Caithness & Sutherland together occupy much of the far north of Scotland. Sutherland has three coasts, which extend from Strathy and Tongue to Durness and Cape Wrath in the north; from Cape Wrath to Lochinver in the west; and from Helmsdale to Dornoch in the east. The only significant inland settlement is Lairg.
Caithness is a roughly triangular area on the east side of the far north of Scotland and is bounded to the south and west by Sutherland. It includes the settlements of Thurso and John o' Groats on the north coast and Wick, Lybster and Dunbeath on the east coast. For accommodation in Caithness & Sutherland see the links in the "See and Stay" menu above. See the map below for an outline of the area and links to surrounding areas.
We begin our description of the area in the west, and move round in a roughly clockwise direction. Set amongst the spectacular scenery of Assynt, Lochinver is a busy little fishing port with a regular fish market. The excellent Assynt Visitor Centre combines the roles of museum and Tourist Information Centre. There is a pottery with craft shop and a range of other retailers. High on the hillside above the village is the excellent Inver Lodge Hotel. South of Lochinver a narrow single track road runs through Inverkirkaig en route to Achiltibuie and the Coigach Peninsula.
The mountains of Sutherland and Assynt are popular with walkers. Suilven dominates the Lochinver skyline and is just one of a number of distinctive and isolated mountains running in a line parallel to the west coast. We have individual feature pages covering three of them: Suilven, Quinag, and Ben Stack.
Lochinver is the start of the Assynt coast road, the twisting single track road that runs north to the base of the Stoer Peninsula, then east to Kylesku. En route it takes in some of the most beautiful scenery in Scotland. Passing close to Achmelvich, it goes via Clachtoll, Stoer, Drumbeg and Nedd. Achmelvich is a tiny settlement with stunning white sands and turquoise blue water. A little further north the diversion to the Stoer Head Lighthouse is well worth taking. Inland, meanwhile, the main A road up the west coast goes through Elphin and Inchnadamph, passing the nearby ruins of Ardvreck Castle, en route to Kylesku.
At Kylesku, a beautiful curving road bridge now crosses the mouth of two lochs. Overlooking the old ferry slipway in the village is the excellent Kylesku Hotel. Boat trips operate from here in the summer to Britain's highest waterfall at the head of Loch Glencoul, the 650 foot Eas-Coul-Aulin waterfall.
Ten miles north of Kylesku is the popular holiday village of Scourie which offers safe bathing from its sandy beaches. From nearby Tarbet, it is possible to take a boat trip to Handa Island, a Nature Reserve with seabird colonies and seals. Close to Tarbet are the tiny settlements of Foindle and Fanagmore. A little inland from Scourie and just past Laxford Bridge and Ben Stack, is the tiny estate hamlet of Achfary.
North of Scourie is one of Scotland's major fishing ports, at Kinlochbervie. It is set in a rocky inlet off the main road system, but attracts traders from all over Europe to its fish market. Just north west of Kinlochbervie, beyond Oldshoremore and its own lovely beach, is the starting point for the 4.5 mile walk to Sandwood Bay, one of the most isolated and certainly one of the most stunning beaches in the country.
Durness is the most north westerly village on mainland Britain and a good touring base. Despite major road improvements in recent decades, the last 14 miles to Durness from the south are of single track road, with rather more along the north coast as you head east. A couple of miles south west of Durness is the start of the easiest way to Cape Wrath, with a little seasonal ferry crossing the Kyle of Durness from Keodale.
Anyone visiting Durness should make a point of visiting Balnakeil, a mile to the north west. En route you pass a craft village, and at the end of the road is a remarkable golf course; the ruined Balnakeil Church; Balnakeil House, originally built as the summer palace of the Bishops of Caithness; and Balnakeil Bay, which stretches north up the west side of Faraid Head. This is one of the most attractive stretches of coastline in Scotland.
East from Durness you pass the car park at the top of the path leading down to Smoo Cave. The road then rounds the deep indentation of Loch Eriboll before heading across country to the bridge across the beautiful Kyle of Tongue. A diversion south from just east of Loch Eriboll takes you past the western ramparts of Ben Hope to Dun Dornaigil, a broch. North west of the end of the bridge over the Kyle of Tongue an unclassified road leads to the little known gem of Talmine. On the east side of the Kyle of Tongue is the village of Tongue, dominated by the ruined Caisteal Bharraigh and by Ben Loyal to its south.
East again, and you come to the village of Bettyhill, created by the Countess of Sutherland in 1815 to house people cleared from Strathnaver to the south, and beyond it the crofting township of Strathy and nearby Strathy Point. Roads south from both Tongue and Bettyhill, bring you to the tiny hamlet of Altnaharra, primarily a base for fishing, complete with its well preserved Parish Church.
Thurso is an ancient town. The name comes from the Old Norse, Thorsa, meaning Bull's River and in Viking times it was an important gateway to the mainland. Much of the economy of Thurso today is tied up with the presence of the Dounreay Nuclear Power Development Establishment, located on the coast eight miles west of the town. Thurso itself has plenty of character, as well as a beach and a castle. In the oldest part of town are the ruins of Old St Peter's Church which dates back to 1220. The old Town Hall and Carnegie Library are now home to Caithness Horizons, a superb modern museum.
Just to the west of Thurso lies Scrabster, the main ferry port for Orkney, whose outline can be seen rising from the sea to the north. The Scrabster to Stromness service is operated by Northlink Ferries. Five miles west of Scrabster is Bridge of Forss. On the coast nearby are the gloomy Brims Castle and the ruins of St Mary's Chapel, the latter being accessed from the hamlet of Crosskirk. Inland are the Cnoc Freiceadain Long Cairns.
East of Thurso is the planned village of Castletown at the southern corner of Dunnet Bay. Nearby is the Castlehill Heritage Centre and the Flagstone Trail, both of which celebrate Castletown's flagstone industry. Further round Dunnet Bay you pass the Seadrift Visitor Centre before coming to the village of Dunnet. Here you find the wonderfully preserved Mary Anne's Cottage. To the north is Dunnet Head, a windy, lonely spot: and the most northerly place on mainland Scotland.
The highlight of this length of coastline is undoubtedly the Castle of Mey, mainland Scotland's most northerly castle and holiday home to the late Queen Mother for nearly 50 years. In the castle grounds are the Castle of Mey Gardens. On the shore nearby is the small but perfectly formed Phillips's Harbour. Travel east from Mey and you pass Gills Bay, from where Pentland Ferries operates a vehicle ferry to Orkney, before coming to Kirkstyle, home to Canisbay Kirk.
John o' Groats, a little further east again, is possibly the most visited location in the area: the starting point for many a long distance walker en-route to Lands End. A seasonal passenger-only ferry makes the short crossing from here to Orkney. Two miles further east from John o' Groats is the lighthouse and spectacular cliff scenery of Duncansby Head. The road south from John o' Groats meets the east coast at Freswick. The village of Auckengill is home to the Caithness Broch Centre, while on the shore nearby are the remains of Nybster Broch. A little further south is the settlement of Keiss, with a harbour and two castles.
Like Thurso, Wick has its origins as a Viking settlement, its name coming from the Norse Vik meaning bay. It became a Royal Burgh in 1589 but enjoyed its greatest prosperity in the 1800s when it developed as a thriving herring port, becoming the busiest in Europe. Wick and Pulteneytown, respectively on the north and south banks of the River Wick, together make up what is generally now known as Wick. The former has a busy shopping centre and many of its buildings show their Victorian origins, while the latter was the heart of the fishing industry. Pulteneytown is also home to Pulteney Distillery, the most northerly in mainland Scotland, and the excellent Wick Heritage Museum.
On the cliffs south of the town are the ruins of the Castle of Old Wick. Three miles to the north-east of Wick, beyond the village of Staxigoe and near the Noss Head Lighthouse, are the ruins of Sinclair and Girnigoe castle. A good quality "A" road links directly back from Wick to Thurso, passing through the village of Watten and close to Halkirk.
South of Wick the main A99 tends to stay fairly close to the east coast, and passes through a series of attractive settlements and villages. On the coast near Thrumster is the haven at Sarclet. At Whaligoe, where the A99 meets the coast, the Whaligoe Steps lead steeply down 250ft to a harbour carved out of a cleft in the cliffs. Inland is the Cairn o' Get, one of a number of prehistoric monuments on the inland side of the A99. Others include the Hill o' Many Stanes and, further inland, the Grey Cairns of Camster. A number of prehistoric sites have been linked together by the South Yarrows Archaeological Trail, inland from Thrumster.
Lybster and Latheronwheel are both villages with attractive harbours, though the former's is the busier. Lybster is also home to Waterlines, a museum dedicated to the fishing industry which was once so important here. An old church at Latheron has been converted into the Clan Gunn Heritage Centre & Museum, while beside the A9 a little further south west is the Laidhay Croft Museum.
The village of Dunbeath has an attractive harbour, a spectacular castle, and the excellent Dunbeath Visitor Centre. Inland is the poignant memorial to a wartime air crash at Eagle's Rock. Further south is Berriedale with its very steep descent and ascent on the main road, while on cliffs further south are the remains of the Badbea Clearance Village. Helmsdale is a very attractive village with a harbour standing at the mouth of the River Helmsdale. Here you can visit the Timespan Museum and Arts Centre and the Emigrants Statue. Inland from Helmsdale, the Helmsdale River flows down through Strath Kildonan, the focus of Scotland's very own gold rush in 1869 at Baile an Or, or town of gold.
The main settlement away from the coasts of Sutherland is Lairg, found near at the south-eastern end of Loch Shin and surrounded by a vast heather and conifer clad landscape. Its railway station serves the whole of the sparsely populated far north west, and it tends to be a focal point for all the major (though mostly single track) inland roads in the region, both north-south and east-west. There are a number of shops and other facilities in the village.
South from Lairg you meet the sea again at the head of the Dornoch Firth. Long before a bridge was built across the firth closer to the sea, Bonar Bridge, named after the Thomas Telford bridge built in 1812, was the old crossing point of the Kyle of Sutherland linking it with Ardgay. The settlement had been an important industrial centre in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, having a large iron foundry. Local oak woodland was felled for fuel and laid the landscape bare. Today, Bonar Bridge is surrounded by spruce plantations: though there are some more ancient trees, thanks to James IV. Visiting Bonar Bridge on one of his many pilgrimages to the shrine of St Duthus at Tain, he was so angered by the damage inflicted on the forests that he decreed new trees should be planted. Some still remain.
Ten miles west along Strathcarron from Bonar Bridge and Ardgay is the tiny settlement of Croick. Croick Church was the site of a particularly sad and unusually well publicised episode during the Highland Clearances.
Dornoch lies east of Bonar Bridge, beyond the north end of the bridge across the firth built in the 1980s. It sits on a headland facing across the Dornoch Firth and is surrounded by sand dunes. Its centre is dominated by its cathedral which dates back to 1239. Opposite the cathedral is the excellent Dornoch Castle Hotel. The town also boasts a championship golf course and is a regular halt on the golf-tour circuit of Scotland.
On the coast north of Dornoch is Embo, home to a holiday village and to the Embo Cairn. Further on is Loch Fleet. Inland from Loch Fleet and on the road back to Lairg, is Rogart, a fascinating widely dispersed community. North from Loch Fleet on the coast are the towns of Golspie, and Brora. Both are well worth a visit. Just north east of Golspie is Dunrobin Castle, the fairytale family seat of the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland. This comes complete with large formal gardens and its own excellent museum. Brora is home to Clynelish Distillery. Between Golspie and Brora is Carn Liath, a well-preserved broch.
Driving Tours: You can explore parts of Caithness & Sutherland on our Coigach & Assynt Driving Tour and our Caithness Driving Tour. The North Coast 500 also includes much of the coastline of Caithness & Sutherland.