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Dornoch Cathedral

Dornoch Cathedral

A major problem facing David I when he became king in 1124 was how to bring the outlying parts of his kingdom under royal control. Nowhere was this more of a problem than in Caithness, which the Norse earls of Orkney had come to think of as their own. David realised that the Church could be an invaluable agent in spreading his influence. Consequently at some time after about 1139 monks were sent to Domoch from the royal abbey of Dunfermline, perhaps to serve as the staff of a bishop's church. But the earlier bishops of Caithness seem to have based themselves chiefly at Halkirk in the far north, where they had a rather dispiriting time of it for nearly a century. Bishop John, for example, had his eyes and tongue removed by the Earl of Orkney in 1202, while his successor, Adam, was murdered by members of the local population in 1222.

Clearly, whoever was next chosen as bishop would have to be a man of resourcefulness and energy, and this he proved to be. Gilbert of Moravia was a member of the most powerful family in the area, ancestors of the earls of Sutherland. In deciding to set up his cathedral
permanently at Domoch he knew it would be safely close to his own power base. Gilbert was an excellent organiser but also gained a reputation for great holiness. Indeed, after his death in 1245 he was canonised - probably the last medieval Scot to be accepted generally as a saint.
The wealth of the diocese of Caithness was very limited, so that Gilbert's new cathedral was inevitably one of the smallest to be built in Scotland, and yet its architecture is remarkable for its restrained beauty. There is no record of when construction began, but enough was built by 1239 for the body of Gilbert's murdered predecessor,  Bishop Adam, to be brought here. Yet work was possibly still in progress as late as 1291, when Edward I of England made a gift of timber towards the construction.
In its finished form the cathedral had a cruciform plan. At the east end was a rectangular chancel for the high altar and the stalls of the clergy. Along its walls were single pointed windows linked by a strikingly elegant, continuous row of wall arches. Projecting to either side were cross arms, or transepts, to house additional altars, with a squat bell tower over their crossing with the main body of the cathedral. The nave, that part of the cathedral open to lay folk, had aisles flanking the main space on each side.  These may have been later additions to the original plan. The aisles were separated from the main space of the nave by tall arches carried on cylindrical piers.

The cathedral suffered two major disasters after the Reformation. In 1570 it was left virtually roofless as the result of a clan feud, and in 1605 part of the roofless shell of the nave was blown down in a storm. Repairs to the choir and transepts in 1616 left those parts usable once more, but it was only between 1835 and 1837 that the nave was restored, at the expense of the Duchess of Sutherland.  Regrettably, however, that campaign, under the direction of the architect William Burn, led to the demolition of what remained of the nave aisles, although it did involve the construction of the delightful plaster 'vaults' above all four arms of the building. A more sensitive restoration was carried out in 1924.

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