Dornoch and Barrow’s Castle

Hamish Mackenzie OBE, was born in 1937, graduated from Oxford, qualified as a Chartered Accountant and held senior executive positions in industry. In retirement in Ross-shire he has been President of the Clan Mackenzie Society of Scotland and the U.K., played a leading role in the Tain & Easter Ross Civic Trust and chaired Tarbat Community Council, and he continues to research local history. During lockdown he published A Highland Legacy: the Maitlands of Tain, their Work and their World. The book tells the story of a family of architects who designed an astonishing range of buildings across the Northern Highlands in Victorian and Edwardian times. It brings to life the people who commissioned them, some of whom left footprints on the sands of time, others long since forgotten but interesting in their historical context, and it explains the social, religious and political factors that underpinned their demand. An earlier book, Tain, Tarbat Ness and the Duke, 1833 (about the efforts of the first Duke of Sutherland to incorporate the area between Tain and Tarbat Ness into his empire) is available from the Tain & District Museum.

The years 1870 to 1905 are regarded as one of the boom periods for Scottish domestic architecture, a period characterised by growth in the building of villas. Northern burghs and towns saw extensive development, particularly on the pastoral fringes. A number of factors led to this demand. One was the emergence of a new breed of client – men sufficiently successful in their profession or business to be able to afford the services of an architect, and sometimes the widows or unmarried daughters of such men. Another was the attraction of moving to the Highlands, particularly to burghs like Tain and Dornoch with golf courses and opportunities for social life and cultural events. Highland architects like A. Maitland & Sons of Tain met this demand by designing villas in a variety, and sometimes a mixture, of styles. Perhaps the most interesting mixture was in Dornoch.

A modern historian of Dornoch notes that ‘the 1890s saw a wide range of developments that transformed and modernised the burgh … an increasing number of inhabitants applying to the Dean of Guild for permission to extend existing properties or to construct new ones, and incomers to the town building their own holiday homes. … Dornoch was now attracting families of considerable wealth and status.’[i] The result was the building of several architect designed houses mainly on what was then the periphery of the old burgh, notably in what are now known as Evelix Road and Cnoc-an-Lobht. Many of these were designed by A. Maitland & Sons of Tain, who advertised in 1888, 1891, 1894 and 1895 for tenders to build new houses, and in 1896 and 1900 to effect alterations and additions to Burnside.

The Northfield in it’s context of the older town and the newer developments.
Image from Historylinks Archive Cat No:  | 2007_092_005 | Picture No: 4331
Monochrome postcard, from the Basil Hellier collection, showing the Burghfield House Hotel. The card is entitled Northfield, the property’s former name. The reverse of the card has a London address, and a Dornoch postmark of 10 Au 06, over a green Edward VII half-penny stamp.

Their most significant commission was in 1896, when the Maitlands advertised for tenders for building ‘a large residence’ in Dornoch for Mr J.J. Barrow.[ii] John James Jerome Barrow, to give him his full name, came from Derbyshire. His family had owned the largest collieries in the county and had developed iron foundries. They had sold the business in 1863 to the Staveley Coal and Iron Company, in which they became substantial shareholders. John Barrow, born in 1829, was a director of various railway companies, but his Staveley dividends enabled him to lead the life of a gentleman with sporting interests. He had a London house in Hyde Park Gardens and an estate of 100 acres at Holmewood, near Tunbridge Wells in Kent. By 1891 he had taken a lease of Dornoch Castle from the Duke of Sutherland. The Castle, to-day a hotel, was then ‘the only shooting lodge in the kingdom which can boast of being situated not only within a Royal burgh, but in the very heart of a County town … the County Buildings are adjacent and a Sheriff Court is regularly held. The shootings in connection with it cover an area of 9,000 acres and there is much variety of game’.[iii] Barrow and his family entered into the life of Dornoch. He became a J.P., and was known as a major benefactor, and his wife Dorothea was particularly associated with the Dornoch Golf Club, of which Barrow himself, a keen golfer, had been one of the promoters.

Burghfield Hotel, Dornoch in 1900
Historylinks Image Archive Cat No:  | 2007_092_001 | Picture No: 3223
Monochrome postcard, from the Basil Hellier collection, showing the Burghfield Hotel. The card is titled Northfield, the original name of the Burghfield.

By 1896 Barrow wanted his own residence, and he chose to erect what became the most prominent building on the Dornoch skyline. The site he chose for Northfield – or ‘Barrow’s Castle’ as the irreverent called it – was in an elevated position on Cnoc-an-Lobht, from which it was highly visible from the centre of the town. At the heart of the building was a conventional Victorian villa. It was made even more visible by a Scottish baronial square tower, surmounted by a round turret. The juxtaposition of these two elements looks odd. The architectural historian John Gifford remarks that ‘the unadventurous domesticity’ of the building is ‘badly jolted by a very martial tower’.[iv] This must have been what their client wanted, but one wonders whether Barrow’s architects were happy with the instructions he gave them.

John Barrow died in 1903, and is commemorated in a stained-glass window on the south wall of the nave in Dornoch Cathedral. After his death Dorothea continued to spend time at Northfield. She sold it in 1921 to the immensely wealthy newspaper tycoon Lord Rothermere, who renamed it Burghfield House and used it to entertain the great and the good of the inter-war years. Rothermere also carried on an extensive correspondence with Adolf Hitler (who entertained him at the Berghof), Göring, Goebbels and Ribbentrop. Some of it must surely have emanated from Dornoch – though Rothermere did not return the Führer’s hospitality at Burghfield House. Rothermere died in Bermuda in 1940, his reputation in tatters after his toadying letters to Nazi leaders had been exposed in a sensational court case.

The property has retained the name Burghfield in its subsequent history as a hotel and as an outpost of the University of the Highlands and Islands.


[i] Michael Hook, A History of the Royal Burgh of Dornoch, Historylinks Museum, Dornoch, 2005, p.108.

[ii]  Ross-shire Journal, 24th January, 1896.

[iii] Evening Telegraph, 4th May, 1891.

[iv] John Gifford, Highlands and Islands, Pevsner Architectural Guides, The Buildings of Scotland, Penguin Books, 1992, p. 570.

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