The impressive chateau-style Dunrobin Castle in Sutherland overlooks the Moray Firth on the east coast of Scotland, just to the north of the small towns of Golspie and Dornoch. It is the seat of the Dukes of Sutherland.
The County of Sutherland is one with just a small population, probably about 13,000. It has coastlines both to the east and the Moray Firth and the Atlantic Ocean to the north and west. This northerly county of Scotland is among the most beautiful and scenic in the United Kingdom and beyond. Ironically its name has Viking origins. Their base was the Orkneys so ‘’Suderland’’ formed part of their southern territories from as early as the 8th Century until well into the 13th Century.
The castles of Scotland were largely built by people wanting to defend the land. They weren’t built by ordinary people of course. In the North of Scotland, it was often initially because of the threat of Norse invaders, settled in the Western Isles, though inter-clan rivalry and the power of England to the south were equally valid reasons to build a defensive position.
The Highland regions of Scotland were clan territory and Clan Mackay was a warlike inhabitant of North West Sutherland, supporting Robert the Bruce early in the 14th Century but later the English against the Jacobites. Their land was referred to as Strathnaver which was eventually bought by the Sutherlands in the early 19th Century. Even so, this part of today’s Sutherland County is still referred to as ‘’Mackay Country’’ when talking about Sutherland. Back in those days, it was important to construct defensive positions with the threat of attack a constant factor in daily life.
Clan Sutherland was another of the local clans but in the 16th Century, as a result of marriage, the title of Earl of Sutherland was passed to yet a further clan, the Gordons. The Sutherland Clan had been created by Freskin, a Flemish nobleman who had been one of many warlords employed by the Normans to subjugate the English.
David I of Scotland who reigned for 30 years until the middle of the 12th Century, also used such ‘’mercenaries’’ to keep control of his land. Freskin’s service allowed him to acquire land both in West Lothian, a region west of Edinburgh, and Sutherland. Over the years, his descendants gradually established themselves within Sutherland.
It was Freskin’s grandson, Hugh, Lord of Duffus who acquired the lands of Sutherland at the beginning of the 13th Century and his son William was the first to have the title Earl of Sutherland in the middle of the 1230s. Dunrobin Castle history is not precise but the belief is that a medieval fort was built around then on the site of what is now this impressive building.
When was Dunrobin Castle built you may ask? The lovely Dunrobin Castle and its Gardens that you see today was primarily the creation of Sir Charles Barry between 1835 and 1850. Within the interior courtyard there are still some signs of original buildings. It is believed that the fort was square with walls an impressive 1.8 metres thick. Tribal society demanded something that was easy to defend.
Strategic alliances were important back in the day, and they often included marriage. The daughter of the 8th Earl of Sutherland, Elizabeth married into the Gordon Clan who thereby acquired the title of Earl of Sutherland on the death of the 8th Earl in 1512. That did not sit well with the Sutherlands but despite attempts to regain the Castle and the Title, they never succeeded.
The 17th Earl of Sutherland finally changed his name from Gordon. It was he who narrowly escaped a Jacobite attack on the Castle led by Charles Edward Stuart, Bonnie Prince Charlie, in 1745 because Clan Sutherland was supportive of the English. On the death of the 17th Earl, his daughter Elizabeth was now head of the family as Countess of Sutherland. She was married to a politician, George Leveson-Gower who became the 1st Duke of Sutherland while she was also, therefore, Duchess of Sutherland.
The Dukes of Sutherland
The title of Duke of Sutherland was created in 1833 by William IV. At that time, George Leveson-Gower was already Marquess of Stafford. His marriage to Elizabeth began the process of creating one of the richest landowning families in the whole of the United Kingdom. Other titles within the family included Earl of Ellesmere, Earl Gower, Viscount Trentham, Viscount Brackley, and Baron Gower. In addition, George became Lord Strathnaver and Earl of Sutherland when he married Elizabeth.
George’s family had first been entailed by James I two centuries before and through marriage, a powerful dynasty had already been created when he married Elizabeth, the daughter of the 18th Earl of Sutherland and his wife Mary. They both died from fever when Elizabeth was just a year old.
She, therefore, became Countess of Sutherland, spending the first two decades of her life in either Edinburgh or London. At the age of 20, in 1785 she married George Granville Leveson-Gower, the Viscount of Trentham and to become Marquess of Stafford in 1803. Almost thirty years later, just before his death, he was made the 1st Duke of Sutherland.
Under the terms of the marriage, George was to control, but not own, the Sutherland Estate. They bought additional land so that they owned 63% by value of Sutherland. At one point, George was the English ambassador to France and saw at first hand the effects of the French Revolution. Being away in France did not stop George and Elizabeth from retaining a keen interest in what was happening in the North of Scotland. They left Paris in 1792 but still spent most of their time in London society.
Their eldest son, also called George, was born in 1786 and became the 2nd Duke after his father’s death. Elizabeth died in London in 1839 and is buried at Dornoch Cathedral close to Dunrobin Castle. His first son, George again, born in 1828 followed him in 1861. He was the fourth of the eleven children the couple had, but the oldest male.
The 3rd Duke’s firstborn died very young so his second son, Cromartie became the 4th Duke of Sutherland in 1892. His first son assumed the title of 5th Duke of Sutherland in 1913 but there the line finished with his death in 1963.
You will see the Dukedom had been passed directly down until 1963 when the 5th Duke of Sutherland died without a direct heir. Since then, the Dukedom has been passed down through the Egerton family. That was the name that the second son of the 1st Duke had taken by law in the middle of the 19th Century. The 6th Duke also died without a direct heir so the 7th Duke is the latter’s cousin and he has two sons and therefore direct heirs.
The Highland Clearances
The Highland Clearances and the history of the Dukes of Sutherland are closely linked. They happened back during the time of George and Elizabeth. This was a time when tenants were forcibly removed from the land and settled in coastal villages. The process had begun decades before, just after the Jacobite defeat of 1745. Supporters were made to pay and the process of relocation continued for more than a century in different phases.
Most phases had the aim of changing of use for the land, pastoral to sheep farming which brought higher rents. Unfortunately, the crofting communities found life hard, almost impossible in fact. Crofters moved on, sometimes emigrating, and always with little choice in places like Sutherland.
George had invested in the Highlands from personal inheritances, looking to take over expiring leases to create large sheep farms. The first relocation he was involved in took place in1807 when 300 people had to be forcibly resettled. Elizabeth looked to improve estate income by similar policies. Alternative employment varied from mining to fishing, tanning and brick manufacture. Some relocations were peaceful with decent compensation, others less so. In many cases, these clearances did nothing for those that were relocated.
Dunrobin Castle Basics
The Castle is believed to get its name from the beginning of the 15th Century. The Earl gave his brother and his future male heirs pasture land but retained land around the Mill of Dunrobin because it had running water and fish. That is the first recording in script of a castle although it is mentioned that a fortification had been there for around three centuries. ‘’Doun Robin signefeth the mote or hill of Robert’’ is an historical reference with Robert being the christian name used by the Gordon Clan just as George became the one used later for the Dukes.
The Castle was enlarged and improved through the 17th and 18th Centuries before Sir Charles Barry undertook the work that you see today for the 2nd Duke of Sutherland. Barry’s work designing the Palace of Westminster resulted in his being in great demand. He had also designed the Gardens at the Duke’s English seat, Trentham. Dunrobin Castle Gardens are the impressive result of his ideas.
You cannot be other than impressed when you first look at Dunrobin Castle, a mix of Scottish Baronial and French Renaissance in style. It is set on high above lovely gardens. With 189 rooms, Dunrobin is the largest castle in the northern Highlands. In the style of a French chateau in many ways, inspired by Viollet-le-Duc’s ideas, there are towers in the four corners.
The older castle connects through a three-storey building with state apartments to the four-storey newer section. The towers vary in height between 38 and 41 metres while in the oldest part of the castle you will find St.John’s Well with a draw of 28 metres.
Dunrobin Castle got its own railway station in 1870, and the waiting room added 30 years later is a category B listed building. The Castle itself is A-listed.
In the 20th Century, part of the Castle was used as a naval hospital during the First World War. Much of the interior was destroyed by fire at that time and extensive restorations were required. Unfortunately, the cost of maintaining such estates became onerous indeed. For a while, the house was a boarding school and today, with private areas retained for the family, the house and grounds are open to the public.
Portraits of all the past earls and the Leveson-Gower family are hung in the entrance hall and up the impressive staircase. The dining roof is wood-panelled with priceless contents while the drawing-room was redesigned in those early 20th Century restorations with equally priceless art, tapestries and a library. It looks out over the gardens towards the Moray Firth.
Dunrobin Castle Gardens & Museum
Barry was inspired by the Palace of Versailles when he laid out these impressive gardens which were completed in 1850. There are a series of circular pools, each with a fountain with almost 1400 acres laid out for all to see.
Over the years, the Sutherlands have enjoyed going on safari. The 18th Century summer house to one side of the gardens holds trophy heads of the animals shot over the years as well as archaeological artefacts and ethnographic exhibits.
Dunrobin Castle Today
As has already been mentioned, Dunrobin Castle and its Gardens are open to the public with private apartments kept for the family. The family is not in residence for much of the year but the Castle and its grounds require regular maintenance and upkeep. That is an expensive exercise bearing in mind the size of the Castle. Any revenue that can be earned from visitors is more than welcome and definitely needed.
Tours of Dunrobin Castle can be arranged from Inverness to the south. As well as seeing the Castle and its gardens, you will be treated to a falconry display that will be a new experience for many visitors. When you picture in your mind a castle from fairy tales, the picture that you might have in your mind could be that of Dunrobin Castle. It is not necessarily something you might expect to find on Scotland’s northeast coast. Be sure to visit if ever you are in the Scottish Highlands.
You may enjoy reading about our other Scottish castles here.