As family we have been familiar with the NC500 route for many years, long before it was branded Scotland’s answer to route 66. In fact, Jonathan’s family has called the Highlands and Islands of Scotland home for over 30 years. The scenery is spectacular, the local seafood is some of the best in the world and history is around every corner.
We have chosen to focus specifically on the East Coast part of the NC500 as we know this area incredibly well. Rather than suggest an exact itinerary, we prefer to provide a number of ‘à la carte’ options that you can pick and choose from, depending on interest and time. We’ve also written a detailed guide on day trips from Inverness if you’re short on time (click here to read).
In This Post You Will Find:
How to reach the North Coast 500
If you are travelling from abroad the two main Scottish airports are Glasgow and Edinburgh. There is a great selection of car hire companies at both locations and it’s around 3hrs drive to Inverness, the start of NC500. We recommend booking ahead online to ensure availability and for the best prices. There’s also a small airport in Inverness which mostly serves domestic destinations, although you can fly in from Amsterdam (and connecting flights) with KLM. Read our post on Inverness for further details on airline companies that fly into the city.
If you plan to take your accommodation with you, then it’s possible to hire a campervan from Edinburgh or Glasgow that includes airport transfer. I suggest indiecampers in Edinburgh or The Wee Camper in Glasgow. Alternatively, you can also hire a campervan from Inverness at North 500 Motorhome.
The NC 500 Route
We want to provide detailed information about what the NC500 East coast section has to offer without overwhelming you with too much information about the entire circuit.
Our route will take us along the East Coast NC500 starting in the capital of the Highlands, Inverness, and heading anti-clockwise. Our road trip finishes in Thurso, the northernmost town on mainland Britain and the gateway to Orkney and Shetland. Without stopping, it’s around 3hrs driving time, but with so much to see on route, the temptation to make many stops is high. We would allow at least 3 days to cover this section.
Accommodation on the East Coast NC500
There are a large number of places to stay as you travel up. We suggest taking your time to cover the NC500 East Coast and spreading the trip out over 3-5 days (at least!).
So why not spend your first night in Inverness? We’ve stayed at the centrally located Pentahotel as well as the Ardentorrie Guest House (pic above) but if you are looking for luxury, try the riverside Ness Walk boutique hotel (check out our full review here) or Rocpool Reserve.
Next, stop roughly halfway… we often choose to in stay in the lovely town of Dornoch. The Castle Hotel is amazing and we’re a big fan of the impressive whisky bar. Or if you fancy staying somewhere very different consider the cosy Fox’s Den. For a detailed list of accommodation available in Dornoch, click HERE
For your last stop near Thurso, try the affordable Dunnet B&B Escapes.
Inverness Capital of the Highlands
Spending the night in Inverness will allow you to explore this compact city by foot and discover some of its highlights. Check out the castle, take a wander along the River Ness, pick up some goodies at the Victorian market or take to your bike and join an Inverness bike tour.
If you are searching for a bed for the night or an excellent restaurant, then you won’t be disappointed. Last time we visited we enjoyed an excellent dinner down by the river at the Mustard Seed restaurant and some tasty artisanal beers at Black Isle Brewery bar.
Places to visit between Inverness and Dornoch
Let the roadtrip begin! After spending some time exploring all that Inverness has to offer, it’s time to hit the road and discover the first stage of the East Coast section of the NC500, heading anti-clockwise. You will have the choice to head west towards Beauly and follow the official NC500 route or alternatively you can join the A9 at the Longman roundabout in Inverness and head north over the impressive 1000-meter long Kessock bridge which crosses the Beauly Firth and links Inverness to North Kessock. We will provide details for both options below.
Head west along the A862 from Inverness and you’ll reach the charming Highland village of Beauly. One of the most prominent buildings in the town are the ruins of the 13th century priory which are located at the eastern end of the market square. You’ll also find plenty of independent, quirky shops along with great places to eat and walk. You can easily spend a day exploring Beauly and perhaps combining it with a whisky tasting at nearby “Glen Ord Distillery” in nearby Muir of Ord. At this point, you’ll be on the outer edge of the Black Isle and can then follow the ideas below for things to do on the Black Isle. You will be veering slightly off the official NC500 route but the Black Isle is certainly worth a detour.
Discover the Black Isle
Although not an actual island, the Black Isle still has an island feel as it’s almost entirely surrounded by the sea. It’s connected to the mainland in the South by the Kessock Bridge and in the North by the Cromarty bridge. The Black Isle name is thought is have originated from the fact that snow rarely falls on the isle, unlike the surrounding hills.
You can head from Beauly to the Black Isle or as mentioned above, you can head there directly from Inverness if you decide to give Beauly a miss. From Inverness, head north along the A9 north and take the first exit at the Tore roundabout onto the A832. You can do a loop around the Black Isle peninsula. Your first stop will be the Clootie Well, an ancient healing site. Next up, check out the tasty beers at the Black Island Brewery at Munlochy. You may then wish to go dolphin spotting at Chanonry Point lighthouse. Stretch your legs at Fairy Glen Falls at Rosemarkie and finish up at the north of the “island” in the town of Cromarty. Discover Hugh Miller’s cottage and the Old Courthouse Museum. READ THIS POST on things to in Cromarty! Take some time to explore this attractive peninsula – don’t try to cover everything but rather pick and choose a few sites.
>> We recommend you check this detailed guide to the Black Isle as it provides a lot more detail of must-visit sites, places to eat and sleep. <<
The Storehouse (north of the Cromarty Bridge)
Rejoin the A9 and head north. If you’re feeling peckish, we strongly recommend you stop off at the Storehouse, a fantastic farm house restaurant. Located along the A9, literally on the NC500 route, overlooking the Cromarty Firth. The food served in the restaurant is homemade and delicious which explains why the Storehouse has such a great reputation for quality. Enjoy the views across the Cromarty Firth and to the Black Isle beyond. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a seal or two basking in the sun.
Black Rock Gorge (near Evanton)
A 10-minute drive from the Storehouse and a few minutes’ west of Evanton, you’ll find the impressive Black Rock Gorge walk. This is not for the faint-hearted! Nature is capable of producing the most spectacular features and this gorge is certainly no exception. At the bottom of a narrow deep scar in the blackened earth, lies the River Glass that still shapes the sandstone today. The gorge is 1.5km in length and 36 meters deep and a number of small wooden bridges cross the cleft, which give you a great view to the dark depths.
It has become famous in more recent times as it was used as a location for the Harry Potter film “Goblet of fire”, in the dragon scene. However, it was well known locally way before this due to a Celtic myth. The story goes that the Lady of Balconie, (a local noble woman) was tempted into the gorge by the devil himself and it is said you can still hear her cries for help!
Thankfully it’s a bit safer nowadays as most visitors only experience a lovely walk in the woods together with visual appreciation of this unique natural feature.
HOW TO GET THERE: Park the car opposite the Cornerstone Cafe in Evanton and follow the woodland path to discover the gorge. There is a log cabin housing the Evanton Community Woodlands project and a fun kid’s adventure playground on route. In total, it’s 4km on a fairly flat terrain and takes around 1.5 hours to complete.
>> You may wish to veer off course at this stage and take the Struie road into Sutherland. The drive alone is fabulous with an incredible hilltop viewpoint towards the Dornoch Firth. Check out this post and discover our top Sutherland highlights. <<
Skiach Services and Restaurant
On our regular trips up the A9 to see family we often make a point of filling up the fuel tanks at Skiach services. The little shop has everything you need from a service station and restaurant food is top quality and reasonable priced. There is something for everyone on the menu which includes a special offering for children and if take away is possible if you are in a rush.
Fuel is available 24hrs, there are charging points for electric cars and there is an Adblue pump. The hot filled breakfast rolls are amazing!
The Fyrish Monument (Alness)
A further 5 minutes up the road from Skiach services and you’re in for a treat. This very distinctive stone monument was built high on a hill in 1798, on the request of the local lord, Sir Hector Munro. Sir Hector had spent time in India as a general in the army and wanted to add a little reminder to his home in Scotland. So, he decided on a design based on the Gate of Negapatam in Madras.
If you decide to walk to the top, then it’s a fairly challenging 6km round hike which takes around 2 hours total walking time due to the terrain. Make sure you wear suitable hiking foot wear, as there are areas of bog and rock, trainers are not recommended. Once you arrive at the top, you will be immediately impressed by the stunning view of the Cromarty Firth and the Ben Wyvis mountain. The car park is just off the B1976 after Evanton and the trail is signposted as the Jubilee Path.
Detour via the Struie Scenic Road and View Point
As an alternative to taking the A9 between Evanton and Dornoch, you can veer off course and join the B9176 at the Skiach services, just after the town of Evanton. This narrow meandering road takes you through some beautiful countryside, over cattlegrids and remote townships. Some sections of this route are high in the hills and if you are visiting in winter its worth considering the risk of snow, as it can become dangerous rapidly.
The highlight is the Struie Hill Viewpoint overlooking the Dornoch Firth, there is an amazing view to the North and the East from the little road side carpark. On a clear day it’s a brilliant place to capture the over whelming beauty of the Scottish Highlands. You can then rejoin the A9 north of Tain or close to the Dornoch turn off. Bear in mind, you will miss the attractions offered around Tain and the sites mentioned below (Anta Home, Shandwick Stone, Portmahomack, Mermaid of the North)
ANTA Home Furnishings (Fearn)
Just a few minutes’ drive off the A9 is the home of the highland luxury brand Anta, which has its flagship store on George Street in Edinburgh. If you are looking for something special to remind you of your NC500 adventure, then why not treat your house to something really classy.
The beautiful factory shop displays a stunning array stoneware, homeware and accessories. There is something for everyone’s budget, choose from a carefully crafted cushion or rug, or perhaps a handmade teapot or milk jug. The timeless designs are influenced by local landscapes and feature tartans, thistles and wild flowers.
Complete your Anta experience with a coffee and a delicious homemade cake from the tearoom.
Shandwick Stone (near Shandwick)
This imposing 3-meter-tall, stone slab was beautifully carved by the Pictish people and dates from the year 780. It is now safely housed in a glass cabinet to protect it from the harsh elements and the nearby sea.
You can’t fail to be amazed by the skill of the stonemasons, who lovingly detailed the stone with unbelievably intricate designs. Most notable are scenes of hunting and fighting, along with other images of angels and wild animals.
The Mermaid of the North (Balintore)
A beautiful bronze mermaid sculpture sits on a huge rock at the water’s edge, in the pretty fishing village of Balintore. The sculpture stands an impressive 11-foot-tall and is inspired by local fishing folklore. Legend has it that a fisherman fell in love with a stunning mermaid sitting on a rock, he then found out that if he circled her 3 times, her tail would fall off. He managed to do this forcing her to live on land and the eventually pair got married and had many children together.
If you would like to see her for yourself, then visit the Seaboard Centre for information on the entire sculpture trail. The route includes a giant salmon, a compass rose and a monument for John Ross who took Christianity to Korea. The Seaboard Centre also boasts a super little café with a gorgeous sea view, it serves everything from fish and chips to a bowl of home-made soup.
Tarbat Ness Lighthouse
If you have time, then take the detour to the tip of the Tarbat Ness Peninsula before heading to Portmahomack and admire the impressive Tarbat Ness Lighthouse. Standing at 40 meters tall, this is the third tallest lighthouse in Scotland. Although it can’t be visited, it’s worth taking in the stunning landscape of the peninsula and enjoying the lovely coastal walk. The lighthouse was built in 1830 after 16 vessels were wrecked in a storm.
Portmahomack Beach (Portmahomack)
Five kilometers south west of the lighthouse or a short 15 minute drive north east of Balintore is the lovely sandy beach of Portmahomack. It sits on the extreme tip of the Tarbat Ness Peninsula in a sheltered bay. The surrounding waters of the Moray Firth are a good place to spot dolphins and if you are very lucky maybe even a whale. The gentle slope of the beach has made it a popular place for water sports during the summer.
The little settlement of Portmahomack is attractive with its traditional white washed cottages and old stone fishing pier. There is a small but good selection of shops and places to eat including the excellent Castle Hotel, which has traditional music evenings. If you have an interest in local history then you will enjoy a visit to the Tarbet Discovery centre, it houses many Pictish relics. There is also a walk to Tarbet Ness lighthouse along the picturesque coastal path, it’s a 14km circuit.
Five minutes south of Tain, located just off the A9, you’ll find a small family run workshop specialising in producing high quality hand painted highland ceramics. The small team of highly skilled artisans have been perfecting their traditional methods on this site since 1996. They offer a large range of products including beautiful pottery as well as home furnishing items.
The Royal Burgh of Tain
The ancient town of Tain has a lot to offer and makes for a great overnight stop, or if you are on a tight schedule make sure you grab lunch at the amazing Platform 1684 restaurant. If you have time, park up and wander around the eclectic selection of independent shops, restaurants and hotels.
To some the town is most famous for its internationally renowned 18-hole golf course designed by Tom Morris back in 1890, but there is so much more to explore. I recommend visiting Tain Through Time, a great little museum that show cases local history through images and other interesting exhibitions.
If you happen to visit in the summer months, then you may be fortunate enough to experience the colourful Tain Gala or the traditional Highland Games. The gala normally takes place at the end of June and makes for a great family day out, with a fair, classic car display and live shows. Our kids loved be shown the big yellow sea rescue helicopter by the pilot.
Glenmorangie Whisky Distillery
Located on the shore of the Dornoch Firth, on the outskirts of Tain, the world-famous Glenmorangie whisky distillery is not to be missed. The distillery was established back in 1843 by William Matheson and today its award-winning single malt is highly regarded throughout the world.
Inside the visitor’s centre, there is a massive range of whiskies and related gifts available to buy in the gift shop. However, if you have the time, we highly recommend going on a tour.
Choose from two different experiences, with the most expensive option lasting 45 minutes and including a dram of the four most exclusive Glenmorangie nectars. The tour explains the full distillation process and you get to view the amazing copper stills where most of the magic happens.
The Royal Burgh of Dornoch
Dornoch was placed firmly on the map when Madonna and Guy Ritchie got their son, Rocco, baptised in the town’s cathedral back in 2000. It’s also one of our favourite places to visit when we’re seeing our family that are based in Sutherland. We highly recommend heading to the seaside and blowing away the cobwebs on Dornoch’s stunning beach. Or have a wander around the town – admire the Cathedral, check out the Witch’s Stone (spot where the last witch was executed in the UK), have a dram at the Castle Hotel, enjoy a delicious hot chocolate from Cocoa Mountain and finish off with a spot of shopping at Dornoch Jail.
>>Are you planning on spending some time in Dornoch? For full details of things to do, places to eat and stay in Dornoch, make sure you check out this post.<<
Embo Beach (near Dornoch)
This gorgeous quiet sandy beach is a very short drive north of Dornoch and well worth a visit. With a huge expanse of clean golden coloured sand, it is perfect for a paddle on a warm summer’s day or just a lunchtime picnic. At one end of the beach is the Grannie’s Heilan Hame holiday park, complete with an indoor pool, tennis court and a restaurant/bar not to mention the beach on your doorstep. It’s a super place for a family holiday!
If you enjoy coastal paths then we recommend the Dornoch Links and Embo Circular walk, which is about 8kms. The route takes in the famous Dornoch golf course and Embo pier. The best place to park is at the public car park at the end of the road that runs through Grannie’s Heilan Hame holiday park.
Loch Fleet National Nature Reserve
This unique area of natural fauna and flora is located just a few minutes’ drive south of Golspie, on the banks of Loch Fleet and not far off the A9. The nature reserve is made up of a woodland area called Balblair Woods and a coastal section named Littleferry, there is a choice of two well signposted car parks.
The Littleferry part of the reserve is a fab place for a picnic with its selection of scenic tables and benches, while Balblair woods is ideal for walking with plenty of clearly marked trails to explore, there is detailed information on display panels in the car park.
Places to visit between Dornoch and Wick (East Coast NC500)
Big Burn Walk (Golspie)
Just a short 15-minute drive north from Dornoch and you’ll reach the coastal town of Golspie. You can’t miss it as the A9 runs right through the town. There are two main attractions worth visiting here – the stunning Dunrobin Castle (see below) and the wonderful Big Burn Walk (perfect if you’re looking to stretch your legs after some driving). There is a dedicated car park on the left, just after you leave Golspie, heading north. The walking route is well signposted and the path runs right next to a beautiful burbling stream. You will pass over and under bridges as you meander along a magical 3kms and at the end the reward, a stunning waterfall that tumbles down a rocky drop.
>> Check out this comprehensive guide on things to do in Golspie (includes attractions, walks, restaurants and where to stay). CLICK HERE! <<
Dunrobin Castle (Golspie)
Dunrobin is perhaps the ultimate fairy tale castle of the Scottish Highlands. The castle is impossibly beautiful with its stunning French style architecture, formal gardens and sea views. There are many events held here throughout the year including a brilliant classic car rally in August and the awesome pipe band competition in April.
Once your entrance ticket has been purchased at reception, you can explore most of the fascinating interior, the stunning gardens and the fabulous falconry display. The hunting demonstration on the main lawn stars owls, hawks, falcons and even the majestic golden eagle, while the aerobatic skills are jaw dropping.
Getting here is straight forward, it’s located just off the A9, right on the NC500 route and about 50 miles north of Inverness. Look for signs for Dunrobin on the right shortly after leaving Golspie and at the end of a long tree lined drive there is a spacious carpark that can hold around 200 cars. Prices are around £14 for adults and £9 for children. It’s definitely a must if you’re visiting Golspie!
Golspie Coastal Walk
This is one of our family’s favourite coastal walks in Sutherland: it takes in an ancient ford, a stunning castle and open sea views. The best place to park is on Duke Street, just off the A9 as you leave Golspie travelling north.
Walk over the little foot bridge, next to the ford and then hop over a farm stile and you are now right next to the sea. Continue to head north on the coastal path following the rocky beach on your right. After about 2km you will find yourself next to an impressive stone wall and decorative wrought iron gates, these belong to Dunrobin castle and gardens. Continue a little further and you will get some seriously memorable vistas of this famous fairy tale castle.
If you feel like a longer walk, it’s possible to follow the path all the way to Brora which is total of 11kms and then get public transport back in the form of train or bus (n° X25, 906 or X99). In fact, it’s part of the John O’Groats trail which means that you could even make it all the way to the northern tip of Scotland!
The Trawler Restaurant (Golspie)
Located in the little seaside town of Golspie, this cosy restaurant serves some of the best fish and chips in the area. The staff are really friendly and in the winter months there is a wood burner in the back room, which creates a lovely atmosphere. If you don’t fancy fish and chips, then the menu also offers scotch pies, scampi, fishcakes, garlic mushrooms, haggis balls and Cullen Skink fish soup.
There is also an extensive takeway menu if you don’t have time to enjoy the comfortable dining room. The restaurant is located right on the A9, so it’s a great place to stop off at if you are heading north on the NC500.
Carn Liath Broch (near Golspie)
This ancient broch (prehistoric roundhouse) is a short 5 minute drive north of Golspie. It was constructed using local stone 2000 years ago, on a site overlooking the sea and although it now stands in ruins, there is still plenty to see. When walking around the tiny settlement, it’s easy to identify the main entrance passage, together with the inner chamber and imagine what life was like here for our ancestors.
You can either park close to the Broch and then cross the A9 carefully, or if you have more time take the stunning coastal path from Golspie which passes by Dunrobin Castle. The Iron Age broch of Carn Liath is currently cared for by Historic Environment Scotland. Entrance is free.
Capaldi’s Ice Cream of Brora (Brora)
Welcome to a little ice cream shop that is something of a legend in this part of the Scottish Highlands. Step inside the wee pink shop and discover what feels like an endless choice of mouth-watering flavours, all lovingly homemade onsite in Brora.
Clynelish Distillery (near Brora)
No trip to the Highlands is complete without sampling a few drams of the old amber nectar and the Clynelish whisky distillery is a superb place to begin. There has been a distillery on this site since 1819, although some of the buildings we see today date from the 1960s, when demand for this excellent malt grew and bigger premises were required. The visitor centre has recently undergone a major renovation.
Timespan Museum (Helmsdale)
Fifteen minutes’ drive north of Brora and you’ll land in the town of Helmsdale. Here, you’ll find a great little museum which was established in 1987 to tell the story of the local parish. The journey starts with the importance of the herring industry, which employed a large percentage of the highland population, the disturbing nature of the Highland Clearances, the crazy gold rush and the shocking burning of the last witch in Sutherland.
Media displays along with photographs and historical artefacts are used to bring the stories to life. The highlight of our visit was the reconstruction of the blacksmith and village shop. The smiddy even displays the original tools that once belonged to the Helmsdale blacksmith workshop.
The excellent River Café prides itself on using locally sourced ingredients, including organic eggs, fish from the Helmsdale Smokehouse and flour from Golspie Mill. The delicious bread is even lovingly baked in-house every morning. There’s a lovely outdoor seating area overlooking the river for when the sun is shining.
Berriedale Braes & Viewpoint (Caithness County)
Berriedale is a small coastal village in southern Caithness and famous for its unbelievable steep hill (Brae in Scotland), which the A9 road climbs. The road drops and climbs 13% over 1.3 kilometres and to combat the topography, there are a couple of hairpin bends, which were really extreme. Fortunately, the road was improved recently to allow larger vehicles to travel with more ease and as part of this a viewing area was added. From the high viewpoint there is a breath-taking view of the cliffs, the sandy beach and the sea beyond.
In Berriedale itself, there is an attractive stone bridge crossing a small river which used to part of the original road. If you are looking for some refreshments then try the River Bothy. This idyllic tearoom does the best breakfast, delicious cakes and coffee, plus the staff are so friendly. The Bothy also has an interesting little gift shop that stocks local products such as jams, cheeses and knitwear.
Waterlines Heritage Centre (Lybster) – open May to Sep
This excellent little museum is based in a restored harbour warehouse in the historic fishing village of Lybster. The building is divided up into a visitor centre, a museum and a café. There is a really interesting display which shows how fishermen used to smoke fish and includes a replica of a smokehouse.
The top floor is a large exhibition area that contains many old photographs and video presentations, along with fishing artifacts from a bygone era. The highlight for our kids was the live feed showing sea birds nesting, which can be controlled remotely. While I loved the traditional boat building display that included a part-built full size wooden boat.
Downstairs, the lovely café serves some of the best food in the area – great for lunch or just a coffee and cake. The soft buttered crab rolls are incredible! There are also showers, laundry facilities and toilets, which have recently been installed for the visiting yachts that moor in the harbour.
Good to know : Lybster is just off the A99, follow signs for the harbour and the parking is right next to the museum. There is a small charge for some of the exhibitions but access to the café and most of the museum is free. Note that the museum is only open between May and September, althought it’s still worth driving down to the harbour to take in the lovely views and small bay.
About 10 minutes’ drive north of Lybster and you’ll reach the famous Whaligoe Steps. These incredible stone steps are found in a stunning natural harbour, surrounded by sheer 250ft cliffs. As a result, the steps themselves are steep and so climbing back up all 350 of them does require a degree of fitness. The harbour was once an important centre for fishing and today you can still see some of the remnants left behind, the old salt store, the barking kettle (used to heat tar) and some rusting winches that once pulled boats from the sea.
During its heyday (around 1795), Whaligoe was a very busy fishing port where many tonnes of herring were processed daily and cured in wooden barrels. Large sail powered fishing boats called schooners would unload freshly caught fish, along with curing salt, then take away the processed fish, while the poor local workers climbed the steps. It must have been tough at the end of a hard day’s work. If you are interested in the life of a herring girl then I recommend the book called The Herring Lassies.
How to get to Whaligoe Steps:
Whaligoe Steps are located about 7 miles south of Wick off the A99. There are no signposts on the A99 so you’ll need to use your GPS or look out for the sign for ‘Cairn of Get’ as this is where you turn right (road opposite the ‘Cairn of Get’ signpost). Follow the road to a small tarmac car park close to some old fisherman’s cottages. Please be respectful of local residents’ car parking spaces. It’s a short walk down a track then you begin the long decent down the steep and meandering flagstones, I don’t recommend this site for very young children.
Grey Cairns of Camster (near Lybster)
These extensive Neolithic cairns are considered to be the best examples in the whole of the British Isles, so I highly recommend that you take the small detour from the NC500 to explore these incredible structures. Built high on a peat bog off the A99 and near Loch Camster, excavations have confirmed that this was an important burial tomb around 3500BC. A collection of pottery pieces, burnt bones and even human skeletons were discovered by archaeologists. Today it’s still possible to enter the inner chambers of the cairns through the original narrow doorway.
The Grey Cairns are currently maintained and managed by Historic Environment Scotland and are free to visit all year round. A wooden walkway has been constructed around the outside of the cairns and there are interesting information boards. Access to the site is a little challenging, but there is parking, although it’s at the end of a 5-mile unclassified road.
Castle of Old Wick (Wick)
The striking Castle of Old Wick is located on a rocky finger of land which is surrounded by the sea, perfect for defence. The castle itself is in ruins, but the location is dramatic, perched on a steep cliff, often with angry seas below. The original 4 storey castle tower was constructed in 1160 and consisted of very thick stone walls and it’s thanks to these walls that the structure has survived the ravages of time so well.
Today the site is managed by Historic Environment Scotland, it’s free to visit and open all year. The best way to get here is to follow the signs from Wick town centre. I don’t recommend visiting with young children because of the castle’s cliff top location.
Places to visit between Wick and John O’Groats (East Coast NC500)
Castle Sinclair Girinigoe (near Ackergill)
About 3 miles north of the town of Wick, in the southernmost section of Sinclair’s Bay, is the impressive remains of Castle Sinclair Girnigoe. The castle is thought to be the earliest seat of Clan Sinclair and actually consists of two castles, Castle Sinclair and Castle Girinigoe.
Castle Girinigoe was constructed first around 1490 by William Sinclair (2nd Earl of Caithness), while legend has it that the 4th Earl of Caithness (George Sinclair) imprisoned his own son in the walls, until he died of thirst. The stronghold was enlarged in 1606 when work began constructing Castle Sinclair, along with a strong defensive wall. The castle’s journey into ruins started in 1672, with the same dispute over land and title that drove Keiss castle into desolation.
Recently the Clan Sinclair Trust have taken on the ambitious task of restoring the castle so that the public can enjoy the site fully. The plans include the construction of a fabulous new visitors’ centre and a library.
There is parking just a short walk away from the cliff top castle and access is by a wooden bridge. Some interesting information boards are dotted around explaining the history of the site.
Sinclair’s Bay (Reiss Beach)
This unspoilt, clean sandy beach is a brilliant stop off on your way to John O’Groats after leaving Wick. The southern section, known as Reiss beach, is a fantastic place to stroll on a summer’s evening in the almost endless golden light. Parking is a not a problem thanks to the large carpark. It’s a very short detour from the main NC500 route (A99) – turn right at the sign for Wick golf club. Exploring the beach is a pleasure, there is a strong chance you will spot seals and other marine life, while Ackergill Tower Castle provides a dramatic backdrop. The further north you travel along the beach the rockier the terrain gets. The far northern section, known as Keiss beach, features unusual rock formations complimented by cliffs.
If you visit in summer, it’s a calm place to read a book or just take in the stunning scenery and it winter, it’s an ideal beach for a bracing stroll. After enjoying the beach, why not venture into the dunes for a different perspective, this is a great location to let kids run wild in nature. It’s not uncommon see hardy surfers bracing the icy waters to take advantage of the crystal-clear waves.
The romantic ruins of Keiss Castle are also situated in Sinclair’s Bay, a gorgeous white sandy beach, backed by grassy dunes (see above). Keiss Castle was created in the sixteenth century, by George Sinclair (the Earl of Caithness) and followed the classic Tower House design. It proved to be an excellent stronghold, especially as it was constructed right on a sea cliff, making any attack challenging. The castle fell into disrepair following a clan dispute over land, which was only resolved after an intervention from King James VII. Unfortunately, it was too late to save much of the original structure so Sir William Sinclair decided to build another castle nearby called New Keiss Castle.
Today, Old Keiss Castle stands on private ground with the interior too unsafe to access. Fortunately, it’s possible to get up close and personal from the public coastal path. When visiting, park in the high street in the village of Keiss, or in the car park down at the harbour, then it’s a little wander along the scenic coastal path.
Located at the most northeastern tip of the British Isles and accessed by a single-track road, Duncansby Head is one of the wildest parts of Scotland. All NC500 itineraries should include a stop off to this area of incredible natural beauty.
The sea has carved out some incredible rock sculptures, with Duncansby Sea Stacks being the jewel in the crown. The enormous spiky tooth-like structures rise from the boiling Pentland Firth, battered by winter storms and inhabited by hardy sea birds. The view from the clifftop path is nothing less than breathtaking. Other striking geological features include the impressive arch in the rock, known as Thirle Door and the Geo of Scaites, a deep clef in the rocky cliff, cut as if by a giant knife. Hundreds of years of erosion by powerful waves have eaten away the rock to reveal these beautiful natural formations.
Duncansby Head Lighthouse
In order to reach Duncansby Stacks, park up at the carpark next to the lighthouse. In 1924 work began creating a lighthouse that would protect sailors from ‘Hells Mouth’, the name given to the sea in this area. Much of this fearful reputation comes from the fact the Atlantic Ocean meets the North Sea at the Pentland Skerries and as result, there can be devilish currents and even violent whirlpools. The distinctive yellow and white lighthouse sits high on a sheer rocky cliff of about 70 meters and comprises of the light tower and the cottage where the lighthouse keeper lived. Although it’s not possible to access the interior of the lighthouse, the exterior and the surrounding views make for an excellent photographic subject.
Although John o’ Groats isn’t officially part of the NC500 it’s just so close, that it’s a shame not to visit this northern outpost. The village of John O’Groats is famous for being the most northernly inhabited settlement in the UK, with Land’s End in England being the most southernly. For many, the challenge of travelling from one to the other is a lifelong goal and often done to raise money for charity. Some choose to walk, run, cycle or drive the 876 miles from one end of the British Isles to the other. Don’t forget to have your photo taken at the famous signpost that shows the distance to New York, Edinburgh, Land’s End, Orkney and Shetland.
In more recent times John O’Groats has had a bit of a makeover, with some of its older buildings being restored and new tourist accommodation being built. Most notable, the John O’Groats Inn, with its modern very colourful extension, which now boasts 16 luxury holiday apartments. And if you’re searching for somewhere for lunch or just a coffee then you can’t do better than Stacks Bistro which is run by a friendly mother and daughter team.
John O’Groats is above all a wild place where you are surrounded by incredible natural scenery, from breathtaking sea vistas to dramatic cliffs, all teeming with wild life. If you’re lucky, you may get to see dolphins, seals, puffins and even killer whales in the waters. Some people choose to make the short journey by boat to the stunning and historic island of Orkney using the short sea crossing from John O’Groats. The efficient service allows you to visit for a day trip.
John O’Groats Wildlife Cruises
Northern Scotland is famous for its exceptional wildlife and a boat trip is a great way to experience it up close. The cruise lasts around 90 minutes – the route through the Pentland Firth takes you past Duncansby Head lighthouse, the jaw dropping 200ft high sea stacks and the deserted island of Stroma.
During the tour you can expect to see puffins, seals, dolphins, guillemots’ and if you are really lucky killer whales! The boat can carry a maximum of 250 people and there are interior and exterior areas to sit, depending on the weather conditions. An English-speaking guide will keep you informed on where to spot the best wildlife, together with some fascinating local history.
Places to visit between John O’Groats and Thurso
So, you’ve now made it to the most northernly inhabited settlement in the UK and you’ve taken the obligatory selfie next to the white sign. The next section will concentrate on things to do between John O’Groats and Thurso. It’s time to head west and discover the northern coast of Scotland.
The Castle and Gardens of Mey
When you visit the Castle of Mey, you enter into a very special world. HM Queen Elisabeth The Queen Mother purchased the castle back in 1952 and although it was in a very poor state of repair, she fell in love with the beautiful remote location. Her Majesty immediately set about bringing her vision to life, by renovating the buildings, restoring the gardens and surrounding parkland to its former glory. Once the Castle of Mey was complete, The Queen Mother spent about 4 weeks a year living here and was frequently seen out and about in the local area. The tour guides are excellent, some of them worked directly for The Queen Mother and as a result have some great stories to tell. King Charles has taken on the supporting role for the estate and makes an annual visit here, to ensure the Trust continues to preserve both the castle and its gardens.
The delightful restaurant/café serves some of the finest cakes I have tasted and if you are visiting at lunch time, you are in for a treat. Kids will love the gardens and the little farm.
>> Good to know: you can access both the giftshop and tearoom without purchasing an entrance ticket. <<
The carpark is free and large with allocated space for cars, camper vans, coaches and motorbikes.
Mary Ann’s Cottage (Dunnet)
Ten minutes’ drive to the west of the Castle of Mey and you’ll discover Mary Ann’s Cottage. The little white washed croft house is a window into another time, when life was simple and undoubtable hard in rural Caithness. But there is also cosiness and a warmth when you visit this little place, a perfectly preserved slice of Highland life. Walk into the main living space and it’s so easy to imagine life here 100 years ago, mostly thanks to the Mary Ann’s belongings.
The cottage became a museum when Mary Ann Calder moved to a nursing home in 1990 aged 93. She had lived here all her life, along with 3 generations of her family. Everything that you see is original, from the tools on the bench to blankets by the fire, nothing has been added. This is what made our visit to the cottage such a unique experience.
Although this site is not large, it’s really interesting and the guided tour certainly brings it to life. The property is now owned and run by the Caithness Heritage Trust and although entry is free donations are very welcome. The cottage is open seasonally and only on certain days of the year. Check their FB page for up-to-date information.
Dunnet Bay Distillery (Dunnet)
When it comes to spirts, Scotland is undoubtably most famous for its whisky, but in recent times there has been something of an explosion of gin production. Along with this growing trend has come a great variation in quality, but the gin created at Dunnet Bay is some of the best we have sampled. A bottle of the original Rock Rose gin is an incredible place to start your tasting experience, move on to sloe gin, grapefruit gin and then finish with the refined vodka.
Unlike some other gin companies, Dunnet Bay distil their own raw spirit using traditional copper stills named Margaret and Elizabeth. The artisanal gin making process utilises a botanical basket which is filled with a special mix of herbs that is then added to the distillation. Some other gin companies choose to buy industrial style spirit and then add botanicals to the brew.
There is also an unmissable visitor experience that takes you through the full distillation process along with a visit to the tasting room afterwards. As part the 30-minute tour you will be encouraged to sample the Dunnet Bay range of spirits and cocktails, plus a little local storytelling to boot. Watch out for Mr Mackintosh the apprentice distiller, he is very hairy.
Dunnet Forest (Dunnet)
This forest is the most northernly community woodland in the UK and something of a rarity in the largely treeless Caithness. The planting of spruce, lodgepole and sycamore trees started in 1954. In 1990, the forest was turned into a visitor attraction which resulted in a number of paths being created for different walking abilities.
The woodland is much more than just a collection trees, there is a mountain bike trail, horse trail, log cabin, bird hide and a cool arty sculpture trail. The sculpture trail is made up of many beautiful carved wooden totem-like statues, dotted around a complex network of paths, it’s ideal for kids. Our favourite is the giant working xylophone. Dunnet Forest is also an ideal place for a family picnic, eat amongst the butterflies on one of the many benches. If you plan to visit check out the handy map on their website detailing routes and key attractions.
The forest is walking distance to Dunnet Bay’s lovely wide beach. There is plenty of clean sand and dunes to explore, a perfect place to blow away the cobwebs on a winter’s day.
Melvich Beach (Thurso)
This is a truly spectacular clean sandy beach, backed by grassy sand dunes and gentle hills. There is a small car park signposted just off the A896 and then it’s about a 150-meter walk to the turquoise waters. You might notice the impressive building next to the car park, this is Bighouse Lodge, once home of Clan Mackay. The cove is ideal for surfing, building sand castles with children and dog walking. If you are visiting in the winter months, then make sure you wrap up very warm as the north wind can be cutting in this part of the world.
There is also a lovely walk next to the river Halladale where otters sometimes play. If all the beach activity gives you an appetite then there is no better place than the nearby Halladale Inn to grab a tasty meal or a refreshing drink. There are even funky glamping pods if you fancy an overnight stay.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our NC500 east coast highlights!