A garden was recorded at Dunrobin by c.1600 and a designed landscape is shown on General Roy's map of 1750. The informal parkland landscape was extended between 1829 and c.1860 but the designer is unknown. The formal gardens were laid out in the mid 19th century and incorporate some features designed by Sir Charles Barry.
Dunrobin was founded in 1275 and is one of the oldest inhabited houses in Scotland. In the early 16th century, Elizabeth Sutherland succeeded her brother, the 9th Earl, as Countess in her own right. She married Adam Gordon of Aboyne. In c.1600 the 12th Earl's son, Sir Richard Gordon, a noted historian, described Dunrobin as 'a house well seated upon a mote hard by the sea, with fair orchards, where there be pleasant gardens planted with all kinds of froots, hearbs and floors used in this kingdom, and abundance of good saphron and rosemarie, the froot being excellent and cheeflie the pears and cherries.' The summerhouse was designed in 1732 for William, Lord Strathnaver, who succeeded as 17th Earl in 1733.
Dunrobin was captured briefly by Prince Charles Edward's troops during the Jacobite uprising. The 18th Lord and Lady Sutherland died in 1766 leaving a young daughter, Elizabeth, whose succession was contested in the House of Lords, but it was decided in her favour in 1771. In 1785, she married Viscount Trentham (later appointed as British Ambassador to Paris) who succeeded as Earl Gower and Marquess of Stafford and was created 1st Duke of Sutherland in 1833 for his support of the Reform Bill. Lady Elizabeth became known as the Duchess-Countess. In c.1807, the Duke and Duchess commenced the agricultural improvements on the Sutherland estates which led to the unpopular Highland clearances.
Most of the improvements to the Castle and within the policies were undertaken for the 2nd Duke and his Duchess, Harriet, who commissioned Sir Charles Barry, architect of the Houses of Parliament, to make additions to the Castle in 1845 and to provide a Royal Suite for the visit of Queen Victoria. The Castle was improved in the Scottish Baronial style, and formal gardens, including a rose garden, were laid out at this time.
The 3rd Duke succeeded in 1861 and continued the improvements to the estates, reclaiming land, building new roads and supporting the construction of the northern railways. He was Western Europe's largest landowner. The 4th Duke's wife, Millicent, was also a great improver on their several estates, and started a technical school for boys in Golspie. She was a great social and political hostess of the late Victorian/Edwardian era, particularly at Stafford House in London, later sold by the 4th Duke, but which remains as Lancaster House today.
During World War I, Dunrobin was used as an auxiliary naval hospital, while the Duchess was herself running a field hospital in France. Fire broke out in the Castle and destroyed part of it. After the war Sir Robert Lorimer was commissioned to carry out the repairs and alterations. The most notable external changes are to the two towers and several turrets.
After the 5th Duke's death in 1966, the Dukedom passed to a descendant of the 2nd son of the 1st Duke and the Duchess-Countess; the 6th Duke of Sutherland lives at Mertoun in Borders Region. The Earldom passed to the 5th Duke's niece, Mrs Elizabeth Janson, who is Countess of Sutherland in her own right. From 1965 - 1972 Dunrobin Castle was run as a non profit-making school. It has been open to the public since 1973 and a flat is kept for the Countess's use. From 1984-87 proposals have been under discussion for leasing part of the Castle and an area of the grounds to a Swiss holiday development company.