At first glance at Dunrobin Castle, you might think that you have been magically transported to France. But I assure you that you are still in the northern Scottish Highlands!
Located just a mile north of Golspie, this castle with its fairy-tale spires and turrets seems quite out of place considering the rocky and mountainous Highland backdrop behind it. The castle is the historic home of the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland.
I think it’s one of the most popular visitor attractions on the North Coast 500 because of this – when travelling from the north, you don’t expect to see such a grand sight appearing with the hill of Ben Bhraggie behind it.
If you are travelling by train, the castle has its own train station which is only open during the open season and is a request stop, so make sure that you tell the conductor of your destination when boarding the train, otherwise, you’ll go sailing past and your day out will be ruined! You can get a sense of the grandeur of the estate as you head along the driveway from the A9, but you don’t see the full splendour of the castle until you’ve bought your ticket and entered out onto the coastal side of the gardens.
We started our visit with a walk around the gardens. Even right at the end of the visitor season when the garden staff are tidying up the grounds, the autumnal colours were glorious. If you are planning a visit, looking at social media posts tagged with #dunrobincastle gives you an insight into what you might see flowering at different points in the year.
We stayed around in the gardens to see the first of two falconry displays, and this was the highlight of our visit. The falconer showed us a hawk and a falcon and explained the many differences between the two birds. He also gave an insight into how the birds are used for gamekeeping, which he does across the Dunrobin Castle estate. If you’re not a fan of birds flying over your head, maybe keep a safe distance to watch the display. It’s all very safe though and it’s amazing to have such a close-up view of the birds in flight.
Even though we were given a map when we bought our tickets, we failed to notice that there is a separate museum building on the castle grounds and so didn’t visit it – when we go back next time that’ll be our first stop! You can find out more information on the museum and the Clan Sutherland connection here.
We headed back up the steps to the castle to do a self-guided tour of the public rooms. It’s timely here to say that there are a number of areas that are inaccessible to people using wheelchairs or who have limited mobility, so please do contact the castle before your visit. Access to the gardens can be arranged if you have a wheelchair.
The castle itself is the largest in the Northern Highlands, with 189 rooms. It started life in the 1300s as a large square keep, overlooking the North Sea. Over the centuries it expanded and in the 18th century was remodelled entirely to what it appears today, complete with French influences, even down to the gardens which were based on the former royal residence of Versailles, just outside of Paris.
Older buildings often have a lot of interesting history and Dunrobin Castle is no exception. It was used as a naval hospital during the first world war and then as a boy’s boarding school in the 1960s and 70s.
The rooms were amazing to walk around, with the exhibits in very good condition. Even though only 18 rooms out of the 189 are open to the public, it feels like a lot more than that as there’s so much to look at in each room including lots of gifts from royal families.
I’d highly recommend stopping in at Dunrobin Castle if you are in the area or planning your North Coast 500 itinerary for next year – it’s such a unique place to explore. If you’re looking for a full-day itinerary I’d team a visit up with the nearby Big Burn Walk and if you’re looking for dinner – head to the Golspie Inn.
Important Info: The castle and grounds are open between April – October, and admissions are by ticket only (£12.50 for adults, £7.50 for children, discounts for students and seniors and a family ticket is also available which provides good value). The admission charge includes access to the castle, museum, grounds, and falconry displays (twice daily, 11:30 am and 2:30 pm) so you can make a full day of it! There’s a tearoom for you to grab refreshments and lunches – please note that there is no public access to the tearoom or shop unless a ticket is purchased.