Tucked away in the extreme north-eastern corner of mainland Scotland, Caithness and its spectacular open landscape feels ancient. It is littered with historic monuments, standing stones and burial cairns and has been home to Vikings and Picts during its eventful past. The landscape also has an epic quality about it, with mile after mile of rugged coastline, towering cliffs and jagged sea stacks that will genuinely leave you awestruck. A host of wildlife also calls the region home – from the thousands of seabirds huddled on the craggy cliffs to the seals, orca, and dolphins that can be found in its seas. These are just some of the top things to do during your visit to the very edge of the country.
1. Castle of Mey
If you’re a fan of the British royal family, but want to check out a site that’s less busy than the likes of Buckingham Palace, then this royal residence on the far north coast is for you. It was bought and restored by the Queen Mother in the 1950s and was a popular holiday home of hers until her death in 2002. Since her death, it and the gardens have been opened to the public. What’s more, it remains a popular retreat for some members of the royal family. It is typically open to the public from May until September, with a short period of closure in late July/early August when Prince Charles and Camilla often spend time there.
Castle of Mey
Address: The Castle of Mey, Thurso, Caithness, Scotland, KW14 8XH
Price: Adults 11.50 GBP (15.34 USD), Seniors 9.75 GBP (13 USD), Children 6.50 GBP (8.67 USD), Families 30 GBP (40.01 USD)
Opening Hours: Typically from mid May to the end of September. 10 am to 5 pm (visitor centre and grounds). Last admission to the castle is at 4 pm.
Contact: +44 1847 851473
Website: Castle of Mey
2. Whaligoe Steps
A long stone staircase cut into the side of steep cliffs at Whaligoe, its 330 steps were installed more than 200 years ago and were used by fishing communities when ferrying their catch onto dry land, ready for market. It’s an impressive sight, made all the more satisfying given the difficulty in finding it. There is no signage directing people to it, although a small car park makes parking the car up easy enough for those lucky enough to find it. As well as the satisfaction of finding the steps, the location offers fine coastal views and its surrounding cliffs are a haven for a range of sea bird species.
Whaligoe Steps Cafe
Address: Ulbster, Caithness, KW2 6AA
Access: Located roughly six miles (9.65 km) north of Lybster on the A99. If heading north, turn right at a minor junction where you see a sign (pointing left) for the Cairn of Get. A phone box and post box are also located on either side of the road at this junction. Note, there are no signs for the Whaligoe Steps. Shortly after turning onto the minor road, you’ll come to a small car park. The steps are located next to the Whaligoe Steps Café, and close to the car park.
Contact: +44 1955 651702
Website: Whaligoe Steps Cafe
3. Sea tour out of Wick
Alternatively, if you wish to explore the rugged cliffs around the Whaligoe Steps – and indeed much of the coastline north and south of Wick – but don’t fancy the idea of trudging down and back up hundreds of stone steps, then a sea tour by high speed rigid inflatable boat may be for you. Coastal tour boats run up and down this coastline, based out of Wick. Sea stacks and castles are just some of the sights you’ll see – and you may spot some of the area’s aquatic wildlife.
Address: South Quay, Wick Harbour, Wick, Caithness, KW1 5HA
Price: Varies depending on route and duration (see website for details)
Contact: +44 1955 609200 or email [email protected]
Website: Caithness Seacoast
4. Dunnet Bay and Dunnet Head
Sticking with a watery theme, the spectacular sands of Dunnet Bay are a surfer’s dream. A handy caravan and camping site also makes it easy to set up shop right next to the surf. Head a short way north to Dunnet Head and you’ll have reached the most northerly point of mainland Britain. The cliffs at Dunnet Head are a haven for seabirds (there’s a viewing platform for those eager to spot some of the species), while the views along the far north coast and also across to Orkney’s island archipelago are pretty special.
Website: Dunnet Head
5. Castle Sinclair Girnigoe
The romantic ruins of this castle are perched precariously on the edge of cliffs overlooking Sinclair Bay, north of Wick. Built in the 15th century, the original Castle Girnigoe grew and the site was expanded at the start of the 17th century, when its name was changed to Sinclair. Since then, both names have been used in unison to describe it. The castle stayed in use until the late 1600s, when it was badly damaged in a siege, and has remained uninhabited ever since. In more recent times, restoration work has been carried out to preserve what remains of the castle’s walls, and prevent further collapse. The front half of the castle is currently accessible to the public via a small bridge, although the back of the building remains off limits until such time as that part of the structure is made completely safe. Visitors to the castle should also keep their eyes peeled for the nearby sea stack as well as the many marine mammals and bird species which visit the area. If you are lucky, you may spot orca and other whales, dolphins, and seals.
Castle Sinclair Girnigoe
Address: Drive north from Wick towards the village of Staxigoe. As you get there turn left at a junction close to the village war memorial. The road then travels around two or three miles (3.2 to 4.8 km) to a car park within eyesight of the castle. The castle is at map grid reference ND 378549.
Opening Hours: All year round
Website: Caithness Castles
6. Stacks of Duncansby
These truly spectacular sea stacks rise out of the sea like massive teeth at the north-eastern tip of Caithness and are a must-see for any visitor to the region. They can be reached from a free car park next to the 20th century Duncansby Head Lighthouse. From the car park, head south over a short rise and the stacks will immediately come into view, standing majestically alongside the area’s steep cliffs. The stacks and cliffs are also a haven for sea bird life. Cormorants, razorbills, fulmar, and even the occasional puffin can be spotted in and around the area. Another reason you may wish to visit is to claim the bragging rights that you have been to extreme north-eastern tip of the British mainland. Duncansby Head – and not nearby John O'Groats, which gets all the glory – is actually the furthest spot by road from Land’s End at Britain’s south-western tip.
Address: From Wick, head north up the A99 to John O'Groats. Just before reaching the large John O'Groats car park take a right at the junction opposite John O'Groats post office. Follow the road until you reach a car park at Duncansby Head lighthouse.
Website: Duncaby Head lighthouse
7. John O'Groats
Speaking of John O'Groats. The end (or beginning) of many an epic challenge to travel the length of Britain, this small village is just a mile (1.6 km) or so away from Duncansby Head – and well worth a visit while you’re in the area viewing the Stacks of Duncansby. John O'Groats is home to hotels, camping facilities and a number of tourist shops with cafe facilities, as well as a large free car park, so you should have no difficulty finding a spot to stop. The small harbour at John O'Groats also offers boat trips across to Orkney – perfect if you wish to take your adventure further afield.
8. Forsinard and the Flow Country
The Flow Country boasts massive skies, mile after mile of empty terrain, and is popular with bird-spotters. It is also one of the largest areas of true wilderness remaining in Europe – a fact reflected in tentative efforts to have it ultimately listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site – and its extensive peat bogs are a haven for insects and the many bird species which feed on them. This array of bird life is one reason why the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) runs a visitor facility at the small hamlet of Forsinard in the middle of the Flow. This can be reached via both road and rail, so you’ll have no problem getting there, whether you have your own vehicle or not.
Forsinard Flows RSPB Reserve
Contact: + 44 1641 571225 or email [email protected]
Website: The RSPB
9. Caithness Horizons Museum
Experience the varied history of Caithness at this museum in Thurso. Vikings, Picts, and even the nuclear age all get a look in – from the many ancient cairns and standing stones that populate this area to the decommissioned Dounreay nuclear facility located on the north coast west of Thurso. The museum is also home to the Pictich Skinnet Stone and Ulbster Stone, which are spectacular highlights of any visit, allowing people to get up close to some important history and marvel at the carvings etched into them.
Caithness Horizons Museum
Address: Old Town Hall, High Street, Thurso, KW14 8AJ
Price: Adults 4 GBP (5.33 USD), Children (over five) 2 GBP (2.67 USD), Families 10 GBP (13.34 USD)
Opening Hours: Winter (November to March): Monday to Saturday, 10 am to 6 pm. Summer (April to October): Monday to Friday, 10 am to 6 pm; Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm; Sunday, midday to 5 pm (May to September only).
Contact: +44 1847 896508 or email [email protected]
Website: Caithness Horizons Museum
10. Prehistoric sites
If a visit to the Caithness Horizons Museum has whetted the appetite for more ancient history, then you’re in the right place. Caithness is absolutely littered with mysterious monuments and prehistoric sites. These include the likes of the Grey Cairns of Camster – two 5,000-year-old neolithic chambered cairns which sit side by side. Other notable sites include the Hill o’ Many Stanes, a field covered in tiny standing stones whose use is still a mystery, and the Cairn of Get. So if you’d rather head out to view some of the area’s stunning history in its natural setting, then these are great places to start.
Grey Cairns of Camster
Website: Grey Cairns of Camster
A rich landscape ripe with possibilities
Ancient marvels, spectacular coastal vistas and a haven for wildlife, Caithness has the lot. A journey to Scotland’s remote north-eastern tip is well worth it.
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