It was the undisputed “celebrity wedding of the year” when pop superstar Madonna tied the knot with movie director Guy Ritchie in a Highland castle two decades ago.
With Gwyneth Paltrow, Donatella Versace, Stella McCartney, Rupert Everett, Sting and his wife Trudy Styler among the A-list guests, it was an event that briefly bathed the exclusive venue and a quiet Sutherland town in the spotlight of worldwide attention.
And, while the star couple may have gone their separate ways, Skibo and Dornoch remain firmly associated with the multi-million selling singer referred to as “Madders” by the local minister who married them.
News that Madonna, then aged 42, was planning to marry Mr Ritchie, 10 years her junior, in a “fairy tale” £1.5 million Highland wedding, with Skibo the expected setting, broke in early December 2000.
Cloaked behind a dense veil of secrecy, further details proved hard to come by in the following weeks as a scoop-hungry international media pack started to gather in the north.
Even today, local people who had a role in the events remain bound by the conditions of strict confidentiality agreements they had to sign.
Among them are the Very Rev Dr Susan Brown, who officiated at the marriage and baptised the couple’s four-month-old son, Rocco, in Dornoch’s Church of Scotland cathedral, where she is still the minister.
While Mrs Brown is happy to recall leading a posse of journalists staking out her home on an aimless car tour of the town, she still politely declines to confirm or deny that former Police frontman Sting sang Schubert’s Ave Maria at the baptism on the eve of the wedding.
Highland Madonna mania started to build to a crescendo when the pop star and her husband-to-be arrived in a private jet at Inverness Airport jet four days ahead of the big day.
Famously, she was serenaded there with a bagpipe version of her hit, Like a Virgin, by Aviemore’s Callum Fraser, better known as Spud the Piper.
The buzz of activity at the airport continued over the following days as designer Ms McCartney, daughter of former Beatles star Paul, and Ms Paltrow, who had won the Best Actress Oscar the previous year, were spotted jetting in.
The huge level of world-wide interest in the celebrity events that were unfolding was captured in Press & Journal coverage at the time.
Ahead of the Thursday evening baptism it was said to be impossible to buy a step ladder in Dornoch, Tain or Inverness, after the members of the paparazzi snapped up every one in the area.
And it was reported residents with homes overlooking the cathedral were paid up to £250 each to allow the media to bag the best view of stars arriving.
With snappers starting to claim prime pitches by chaining their ladders to police safety barriers from 7am, around 400 photographers, camera crew and reporters had gathered among the crowds of well-wishers by the time the service started.
The 13th century cathedral was the scene of a dramatic arrest, when a man who had hidden behind the organ pipes to film the baptism was caught by security guards as he left the building.
The evening before the December 22 wedding, three paparazzi had been ejected from Skibo’s 7,500 acre grounds after sneaking in.
At the time of the wedding it was owned by English entrepreneur Peter de Savary, who had turned it into one of the world’s most exclusive residential private members’ clubs, The Carnegie Club.
Among other famous names in Skibo’s guest book are ex-US presidents George Bush senior and Bill Clinton, Prince Andrew, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones, Sir Sean Connery, Jack Nicholson, Bob Geldof, Ted Danson and Mick Jagger.
On the evening of the marriage, as it had been for days, the castle was on full lockdown, with private security guards, rumoured to be former members of the elite SAS regiment, patrolling the grounds.
Inside, amid the expensively re-created Highland stately home luxury, Madonna wore a white Gothic-style dress, said to have been designed by Ms McCartney, and a sash of Hunting Mackintosh tartan, matching the kilt worn by Mr Ritchie.
Ms Paltrow was maid of honour and the two best men were nightclub owner Piers Adam and film producer Matthew Vaughn. Madonna’s four-year-old daughter, Lourdes, was among those watching as the bride was given away by her father, Tony Ciccone.
After the ceremony, guests were treated to a smoked salmon and haggis champagne reception, followed by a ceilidh and disco.
There was to be no post-wedding public appearance by the couple and it fell to Mrs Brown to confirm to reporters outside her house that it had happened.
Madonna and Mr Ritchie’s marriage ended in divorce in 2008 and, as the anniversary approached, the minister said it would have the “icing on the cake” if it had lasted.
The “Madonna-effect” was credited with boosting interest from around the world in the Highlands as a place to get married and visit.
And it was estimated Dornoch’s moment at the centre of the celebrity universe brought an unexpected pre-Christmas bonus to the town’s economy of around £250,000.
Mrs Brown, who went on to serve as Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland from 2018-19, said: “I have no regrets about it happening here because I suppose it highlighted what a fantastic place this is.
“The whole town was stirred and there was a lot of fun around as well.
“The picture of Madders on the Cathedral Green is one that will stick with me forever.
“I do remember coming out of my driveway and three or four cars starting up and following me. I just took them on a tour of the town, which I thought was quite funny at the time – but some of them didn’t think it was terribly funny.”
Mrs Brown, Honorary Chaplain to the Queen in Scotland, and a regular P&J columnist, remains slightly bemused by the place in celebrity history forged for her by the events of December 2000.
“I suppose it sort of hurled me into the spotlight in an unexpected way and there are those for whom I will forever be associated with Madonna and I think I’ve done a wee bit more than that,” she said.
“I have no regrets about doing it. I am just really sorry it didn’t actually work out, because that would have been the icing on the cake.
“But lots of couples experience the same thing when things don’t work out the way they anticipated. But it’s just sad when it happens.”
Mrs Brown said the anniversary of the December 22 2000 wedding, which she “hadn’t even twigged to”, may not be at the forefront of her thoughts today as “there are one-or-two Covid-related things we are going to be concerning ourselves with.”
“But, I hope they are happy, whatever they are doing,” she added.
Sandy had the edge on media rivals
When the paparazzi are clamouring for celebrity pictures on your home patch, local knowledge and an understanding of Highland weather can give you the edge.
So it was that Press & Journal staff photographer Sandy McCook found himself the sole snapper present when Donatella Versace stepped out of a private jet at an otherwise deserted Wick Airport on the day of Madonna’s wedding.
With Inverness Airport closed by a thick blanket of mist and in-bound flights diverted to RAF Kinloss, most members of the media pack headed for Moray in the hope of spotting famous faces arriving at the last minute.
But Sandy, who still works for the P&J, took the informed risk to head 100 miles north and was rewarded with exclusive images of the black-clad international fashion house boss arriving from Milan and being whisked off in a Skibo Range Rover.
For those who went to Kinloss, the 30-mile journey was not entirely wasted, as actor Rupert Everett, Madonna’s father and boxes containing the couple’s wedding cake arrived on delayed scheduled flights.