I spent most of this week in the Scottish Highlands, mainly because I needed a break from writing ghost stories before I tackle my next commission, four adaptations of literary classics. Although I’ve been to Edinburgh twice, to perform at the International Book Festival, this was my first visit to rural Scotland and I had no idea what to expect.
I stayed in the small town of Dornoch on the Dornoch Firth in Sutherland. It was in the news a while back because Madonna had her son Rocco christened at Dornoch Cathedral the day before her wedding to Guy Ritchie in nearby Skibo Castle. I’m not sure what drew Madonna to Dornoch but I found it to be a delightful town, with a smattering of impressive buildings, nice cafes that sell paintings as well as great cakes and a beach where you might glimpse seals lazing on the sandbanks. It also has a renowned golf course, said to be one of the best in the world, but as I am not remotely interested in golf, I can’t tell you much about it, save that you have to dodge flying golf balls to get to the award winning, blue-flag beach beyond.
The buildings worth visiting are all clustered round the main square and include the cathedral, a bishop’s palace that is now run as the Dornoch Castle Hotel and a jail that has been turned into an upmarket gift shop. The place that will stay with me is the Cathedral. It was built in the 13th century but almost raised to the ground during local religious feuds in 1570. It was renovated in the early 19th century by the Countess of Sutherland, who had the walls covered in elaborate Victorian plaster work . This was removed in the 1920s to show off the medieval stonework, although the walls would have been covered in gesso when the place was first built.
The repairs in Victorian times are also believed to have removed evidence of one of my favourite ghost stories. Local legend has it that a local tailor boasted that he’d sit at the altar to knit hose and that he wouldn’t budge, even if visited by ghosts, until morning. His knitting was indeed interrupted by a ghostly apparition which slammed the door behind it. It left its fingerprints on the door jamb.
The stone with the finger marks is said to have been replaced during the Countess’s renovations but there are still a few macabre artefacts to find in the cathedral. The walls are dotted with stonework from the graveyard outside, including some brilliant examples of mortality stones. There is a green man smirking outside the door, and a very interesting gate leading into the churchyard.
If it all gets a little too spooky for you, the local cafes are only a few minutes’ walk away. They serve a range of teas and coffees to rival any joint in London. I recommend the locally made butter shortbread – and an hour or so on the treadmill when you get home.
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