Dornoch Diversions

This week’s post is written by Dr David Worthington, Head of the Centre for History at the University of the Highlands and Islands.

Golf clubs, golf balls, bows and arrows, saddles, books, paper, ink, and ‘other school necessaries’. Robert Gordon (1580-1656) bought all of these items during the 1610s while he was tutor to his nephew, a future earl of Sutherland. They suggest to me golf’s long association with Dornoch’s social, cultural and educational fortunes. It’s really exciting to consider that a much deeper exploration of this theme, and of the first 200 years of the sport’s association with the town, will be one of the major aspects of research to be conducted soon here at the UHI Centre for History, by means of the Royal Dornoch PhD Studentship. It’s a venture that’s been made possible by the generosity of the Royal Dornoch Golf Club and the UHI Development Office. It seems that from 1642 – when Gordon left east Sutherland for a new life in Moray – down to the mid-nineteenth century, golf slid into relative obscurity in the town. However, we are sure there are more documents to uncover not only regarding the history of golf in Dornoch, but also to indicate how local people have amused themselves more widely over the centuries.

In 1604, Patrick Stewart, ‘Black Patie’, second earl of Orkney (c.1566/7–1615), ‘passed his tyme a whyle at Dornogh, honorablie interteyned with comedies, and all other sports and recreations that Earl John [John Gordon, thirteenth earl of Sutherland] culd mak him’. What were these ‘sports and recreations’? In 1715, the town’s presbytery was exercised by the ‘gross and abominable practises in some places of the Country by Musick, playing and dancing at Lykwakes, and by promiscuous dancing at that and other occasions’. Later that century, the Reverend Mr John Bethune suggested the townspeople’s ability to occasionally let their hair down: ‘if they relax of their usual parsimony at fairs and other occasional meetings, they know how to make amends by habitual economy and absteniousness’.

Sport and games were certainly part of this recreation then. Football was well-known from the late sixteenth century. Donald Sage remembered a variety of shinty – perhaps akin to the ‘knotty’ that could have been found in Caithness – which was flourishing on holy days in Dornoch at the start of the nineteenth century. Sage also tells us about the annual cockfights. As early as 1856, the Inverness Advertiser mentioned a cricket ‘Match between Tain & Golspie at the links of Dornoch’. By the early twentieth century one of the town’s winter institutions was ‘bools’ which was played ‘between the east and west sides of the burn, and next day between married and single. The losers had to pay for a quarter of meal for the poor.’ By 1913 this old form of bowling seems to have been replaced as local residents were campaigning for the formation of a Tennis and Bowling Club. Shortly after, Dornoch Bowling Club was founded. We can also read, through the online HistoryLinks Image Library, of a ‘Sutherland Bonspiel Feb 1st 1912 Won by R. R. Johnstone’. By the time of the Third Statistical Account (1986), Dornoch residents were enjoying tennis, badminton, basketball and squash in addition to these earlier sports. The town could also boast of its own annual festival and sports week, Highland Games and school playing fields. The development of sport and cultural life in Dornoch had moved beyond the first ‘outward-nine’.

Hector M. Mackay, Old Dornoch: Its Traditions and Legends (Dingwall, 1920)

Reverend Charles D. Bentinck, Dornoch: cathedral and parish (Inverness, 1926).

Michael Hook, A History of the Royal Burgh of Dornoch (Dornoch, 2005).


Black and white photo of Dornoch footballers, early 1900s. Back l to r: Angie Munro (gardener), Sutherlands (Gruids), Jim Leslie (Embo St), R Grant (Captain). Middle l to r: Jim Mackay (Tornaver), WH Innes (painter), Bob Murray (chemist). Front l to r: J Macintosh (Embo Farm), A Gillespie (paper shop), Walty Matheson (golfer, killed in France).

Image courtesy of Historylinks Image Library

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