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Inventory Garden & Designed Landscape

SKIBO CASTLEReference: GDL00343

Status: Designated


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  • Category: N/A
  • Date Added: 01/07/1987


  • Local Authority: Highland
  • Parish: Creich (Highland), Dornoch

National Grid Reference

  • NGRNH 73196 88700
  • Coordinates273196, 888700


An outstanding designed landscape which makes a high impact both scenically and architecturally. The gardens were designed by Thomas Mawson and contain a very impressive range of glasshouses. The variety of landscapes provide an important range of wildlife habitats.

Importance of Site

A site included in the Inventory is assessed for its condition and integrity and for its level of importance. The criteria used are set out in Annex 5 of the Scottish Historic Environment Policy (December 2011). The principles are represented by the following value-based criteria and we have assigned a value for each on a scale ranging from outstanding value to no value. Criteria not applicable to a particular site have been omitted. All sites included in the Inventory are considered to be of national importance.

Work of Art


The gardens have high value as a Work of Art, due mainly to the design by Thomas Mawson of the terraced garden.



The Castle dates back to the 9th or 10th century and the estate has been improved by several historic personalities, the most notable perhaps being George Dempster, MP, Mr Sutherland-Walker and Mr Andrew Carnegie.

Horticultural, Arboricultural, Silvicultural


The continuation of a wide variety of fruit production in such an extensive range of glasshouses gives Skibo outstanding interest in this category.



The designed landscape provides the setting for several B listed buildings and architectural features.



The parklands and designed landscape are highly significant from the A9(T) to the north and from the south side of the Dornoch Firth.

Nature Conservation


The tidal flats on the shore, the freshwater lochs, and the woodland shelter of the policies give Skibo outstanding value in this category.

Location and Setting

Skibo Castle is situated on the north side of the Dornoch Firth, some 4 miles (6km) west of Dornoch and 9 miles (14km) east of Bonar Bridge. The estate extends for 30,000 (12,150ha) acres and at one time extended for 20 miles (32km) along the shore. The policies are bounded by the A9(T) road to the north of the Castle; and the Dornoch Firth to the south. There are fine views from the Castle south across the parks and the Firth to the hills beyond. To the west, there are extensive views of the Ross-shire hills, with Struie Hill the most prominent. From the A9 along the northern boundary, there are views of the Skibo parks and lodges, but the extensive designed landscape can best be appreciated from the opposite side of the Dornoch Firth. Skibo lies within the Dornoch Firth National Scenic Area.

Skibo Castle is set on a high terrace above the coastal plain; early records refer to it being set on ramparts, and it was originally built as a fortification. General Roy's map of 1750 shows the Castle on the north-east shore of the Bay of 'Skeebo' with a few enclosed fields to its south and east; there are no woodlands shown at this date. Much of the designed landscape of today was laid out after 1750 and prior to the 1st edition OS map of 1878 which shows a large area of parkland and enclosed fields, south of the hills. A summerhouse is marked in the walled garden to the south-east of the Castle and another is shown in the woods to the south of the park. A doocot is marked just to the north of the Castle. At around 1900, many estate buildings were added to the policies by Andrew Carnegie, including the Dairy and the West Lodge, and these are shown on the 2nd edition OS of c.1910. Carnegie was also responsible for damming the River Evelix to form Loch Evelix, and Allt Garbh to form Loch Ospisdale, Margaret's Loch and Lake Louise. There are 1,240 acres (502ha) in the designed landscape today.

Site History

Improvements were carried out to the estate in 1751, 1786 and 1872 but there are no estate or design plans left at the Castle and historical evidence relies on the 1st & 2nd edition OS maps. In 1900 Andrew Carnegie commissioned Thomas Mawson to carry out some work on the Terraced Garden.

A fortress was probably first constructed here as long ago as the 9th or 10th century, probably by the Vikings, Skibo being a Norse name. The earliest records are from 1186 when Hugh Freskyn granted it to his kinsman Gilbert, Archdeacon of Moray, who became Bishop of Caithness and Sutherland in 1223. There are historical references to the grounds of Skibo first being laid out by the monks from the Bishop's Palace in Dornoch. There have been several changes of ownership over the years since then, with a long period of stability between 1560 and 1744 when the lands of Skibo were feued from the Sutherlands by the Gray family. In 1744 the Estate was bought by Sir Patrick Dowall, whose nephew the Hon George Mackay succeeded in 1751. He was the son of the 3rd Lord Reay and is recorded as greatly improving the estates by planting. He sold the estate a few years after his succession when it was purchased by William Gray, a descendent of the Grays of Skibo, who had made a fortune in Jamaica. He rebuilt and renovated the Castle but died in 1760. In 1771, Thomas Pennant referred to Skibo's beautiful situation and referred to the modern house as being 'habitable'.

In 1786, George Dempster, MP, a great agricultural restorer, bought the estates and set to work improving the conditions of the tenants, implementing drainage schemes and trying to improve local industry. He was a great friend of Sir Adam Ferguson of Kilkerran, and an associate of Boswell, Hume and other Edinburgh literary figures of the time. He extended the estate by buying Pulrossie and Overskibo. His heirs predeceased him and the estate was broken up after his death in 1818. Skibo went to his great-nephew, George Soper-Dempster, who sold it in 1866, when it was bought by an Australian, Mr Chirnside, who kept it for a few years before selling it again.

In 1872 the estate of 20,000 acres was purchased by Mr Evan Charles Sutherland- Walker who made further extensive additions and alterations to the Castle, with new farm buildings and stables. He redesigned the grounds and put in a new avenue to the east lodge, but spent so much that his loans were foreclosed and the estate was managed by Trustees for the next few years.

It was purchased in 1898 by Andrew Carnegie, the multi-millionaire philanthropist, who greatly extended the estate and made extensive alterations to the Castle. He began his improvements around 1900, building new tenants' houses, the dairy, the coach-house, the swimming-pool, the conservatories, and the West Lodge. Improvements were also made to the grounds, the lochs were constructed and water and electricity supplies installed. Thomas Mawson was commissioned to improve the Terraced Garden, and an avenue was laid to the west lodge. The Carnegies spent part of the summer and autumn every year at Skibo, returning to America for the winter, up until the outbreak of World War I. Mrs Carnegie continued to visit Skibo each year up until 1934 and was succeeded in 1946 by her daughter, Mrs Millar, who continued to visit until 1980. The estate was again put up for sale in 1982 when it was purchased by Mr Holt who has carried out further improvements to the Castle and the grounds.

Landscape Components

Architectural Features

Skibo Castle is a large, Scottish Baronial, castellated mansion thought to have been designed by Ross & Macbeth from 1900-1905, incorporating the earlier house. It has long south and west facades opening onto a terrace, and has an imposing porte- cochere on its east front. The Castle is listed B and the listing includes the Terrace Walls, the Walled Garden and the Glasshouses. The terrace steps and gardens were put in by Thomas Mawson in 1904. The walled garden is thought to predate the 1900 improvements; it has a low wall on the west side and the garden is visible from the Castle. There is a small polygonal end tower at the north-east corner of the walled garden, possibly a former summerhouse. The Dairy and Dairy House were put in around 1900 by Ross & Macbeth and have a sweeping roof forming a verandah supported by rustic columns; they are listed B. The Electricity House, the Coach- house, the Swimming Pool, and the Principal Gate Lodge, are all listed B, and are thought to have been designed by Ross & Macbeth in 1900. The early 20th century Bridge spanning the outfall of Loch Ospisdale is listed C(S). Other buildings include a Summerhouse, the Ice House, the Boathouse, and the Kennels.


The area of parkland has increased in size since the 1st edition OS map of 1878 and now extends from Ospisdale Bridge in the west to Clashmore in the East. There are few parkland trees; the small clumps of trees in the park south of the Castle have disappeared since 1878 but most of the field boundaries are hedged and have larger trees within the hedgelines. The parks are visible from the A9 to the north and are grazed by cattle and sheep.

The freshwater lochs cover formerly marshy land although Loch Evelix now covers a former golf course. Water-lilies flower on Lake Louise in season, while the other lochs provide nesting sites for birds as well as a resting stage for migratory species. Wildfowl are also bred on the estate for sporting purposes.

There are three entrance gates and each drive to the Castle is lined with an avenue. The Monk's Walk remains running west/east through the park to the south of the Castle and, although many of the avenue trees have been lost over the years, a few beech over 250 years old remain.


The policy woodlands are of mixed coniferous and deciduous species and have been planted for amenity, shelter and sporting interests. Baldruim Wood to the south-west of the Castle is a commercial plantation and is particularly significant in the surrounding landscape. There are also some fine deciduous trees in the shelter plantings. The courses of the woodland walks south of the Castle have been changed over the years.

The Gardens

A terraced bank is shown on the 1st edition map of 1878 and predates Thomas Mawson's improvements to this area. The design of the balustraded staircase and the planting up of the terraces is attributable to him. At the top of this decorative staircase is a small modern heather garden, and there is an old sundial on the top terrace. The lower terraces are lined with herbaceous borders and with grass paths.

Below the lower terrace is the rose garden, arranged in a formal pattern around the circular pond and fountain, and currently being replanted. To the west of this area are lawns, carpeted with spring flowers, leading to the woodland garden. A Wellingtonia and a Parrotia persica are noteworthy trees in this area. Pear and cherry trees have also been planted.

Walled Gardens

A garden layout is shown in this area on the 1878 map, the southern half of which appears to be planted as an orchard. The north wall today is lined with glasshouses filled with fruit: grapes, peaches, apricots and figs. Areas of the garden are set aside for vegetables, a rose garden and a new heather garden at the west end, soft-fruit at the east end, and a pheasant rearing pen.

A further extensive range of glasshouses and frames lies to the north of the Castle and is entered via a large conservatory. Here are some fruit-houses put in by Mr Sutherland-Walker, as well as later additions by Mr Carnegie. There are further fruit- houses for nectarines, greengages and apricots, vineries and areas devoted to pot plants. It must be one of the most impressive displays of working glasshouses in Scotland today.




Printed Sources

The Estate and Castle of Skibo by

William Calder 1950.

Mrs Randall, Notes on the History of Skibo, at Skibo Castle

A. Mitchell, Tree Survey 1980



NMRS Photographs

About Designations

Inventory of Gardens and Designed Landscapes

We compile, maintain and publish an Inventory (a list) of gardens and designed landscapes of national importance under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979. We assess sites for Inventory status against criteria published in the Scottish Historic Environment Policy, Annex 5, pp81-82.

The information provided gives an indication of the significance of the site. The Inventory record is not a definitive account or a complete description of the garden and/or designed landscape. The format of the Inventory record has changed over time. Earlier, un-amended records may not be current.

Enquiries relating to development proposals that may affect an Inventory site should be made to the local authority in the first instance. Local authorities consult us on proposals that they consider might affect an Inventory site or its setting, but they are not bound by our advice and remain responsible for making the final decision about a development proposal.

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