours of the season. But you will be equally happy exploring Dornoch itself. Shoppers will wish for a lock-in at Jail Dornoch which, rather than being a place where punishment is meted out, is a consumer paradise selling quirky gifts, jewellery, and if you go at the right time of year, has an entire floor dedicated to Christmas.
The Highland Clearances never feel terribly far away when you are in Sutherland, but the cruel history is never more real than when you visit one of the affected parishes. The people of Glencalvie – 18 families, numbering some 90 people from the elderly to very young children – had peaceably grown barley and oats, herded cattle and sheep and faithfully paid their rent for generations. With nowhere to go when they were put off their land, they took shelter in the churchyard of Croick Kirk. A correspondent from the Times witnessed these events and a copy of his graphic despatch to his editor in London is on display in the church today. However, most moving are the messages scratched on the outside of the east window of the church by the people of Glencalvie. One refers to the “wicked generation” who had overseen the clearances.
With a combination of fascinating history, convivial accommodation, good retail opportunities and the possibility of a ghostly encounter, it’s hard not to fall for Dornoch this autumn.
•Dornoch Castle Hotel, Castle Street, Dornoch, Sutherland IV25 3SD, tel: 01862 810216, www.dornochcastlehotel.com; there are various seasonal packages on offer, contact the hotel for more details.