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A Guide to Dornoch and the Scottish Highlands

The Scottish Highlands has got it all—amazing scenery, delicious food, unique distilleries, and fantastic golf courses—or you could just put your feet up and relax

A visit to Dornoch in the Highlands of Scotland will make you feel truly alive—imagine vast skies and stunning landscapes of lochs and mountains. If you’re feeling adventurous, you could use it as a base from which to explore the wider Scottish Highlands, which lay claim to some of the most beautiful castles in the world, Britain’s highest mountain peak in the form of Ben Nevis, and the country’s largest national park. There are many adventures to be had, including walking and fishing, or enjoy a round of golf with an amazing view. And that’s before we even mention the locally sourced, seasonal, and delicious food to be found across the region.

Dornoch Scottish Highlands
The stunning Dornoch coastline in the Scottish Highlands. Image: Getty Images

What’s on the Menu in Dornoch?

Who wouldn’t enjoy dinner in a 15th-century castle? Originally built for the Bishops of Caithness, Dornoch Castle Hotel today is a comfortable and welcoming venue with a fascinating history. Choose between a candlelit dinner in the garden restaurant, which overlooks formal walled gardens, or opt for a more informal meal in front of an 11 ft (3.4 m) open fireplace (an area that used to be the bishop’s kitchen). Alternatively, there’s private dining in The Vault. The castle even boasts its own traditional organic micro-distillery created by whisky experts Simon and Phil Thompson. And of course whisky is also served at the bar.

Dornoch Castle Hotel is an ideal base from which to explore the Scottish Highlands, as well as being a wonderful destination in its own right.

There’s another grand castle nearby, Skibo, which overlooks the Dornoch Firth and offers exceptional hospitality once you’ve joined the members-only Carnegie Club. Then you can truly feel at home in what’s been referred to as Scotland’s best-kept secret. Industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie leased Skibo in 1897, buying it the following year, and transforming the estate into what he called “Heaven on Earth.” The chefs at Skibo are passionate about food and it shows. Executive chef Craig Rowland, a fellow of the prestigious Royal Academy of Culinary Arts, heads the talented team.

LInks House restaurant
With its emphasis on provenance and fine dining, Links House restaurant offers one of the best foodie experiences on offer in the Scottish Highlands.

Reopening in late March 2020, Links House at Royal Dornoch offers an exceptional fine-dining experience. Passionate about food provenance and dedicated to using only the finest locally sourced ingredients, the restaurant also has an extensive wine cellar to sample, which focuses on aged varietals from the continent and the United States. Whether you feel like trying a 1997 Brunello di Montalcino, a 1989 Bordeaux, or a 1996 California Cabernet, just sit back and relax. If you decide to stay for a few days, the hotel’s Highland experiences manager, Alastair Kennedy, can create a bespoke itinerary for you.

Getting Active

Ospreys, red deer, sea birds, seals, dolphins, and ducks are all to be found in and around the Dornoch Firth. Why not combine wildlife spotting with a walk in the most beautiful of settings? There’s every level of exertion available, from a stroll along the beach to hilly hikes and woodland walking. Or, if you’re feeling very adventurous, you could hire a bike and try a cycle trail instead. There’s also plenty of fishing opportunities, including river fishing for wild Atlantic salmon or wild brown trout fishing in the many lochs close to Dornoch. According to Links House, “Loch-style fishing for trout has a long tradition, practiced since mid-Victorian times.”

Red deer Scottish Highlands
Red deer stags roaming the Scottish Highlands. Image: Alamy

A Round or Two of Golf

Golf was first played in Dornoch some 400 years ago and has been an essential part of local life ever since. Frequently referenced as a must-play course, Royal Dornoch Golf Club is set against a spellbinding backdrop of sea and sky, and is home to the Struie Course and the Championship Course, ranked one of the best in the world. Both welcome visiting golfers every day and promise a “relaxed, informal environment with an emphasis on traditional highland hospitality.”

Royal Dornoch Golf Course
The world-renowned Royal Dornoch in Sutherland, Scottish Highlands. Image: Alamy

If you become a member of Skibo Castle’s Carnegie Club, you’ll also gain access to the Carnegie Links, an 18-hole championship golf course on the banks of the Dornoch Firth. There are no tee times to worry about either—members are free to play whenever the mood takes them. There’s also a spa, plus tennis, clay pigeon shooting, fishing, and archery.

While in the area you could also visit neighboring golf courses at Golspie, Tain, and Bonar Bridge, which all welcome players of every standard.

Glenmorangie distillery Scottish Highlands
Take a tour of the famous Glenmorangie whisky distillery in Tain in the Scottish Highlands. Image: Alamy

Whisky Distilleries

Surely music to the ears of whisky drinkers; there’s a staggering six famous distilleries—Clynelish, Balblair, Glenmorangie, Dalmore, Glen Ord, and Old Pulteney—all within easy reach of Dornoch. Why not sample and compare single malts on this truly special whisky trail?

Clynelish distillery
A view of the old Clynelish distillery in Brora in the Scottish Highlands. Image: Alamy

Further Afield: More Foodie Delights in the Scottish Highlands

Set in 19 acres (7.7 ha) of picturesque grounds and overlooking Loch Nan Uamh, Arisaig House is a stunning base from which to explore the Highlands or catch a boat to Skye, Eigg, or Rum from Mallaig, Image: Michael Paul

Arisaig House, Arisaig

A historic country house hotel with a welcoming, family vibe, Arisaig House is set on the stunning west coast of the Scottish Highlands. Its inventive kitchen has a well-earned reputation for championing the freshest regional and hyper-local ingredients including scallops, langoustines, lobsters, and oysters. There’s a pretty village too with views to the islands of Rum and Eigg, which can be breathtaking, especially at sunset. “I love it when people leave having discovered something new,” says Sarah Winnington-Ingram, who runs the hotel. “I can tell guests where everything on their plate came from.” To that end, Arisaig House is hosting a series of foodie weekends and tours, starting with a visit from Annie B, a culinary guide based in Spain with roots in Scotland.

The coastal town of Arisaig in the Scottish Highlands. Image: Alamy

Michelin Stars in Inverness: Chez Roux and Rocpool

Michelin-starred French restaurant Chez Roux in the cultural capital of the Highlands, Inverness, is well worth the journey. Signature dishes include Albert Roux’s classic soufflé suissesse and lemon tart, coconut sorbet, and caramelized white chocolate crumb. If you have the time and space for another meal, you could visit Rocpool, which also has a Michelin star and serves modern British fare. Don’t miss the roast fillet of wild Shetland halibut with curried prawn and pea risotto, served with coconut and crispy coriander.

The View Cuillin Hills Hotel
One of the most beautiful views in Scotland, Portree Bay and the Isle of Skye from The View restaurant at the Cuillin Hills Hotel. Image: Alamy

The View Restaurant, Cuillin Hills Hotel, Isle of Skye

Claiming “probably the best view you will get from any hotel in Scotland,” Cuillin Hills Hotel is set in 15 acres (6 ha) of mature private grounds looking across Portree Bay and the Cuillin mountain range. Food served in the elegant restaurant is fresh and locally sourced, including wild red and roe deer, and smoked Scottish salmon from a nearby smokehouse.

Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles
Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles has the distinction of being the only restaurant in Scotland with two MIchelin stars.

Double Michelin star: Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles

Another unmissable experience is Scotland’s only two-starred Michelin restaurant, Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles. There’s both an à la carte option and the wonderful seven-course dégustation menu, which currently features home-smoked Scottish lobster and wild mushroom and truffle ravioli, among other delights. Sadly Andrew Fairlie passed away in January 2019 but his close-knit team, who worked with the top chef for many years, proudly protect his culinary legacy.

Banner image: Getty Images