Exploring the Highlands from Caithness, Scotland

Scothighlands provides first-hand guides and drives across the Scottish Highlands from Caithness, the most far north tip of mainland Scotland.

About Caithness

Caithness is the most northern historic county of Scotland’s mainland, and part of the Highlands and Islands electoral region, which extends from Argyll & Bute in the south; Inverness, Nairn and Moray in the east; the Hebrides and Western Isles to the west; Sutherland in the far north west; and the Orkney and Shetland Isles in the far north east.

It envelopes the far north east corner of Scotland’s mainland, looking out towards the Orkney Isles from the coast.

Bordered inland by the sparsely-populated historic county of Sutherland, Caithness begins near the village of Berriedale and extends through Dunbeath, Latheron and Clyth north to the town of Wick, on the far north east coast.

It includes John O’Groats, the most north-eastern tip of the UK mainland and Dunnet Head, the most northern point of Scotland’s mainland; as well as Thurso, a key town on the far north coast of Scotland; west to Reay; and south, the remote railway station at Altnabreac.

Where is Caithness

Caithness is around 230 miles north from Edinburgh and 80 miles from Inverness, the main city of the Scottish Highlands. From Inverness, Wick is just over 100 miles, Thurso is 110 miles and John O’Groats is 120 miles.

What is Caithness like

Caithness offers some of the most expansive coastal landscape in the UK with big skies and candy floss dawns and sunsets. It has a sense of being at the end of the world, with rugged mercury-red soil and vast open spaces; dramatic cliff faces, rocks and curious plant and bird life. In the winter, there are high winds. But generally temperatures are moderate all year round, with mild winters and cool summers, usually between zero and 20 degrees celsius.

Caithness is not mountainous like the west coast of Scotland, but not as flat as sometimes characterised. It has dramatic cliffside ascents at Berriedale Braes and its highest point in the county, around the mountain, Morven. Its coastal scenery is epic, including a descent of over 300 cliff-side steps at Whaligoe and magnificent sea stacks at Duncansby Head. The precariously placed ruins of Castle Sinclair Girnigoe near Wick overlook the sea at Sinclair Bay.

There are reminders of the past: the landscape is peppered with coastal castle ruins, brochs, cairns and standing stones as well as remnants from the nineteenth-century herring trade boom. Until the thirteenth century, Caithness was subject to Norse and Orcadian rule, and it shares a connection with island communities, particularly in its focus on sustainability. Picture of Camster Cairns

The region is innovative in its excursions into nuclear power at the now decommissioned Dounreay; and wind energy, having the largest operational off-shore wind farm in Scotland near Wick. In neighbouring Sutherland, plans are underway to construct the UK’s first spaceport.

Why visit Caithness

Visitors come to Caithness from road trips around the North Coast 500, on tours to the Orkney Isles and through UK-wide tours from Lands End to John O’Groats.

On the far north east coast, there are two principal castles:

  • Dunrobin Castle near Golspie, Sutherland; the largest historic home in the north Highlands, belonging to the Duchess of Sutherland
  • The Castle of Mey near John O’Groats looking out across the Pentland Firth; an intimate home formerly belonging to the Queen Mother, Elizabeth, who was Chieftain of the Mey Highland Games in Caithness until 2002.
Picture of the castle of Mey

The Caithness coast is peppered with castle ruins, rock formations and ancient landmarks:

  • Whaligoe Steps a dramatic descent of over 300 steps down a cliff side to a former harbour at Whaligoe, used by herring fishing boats in the nineteenth century
  • Duncansby Stacks a magnificent set of sea stacks off the coast of Duncansby Head near John O’Groats
  • Camster Cairns two Neolithic burial chambers, around 5,000 years old, nestled in the countryside at Camster
  • Castle Sinclair Girnigoe a castle ruins formerly belonging to the Sinclair Clan, perilously located on the cliffside overlooking Sinclair Bay, north of Wick
as well as castle ruins including Bucholie Castle near Auckengill and Keiss Castle at Keiss.

The Caithness population lives across small towns, villages and countryside, including:

  • Wick a harbour town, designed partly by Thomas Telford and based around the former herring fishing trade; famous for Old Pulteney whisky
  • Thurso a coastal town overlooking a northerly bay, now known for Wolfburn whisky and Reids shortbread biscuits
  • John O’Groats the most north-easterly village on the British mainland, home to Duncansby Stacks and nearby Castle of Mey with onward ferries to Orkney from John O’Groats and the nearby harbour at Gills Bay
  • Dunnet the most northern part of the UK mainland, with the far north peninsula at Dunnet Head, the beach at Dunnet Bay, a community forest and distillery, producing Rock Rose gin.
  • Lybster a coastal village with a harbour nestled in the coastline, situated on the long-distance walking path, the John O’Groats Trail
  • Scrabster a commercial fishing port with a ferry service to Stromness, Orkney and a coastal trail from its lighthouse at Holborn Head.

Caithness is home to a range of locally made food, drinks and crafts including:

  • Old Pulteney whisky and its sister liqueur, Stroma, made in Wick
  • Wolfburn whisky, Thurso
  • Rock Rose gin in various flavours, made in Dunnet
  • Caithness Chocolate, handmade in Wick
  • Caithness Smokehouse, a cottage industry making gourmet smoked fish and dairy from Barrock
  • John O’Groats beer, made in John O’Groats
and provides a home for a range of craftspeople and artisans. More on shopping in Caithness

Where to eat

Caithness has good quality fish, sourced at Scrabster, the local harbour

  • Mackays Hotel, Wick – home to No 1 Bistro, serves traditional Scottish dishes including cullen skink and freshly landed fish and chips
  • Bord De L’Eau, Wick - a French restaurant has daily fish specials locally sourced
  • Scrabster Seafood Bar – a fish and seafood restaurant in Scrabster
  • Whaligoe Steps Restaurant and Café - located at the top of Whaligoe Steps, with cliff and ocean views, has a middle eastern twist to its menu
  • Waterlines Museum, Lybster – serves fresh crab sandwiches at its cafe
Picture of Lybster Harbour

Where to stay

Hotel accommodation in Caithness includes:

  • Forss House Hotel a four-star boutique hotel set in leafy grounds near Thurso
  • Mackays Hotel a traditional Highland hotel set on the shortest street in the world in Wick
Self catering accommodation is available on the grounds of the Castle of Mey and also at Together Travel (formerly Natural Retreats) in John O’Groats; as well as a number of Airbnbs and self-catering accommodation operating across the area. Picture of Dunnet Bay

Camp sites

There are a number of camping and camper home sites across Caithness, such as

  • Dunnet Bay neighbouring the beach at Dunnet with views across the north coast
  • Wick tucked away along the riverside by the River Wick
  • John O’Groats looking out over the Pentland Firth north towards the Orkney Isles and uninhabited island of Stroma
  • Thurso Bay with sea views

Driving the Scottish Highlands

This year, Scothighlands will be exploring more across Scotland including:

  • Inverness, the major city of the Highlands of Scotland
  • Loch Ness, home to the fictitious Scottish monster
  • and over to the Isle of Skye, one of the most coveted islands in Scotland.

Travel the North Coast 500, Scotland’s most scenic road trip and tour the Orkney Isles:

  • Delve into Forsinard and the Flow Country, the largest area of blanket bog in western Europe – a home to wildlife and a key defence against climate change
  • as well as Caithness brochs, walks and wildlife.

Venture into the neighbouring historic county of Sutherland and beyond the Highlands into:

  • Aberdeen, with its high concentration of castles
  • Edinburgh, the capital city of Scotland
  • and London, the UK capital.