Sir Robert Gordon, a younger son of Alexander, 11th Earl of Sutherland and tutor to John, 13th Earl of Sutherland, is an important figure in Dornoch’s history. His extensive account of the Sutherland Family, A Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland, is still a valuable (though occasionally flawed) account of that noble family, and also provides us with a useful insight into life in 17th century Sutherland.
It was through the influence of Sir Robert that Charles I was persuaded to confer the status of Royal Burgh on Dornoch in 1628 and, three years later, to create Sutherland a Sheriffdom in its own right (previously the county had been part of the Sheriffdom of Inverness). Sir Robert also carried out extensive repairs to the Cathedral chancel and trancepts, although the nave fell into absolute ruin.
The 17th century also saw Dornoch occupied by a hostile armed force for the second time in its history. In 1653 a royalist uprising, led by the earl of Glencairn in support of the exiled Charles II, began in Scotland. General George Middleton, a veteran of the wars against Cromwell, was appointed commander-in-chief of the Royalist forces, and both he and Glencairn agreed to unite their respective forces at Dornoch.
By early 1654 the town was occupied by the rebels, but the two factions of the royalist force engaged in petty disputes and quarrels. Inevitably, these petty rivalries led to a more serious confrontation when Glencairn wounded Sir George Munro, one of Middleton’s principal officers in a duel. Unfortunately, this led to a more serious disagreement. Two junior officers from the rival camps fell out over the causes of the original duel between Glencairn and Munro, and staged an early morning duel of their own. One was killed, the survivor was arrested and, following a rapid court-martial, sentenced to death and executed at the town’s mercat cross the same afternoon.
Within two weeks of these unfortunate incidents, Glencairn had led his troops away from Dornoch to safety. English forces sent to crush the rising forced Middleton to abandon the town too, and the English commander of Cromwell’s troops reported that Middleton’s forces had laid waste to the town on their departure. The surrounding countryside must also have suffered through having to supply some 5,000 men with food and fuel during their period of occupation. The rising itself finally ended when Middleton was defeated in a skirmish at Dalnaspidal on the Drumochter Pass by Cromwell’s forces.