Dornoch Historical Pageant: Tercentenary Celebrations

Other names

  • Dornoch Pageant

Pageant type

Jump to Summary


Place: Arena, Cathedral Square (Dornoch) (Dornoch, Highland, Scotland)

Year: 1928

Indoors/outdoors: Outdoors

Number of performances: 1


29 August 1928

Dornoch is in the historic county of Sutherland. The pageant was held in front of the cathedral (originally13th century but destroyed during the Reformation and later rebuilt in the early 17th and 19th centuries) in the centre of the town.

Name of pageant master and other named staff

  • Director and Producer of the Pageant [Pageant Master]: Henderson, R.S.
  • Chief Marshal: R. Robertson, Esq.

Names of executive committee or equivalent

Executive Committee

  • The Provost, Magistrates and Town Council
  • Mrs Sykes
  • Miss Mould
  • Rev. Dr Bentinck
  • H.F. Campbell, Esq.
  • G. Calder, Esq.
  • John Sutherland, Esq.
  • J. Mackintosh, Esq., KC
  • R.S. Henderson, Esq.
  • R. Robertson, Esq.
  • D.F. McLeod, Esq.
  • D. Leith, Esq.
  • Dr. McLachlan
  • John Sutherland, Esq.

Pageant Committee

  • Convener: Miss Mould, Dornoch Castle
  • Mrs Sykes
  • R.S. Henderson, Esq.
  • Rev. Dr Bentinck
  • H.F. Campbell, Esq.
  • John Sutherland, Esq.

Arrangements Committee

  • Convenor: A. Campbell
  • D. Dingwall, Esq.
  • G. Calder, Esq.
  • G. Crow, Esq.
  • R. Robertson, Esq.
  • D.F. McLeod, Esq.
  • D. Leith, Esq.
  • Dr. McLachlan
  • John Sutherland, Esq.

Finance Committee

  • Convenor: John Murray
  • Treasurer: D. Dingwall
  • Other Finance Committee member: John Sutherland (Town Clerk)

Ladies' Work Committee:

  • Convenor: Mrs J. Bell

Refreshment Committee

  • Convenors: Miss J. Macrae and Mrs Chisholm
  • Superintendent of Refreshment Committee: Thos. Wooley, Esq.


Many on the executive had multiple roles, particularly John Sutherland who also sat on the pageant committee and the arrangements committee. Most of the executive were male but of the two women, one (Miss Mould) was also the convener of the pageant committee.

Names of script-writer(s) and other credited author(s)

Names of composers


Numbers of performers


There were around 80 principal roles; in addition, 64 women and 151 men played unnamed supporting roles. Many of the principal performers played more than one role in the pageant. There were several titled individuals in principal roles.

Financial information

Object of any funds raised

This municipal occasion does not seem to have been aimed at fundraising and was probably performed for free to spectators in the town.

Linked occasion

Tercentenary of the granting of the charter conferring Royal Burgh status on the town by Charles I.

Audience information

  • Grandstand: No
  • Grandstand capacity: n/a
  • Total audience: n/a


The press reported that 'a great part of the population of Dornoch' attended the pageant as well as 'many thousands of visitors from all over Sutherland'.5

Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest

No note has been recovered of any ticket sales: it is likely that this event was unticketed as it took place in a central location.

Associated events

There was a ceremony performed at 11am in which the Duke of Sutherland and Lord Rothermere were both granted the freedom of the town. This took place on a raised platform in front of the County Buildings and was attended by members of the burgh council and 'other representative bodies'. Following this, the company processed to the cathedral where the Duke of Sutherland unveiled a 'tablet mural' depicting his ancestor, Sir Robert Gordon, who was reputed to have been instrumental in obtaining the burgh's charter. An official lunch in the 'L.M.S. Hotel' was held after this, and the day of celebrations ended with the performance of the pageant. There was a dinner for dignitaries in the evening followed by a dance.

Pageant outline

Episode I. Fynbar or Saint Barr

The pageant programme records that 'Saint Barr and his monks of the early Celtic church are depicted as marching in solemn procession from their monastery on the Schoolhill—chanting as they walk—to bless the fishing boats and nets, as they were wont to do at the beginning of the fishing season'. A prayer, the 'invocation of the fishermen at the blessing, translated from the Gaelic', was recited. This prayer is reproduced as follows in the souvenir programme:

From the East to the West
Bless the net, O Finbarr
Bless the boat,
May God the father bless.9

There was only one principal character in this episode; this is Fynbar who was played by William Hugh Innes.

Episode II. The Battle of Embo

This scene depicted a battle said to have taken place in 'about 1245'. In this conflict, Sir Richard de Moravia [the antique name of the hereditary lairds of Sutherland] and 'a small band of followers' were driven back by Viking invaders from the Embo Links towards Dornoch. The Vikings were said to be superior in numbers and during the battle Sir Richard was killed. Following this, the Vikings were then seen in a fight with the newly arrived Earl William Thane of Sutherland. During this, a 'duel was fought between him and the Norse leader. The Thane having been disarmed, seized a horse's leg and with it slew his adversary'. The Vikings were then so demoralised by the loss of their leader that they retreated to their ships. The programme describes these as lying at 'Little Ferry'.

Principal characters were as follows:

The Norse Leader (played by Her Grace the Duchess of Sutherland);
The Thane of Sutherland (Captain Green);
Sir Richard de Moravia (Ian M. Campbell, Esq.);
Viking Ship Leaders (A.C. Macauley, Esq., Captain Leslie, Dr MacLennan and Alan Anderson, Esq.);
Thane's Leaders of Horsemen (Miss Alexander-Sinclair, Miss Allen and Wm. Roberts, Esq.);
Thane's Leaders of Clansmen (J.G. Macdonald, Esq., W.H. Arthur, Esq., Lieut. Mackenzie, R.S.M. Smith and Sergt. Field).

The Aberdeen Journal described the action as containing 'howling hoary warriors, with horned headgear' who 'rushed in from every angle, led by a warrior whose streaming scarlet cloak hid no less a person than the Duchess of Sutherland'.10

Episode III. Bishop Gilbert

A procession opens this episode. Bishop Gilbert, described in the programme as the founder and builder of Dornoch Cathedral, dismounts from his horse at the 'Bishop's Lichtin' Place' where he is received by clergy. From there, this group was followed by Trinity Friars and nuns and all 'solemnly process into the Cathedral, from the interior of which strains of music are heard'. There were four principal characters: Bishop Gilbert (played by Rev. D.H. Gillan), the Dean (Rev. Dr Bentinck) the Chancellor (The Rev. Prof. Duncan) and the Abbess (Mrs Robichaud).

Episode IV. The Raiding of Dornoch Castle and Cathedral

This episode depicted clan warfare between the Murrays, who defended Dornoch, and several attackers on the town: the Mackays of Reay and the Sinclairs of Caithness. Also said to have 'aided and abetted' the attackers were the Sutherlands of Evelix and Skelbo. The invaders were held 'at bay' from the towers of the castle and cathedral. The principal performers were in two groups: the 'Leaders of Town Defenders' (played by C. McHardy, Esq., J.G. Macdonald, Esq., G.I. Barty-King, Esq., Sergt. Field and R.S.M. Smith); and 'Leaders of the Raiders' who were as follows:

Master of Caithness (played by Miss Alexander-Sinclair);
Mackay of Reay (A.C. Macauley, Esq.);
Sutherland of Evelix (Dr McLennan);
Sutherland of Skelbo (R. Grant, Esq.).

Episode V. The Granting of the Royal Charter of Dornoch

In this episode a 'Court Levee' was depicted in which Sir Robert Gordon was shown being presented by the Lord Chamberlain to King Charles I, Queen Henrietta and the King's sister, the Queen of Bohemia, as well as other nobles. The Lord Chamberlain reads the charter; this was then signed by the King and given over to Sir Robert. The Scotsman newspaper described this episode as 'magnificently staged'.11 The main roles and their players, who were mostly titled individuals, were as follows:

King Charles I (played by The Marquis of Londonderry, KG);
Queen Henrietta Maria (The Marchioness of Londonderry DBE);
Queen of Bohemia (Viscountess Ednam);
Sir Robert Gordon (Viscount Chaplin);
Lord Chamberlain (Sheriff Mackintosh, KC).
Further parts at the court were as follows:
Pages played by: Lady Mary Stewart, Master Harry Hoare, Hon. Billy Ward and Hon. Jeremy Ward.
Ladies in Waiting played by: Lady Betty Butler, Lady Pettigrew, Mrs Sykes, Miss Mould, Mrs Hickman, Mrs Duncan, Mrs Priestly, Mrs Menzies, Mrs Lawson and Miss Alison Lawson.
Gentlemen-at-Arms played by: Sir A.H. Pettigrew, Lt-Col. Haig, Major Lawson, A.N. McAuley, W.F. Wignall, Esq., J. Duncan, Esq., Heron Watson, Esq., Charles Kenneth Sutherland, Esq., Capt. H.G. Hawker and John Lawson, Esq.

Episode VI. The Burning of the Witch

There is no specific description for the drama in this episode within the pageant programme, but it concerns the trial and execution of the witch Janet Horne.12 The programme details that she was the last witch to be executed in Scotland. Beside this text is a photograph of the 'witch stone' inscribed with the date 1722. However, the programme states that the actual date is otherwise recorded as 1727 and that Horne was guilty of witchcraft on account of the fact that when she was asked to recite the Lord's Prayer in Gaelic she was alleged to have said the line 'Our Father that wert in Heaven'. In addition, her daughter had a deformed hand and this was accounted for in an allegation that Horne had turned her into a pony in order to ride to a coven but had failed to undo the spell completely. Janet Horne was played by 'Miss Mary Fraser'. Other named characters were her gaolers played by: 'Messrs. D. Leith, W. Grant, A.C.M. Munro and E. Mackay'. The enactment was described as being undertaken with 'much realism'.13 In it a group of villagers 'drag' the victim 'to the stake'.14

Episode VII

Part I. A Visit of the Little Countess Elizabeth of Sutherland to Dornoch

This is based on the tale that the orphan Countess Elizabeth had died in Edinburgh and been substituted by another child. The drama concerns her arrival in Sutherland where a group of 'leading men' are waiting at the 'Meikle Ferry' to verify her identity. As they crowd round the carriage and see the child's family resemblance, all exclaim 'Oh She's a Sutherland!' In addition to the magistrates and Town Council of Dornoch who played the Sutherland dignitaries, there are three other named characters, as follows: The Young Countess Elizabeth (played by Miss Elizabeth Leveson-Gower), her guardian (played by Lady Alister Leveson-Gower), and two outriders (Miss Helen Hoare and Hon. Billy Ward).

Part II. A visit of the Duchess Countess of Sutherland to Dornoch about 1800

In this scene, the adult Duchess has ridden from her home at Dunrobin Castle to Dornoch and is met by burgh dignitaries and entertained by an exhibition of country dances.15 Her contemporary namesake took the role of the Duchess; her retinue was played by the following: Lady Margaret Stewart, Hon. Mrs Hoare, Mrs Grosvenor, Mrs Munro-Ferguson, Capt. Green and Capt. Grosvenor. There were also two Heralds played by 'Messrs. Jas. Wilson and J. Copeland'.

Finale. A Grand Procession

This consisted of a procession of the characters who had taken part, accompanied by a pipe band.

Key historical figures mentioned

  • Sutherland family (per. c.1200–c.1510) nobility [re Earl William, d.1248]
  • Gilbert of Moray (d. 1243/5) bishop of Caithness
  • Gordon, Sir Robert, of Gordonstoun, first baronet (1580–1656) historian and courtier
  • Charles I (1600–1649) king of England, Scotland, and Ireland
  • Henrietta Maria [Princess Henrietta Maria of France] (1609–1669) queen of England, Scotland, and Ireland, consort of Charles I
  • Gower, Elizabeth Leveson- [née Lady Elizabeth Sutherland], duchess of Sutherland and suo jure countess of Sutherland (1765–1839) landowner

Musical production

Dornoch Pipe Band. There may also have been a choir. There was chanting by friars and nuns in Episode III.

Newspaper coverage of pageant

Aberdeen Journal
Dundee Courier
Dundee Evening Telegraph

Book of words


Not recovered; the pageant may not have carried much dialogue, although an amplifier was used.17

Other primary published materials

  • Dornoch Pageant August 1928. Souvenir Programme (Dornoch, 1928).

References in secondary literature


Archival holdings connected to pageant

  • Dornoch Historylinks Image Library has reproduced the front cover and selected pages from the pageant programme and made these available online.
  • Aberdeen University Library, Special Collections holds one copy of the souvenir programme. Shelfmark: 91(4114) Dor.

Sources used in preparation of pageant

  • Gordon, Sir Robert. A Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland, from its Origin to the Year 1630. Edinburgh, 1813.

Sir Robert Gordon is known as the 'historian of Sutherland' and was the author of A Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland, from its Origin to the year 1630 (produced in manuscript and not published until the early nineteenth century). This is referred to in the foreword of the pageant programme.


Given that Dornoch is one of Scotland's smallest burgh towns, and situated in the Highlands, this pageant made quite a big splash, at least for a while. The reason for this was the involvement of numerous members of the local aristocracy who took part as performers, as well as the appearance at the event of the newspaper magnate, Lord Rothermere, who was given the freedom of the town.18 In addition to the nobility, it is clear that local public servants and the 'county set' of Sutherland were just as heavily involved. The Town Council instigated the pageant to celebrate the tercentenary of the granting of a charter by Charles I,19 and the pageant's producer was the local Procurator Fiscal, R.S. Henderson.20 The fact that it was held in August, as opposed to July when the centenary date actually fell, suggests that it may have been arranged to suit those participants and spectators who visited this rural part of the world during the hunting, shooting and fishing season21—and also those who had dedicated leisure time in this month to play golf, for which the county was, and continues to be, famous. The Scotsman described these well-to-do visitors as being in the vicinity for 'sport or pleasure'.22 If this was part of the plan, then it was successful, for according to newspaper reports, the town population was greatly enlarged with folk come to see the pageant, and, no doubt, its celebrity actors. For this was a part of the UK where social rank still mattered, the hereditary lords of Sutherland being one of the largest landowners in Britain.

An unkind view of the pageant content might conclude that, the burning of witches aside, this was a sanitised version of local history on show. There is never a mention in it of religious or royal dissent, of covenanters or Jacobites, never mind the even more recent nineteenth-century clearances from the land. The disaster of the Highland clearances is a business in which the Sutherland family have long been vilified, for they were among the earliest and most enthusiastic promoters of the land reforms that ultimately led to families being evicted from crofts in order to make way for large-scale sheep farming. Instead, what was put on show was a careful selection in eight episodes, beginning in Episode I with a nod to the heritage of the Gaidhealtachd—though little more than this—with the recitation of a poem that had allegedly been translated from the Gaelic. This drama enacted the history of the early Celtic church in the area wherein the figure of Fynbar was seen conducting a traditional ceremony in which the fishing fleet received a blessing. The fishing industry on this particular part of the Scottish coastline was in sharp decline during the inter-war years, so this episode really operated to evoke a romantic nostalgia for times past. The Norse heritage of the area was addressed in Episode II, where the then Countess of Sutherland, described as 'tall, slim and stately', created a stir by taking on the role of a Norse warrior dressed in ‘horned helmet and rough furs'.23.

From there, the foundation of the cathedral, which had been critical for the origins of the town, was enacted in Episode III. This scene bore the hallmarks of classic historical pageantry with a procession of the religious led by the founder of Dornoch Cathedral, Bishop Gilbert. In this episode, local clergy took most of the male parts; but performing in the role of the Abbess of the nunnery was a locally well-known figure, 'Mrs Robichaud'. English born, she had established links with Dornoch through her first husband, William Llewellyn Hacon, a barrister and patron of the arts. Hacon had been a keen golfer and had purchased a house in Dornoch, named ‘Oversteps’, in order to pursue his sporting interests. Amaryllis, or Ryllis Llewellyn Hacon as she was known then, inherited the house upon his death in 1910. She remarried but continued to have a presence in the area and has been remembered because of her somewhat colourful career. Born Edith Catherine Broadbent, she had worked as an artists' model and is reputed to have been the mistress of the art historian, Herbert Horne, among others.24 Following her marriages, she lived her life as a society hostess, particularly within the art world.25 That she played the part of a religious woman may have caused some amusement to those who knew her, but her part in the spectacle illustrates the social complexion of the Dornoch pageant, for almost certainly many of the participants were not born and bred in the locality. Indeed, the Sutherlands were largely absentee landlords.

Clan warfare comes next in Episode IV, and the inclusion of this is illustrative of beliefs that were reiterated in the foreword to the pageant programme. Here the words of Sir Robert Gordon were quoted, stating that before the granting of the charter and the arrival of civilised commerce in the town, the people there had been 'for the most part barbarous and uncultivated mountaineers'.26 Episode IV thus paves the way for the central moment of the pageant in Episode V, where the granting of the charter by the British monarch and subsequent arrival of ‘a state of civilisation' is memorialised.27 Unsurprisingly, this episode is replete with aristocratic players, notably the Marquis and Marchioness of Londonderry playing King Charles and his wife Henrietta. The Dundee Courier published a photograph of the two in costume, accompanied by pages and a King Charles spaniel in which the lavishness of the costumes used for the pageant can clearly be seen.28 Presumably, the players supplied these themselves. The episode was very much a family affair, and other main players were related in some way to the Sutherland family. The famous participants and their colourful attire no doubt went a long way to enliven what could often be a fairly dull piece of drama within charter centenary pageants.

Episode VII may well have been the most exciting of all. In this the last trial and execution of a witch in Scotland was re-enacted. It was said in the press that this was done with a great deal of realism, but unfortunately no record has been recovered of exactly how this was achieved. On the other hand, it may well have been the most 'authentic' piece of history performed since Dornoch was indeed the site of this infamous act. The final episode, staged over two scenes, is illustrative of the ways in which the pageant played fast and loose with local history, since the central character of this, Elizabeth, Duchess of Sutherland, is a controversial figure.29 While she has been widely reviled as responsible for the land clearances in the county and the subsequent human misery and depopulation of the area that resulted from this, her other attempts to encourage industrial development were seen at the time as a benign attempt at alleviating poverty. Born in Edinburgh and orphaned at an early age, the legend of her possible substitution by another child was enacted in scene one. The second scene revealed her as an adult on a visit to Dornoch and was a pretext for an exhibition of jolly country dances. Yet again, this episode featured numerous members of the Sutherland family.

It is clear that music was a big part of the show; there was singing in Episode II and a local pipe band also performed as part of the procession that formed the Finale. There was also the presence of amplification in the shape of a ‘Magnatone kindly lent by The Consulting and Radio Service, Ltd., 47 Hope Street, Glasgow'.30 It is presumed that recorded music as well as some possible dialogue was relayed via this device. However, if dialogue did feature, this would probably have been minimal; indeed, it is much more likely that the pageant relied on action sequences and colourful costumes to provide dramatic spectacle. Similarly, there is no evidence of whether there was any seating accommodation. Given the public location, this is unlikely, and no record of tickets being sold has been recovered. Although a small event, the pageant did achieve a lot of pre-publicity and news reporting immediately afterwards; but thereafter it quickly fell into obscurity exciting neither rapturous remembrance nor much criticism, perhaps reflecting contemporary views that Dornoch 'had long ago come into the quieter waters of domestic rather than national history'.31 At the time, it seems that only one lone voice challenged the version of history presented in the pageant in a letter to the Scotsman. This missive noted that it was extremely unlikely that the Earl of Sutherland had any such encounter with Vikings as the pageant portrayed in its second episode. Its author was a descendant of the more likely hero of the hour at Embo, Sir Richard Moray.32

In undertaking the pageant, the town council evidently had a particular audience in mind—that of visitors to this Highland tourist town. The pageant pandered to popular legend rather than historical verisimilitude and was highly selective. It seems also to have pandered to its upper-class performers in equal measure and, given its narrative content, it is indeed a pity that no record appears to have been collected of the responses of ordinary Sutherland people. In recent times, this part of Scotland has become famous as the place where the singer Madonna married her now ex-husband Guy Ritchie. Sadly, this suggests that, from the outside at least, it continues to be seen as a playground for the rich and famous, although the makeup of that group has clearly changed a good deal since 1928.


  1. ^ Dornoch Pageant August 1928, Souvenir Programme (Dornoch, 1928), 3.
  2. ^ Dornoch Pageant August 1928, Souvenir Programme (Dornoch, 1928), 22–24.
  3. ^ Dornoch Pageant August 1928, Souvenir Programme (Dornoch, 1928), 20–23.
  4. ^ Dornoch Pageant August 1928, Souvenir Programme (Dornoch, 1928), 5.
  5. ^ 'Stirring Episodes, Vividly Recalled’, Aberdeen Journal, 30 August 1928, 7.
  6. ^ 'Scotland's Last Witch at Dornoch', Dundee Courier, 28 August 1928, 4.
  7. ^ 'Freedom Ceremony', The Scotsman, 30 August 1928, 9.
  8. ^ Dornoch Pageant August 1928, Souvenir Programme (Dornoch, 1928), 4.
  9. ^ Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations in synopses taken from Dornoch Pageant August 1928, Souvenir Programme (Dornoch, 1928).
  10. ^ 'Stirring Episodes, Vividly Recalled’, Aberdeen Journal, 30 August 1928, 7.
  11. ^ 'Freedom Ceremony', The Scotsman, 30 August 1928, 9.
  12. ^ See entry on Janet Horne by Lizanne Henderson, The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women, ed. Elizabeth Ewan et al. (Edinburgh, 2006), 170.
  13. ^ 'Freedom Ceremony', The Scotsman, 30 August, 9.
  14. ^ Photograph and caption, Aberdeen Journal, 30 August 1928, 5.
  15. ^ Dornoch Pageant August 1928, Souvenir Programme (Dornoch, 1928) , 18.
  16. ^ Dornoch Pageant August 1928, Souvenir Programme (Dornoch, 1928) , 4.
  17. ^ The programme notes the loan of a ‘Magnatone' by the 'Consulting and Radio Service, Ltd., 47 Hope Street, Glasgow', see Dornoch Pageant August 1928, Souvenir Programme (Dornoch, 1928), 5.
  18. ^ D. George Boyce, January 2011, ‘Harmsworth, Harold Sidney, First Viscount Rothermere (1868–1940)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004), online edn, accessed 11 February 2015,
  19. ^ Dornoch Pageant August 1928, Souvenir Programme (Dornoch, 1928), 5.
  20. ^ 'Scotland's Last Witch at Dornoch', Dundee Courier, 28 August 1928, 4.
  21. ^ This actual date was 14 July 1828; see Dundee Evening Telegraph, 18 June 1928, 4.
  22. ^ The Scotsman, 30 August 1928, 9.
  23. ^ 'The Dornoch Pageant', Aberdeen Journal, 20 August 1928, 2.
  24. ^ For information about Horne, see Alan Crawford, ‘Horne, Herbert Percy (1864–1916)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004), accessed 12 February 2015,
  25. ^ I am indebted to Dr Alison McCall who has carried out research on women in this area for this information. See also the Dornoch historylinks website for references to Mrs Robichaud, accessed 24 March 2016.
  26. ^ Dornoch Pageant August 1928, 5.
  27. ^ Dornoch Pageant August 1928, 5.
  28. ^ Dundee Courier, 31 August 1928, 5.
  29. ^ See entry by Maureen Bell, The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women, ed. Elizabeth Ewan et al. (Edinburgh, 2006), 348.
  30. ^ Dornoch Pageant August 1928, 4.
  31. ^ 'Dornoch', Aberdeen Journal, 14 July 1928, 6. The article was published on the actual centenary of the granting of Dornoch's charter.
  32. ^ 'Dornoch's Pageant', letter from D. Murray Rose, The Scotsman, 1 September 1928, 10.

How to cite this entry

Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘Dornoch Historical Pageant: Tercentenary Celebrations’, The Redress of the Past,