It was my birthday recently and Mr G treated me to a long weekend in the far north of Scotland. Hooray for birthdays. Our base was a wonderful beachside hotel in Sutherland near the Caithness border. I adore the far north, and have a particular soft spot for Caithness, so I was delighted to find myself out and about exploring in that neck of the woods again.
Caithness is sometimes overlooked by tourists who think the only parts of Scotland worth visiting are those that resemble a shortbread tin. Think hills, heather and majestic stags. I’ve read comments online that claim the north-east lacks wow factor. Don’t get me wrong I’m also a fan of hills, heather and majestic stags, but despite not resembling a shortbread tin, I adore Caithness.
So, I’m going to show you that you shouldn’t believe everything you read online. Unless it’s something I tell you, that is.
Caithness – awe-inspiring history
I make no secret of the fact I’m a history geek, so somewhere full of reminders of the past would always be my idea of heaven. Caithness has history in abundance – castles, Neolithic burial cairns, iron age brochs and ancient standing stones can be found at every turn.
Two of Scotland’s most dramatic castles (and two of my favourites) teeter precariously on Caithness clifftops.
Old Keiss Castle has an imposing air about it. If Dracula ever wanted a holiday home in Scotland, Keiss would definitely make it onto his property shortlist. Even on a sunny day, with butterflies fluttering in the long grass and waves gently lapping the shore it’s easy for the imagination to conjure up a lurking Nosferatu.
Visiting the castle involves a short coastal walk from the village of Keiss. The walk takes you past the scant remains of two iron age brochs and pillboxes from WWII – history galore.
Old Keiss Castle is a classic Scottish tower house which dates to the late 16th/early 17th century. It was a stronghold of the Earls of Caithness until their conniving saw them fall out of favour with James VI. The king swiftly dispatched troops to Caithness to unseat the unruly Sinclair clan from their clifftop fortress.
Castle Sinclair Girnigoe
Another impressive Sinclair pile can be found a few miles north of Wick. Like Old Keiss Castle, Castle Sinclair Girnigoe once belonged to the Earls of Caithness. They’re known to have occupied the site from the late 14th century. The castle went through many iterations before it was abandoned in the late 17th century.
Castle Sinclair Girnigoe is reached via a short walk through pretty countryside. As you approach it’s impossible not to gaze in awe. It’s an incredible building, which appears to cling to a rocky promontory by a whisker.
A narrow, inlet of water sits between the castle and the shore. The water is a beautiful blue/green colour, and on a sunny day it looks almost tropical.
The Clan Sinclair Trust have worked tirelessly to preserve the castle. Thanks to their hard work it’s possible to visit parts of the interior.
From inside, the windows offer vertigo inducing views down sheer cliff to the rocky seabed below. Viewed from the sea, Castle Sinclair Girnigoe must have looked formidable in its heyday.
The castle is free to visit but there’s a voluntary donation box on site. All funds go toward the preservation of the castle and the suggested donation of £1 per visitor is a bargain.
And, as if a dramatic castle ruin wasn’t more than enough to see in one place, this fascinating little corner of Caithness also has some spectacular sea stacks too.
Neolithic burial cairns
The boy spends more time inside Neolithic burial cairns than he does in his own home. Despite being the furry-faced son of a history geek with wanderlust, he explores each ancient structure with relish.
A visit to the Cairn o’Get involves a short hike across open countryside. I do love a historic site that incorporates a wee ramble, as does the boy. When we visited he blazed us a trail to the cairn. Through fields, up hill and across peat bog he trotted (his lead has been airbrushed from these photos for aesthetic reasons).
En route to channel my inner Lara Croft we passed sheep grazing by a small loch. A lamb and mummy had been separated by a fence and were crying forlornly. Mr G valiantly sprung to their aid and reunited the pair. I think I must have got some dust in my eyes as they started watering as we watched the pair lovingly greet each other, before rushing off to join their flock.
Although roofless, Cairn o’Get is well-preserved with the inner corridor and chamber surviving. It’s incredible to think that 5,000 years ago, they went to such great effort to honour the dead.
Cnoc Freiceadain Long Cairns
A visit to Cnoc Freiceadain Long Cairns involves a short hike uphill. The two cairns on this site require a bit of imagination to interpret as they’ve yet to be excavated. My mind went into overdrive wondering about the possible archaeological treasure trove beneath my feet.
The Hill o’ Many Stanes is one of my favourite historical sites in Scotland. It featured in an earlier blog, so I’m just going to park a few photos of the Neolithic monument here and say “big sky”.
Read on and you’ll find out what I mean.
The Whaligoe Steps are one of Caithness’s most spectacular visitor attractions, but they’re not for the faint hearted.
It turns out The Wee White Dug is faint hearted and will not entertain them.
I’ll be honest, the first time I visited and looked over the edge before descending the words I uttered were not ladylike.
The steps which are thought to date to the 18th century give a fascinating insight into the social history of the region. There’s a tiny harbour in an unlikely location at the bottom. Fishwives once met fishing boats at the harbour to fill creels with freshly-caught herring. They’d then carry the heavy creels back up the 300+ steps. I say 300+ as the number of steps is disputed. Some say there are 330 and others 365 – I guess the fact that they’re a tad scary makes them hard to count.
Can you imagine carrying a creel filled with fish up them on a wet, blustery day?
Caithness – big skies, dramatic coastline and peat bog
When we first visited Caithness I was blown away by the sky there. I raved about how big it was. Back then Mr G hadn’t developed a love of photography, so lots of eye rolling ensued every time I uttered the words big and sky in the same sentence. Fast forward a few years and he’s a happy snapper himself. He revels in the beauty of nature, and can see the big Caithness sky. The hypocrite has even been known to rave about it.
The Flow country
The Flow Country is a vast area of blanket bog which spans Caithness and Sutherland. It consists of mountain, strath and peat bog, and is one of the world’s rarest natural habitats. It’s hoped that it’ll be recognised as a World Heritage Site one day – it already has tentative status.
The best place to learn about this remarkable, bio-diverse landscape is at the RSPB Forsinard Flows Nature Reserve, which is just across the border from Caithness in Sutherland. Two trails on the site give visitors a fascinating insight into the Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland is.
Dubh-Lochan Trail and Flows Lookout
I have many ‘favourite’ walks in Scotland, and although the Dubh-Lochan Trail and Flows Lookout is a short walk, it’s up there with my favourites.
Forsinard flows is one of the few places in Scotland where you can surround yourself with bog and not get wet. Peat bog may seem bleak and barren from a distance, but get up close and you’ll find it’s rich in flora and fauna.
The boy enjoyed his visit every bit as much as we did. He peered into deep, peaty pools and sniffed his way towards the Flows Lookout.
The Flows Lookout is a wooden viewing tower that allows visitors to observe wildlife, and view the watery landscape below.
From the top of the tower we enjoyed the view and listened to the sound of birdsong. Swallows danced in the sky – it was blissful. I found myself wishing I lived closer so I could visit more often.
It’s lovely when the heather blooms in Scotland, but my favourite seasonal flower is bog cotton. I love the way it flutters in the breeze. Luckily our visit coincided with bog cotton season.
Winding our way around the wooden boardwalk and flagstone trail we learned loads of interesting facts about the Flow Country.
Bog myrtle for instance, is said to repel the Highland Midge.
We spotted gorgeous wild orchids, and a carnivorous insect-eating plant known as sundew. I was surprised how excited I got when I learned that a tree stump in the bog was 4,500-years-old. A remnant of an ancient forest that once covered the area.
A Scottish first
The highlight of our visit was a Scottish first, thanks to our trusty nature scout The Wee White Dug. One of the information boards we read mentioned some sections of boardwalk were plastic to retain heat and attract lizards. No sooner had we excitedly, uttered the word “lizard” than the boy pointed his nose over the edge of the boardwalk. Et voila – a bonnie wee lizard was staring up at us. We held our breath and watched until it scuttled off into the undergrowth.
The Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland is a truly remarkable landscape, and one we need to cherish and protect. Thankfully, the RSBP are doing a wonderful job of looking after it, and they’re working hard to reverse damage caused by commercial forestry in the 1980s.
Giant cliffs and towering sea stacks
Caithness may lack mountains, but it’s not short of dramatic sea stacks. The most famous of these are the Stacks of Duncansby.
They’re reached via a short, and boggy coastal walk that begins at Duncansby Head Lighthouse. They’re worth getting squelchy feet for though, as the stacks are an amazing sight to see. They rise out of the sea like huge sharks teeth.
Duncansby Head is also a great spot to linger and appreciate the vastness of Caithness’s never-ending sky.
All that and beaches too
Now, you may be thinking that Caithness looks lovely, but the coastline all seems a wee bit treacherous. So, if cliffs give you the heebie-jeebies you’ll be pleased to hear that the region also has plenty of lovely beaches.
Some of Scotland’s finest beaches can be found in Caithness. With long stretches of golden sand, and barely another soul around, they’re heavenly.
They’re also excellent for surfing, and you’ll see surfers riding the waves, well away from the hoards who descend on the UK’s more southerly surfing spots.
Caithness – it’s the end of the world as we know it
The village of John O’Groats is often (wrongly) identified as the most northerly point of the British Mainland. Despite not being the most northerly point it’s still worth visiting. Posing by the iconic sign never gets boring.
The colourful harbour will lift your mood, on the dullest of days.
John O’Groats is also a great place to stop and grab a coffee, or to hop on a wildlife or Orkney day-trip cruise.
14.4 miles west of John O’Groats, Dunnet Head is officially the most northerly point on the British Mainland. It’s a beautiful place with spectacular views over the Pentland Firth to Orkney.
The cliffs around Dunnet Head are teeming with seabirds, and the area is a National Nature Reserve looked after by the RSPB.
The sensible arrive equipped with binoculars to spot seabirds from a safe distance. The fool-hardy (or foolish) cross protective fences and perch on the cliff edge, all for the sake of a few puffin photos! Loving life as we do, we watch the seabirds through binoculars.
The boy loves visiting Dunnet Head. The combination of sights, sounds and smells sets him off on a sniffing frenzy. He’s even been known to sit on top of the trig point there, enjoying the wind in his face and the smell of sea air. I’d love to know what he’s thinking when he stares off whimsically into the distance.
Caithness – a Guinness World Record
Caithness may boast a rich history and a beautiful, bio-diverse landscape, but it also has something pretty cool to crow about. A Guinness World Record, no less. Ebenezer Place in Wick has officially been recognised as the world’s smallest street since 2006. The street is a pint-sized (by street standards) 6 foot 9 inches long. It consists of a solitary doorway, two windows and the gable-end of a chimney.
We’re back in Caithness next month for a flying visit en route to Orkney. It’ll be our ninth wedding anniversary too, and I can think of no better place to celebrate. Now bring on the champagne, big skies, clifftop castles and peat bog.
I hope this post has given you a little insight into why I love Caithness so much.
Until next time …………