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Dornoch, High Street, Cathedral Of St Mary And St Gilbert

Burial Ground (Period Unassigned), Cathedral (13th Century), War Memorial(S) (20th Century)

Site Name Dornoch, High Street, Cathedral Of St Mary And St Gilbert

Classification Burial Ground (Period Unassigned), Cathedral (13th Century), War Memorial(S) (20th Century)

Alternative Name(s) Dornoch Cathedral; Church Of Scotland Parish Church; St Gilbert's Church; Dornoch Cathedral; Walled Grave Yard; War Memorial Plaques; Memorial Window

Canmore ID 14637

Site Number NH78NE 5

NGR NH 79720 89692

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number AC0000807262. All rights reserved.
Canmore Disclaimer. © Copyright and database right 2024.

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Administrative Areas

  • Council Highland
  • Parish Dornoch
  • Former Region Highland
  • Former District Sutherland
  • Former County Sutherland

Archaeology Notes

NH78NE 5 79720 89692

(NH 7971 8969) Cath. (NAT)

OS 6" map, (1959).

For associated Bishop's Palace (now Dornoch Castle Hotel) at NH 7972 8960, see NH78NE 6.

For earlier ecclesiastical community, see NH78NE 14.

Dornoch Cathedral, dedicated to the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary but locally known as St. Gilbert's Church, after Gilbert, Bishop of Caithness, its founder, succeeded Halkirk as the Church of the See of Caithness.

The Cathedral, now used as the parish church, was founded about 1223, but its date of completion is not known. It was burnt by the MacKays in 1570 and lay in ruins until partially restored for use as a parish church in the early 17th century. Further re-building and renovation in the 19th century left little of the early work exposed and involved the destruction of the remains of the arcades of the nave, it being rebuilt without aisles. During this century an attempt has been made to uncover much of the early work hidden by the 19th century renovations.

The sanctuary of the Cathedral as defined by Pope Pius II between 1458 and 1464 extended 'for three miles on every side around the said cathedral church and marked with the sign of the holy cross'.

(For earlier ecclesiastical community here - see NH78NE 14).

Orig Paroch Scot 1855; W D Simpson 1924; C D Bentinck 1926.

Dornoch Cathedral is as described, and in use.

Visited by OS (A A), 31 March 1971.

Dornoch Church: Category A listed

HBD No. 1 (undated entry).

Architecture Notes

ARCHITECT: William Burn 1835 Restoration for Countess of Sutherland

REFERENCE: Scottish Record Office

225/37 Burn's plans for Dornoch ch.

226/9 Dempster to Loch. Plans of seating of ch.

226/11 Dss. to Loch. Seating of ch.

228/16-17 Dss. of Loch. 'We are agreeing with Leslie who with Cooper

has fixed upon a plan and elevations for the cathedral in

good taste for about ?3,500. It will be well to pay off

Burns and have done with him entirely'. 30 July 1835.

228/24-5 Loch. 'Alterations to Dornoch plans by Cooper;

'the whole must as formerly be harled in the manner of this

house, and as the cathedral always was, instead of being

cased with stone after Burns plan, wh.wd.cost ?5000 or more

as we have no proper stone for such a work'. 15 July 1835.

229/4-7,10-11 Alterations to Dornoch cath.

GD 268

George Dempster, Heritor, Sutherland

NATIONAL LIBRARY: Uncatalogued M.S.S. of General Hutton No 169 Vol 1- plan by James Shand, Tain 1815.

(Undated) information in NMRS.


Field Visit (6 July 1909)

102. Dornoch Cathedral.

The Cathedral, said to have been erected by Bishop Gilbert in the first half of the 13th century, was burned by the Master of Caithness and Mackay of Strathnaver in 1570, and the ruin was further destroyed by a gale in 1605. A certain amount of restoration was undertaken about the year 1616; otherwise the structure remained in a ruinous condition until 1835-37, when it was rebuilt from the foundation, with the exception of the central tower, resting on lancet arches springing from shafted pillars, the old windows being more or less preserved. A large pointed five-light window, with unfoliated intersecting tracery, occupies the W. wall of the nave. There is a piscina on the S. side of the chancel, with continuous mouldings. Cordiner gives a plate showing a part of the ruins as they existed towards the end of the 18th century.

See Trans. Aberdeen Eccles. Soc., 1891, p. 31 (illus.); Cast. and Dom. Arch., ii. p. 336; Neale's Eccles. Notes, p. 66; Gordon, pp. 31, 156, 255, and 309; Cordiner's Ruins, ii. (illus.); Pennant (1769),pp. 187,359; Pococke, p. 168; Agriculture of Sutherland, p. 167 (illus.).

OS 6-inch map: Sutherland Sheet cxiii.

RCAHMS 1911, visited (AOC) 6th July 1909.

Field Visit (6 July 1909)

103. Recumbent Effigy, Dornoch Cathedral.

At the W. end of the nave lie the mutilated remains of a recumbent effigy on the top of a sarcophagus, said by Sir Robert Gordon to be that of Richard Murray, a brother of Bishop Gilbert, slain at the battle of Embo. The figure is shown as clad in chain mail, covered with a surcoat having a bordered edge at the neck and arm holes. The head of the figure, resting on a small square cushion, is detached. The upper part of it is broken off and the features effaced. The arms are gone, also the lower half of one of the legs and part of the remaining foot. There has apparently been a shield resting on the left breast, and the knight has been girt with his sword. The legs have been crossed and have rested on the back of a lion. The full length of the figure is 6’ 11". The sarcophagus is 7' long, 1' 4" high, 1' 11" wide at the head and 1' 6" at the foot. The cushion projects 7" beyond the top of the sarcophagus.

See Origines, ii. pt. ii. p. 624; Gordon, p. 33; Pennant (1769), p. 359.

OS 6-inch map: Sutherland Sheet cxiii.

RCAHMS 1911, visited (AOC) 6th July 1909

Publication Account (1982)

The see of Dornoch was very probably founded by David I c.1147 x 1151, as part of a deliberate move by that king to win the loyalty of his subjects who had recently been under the political influence of the earl of Orkney and ecclesiastically under the bishops of Orkney (Cowan and Easson, 1976, 204). The first known bishop of Caithness was a monk of Dunfermline, Andrew, who appears to have taken with him fellow monks perhaps in an effort to establish a monastic cathedral. Nothing came of this intention, and it is only with the establishment of the Scottish line of the earls of Caithness and episcopate of Gilbert after 1231 that the church of Dornoch was rebuilt and developed as the cathedral of the diocese (Cowan, 1976, 204).

The cathedral of Bishop Gilbert comprised a nave of four bays, with aisles, transepts and a choir plus a central tower. The cathedral was constructed in local sandstone, and was dedicated to the Conception of the Virgin Mary, but was more popularly known throughout the centuries as Gilbert's (Simpson, 1923-24, 228). South of the nave was a chapter house which was cleared away in 1813.

The cathedral suffered greatly after the burning of the town in 1570 and a gale in 1605. Although a certain amount of the structure was restored and adapted for use as a parish church in 1616, it is clear that for the next two centuries, Gilbert's cathedral was largely in a ruinous condition. The Duchess of Sutherland between 1835-37 undertook an extensive programme of 'restoration' which resulted in one commentator writing 'it has become one of the most elegant structures but one of the most unsuitable places of worship in the Empire' (Sage, 1899, 125-6). The steeple was practically rebuilt and the nave renovated in a 'chaste modern Gothic style', the aisles were renewed to correspond with it, and many additional windows were incorporated (Sage, 1899, 125-6). In 1924, something was done to return the cathedral to its ancient glory.

Information from ‘Historic Dornoch: The Archaeological Implications of Development’ (1982).

Publication Account (1995)

Much of the 13th-century cathedral survives, though heavily restored in the 19th century. It was founded by Gilbert of Moravia, bishop of Caithness from 1223 to 1246. His two predecessors had been murdered at Halkirk, and he moved south to Dornoch. The cathedral was constructed on the usual cruciform plan, with a choir, transepts, a massive tower over the crossing and an aisled nave. Drawings show that round pillars with pointed arches separated the nave from the aisles; these dated from a 15th-century alteration. In 1570 the cathedral and much of the town were burnt by the Mackays of Strathnaver and the cathedral remained a roofless ruin until 1616 when the choir and transepts were reroofed for use as the parish church. The present steeple was begun in 1726.

The building as seen today is the result of a thorough 'restoration' in 1835-37 by William Burn, the architect who restored St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. The ruins of the nave were demolished and rebuilt without the aisles; only two of the old nave pillars escaped, and can be seen recessed in the wal ls close to the piers of the tower. The clustered columns of these piers, the tower arches and most of the choir and transept walls are medieval, as are the lancet windows in the choir, but the vaulted roof dates from the 1835 restoration. The coffin of Richard of Moravia, brother of Gilbert, with his mutilated effigy in mail lies at the end of the nave. There is a fine collection of 19th-and 20th-century glass in the windows.

Opposite the cathedral stands part of the old bishop's palace (now a hotel). The tall tower-house at the west end was built around 1500 and substantially repaired after it was burnt in 1570. The building east of the tower was added in about 1813-14, but the tall chimney behind it belongs to the original 16th-century vau lted kitchens, parts of which survive. In the late 19th century the roof of this block was raised and the east tower built. Close to the palace is the Town Jail, built in 1840-50 in Scottish Baronial style (now a craft centre); part of the interior with its vaulted cells and passages has been laid out as an unusual jail museum.

Information from ‘Exploring Scotland’s Heritage: The Highlands’, (1995).

Project (February 2014 - July 2014)

A data upgrade project to record war memorials.


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