Drive from Scrabster to Gills Bay via Thurso

Here is a complete car journey from Scrabster to Gills Bay in Caithness, North Scotland, heading east on a sunny day along the A9 and A836 and roads.

The drive from Scrabster to Gills Bay follows the north coast of Scotland, beginning with the final section of the A9 as far as Thurso before continuing along the A836 through Thurso, Castletown, Dunnet and Mey and finally completing the journey in Gills Bay Harbour, Caithness.

From Gills Bay, the A836 continues to John O'Groats just over 3 miles away, the most north-easterly village on the Scottish mainland.

In John O'Groats, the A836 meets the A99, which proceeds south along the Caithness coast before meeting the A9 in Latheron, Caithness.

The A9 road is sometimes considered the "backbone" of Scotland, as it runs south to Inverness, the major city of the Scottish Highlands, some 100 miles away - and on to Falkirk in Central Scotland, near Scotland's capital city, Edinburgh.  

North Coast 500
This journey forms a small section of the North Coast 500 from Thurso to Gills Bay. The North Coast 500 is a 500-mile scenic road trip around the north coast of the Highlands, sometimes considered Scotland's answer to the Route 66 in America.

Ferry to Orkney
This trip features two harbours with ferries headed for Orkney: Scrabster (which runs a ferry service to Stromness in the Orkney Isles, operated by NorthLink Ferries) and Gills Bay (which has a ferry services to St Margaret's Hope, run by Pentland Ferries).

John O'Groats (a further 3.2 miles along the A836) also has a ferry to Burwick in the Orkney Isles, run by John O'Groats Ferries. The John O'Groats ferry service is passenger-only where as cars and vehicles can be taken on the ferries from Scrabster and Gills Bay.

The total drive takes just over 30 minutes. This video is accelerated and plays at four times the normal speed.

Journey highlights (with time stamps)
00:00 A9, Scrabster, Caithness
The journey begins on the road leaving Scrabster, which has a sprinkling of restaurants with seasonal opening hours, including Captain Galley's Seafood Restaurant; the tapas restaurant, Capilla, housed in a converted church; and Popeyes a local bar.

On the left you can see the sea of Thurso Bay and buildings near the commercial fish market. Scrabster is an important fishing harbour and the quality of white fish including haddock sourced locally is particularly good, however the fish market is not open to the public. To try the local fish, go to the fishmongers, A Mackay & Son in Thurso - or eat at Captain Galleys restaurant in Scrabster if you have chance.

Scrabster is a port of call for cruise ships exploring the far north of Europe. For ideas for what to do in Scrabster and nearby, see our complete guide to Scrabster.  

00:47 Left turn for Thurso, Wick and Inverness; right turn for Forss House Hotel, Tongue and Durness
At this point, you meet the road classically regarded as part of the North Coast 500.

Turning right, you find the Forss House Hotel around 5 miles away. This is a small four-star hotel near Thurso. The road continues to Bettyhill and Tongue before winding along single track around Loch Eriboll then reaching Durness and Cape Wrath - some of the most north westerly points of the Scottish mainland.

Instead taking a left turn, you go north east along the Caithness coast and in the direction of Wick, another key town on the far north coast, as well as Inverness, the principal city of the Scottish Highlands.

00:55 Thurso, Caithness
Thurso is the most northerly town on the British mainland and historically has had important links with Orkney and Norse culture since the Norse people ruled in Caithness until the thirteenth century. 

Now Thurso is perhaps best known for the nearby Castle of Mey, some 13.5 miles from the town centre - and food and drink including Reids shortbread and Wolfburn whisky. More about Thurso.

00:59 Left turn for Thurso Camping Site and the Blue Door Diner and Cafe
For those camping in the area, Thurso's campsite is one option alongside nearby Dunnet Bay (9 miles), John O'Groats (20 miles) and Wick (21 miles).

The Blue Door Diner and Cafe is an independent cafe and fast food joint, located on the campsite serving milkshakes, freakshakes and ice cream sundaes.

Continuing along this road, you proceed through the town centre of Thurso. Thurso Railway Station is nearby on Princes Street.

Crossing the bridge over the River Thurso, you see a petrol station among a number of shops and supermarkets.

01:37 Left turn for Dunnet, Gills Bay, Castle of Mey and John O'Groats; straight on for Wick, Dunrobin Castle and Inverness
At the traffic lights, you can either continue along the A9, heading inland towards Wick and Inverness; or continue your journey along the north coast.

The character of the routes is very different. The A9 from Scrabster to Inverness is the more direct route and you pass through the red earthy terrain typical of this part of Caithness before joining the coastal road again at Latheron, Caithness. See the journey inland.

The coastal route along the A836 and the A99 is longer and includes Dunnet Bay, Dunnet Head, the sea stacks at Duncansby Head, the ruins of Keiss Castle, Whaligoe Steps, Camster Cairns and the harbour at Lybster.

01:39 A836, Thurso, Caithness
The A836 takes you out of Thurso town centre, and the sea at Dunnet Bay as well as the cliffs of Dunnet Head start to come into view.

02:32 Murkle, Caithness
Murkle is a small settlement just east of Thurso, which shortly after goes into Castletown.

03:26 Left turn for Castlehill Heritage Centre and the Flagstone Trail
The Castlehill Heritage Centre is a local community museum in Castletown, housed in a converted farmhouse. It has a half-mile walk nearby called the Flagstone Trail which runs from the museum to the start of Dunnet Bay and shares some of the history of the flagstone industry in Caithness.

03:37 Right turn for Wick and Inverness
This right turn takes you inland along the B876 to Wick through Lochside, Bowermadden, Killimster and Reiss. Continuing along the coast, you pass through a small woodland before reaching Dunnet Bay.

03:49 Left turn for Castlehill Heritage Centre
This is an alternative turning for the Castlehill Heritage Centre, just before Dunnet Bay. The beach is now in view on your left as the road meanders around the sand dunes.

04:25 Right turn for Dunnet Forest Walks
The forest on your right is Dunnet Community Forest which has a number of walking paths for different abilities of walker including trails for cyclists and horse riding.

04:34 Left turn for Dunnet Bay and Dunnet Bay Camping Site
The campsite at Dunnet Bay is immediately next to the beach. The beach car park has a visitor centre and public toilets.

04:38 Dunnet
Dunnet is a village on the north coast of Scotland, perhaps best known for the beach at Dunnet Bay and its gin distillery as well as Dunnet Head, the most northerly peninsula of the British mainland.

04:45 Left turn for Northern Sands Hotel and Dunnet Bay Distillery
One of very few eating options in Dunnet: the Northern Sands Hotel serves locally sourced ingredients for lunches and dinners as well as local beers and spirits. If you have planning to tour Dunnet Bay Distillery, Northern Sands Hotel is conveniently located for overnight accommodation.

Dunnet Bay Distillery is home to Rock Rose Gin and Holy Grass Vodka. The distillery's gift shop has a range of products and gin-inspired presents.

04:48 Left turn for Dunnet Head
The drive or walk up Dunnet Head takes you through the winding red landscape, and on a clear day offers views of the Pentland Firth and towards the Orkney Isles.

05:27 Right turn for Barrock and Caithness Smokehouse
If you enjoy smoked foods such as salmon, butter, scallops, cheddar and haddock, Caithness Smokehouse produces gourmet smoked foods. On sale locally in John O'Groats and Thurso, the Caithness Smokehouse is based in Barrock and visits can be made by appointment. 

06:09 Mey, Caithness
Mey is a village on the far north coast of Scotland.

06:23 Left turn for Castle and Gardens of Mey
The Castle of Mey, formerly known as Barrogill Castle, was owned by the Queen Mother until 2002. The castle and gardens are open to the public each summer. More about the Castle of Mey

The Queen Mother was the chieftain of the Mey Highland Games which still takes place in nearby John O'Groats. Prince Charles, the Duke of Rothesay, is now the Mey Games' chieftain and adjudicates the final of the Tug O'War contest. More on John O'Groats

06:40 East Mey, Caithness
The road gently descends along the coastline and you can start to see the sea near Gills Bay Harbour on the left.

07:33 Right turn for Gills Bay; straight on for John O'Groats
Here you leave the A836 and make the journey down to the harbour. Continuing on to John O'Groats, you can take boat trips around the coastline or a day trip to Orkney with John O'Groats Ferries. More on John O'Groats. 

07:45 Gills Bay Ferry Terminal
The ferry terminal has free car parking and a cafe inside the terminal office which serves breakfast rolls, sandwiches, snacks and hot drinks. For more eating options, consider the cafes at John O'Groats or the restaurant at the Northern Sands Hotel in Dunnet.

John O'Groats to the Castle of Mey
Venture inside the grounds of the castle, here you take the short car journey from John O'Groats village, past Gills Bay and to the castle, which overlooks the Pentland Firth and out towards the Orkney Isles.

Dunnet Head
See the drive to the most northerly point of the UK mainland at Dunnet Head, which is an RSPB nature reserve.

Duncansby Head
If you're curious to see the sea stacks at Duncansby Head, this is a short drive from John O'Groats. Duncansby Head has a lighthouse and free parking area from which you can make a 15-20 minute walk along the coast to see the sea stacks and bird life.

Further resources
See our complete guide to John O'Groats and the Castle of Mey.