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The Highland Line: the dark history surrounding Dornoch Castle

News that the Dornoch Castle Hotel is for sale at a mere £2.25m attracted quite a lot of news coverage not least because of the exotic history associated with the building over the centuries - bishops and earls, clan battles and a hanged sheep rustler for good measure.

But this was pretty tame stuff compared to the story that preceded the construction of the building some of which dates to the 15th century.

In fact it was almost certainly on the site of the original Bishop's Palace of St Gilbert, who founded the Cathedral in the early 13th Century. But how did he get to Dornoch?

At the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Scottish crown was presenting a direct challenge to the power of the Norse earls of Orkney, by appointing leading churchmen. One Bishop John was appointed Bishop of Caithness and Sutherland.

In 1202 his residence in Scrabster, near where the ferry leaves for Orkney today, was stormed and Bishop John was mutilated. His eyes and tongue were removed.

His successor, Bishop Adam decided to move further south to Halkirk but it wasn't far enough. Indeed it is only nine miles by car today. In 1222, Adam was to find he was no more popular with the locals than his predecessor. The Caithness men "stripped him of his proper vestments, stoned him....and roasted him in his own kitchen".

He was succeeded by Gilbert, later St Gilbert, who moved south to avoid the heat of Halkirk's or any other north kitchen. He chose Dornoch and, in 1239, disinterred Adam's remains, and took them south for reburial in what was to become a Royal Burgh. John was there already in spirit.

Although Madonna chose it for the christening of her son Rocco in 2000, the cathedral was and is the smallest in the land. This because the bishops had no access to the considerable revenues they had left behind in Caithness. However, as Jim Hunter explained in his history of the Highlands and Islands ""Last of the Free - "Gilbert achieved the more immediately important objective of placing himself beyond the reach of his predecessor's killers."

The area was well known to the earls of Orkney. Indeed the first of them, Sigurd the Mighty, died there in 892AD at a spot at the north end of the Dornoch Bridge.

He was in dispute with Maelbrigte, the mormaer (local magnate/ earl) of Moray.

It had been agreed that the two men would settle their differences. They would meet with no more than 40 men each. But Sigurd conveniently misunderstood and turned up with 80 men, albeit mounted on only 40 horses. He easily won the day, and promptly removed Maelbrigte's head. According to the Orkneyinga Saga (compiled at the end of the 12th and beginning of the 13th cen-turies by unknown Icelandic scribes and tradition bearers) Maelbrigte was to get his revenge.

A modernised translation of the saga recalls that Sigurd had tied his enemy's head to his saddle for his journey back north.:

"On the way, as Sigurd went to spur his horse, he struck his calf against a tooth sticking out of Maelbrigte's mouth and it gave him a scratch. This began to swell and ache, and it was this that led to death of Sigurd. He lies buried in a mound on the bank of the River Oykell."

So the Morayman, who had a very long tooth, was to have the last laugh.

But back to Dornoch Castle and the unfortunate sheep rustler, whose name was Andrew McCornish. It seems he had been a 17th century Covenanter. But according to a history of the castle his most famous appearance was in the 19th century.

After the castle ceased to be a jail, it was the Sheriff's residence. Miss Marion Mackenzie was the daughter of Sheriff Mackenzie who was Sheriff Substitute of Sutherland for over 50 years until he retired in 1912. She used to tell how both her mother and her uncle, a minister from Avoch on the Black Isle, saw the ghost.

"He was described as having a weird face, long grey hair, a blue coat with two brass buttons, knee breeches, thick grey stockings, buckled shoes and a Balmoral bonnet." He was sitting in the Sheriff's study when Mrs Mackenzie came in from the garden to get some honeycomb for tea. She ran out to tell the family.

When she came back the ghost was gone.

"Shortly afterwards her mother's brother, the minister of Avoch, came to stay but left hurriedly the next day. They heard later that he had awoken during the night and had seen the same figure standing by his bed. He told it that if it did not go away he would call the Sheriff. It disappeared."

(Reassuring to know that spirits from beyond the grave still have such respect for those in authority)

The Sheriff checked through the prison records and identified the ghost as McCornish, although it is not clear how he managed this.

When the Castle passed into private hands in 1922 the new owner took the precaution of having the building exorcised.

Since then there have been no more apparitions, although " people do report a feeling of discomfiture in a section of the tower and 'lights' have been seen by at least one person."

It is the sort of thing one should know before spending £2.25m.

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