Back in November, we visited Dornoch for the first of two short breaks there. We’d been invited by Visit Dornoch to follow an itinerary of ‘Mix and Match’ experiences recommended by them. It was a brilliant trip (you can read about it here), so we couldn’t wait to return to discover more fun things to do in Dornoch.
Day one: cool things to do in Dornoch
There are seven elements to Visit Dornoch’s ‘mix and match’ experiences – golf, adventure, wellbeing, whisky, food, heritage and Christmas/Hogmanay. Our itinerary would include five of them.
A round of golf (and a walk) at Royal Dornoch
Since our November visit, Mr G has raved incessantly about his experience of playing Dornoch’s famous golf course. He played while Storm Arwen blew a hoolie, but 50mph winds didn’t dampen his enthusiasm. Playing Royal Dornoch had been a lifelong dream. The boy and I accompanied him round seven stormy holes on that occasion, before retreating to our hotel to coorie.
This time, he teed off on a sunny February morning, so the boy and I stayed for the whole round. I really enjoyed the walk and witnessing Mr G’s tantrums and pep talks when things didn’t go his way. On the whole things went his way with pars, a birdie (he’d missed one by a whisker last time round) and a couple of bogeys – but we don’t mention them.
Once he’d finished playing, Mr G hit the pro shop to treat himself to a souvenir. He left with a new golf towel.
Shopping done, it was time for another Dornoch ‘Mix and Match’ experience.
Wellbeing time at Aspen Spa
We’d experienced golf, now it was time for wellbeing.
Aspen Spa offer a range of beauty and spa treatments. I had an appointment for a back massage at their Dornoch spa (they also have one in Tain). Dornoch’s spa is housed in the Carnegie Courthouse. It’s a grand old building with elegant period features. It houses a number of other businesses, including a tailor, whisky shop and a bar/restaurant. Aspen Spa has a shop and beauty rooms on the ground floor and massage rooms on the first floor of the courthouse.
I’ve had various types of massage recently to rid my back of knots. They’ve all been wonderful, but this was the Rolls Royce of massage.
It started with me slipping face down into a heated bed, before inhaling essential oils to invoke a feeling of calm. Next, a hot towel was placed on my back – aaaaaaand relax. For the following thirty minutes, my back, neck and shoulders were massaged using warm oils. When it was time to work on the front of my neck and shoulders the bed automatically raised me into a comfortable seated position and a weighted mask was placed over my eyes. It felt heavenly.
When my treatment ended I was floating on a cloud – blissful.
Back downstairs, Mr G and the boy were waiting for me. The boy was flirting big time and it was paying dividends, as he was being hand fed doggy treats.
Our accommodation: Greenkeeper’s Cottage
Our accommodation for this Dornoch stay would be a self-catering cottage near the beach. Greenkeeper’s Cottage has three double bedrooms (two upstairs, one downstairs), two bathrooms (one upstairs, one downstairs), a well-equipped dining kitchen, utility room and a lounge with a gigantic sofa. It was the perfect pad for a cosy winter break in the Highlands.
Dark history on our doorstep
Greenkeeper’s Cottage also has an enclosed front garden, which features on the Dornoch Heritage Trail. There’s a stone in the garden called the Witch’s Stone. It marks the site of Scotland’s last legal witchcraft execution. The stone bears the date 1722, which is wrong as the poor victim died in 1727.
Janet Horne’s neighbours accused her of witchcraft and claimed she rode her daughter like a horse on her way to meet the devil. Mother and daughter were arrested, but Janet’s daughter escaped. Janet wasn’t as lucky. She was found guilty of witchcraft, before being stripped, tarred and burned at the stake. Janet was probably senile and historians believe her daughter had deformed hands and feet due to a birth defect. During those fearful times, acting strangely or looking different could be a matter of life and death.
Janet, or Jenny Horne was a generic name for a witch, so sadly this poor woman’s true identity has been lost in time.
A relaxing night at Greenkeeper’s Cottage
Despite being located opposite an execution site, Greenkeeper’s Cottage had a nice atmosphere. We spent our first night there eating locally produced goodies from a hamper Dornoch Stores had kindly gifted us. There was award-winning Scottish gin too – a gift from Dornoch Distillery. What could be nicer than spending a night by the fire with good food, good gin and good company.
Day two: cool things to do in Dornoch
We woke on day two of our Dornoch trip to find it had snowed overnight.
The weather was a tad wild, but it wouldn’t keep us indoors. Especially, since we were keen to seek out more fun things to do in Dornoch. Before heading out into the cold, we made breakfast using more goodies from our Dornoch Stores hamper. Cheese, salami, eggs and jam were devoured, along with a rich, aromatic mug of Highland roast coffee from the Inverness Coffee Roasting Co.
Sufficiently fuelled for winter weather, we left our cosy cottage to embark on a new Dornoch ‘Mix and Match’ adventure.
A snowy bike ride
We were off to do something we hadn’t done in a long time. Dornoch Bike Hire is located in the centre of town. They have a great selection of hire bikes to suit all ages, shapes, sizes and abilities. They even have trailers for wee dugs.
When we arrived at the hire shop, we met owner David who discussed our requirements and preferences with us. We both ended up choosing mountain bikes. Mr G’s with the aforementioned wee dug trailer attached to it, and mine a nifty electric number. After making sure our bikes were comfortable and adjusted to the correct height, David kitted us out with helmets.
Before I was let me loose on the electric bike, David took me for a cycle round the block to make sure I’d got the hang of the controls. I’d never ridden an electric bike before and it’s over a decade since I’ve been on a normal bike. It felt strange at first, but I quickly got the hang of it and loved how the bike whizzed along effortlessly.
Waving goodbye to David, we pedalled off into a blizzard. We headed towards the coast to cycle along an old railway line that links Dornoch and the neighbouring village of Embo. The weather frequently alternated between blizzard and sunny as we pedalled towards Embo. We were having a ball though, so it didn’t bother us in the slightest. The boy looked so comical inside the trailer. It was his first bike ride and he took it in his stride.
After an hour of cycling we returned the bikes to Dornoch Bike Hire. Me reluctantly, as I’d grown attached to my mine. It’d been lots of fun and a nice environmentally friendly way to explore the local area.
Weather beaten but happy, we were ready for lunch.
We grabbed takeaway from a cafe in town to eat by the fire, back at Greenkeeper’s Cottage. After polishing off soup, sandwiches and coffee, we were ready to discover more cool things to do in Dornoch (and beyond).
History, wildlife watching and hidden gems seemed like a good way to spend the afternoon, so we left Dornoch and drove to Loch Fleet National Nature Reserve a short distance away. The sun was shining when we arrived, casting a beautiful golden light on the hills surrounding the loch.
Skelbo Castle sits on a steep embankment overlooking Loch Fleet. The one time seat of the Sutherlands of Duffus, is located next to a historic ferry crossing, which was once the main route north. A road now skirts Loch Fleet, making it quick and easy to navigate.
The castle remains date to the 14th century, but the castle itself is much older. The curtain wall surrounding it is over 4ft thick. Skelbo must have been a formidable fortress in its day. If those mighty walls could speak they’d recount tales spanning centuries. It was at Skelbo Castle that Scottish Commissioners learned the news that seven-year-old Margaret Maid of Norway had died. They’d been awaiting Scotland’s new heir to the throne arriving by boat from Norway. Margaret’s death led to turmoil and was one of the catalysts that caused the Wars of Independence.
Loch Fleet National Nature Reserve
After exploring the castle, we turned our attention to wildlife. We stopped at a lay-by with a wildlife information board, directly in front of Skelbo Castle and studied the water intently. Loch fleet is home to seals, otters, seabirds, waders and waterfowl. We soon spotted a magnificent red kite circling above us. There were coots and mallards too, but no sign of any seals.
A hidden gem, chambered cairn and changeable weather
We left Loch Fleet and turned off the A9 near Golspie to follow a single-track road that leads to Loch Buidhe. A few miles along the road, hidden by the roadside is a stunning waterfall. Torboll Waterfall isn’t signposted, so you’ve little chance of stumbling across it unless you go looking for it. It’s definitely worth visiting. We caught it in full flow and looking dramatic, thanks to a recent wet spell.
We left Torboll Waterfall just as another heavy snow shower was starting. When we passed Loch Fleet en route back to Dornoch, the beautiful scenery and ancient castle were barely visible.
Five minutes later, we arrived in sunny Embo. We’d popped into the quaint fishing village to visit one final historic site for the day – a Neolithic chambered cairn located in a caravan site car park.
When we arrived back at Greenkeeper’s Cottage in was snowing again. Billy Connelly once said “If you don’t like the weather in Scotland, hang on twenty minutes”. Try five Billy.
A night to remember
For the next couple of hours we relaxed by the fire. I couldn’t stop checking my phone and was giving Mr G frequent forecast updates. He was only half listening, until I mentioned a KP index of 5 combined with a 18% visibility likelihood. You see, it wasn’t a weather forecast I’d been boring him with, it was an Aurora forecast and one we couldn’t ignore. Donned hats, gloves and lots of layers we drove back to Loch Fleet, hopeful that we’d witness the Northern Lights dancing.
It wasn’t to be a night of waiting with fingers crossed either, because as soon as we left the car we could see the Mirrie Dancers lighting up the night sky. We watched in awe as the beautiful pink and green lights shimmered and danced. For thirty minutes or so we stood, completely mesmerised by the beauty of Mother Nature. By the time the aurora dimmed we were absolutely euphoric.
And if that’s not reason enough to book a winter break in Dornoch, I don’t know what is.
Day three: cool things to do in Dornoch
On our third day in Dornoch we woke to heavy sleet. Snow hadn’t kept us indoors and sleet wouldn’t either. There were still new things we wanted to do in Dornoch, and huddling indoors by the fire wouldn’t get them done. So, off we headed for a new adventure.
Horse riding, Achavandra Stables
After a ten minute drive, we arrived at Achavandra Stables, where I’d be having my first ever horse riding lesson. I was both nervous and excited. Stable owner Katie was waiting to greet us and introduce us to her team and the horses they cared for.
My noble steed was a handsome big cob called Digit. He had a flowing mane, big fluffy feet and one distinctive blue eye. He’d been chosen because he had a placid nature and followed instructions well. He sounded perfect. After covering off the necessary health and safety checks, I was fitted with a helmet and hi-viz vest. It was now time to get in the saddle and learn the basics – how to move left, right, straight ahead etc.
Basics covered, it was time for a short trek in Skelbo Forest on the doorstep of Achavandra Stables. I’d be led by an experienced rider, who’d walk alongside me and help control Digit. Following behind for a woodland walk, were Mr G and the boy.
As we set off towards Skelbo Forest I felt wobbly, frightened and exhilarated all at once. To reach the forest we had to cross the A9. I had visions of me giving Digit a wrong command, and us last being seen galloping at the A9 towards John o’ Groats. When we reached the forest and started trekking along the beautiful trails inside it, my nerves settled and I started to really enjoy myself. Digit was such a good boy and responded immediately to my novice directions. I loved having an experienced rider there to lead me. It felt like the perfect belt and belt and braces approach for this new adventure and being able to blether (chat) as I trekked really put me at ease.
Before I knew it, we’d arrived back at the stables. I felt chuffed that I’d pushed myself out of my comfort zone and had a brilliant time in the process. My first horse riding lesson won’t be my last.
Wildlife, wild weather and a scenic drive.
After leaving the stables we paid Loch Fleet National Nature Reserve another visit. The sun made an appearance when we arrived and so did the seals – yippee. We could see loads of wee faces in the water peeping at us. There were seals snoozing on sandbanks too.
The good weather didn’t last, so we drove up the coast for lunch in Brora, then took a scenic drive inland, passing Loch Brora, and mile upon mile of sparsely populated moorland.
Later, back in Dornoch, we popped into Dornoch Stores to stock up on goodies for an afternoon of Six Nations Rugby viewing. There were so many temping goodies in the store that we ended up buying way more food than we could eat in one night. Dornoch Stores is half deli/food shop and half hardware/kitchenware shop, with some other bits and bobs thrown in for good measure. It’s an Aladdin’s cave. So, not only did we leave with a stash of tasty food and drink, I also bought a stylish pair of Chelsea boot wellies and the boy got to choose a new doggy toy.
Six Nations rugby and champagne at Greenkeeper’s Cottage
Back to Greenkeeper’s Cottage we unpacked our shopping, put the fire on, drew the blinds and settled down to watch the rugby. Scotland were playing the Auld Enemy aka England at Murrayfield and they won for the second year in a row. We’d both had a hunch they would, but we never utter hunches out loud. The hunch had manifested itself in us buying a bottle of Champagne from Dornoch Stores for no particular reason (at least no particular reason we could speak of). So, when Scotland lifted the Calcutta Cup, as if by magic we had something chilled and bubbly ready to toast their victory.
We spent the rest of the night relaxing by the fire, listening to music and chatting.
The end of another wonderful Dornoch trip
Sadly, when our fourth day in Dornoch dawned it was time for us to pack and say farewell to the pretty Highland town that’d stolen a piece of our hearts.
Once again, it’d been a fun-filled trip and we’d discovered even more great things to do in Dornoch. We’d mixed and matched Golf, adventure, wellbeing, food and heritage and after witnessing the Northern Lights it felt like we’d ticked off Christmas too.
Our accommodation and experiences were provided on a complimentary basis, however all opinions are my own.
Until next time …