Caithness feels a little like an island. It has a character that is distinct and unique to itself, and, if you ignore the road along the remote north coast of Sutherland, it can only be accessed by the A9 as it squeezes its way north between the encroaching mountains and the sea. As a result, when you reach the split between the A9 to Thurso and the A99 to Wick near Latheronwheel, it feels like an entirely different country is opening out before you.
The Tour described on this page is intended to allow you to enjoy the best that Caithness has to offer, and appreciate some of its considerable diversity. The main route shown in dark blue on the map is 80 miles long, starting and finishing in Wick and is described as being tackled clockwise. You can, of course, start at any point, and the direction of travel does not make a great difference to your enjoyment of the Tour. It is possible to reduce the length to 62 miles and allow more time for the north coast elements by taking the alternative route shown in light blue on the map, which cuts out the southern segment of the Tour.
There are two excursions from the main route, both highly recommended. The trip to Dunnet Head, the mainland's most northerly point, adds 4.5 miles each way along single track roads and offers magnificent views north to Orkney and along much of Scotland's north coast. Reaching Duncansby Head involves an additional 2 miles each way and opens up some fascinating coastal scenery.
Wick itself is an interesting and, in places, attractive town. Highlights from a visitor's point of view are without doubt the superb museum operated by Wick Heritage and Pulteney Distillery, both on the south side of the river in Pulteneytown. After leaving the town the main A99 makes its way south from Wick, only fairly distantly following the line of the coast. It rejoins it after about seven miles, and here you should look out for the access to the amazing harbour at Whaligoe Steps.
A slight diversion inland from the A99 gives access to the decidedly odd Hill o' Many Stanes, and further on you come to Lybster, whose broad main street heads away from the A99 and gives access, via a steep descent at its coastal end, to the attractive harbour and Waterlines heritage centre.
Back on the A99 you retrace your steps towards Wick for a mile before taking a left turn onto an unclassified road which heads dead straight and due north (and single track) into the interior of Caithness. The highlights of this remote area are the Grey Cairns of Camster. This road rejoins the main Wick to Thurso road at Watten, perhaps now best known as the site of a secretive World War II prisoner of war camp.
Thurso can be an attractive town on a nice day, and the angle formed by the Thurso River and the shore of Thurso Bay especially repays exploration. Caithness Horizons is a superb museum that can be highly recommended. You will be leaving Thurso in the opposite direction, but while you are here the short trip to Scrabster, mainland Scotland's most northerly large port, is worthwhile.
East from Thurso you follow the A836 to Castletown, once the centre of Scotland's flagstone industry. Today this is celebrated by the museum and trail associated with Flagstone Heritage which stand close to the shore north of the village. From Castletown you head east then north past the head of Dunnet Bay and the Seadrift Visitor Centre to the village of Dunnet. From here a 4.5 mile each way excursion along single track roads takes you to Dunnet Head, offering superb views on a clear day and mainland UK's most northerly point.
Following the main A836 east from Dunnet brings you to the undoubted highlight of the tour, the Castle of Mey and its magnificent gardens. It is worth knowing that a one way system is in operation, you approach directly from the A836 to the south. Having completed your visit to one of the very best castles in Scotland, you then leave via minor roads along the shore to the west. These incidentally give access to a hidden gem, Phillip's Harbour, half a mile west of the castle.
Back on the main road and you head east again, passing Canisbay Kirk en route to John o' Groats. A visit to John o' Groats is recommended mainly on the grounds of completeness: it would seem perverse to omit it, and it is somewhere people like to say they have been to. It is a place, however, that leaves you wondering what visitors who travel the length of Scotland to reach it actually think when they arrive. A two mile each way excursion to the lighthouse and spectacular cliff scenery at Duncansby Head is highly recommended before you turn to head south along the A99 back towards Wick.
Four miles south of John o' Groats is the settlement of Freswick scattered around the head of Freswick Bay. This is somewhere that is probably overlooked by almost every traveller en route to or from John o' Groats, but does actually repay exploration if you have the time. A little further south, at Auckengill, is the Caithness Broch Centre. As you approach Wick once more you pass on your left the entrance to Wick Airport.
Visitor InformationDistances: The main circular route covers 80 miles, starting and finishing at Wick. Following the option and cutting off the southern part of the route reduces the overall tour to 62 miles and allows more time for the north coast. Two suggested excursions add: Dunnet Head, 4.5 miles each way; Duncansby Head, 2 miles each way.
Fuel: There are petrol stations open at least some of the time in Wick, Thurso and Castletown.