Ah yes, Royal Dornoch—for those in the know, no further comment is needed. For everyone else, please keep reading.
Himself and Yours Truly go to Dornoch for golf. And quite frankly, one doesn't get to the Dornoch by chance. Located on the east coast of the Scottish mainland about 50 miles north of Inverness, it shares the same line of latitude as Canada's Hudson Bay, just 4 degrees south of the Arctic Circle. This out-of-the-way location has earned the Royal Dornoch Golf Club its nickname among golfers in Scotland as "the Star of the North." In my opinion—and more important, in the opinion of some of the world’s best golfers—Royal Dornoch is hands down the finest seaside links-style golf course in the world. Even for those who hold back somewhat from such a unilateral endorsement, Dornoch is routinely counted in the same league as the Old Course at St. Andrews.
For us, Dornoch is a favorite destination. Indeed, its place as Himself’s favorite Scottish course was sealed during our first visit. In truth, it was love at first sight. On that occasion, we drove north from our lodging in Scotland's Great Glen to encounter Dornoch on a glorious spring day in late April. With the gorse in full bloom, it isn’t difficult to understand how the club earned its "Royal" designation. The deep, bright yellow blossoms of the gorse on the new green of spring set against the backdrop of the North Sea and the Dornoch Firth with those spectacular mountains in the distance—all these elements came together to lend a special enchantment to Royal Dornoch. One need not be a golfer to get caught up in the spell. (For readers who have never seen gorse, these hearty shrubs make the spring come alive in Scotland much as forsythia does here in the States, except that gorse is far more pervasive. This perilously thorny plant is often used as part of the rough on golf courses throughout the British Isles. A ball lost in the gorse is lost indeed.)
Golf has been played at Dornoch since at least 1616, probably much longer. Thus, Royal Dornoch has been a work in progress for centuries, changing gradually with the dunes on which its links are built as well as through the less subtle impact of human intervention. As with the Old Course at St. Andrews and with Machrihanish, the name of Old Tom Morris is indelibly associated with the shaping and planning the links as they appear today.
As at Machrihanish, each hole on Royal Dornoch’s Championship Course has a name as well as a number, and like any good course, each hole has its own personality. The links form a lazy S configuration on two levels of elevation. The front nine occupies the upper level, consisting of old dunes longed tamed by grasses and shrubs. Eight of the back nine occupy the lower level, hugging the pure white sands of the North Sea strand. The final hole, appropriated named Home, doubles back into a tuck between Holes 2 and 3 on one side and Holes 16 and 17 on the other.
In keeping with British tradition, several fine walking trails can be found in and around Dornoch, including one that hugs the western edge of the Championship Course (clearly marked with signs warning against the hazards of flying balls) and leads down to the beaches of Embo Bay. At Dornoch, I prefer this trail to walking the course with Himself, and based on the views provided from above the course, I have my favorite holes: No. 3 (or Earl’s Cross) has a striking series of bunkers along one side of the fairway and a bank of gorse on the other. The visual effect is simply marvelous. No. 7 (Pier) and No. 17 (Valley) are virtually surrounded by gorse, darning players to keep their balls within narrow strips of emerald green rather than lose them in a vast expanse of yellow. No. 17 features bunkers that extend across the fairway. No. 8 (Dunrobin) features thick barriers of gorse near the tee box, followed by a sharp drop in elevation and a spectacular view of Embo Bay.
Golfers should know that tee times are not always necessary at Dornoch, particularly on weekdays an in the off-season. Dornoch does reserve blocks of time for members only, so it’s never a bad idea to contact the pro shop to make sure playing time is available. Proof of handicap is required to play the Championship Course (the maximum handicap accepted for men is 24; for women, 39). If for some reason you can't get a tee time or if your handicap is too high, try Dornoch's other course, the Struie, which also provides an excellent test of the art of golf.
Royal Dornoch’s clubhouse is comfortable and attractive, with plenty of nooks and crannies to settle into for quiet time or reading. Meals are available through the bar during specified hours, and visitors are welcome most of the time. The Pro Shop is well stocked—particularly with balls and other golf necessities bearing the Dornoch logo—and a teaching pro is available for those who might wish to add an Ivy League imprimatur to their official golf education.
Blasphemous as it may sound to golf's true believers, even without its famous course, the Royal Burgh of Dornoch would be worthy of a visit. The village is a short and easy stroll from the carpark next to the clubhouse. While Himself plays, I generally spend much of my time exploring. What remains of Bishop's Palace has been incorporated into the picturesque Royal Dornoch Hotel, and the old jail is now a museum. Off the small central square, pleasant shops line well-kept streets. For me the Dornoch Bookshop on High Street has a particularly strong attraction, but shoppers will also find a woolen mill outlet; gift and antique shops; shops for the baker, butcher and greengrocer; a post office—all those tiny shops required to meet the needs of a small rural community and to provide tempting purchases for visitors.
Quite literally, the focal point of the town is Dornoch Cathedral. This tiny Gothic treasure was consecrated in 1239 and nearly destroyed by fire during the 16th-century clan wars. When the structure was rebuilt in the 16th and 19th centuries respectively, great pains were taken to retain and accentuate architectural details surviving from the 13th-century original. The reconstructed walls of the chancel include several 18th-century mortality stones and the cathedral's original piscina, a stone bowl built into a wall niche and connected by a pipe to the consecrated ground of the cemetery beyond. Before the Reformation, priests would rinse the vessel containing the blessed wine used during celebration of Mass, disposing of the water and unused wine by draining it through the piscina and into consecrated earth. The piscina in the Dornoch Cathedral is one of the few that remain intact and in situ throughout the whole of Britain.
Even a short visit to the cathedral provides an opportunity to experience the peace and timelessness so often evoked by sacred surroundings. It was at Dornoch that I learned how the six-pointed Magen David (the Star of David), which symbolizes the unity of Israel in Jewish tradition, is regarded by Scottish Christians as a double triangle, each symbolizing the Trinity. Learning this finally explained to me why so many Stars of David are displayed prominently on Scottish churches.
Visitors wanting to spend one or more nights in Dornoch have several choices. In addition to the Dornoch Castle Hotel, a number of small country hotels and guesthouses adjoin the links of Royal Dornoch and offer comfortable accommodations. There are also several fine bed-and-breakfast establishments in the area.