Located at the northeastern corner of mainland Scotland, Caithness and Sutherland feature starkly contrasting landscapes. Sutherland, which is dramatic and mountainous, is bordered to the east by Caithness, which is relatively flat. Featuring an abundance of wildlife and stunning landscapes, both sites are dotted with historic sites.
In Caithness, fantastic historic sites abound – it features more brochs than any other area in Scotland – while complimentary sites such as Caithness Broch Centre illuminate its ancient history. Another highlight includes the dramatic ruins of Castle Sinclair Girnigoe, which remains one of the best surviving and unchanged examples of a late medieval/early modern fortified complexes in Scotland.
For more modern history, check out the Castle of Mey, which was lovingly restored by the Queen Mother from the mid-20th century, and is now a royal residence open to the public.
Here’s our pick of 10 of the best historic sites in Caithness and Sutherland.
1. Castle Sinclair Girnigoe
Situated about 3 miles north of Wick on the east coast of Caithness, Castle Sinclair Girnigoe is a complex of ruined stone structures that were built and modified over 200 years by the Sinclair earls of Caithness. The first structure was built in around 1470, and additions were added in the early 17th century when the castle was renamed Sinclair. Though it was originally thought that the castles were separate, more recent archaeological research has shown that it was one castle with later additions.
Until the end of the 17th century, the castle was the artistic, cultural and social centre of the region and was also strategically important, being located overlooking the North Sea. During the Civil War, Cromwell’s troops occupied the complex. It was later damaged by cannon fire during a succession dispute and has been uninhabited since 1690. A trust was set up for its preservation in 1999. It remains one of the best surviving and unchanged examples of a late medieval/early modern fortified complexes in Scotland.
2. Castle of Mey
The Castle of Mey was built by George, the 4th Earl of Caithness, for his son William Sinclair. However, when visiting the family seat Girnigoe Castle in 1573, William was murdered by his older brother John who had been imprisoned there by his father for 6 years. John in turn was murdered and the castle went to the third son, George Sinclair, who changed the name to Barrogill Castle. It then became the family seat for the next 200 years. Various alterations were made in 1819 such as the grand entrance and dining room.
The fifteenth Earl died aged 30, and had no children. He left it to his friend on the condition that he change his name to Sinclair. It changed hands once more before being sold to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 1952, who extensively renovated the castle. It is now a royal residence and is also open to the public.
3. Caithness Broch Centre
Situated beside the main road from Wick to John o’ Groats is the Old School House, which was built in the late 1800s. Today, it is home to Caithness Broch Centre, a museum dedicated to the exploration of a number of key themes relating to brochs, with displays including finds from brochs in the area and miniature broch models.
Around 500 brochs are scattered across Scotland, with most appearing in Shetland, Orkney and on some of the western isles, particularly in Caithness, which is home to more brochs per square mile than anywhere else in Scotland.
4. John o' Groats
Erroneously thought of as the northernmost point of mainland Scotland, John o’ Groats is in fact 11 miles from Dunnet Head, the real most northerly point of mainland Britain. It is the starting location for many embarking on the famous ‘End to End’ journey that starts in Land’s End, some 876 miles away. The stunning highland village combines dramatic, unspoilt scenery with fascinating wildlife and sites such as Duncansby Head Lighthouse and the Stacks of Duncansby.
Orkney is just 6 miles away from the town and features stunning sites such as Skara Brae and the Standing Stones of Stenness.
5. Clachtoll Broch
Perched upon a rocky outcrop on the south side of the mouth of the Bay of Clachtoll, Clachtoll Broch is thought to be more than two thousand years old and was once home to an Iron Age farming family. Around two thousand years ago, it caught fire, causing the roof and walls to collapse inwards and smoulder, creating an ash that means the broch is fantastically well-preserved today.
In summer 2017, archaeologists disturbed the site for the first time in over two thousand years. The community worked to remove the fallen rubble, revealing the remains of a home. It is freely open to visit. Highlights include the massive hearthstone in the middle of the broch, which has been severely cracked due to the heat of the fire.
6. Wick Heritage Museum
Situated in the heart of Pulteneytown, the Wick Heritage Museum is located in the premises of what was once home to a number of businesses and family homes. The rambling building contains a host of furnished rooms that portray past times, with the aim of educating visitors about the history of Wick.
Authentic household furnishings include a traditional box bed and authentic Caithness chairs. Other highlights include the Fishing Hall, Boat Section, Johnston Collection and Wick Voices, an oral history section that is still actively recording people’s memories of Wick’s varied past.
7. Dornoch Castle Hotel
Although it only became a hotel in 1947, the origins of this handsome castle are thought to go back to the late 15th century, perhaps even earlier. Sadly, pinpointing a more precise date is impossible, as early records were destroyed during a siege in 1570. The siege was a particularly violent affair, fought between the Murray and Mackay clans over a long-standing feud, ignited by the Earl of Caithness.
The town of Dornoch was subject to days of fighting and residents were forced to take refuge in the castle and the 13th-century cathedral directly opposite. Eventually, a peace treaty was agreed, also stipulating that 3 members of the Murray clan be given as hostages. As soon as they were handed over, they were beheaded, signalling a grim end to an extended and bloody battle. If you need a drink to steady your nerves after all that gore, gulp down a dram of whisky or gin from the hotel’s on-site Dornoch Distillery.
One of Scotland’s oldest continuously inhabited houses, Dunrobin Castle is the largest in the Northern Highlands as well as one of the most picturesque. The oldest sections of the castle still standing were probably built in the late 1300s and Pictish stones can also still be found on the site. The castle was remodelled at the beginning of the 18th century giving it the structure that we see today.
Resembling a French chateau, Dunrobin is the closest Scotland comes to ‘fairytale architecture’. The castle is open to the public between April and October and many of the 189 rooms are accessible, as are the exquisite 1,379-acre gardens, designed in the French formal style and modelled on the Palace of Versailles.
9. Stoer Lighthouse
Designed by the famous family of lighthouse builders, the Lighthouse Stevensons, the lighthouse at Stoer Head is one of nearly 200 that are located along Scotland’s coastline. Built in 1870, it was operated by the Northern Lighthouse Board. The lighthouse was lived in and operated by a Principal Lightkeeper and an Assistant and their families until the light was automated in 1978.
Today, the lighthouse is monitored by the Northern Lighthouse Board’s offices in Edinburgh. It is visited by some 10,000 visitors per year, while the two keepers cottages have been made into holiday homes.
10. Dornoch Cathedral
In 1222, Gilbert de Moravia, a relation of the Earls of Moray and the first Earl of Sutherland was elected to the Bishopric of Caithness, with the seat originally being located at Halkirk. However, the two previous bishops in Halkirk were murdered, which led to the decision to transfer the seat of the diocese to Dornoch. There, de Moravia built the church at his own expense, and by 1239 the first service was held there. From the time of its completion to the Reformation some 340 years later, the cathedral stood in its original state. However, in 1570 it was set on fire and Gilbert’s tomb was desecrated as part of a dispute between the Murrays of Dornoch and the Mackays of Strathnaver. It was almost totally destroyed.
In 1616, it was partially restored, while between 1835-7 it was restored by Elizabeth, Duchess-Countess of Sutherland. Today, the cathedral is home to a number of interesting features such as the gargoyles and stained glass windows which were donated in memory of Andrew Carnegie.