Today, when you walk around the square in Dornoch the scene is quiet. There is the lovely cathedral, the green, and the golden sandstone buildings. However Donald Sage, a schoolboy in 1801, recalled how lively ‘downtown Dornoch’ could get!
“The public fairs of this little county town made a considerable stir. From the Ord Head to the Meikle Ferry, almost every man, woman, and child attended the Dornoch market. The market stance was the churchyard. Dornoch was what might strictly be called an Episcopalian town; and the consecrated environs of the Cathedral was just the place which the men of those days would choose, either for burying their dead or holding their markets. The churchyard therefore became the only public square within the town. The evening previous to the market was a busy one. A long train of heavily-loaded carts might be seen wending their weary way into the town, more particularly from Tain, by the Meikle Ferry. The merchants’ booths or tents were then set up, made of canvas stretched upon poles inserted several feet into the ground, even into graves and deep enough to reach the coffins. The fair commenced about twelve o’clock noon next day, and lasted for two days and a half. During its continuance, every sort of saleable article was bought and sold, whether of home or foreign manufacture. The first market at Dornoch that we attended took place six weeks after our arrival at the town. The bustle and variety of the scene very much impressed me. The master gave us holiday; and as my brother and I traversed the market-place, pence in hand, to make our purchases, all sorts of persons, articles, amusements, employments, sights and sounds, smote at once upon our eyes, our ears and our attention. Here we were pulled by the coat, and on turning round recognised, to our great joy, the cordial face of a Kildonaner [Donald’s home was in Kildonan]; there we noticed a bevy of young lasses, in best bib and tucker, accompanied by their bachelors, who treated them with ginger-bread, ribbons, and whisky. Next came a recruiting party, marching, with gallant step and slow, through the crowd, headed by the sergeant, sword in hand, and followed by the corporal and two or three privates, each with his weapon glancing in the sunlight. From one part of the crowd might be heard the loud laugh that bespoke the gay and jovial meeting of former acquaintance ship, now again revived; from another the incessant shrill of little toy trumpets, which fond mothers had furnished to their younger children, and with which the little urchins kept up an unceasing clangour. At the fair of that day I, first of all, noticed the master perambulating the crowd, and looking at the merchants’ booths with a countenance scarcely less rigid and commanding than that with which he was wont invariably to produce silence in the school.
Another incident of my schoolboy days at Dornoch was a bloody fray which took place immediately after the burial of Miss Gray from Creich. The deceased was of the Sutherland Grays, who about the beginning of the last century, possessed property in the parishes of Creich, Lairg, Rogart, and Dornoch. She came down from London to the north of Scotland for change of air, being in a rapid decline, but did not survive her arrival at Creich longer than a month. Her remains were buried beside those of her ancestors in the Cathedral of Dornoch. The body was accompanied by an immense crowd, both of the gentry and peasantry. In the evening, after the burial, there was a dreadful fight. The parishioners of Dornoch and those of Creich quarrelled with each other, and fists, cudgels, stones, and other missiles were put in requisition. The leader of the Creich combatants was William Munro of Achany. I sat on a gravestone, at the gable of the ruined aisle of the cathedral, looking at the conflict. Broken heads, blood trickling over enraged faces, yells of rage, oaths and curses, are my reminiscences of the event. Dr. Bethune narrowly escaped broken bones. As he was walking up to obtain ocular demonstration of the encounter, he was rudely attacked by two outrageous men from Creich. They threatened to knock him down; but some of his parishioners, coming just in time, readily interfered, and his assailants measured their length on the highway.”
Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica or Parish Life in the North of Scotland [freely available online at archive.org if you want to read more]