Dornoch, Sutherland, Scotland (review published 2010)

It was like watching a scene from one of those wonderful David Attenborough wildlife documentaries.
The 20-strong group of common seals were resting on a mud flat in the middle of Loch Fleet, a tidal basin in north-east Scotland.
Suddenly, they all took the plunge, swimming with the tide as it began to ebb towards the narrow, shallow mouth of the loch.
On reaching the channel, the seals spread out in formation then worked as a team to catch fish struggling with the strong currents.
This two-hour show wasn’t the only wildlife spectacular my wife and I enjoyed on our break in the Sutherland region.
At the Falls of Shin, near Bonar Bridge, we watched open-mouthed as Atlantic salmon attempted the seemingly impossible.
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Falls of Shin
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They leapt up waterfalls in a Herculean effort to reach Loch Shin, their place of birth, where they would spawn the next generation.
And at Dunrobin Castle, which wouldn’t look out of place in France’s Loire Valley, we caught one the twice-daily falconry displays.
But our most memorable experience was at Chanonry Point, probably the best place in the country for spotting Bottlenose dolphins.
Chanonry Point is at the tip of Chanonry Ness, a spit of land extending one mile into the Moray Firth, on the Black Isle, north of Inverness.
The turbulent water here gets very deep very quickly, so much so that dolphins can be seen playing and fishing less than six metres away.
We watched a group of about 20 adults and calves leaping, flipping and twisting as seagulls gathered overhead looking for scraps.
Dolphins make appearances all year round but the chances of seeing them increase during the summer months when the salmon return.
Porpoise and seals can also be spotted at close quarters at Chanonry Point while otters are occasional visitors, too.
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Chanonry Point
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During our five-day wildlife watching holiday we were based at Dornoch, an hour from Inverness and very close to those seals at Loch Fleet.
Dornoch has miles of golden beaches plus there’s fishing, shooting and quad biking on a nearby estate and a distillery just down the road.
The town is best known for the Royal Dornoch Championship Golf Course, the third oldest in the world and still one of the best.
Another of Dornoch’s claims to fame relates to 1727 when Janet Horne was found guilty of witchcraft and burned alive in a barrel of tar.
She was the last person to be executed in this terrible way in Scotland and a stone in the garden of a terraced house marks the spot.
We put our heads down at the atmospheric Dornoch Castle Hotel, which has a rich history as a bishop’s palace, a jail, courthouse and school.
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Dunrobin Castle
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Just over the road from the town’s cathedral, the hotel even has its own resident ghost – a sheep thief who was locked up in the castle and later hanged.
The restaurant overlooks the gardens and serves up superb local produce – Highland venison, Aberdeen Angus beef and the finest Scottish seafood.
Head chef Mikael Helies demonstrates flair and imagination and the hotel has retained AA Rosette status for the past four years.
Family-run since 2000, the hotel has 24 en suite bedrooms which are situated both within the oldest part of the castle and in the modern extension.
One of the rooms boasts a hand-carved, four-poster bed, open log fire, half panelling and a spa bath open to the 16ft beamed ceiling.
The hotel bar – formerly the Bishop’s Kitchen – has open stone walls, sumptuous leather armchairs and an 11ft wide fireplace.
Cyclists attempting the Land’s End to John O’Groats challenge often spend their final night at the hotel (or first if they’re going north-south).
One morning, we had breakfast with Olympic gold medallist Chris Hoy, who was joining a team of cyclists on the last leg of their charity ride.
But it was the fond memories of wildlife spotting, not celebrity spotting, that we brought home with us to the Midlands.
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/Dornoch Castle Hotel
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A five-night break at Dornoch Castle Hotel on a dinner, bed and breakfast basis costs from £199 per person. For further details call 01862 810216 or visit the website.
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