Dunrobin Castle, located in Sutherland in the Northern Highlands, is the most northerly ancestral castle in Scotland and dates back to the early 1300s. The castle is styled after the great châteaus in France and it is widely recognized as the most beautiful historic building in Scotland.
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Review of Dunrobin Castle
Dunrobin Castle is one of the grandest stately homes in Scotland and is a must-visit destination for every visitor to the Highlands.
This is a castle that you’ve likely already seen in photos online but didn’t realize that it’s actually located in Scotland, probably because it looks more like a French château than a Highland fortress.
Dunrobin is the most northerly of Scotland’s great country houses and has a history dating back over 700 years, a history that’s made even more impressive by the fact that the same family has lived in it for the majority of that time.
Overlooking the North Sea and Dornoch Firth, Dunrobin Castle has more rooms and hidden chambers than you could ever hope to explore in a single day, and in total there are an incredible 189 rooms inside this majestic building.
As you walk around the building on a guided tour you’ll discover rooms tastefully decorated with period pieces of furniture while the outside gardens offer lovely walks through manicured grounds that look out across the North Sea.
It’s certainly an interesting place and it’s one that is worth making a detour to see, especially if you’re on a North Coast 500 road trip.
If you’d like to join a tour of Scotland’s best castles take a look at my recommended Get Your Guide castle tours.
Things to do at Dunrobin Castle
There’s a surprising amount of things to see and do at Dunrobin Castle and although the entrance tickets are a little on the pricey side I have to say a visit there is a must-do if you’re in the area.
Starting with the tour of the castle you can’t help but be impressed by the gleaming white facade of the exterior with its circular turrets poking out of the roof. It really does look like something out of a Disney film and when the sun’s shining it’s impossibly picturesque.
Leaving the grounds till later, you enter the castle which immediately transports you to a bygone age of ornate furnishings and wood-panelled grandeur. It’s a very atmospheric place and the attention to detail is evident everywhere you look.
Wood panelling and painted friezes seem to cover every square inch of the walls and there are some fine examples of Scottish weaponry displayed throughout the castle’s interior.
If you’ve ever visited Inveraray Castle – which is also privately owned and managed – you’ll know what to expect on the tour, although to my mind Dunrobin is a wee bit grander.
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While the interior of Dunrobin offers an interesting walk through history, the best part (in my opinion) about a visit is the expansive landscaped gardens that are set out in a formal style like those at the Palace of Versailles.
While much smaller than the gardens in the French palace they’re home to a huge variety of plants and in summer they’re exceptionally beautiful, especially when viewed from the castle terrace where you can watch the sun glinting off the sea in the near distance. The word ‘idyllic’ immediately springs to mind during a tour of Dunrobin Castle.
Make sure you take a look inside the enormous former summer-house while you’re in the gardens as this is where you’ll find the castle museum.
The collection here contains artefacts collected by the Sutherland family during their many worldwide tours (with the majority of the items sourced in Africa) but it also includes ancient relics from Pictish tribes that were prevalent in Scotland 1,500 years ago.
The museum is a fascinating place and it definitely lives up to its title of being one of the best private collections of historic artefacts in the British Isles.
A trip to Dunrobin Castle will be perfectly rounded off by watching one of the falconry displays that take place in the gardens twice a day and you’ll get to see demonstrations with raptors including golden eagles and peregrine falcons.
The grounds face the North Sea and it’s worth taking a walk to the small shingle and sand beach behind the castle as there are frequent sightings of bottlenose dolphins, but if you’re unlucky and don’t see any I recommend taking a drive south to the Moray Firth which is the location of Britain’s only permanent resident dolphin pod.
As far as facilities go, Dunrobin is pretty good and it offers a gift shop if you want to take home an authentic Scottish souvenir and a tea room if hungry bellies are growling for sandwiches. There is also a large parking area, but please note that as this is a historic building there is very limited wheelchair access on the site.
The history of Dunrobin Castle
Dunrobin Castle has been home to the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland since the 13th century when the lands of the Earldom of Sutherland were granted to the family, and it’s known that a fortification of some kind was built on the site of the modern castle shortly after the Earldom was created.
While the earliest incarnation of Dunrobin (which means ‘Robin’s Fort’ in Gaelic) was a simple square keep it was renowned for being an impenetrable fortress, with walls six feet thick and looking out across the north sea from a high cliff-top position.
It must have been an imposing sight and the Earls of Sutherland kept the fort in this style for another 200 years until a housing quarter and staircase were added, and then from the 16th-century on it was extended and modified into the fairytale castle we see today.
The first of these modifications were added in 1785 when a large extension was built around the keep, while a complete remodelling of the building began in 1845 to convert the keep into a house in the Scottish Baronial style that can be seen across many of the great houses in Scotland.
It was during this stage of re-modelling that the conical towers were added and the gardens were re-laid in an effort to mimic Versailles (and I think they did a pretty good job of it too).
Unfortunately, a great fire destroyed much of the castle’s interior in 1915 and while repairs were carried out the main tower and clock tower were also converted, but apart from a brief period in the 1960s when the castle was used as a boarding school, Dunrobin has continued to be the Sutherland family home right up to the present day.
If you’d like to explore more Scottish castles read my Guide to the Best Castles to Visit in Scotland.
- What a location! The view from the castle across the gardens is stunning. While it might be busier I definitely recommend visiting during spring and summer when the gardens are in full bloom.
- There’s a lot of interesting history to discover in this castle and as it’s privately-run it feels more authentic than most Historic Environment Scotland sites.
- Dunrobin Castle is a great place to visit if you’re touring the North Coast 500. You won’t go far wrong by exploring the coastline further south either, and an alternative route is to drive to Inverness, visit Loch Ness then double-back and head up to Fort George.
- Explore the coastline in this area of Scotland – it’s absolutely beautiful (although the west coast is arguably even nicer).
- Head south from Dunrobin for a few miles and you’ll find Loch Fleet which offers a good loch-side walk.
- In my opinion, the gardens are just as impressive as the castle so save your visit for a sunny day. We do get them in Scotland. Occasionally.
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Things to do near Dunrobin Castle
- Golspie Beach. Golspie KW10 6TQ. 5-minute drive. A wide, quiet beach within easy walking distance of Dunrobin Castle. The beach offers golden sand and clear water and the charming fishing village of Golspie has a few shops to stock up on picnic supplies.
- Cairn Liath. Brora KW9 6NL. 5-minute drive. The remains of an ancient stone fortification (a broch) are situated in an elevated position overlooking the North Sea. There is car parking nearby along with rough tracks leading down to the water’s edge.
- Golspie Burn Waterfall. Golspie KW10 6RZ. 5-minute drive. A favourite with locals, this waterfall can be found midway along a path that crosses the Golspie Burn river a short distance from the A9. The waterfall is surrounded by woodland that offers a pleasant walk over several small wooden bridges.
- Loch Fleet National Nature Reserve. Dornoch IV25 3QG. 16-minute drive. A picturesque nature reserve comprising woodland, golden sand beaches and mudflats. Loch Fleet is a large sea loch and the surrounding area is home to seals, otters, osprey and a variety of waterfowl.
- Skelbo Castle. Dornoch IV25 3QG. 16-minute drive. Ruined 14th-century keep that is protected as a scheduled monument. The castle is located close to the Loch Fleet nature reserve and because the ruins sit on an elevated hill there are panoramic views in all directions.
More places to visit in The Highlands
- Ben Ledi – Stirlingshire: Complete Visitor GuideBen Ledi is an 879-metre high mountain in the lower Scottish Highlands. It can be found 5 miles north-west of the popular country village of Callander in the Trossachs National Park. The Trossachs are famous not just for their mountain ranges but also for their lochs which include the mighty Loch Lomond – one of the most scenic bodies of water in the United Kingdom.
- Muir of Dinnet – Aberdeenshire: Complete Visitor GuideThe Muir of Dinnet is a national nature reserve located on the eastern border of the Cairngorms national park in the Scottish Highlands. The reserve features a wealth of different habitats including heath, woodland and wetland, but it’s perhaps best known for ‘the vat’, a natural gorge formed by glaciers over 10,000 years ago.
- Glen Etive – Inverness: Complete Visitor GuideWhat if I told you there’s a 12-mile stretch of road where you can see those mountains, rivers and forests in a single relatively small area, where gob-smackingly beautiful vistas open up around every corner on a secluded, frequently tourist-free single-track road?
- Faraid Head – Sutherland: Complete Visitor GuideWhile Scotland’s west coast islands usually take first prize for the number of amazing beaches you’ll find (hello Isle of Tiree) you shouldn’t be too quick to discount Scotland’s mainland either, especially in the far north where it’s relatively tourist-free compared to the rest of the country.