BIG skies, rugged cliffs, spectacular sea-stacks, mysterious moors, long summer nights... these are just some of the natural features that give Caithness its special appeal. These are the Lowlands beyond the Highlands, a county described by its most famous literary son, Neil Gunn, as “that land of exquisite lights”.
As well as wide-open spaces you’ll find a warm welcome in this historic, geographically diverse triangle in the top right-hand corner of the British mainland, hemmed in on its northern and eastern coasts by the sea in all its moods.
The vast interior of the far north contains the famous Flow Country, with its internationally important birds and plants, while there’s plenty to see and do in the bustling towns of Wick and Thurso and the pleasant villages scattered across the county. One of these villages, John O’Groats, is renowned far and wide as the starting or finishing point of “end to end” journeys to or from Land’s End – although the most northerly point on the British mainland is in fact a few miles further west, at Dunnet Head.
Lovers of fresh air and exercise can enjoy any number of country outings – a highlight being the rough coastal path near John O’Groats that gives stunning views of the jagged Stacks of Duncansby. On the other hand, it doesn’t take very long to stroll the length of Ebenezer Place in Wick... at just 6ft 9in it is officially the shortest street in the world!
Sites such as the Camster Cairns, the standing stones of Achavanich, Yarrows Archaeological Trail and the Hill o’ Many Stanes provide a fascinating insight into our ancient past. Ornithologists visiting Caithness will be in their element, while the mainly flat landscape makes it ideal for cycling holidays. Golf, horse-riding and world-class surfing add to the range of outdoor activities.
To the north, across the turbulent waters of the Pentland Firth, lie the Orkney islands; to the south and west is the more mountainous county of Sutherland.
The distinctive nature of the physical environment is matched by the county’s cultural heritage.
For centuries Caithness was ruled by Vikings, and the Norse influence can still be detected in many local place-names. The county itself was known as Katanes, or “headland of the Cats” – a reference to a Pictish tribe called the Kati, or Cat People.
Until the early 19th century there was no proper road into Caithness; its trade links were all by sea. In the 1800s Wick established itself as Europe’s principal herring-fishing port as upwards of a thousand boats set sail in search of the “silver darlings” of the North Sea.
That same century saw the rapid rise of quarrying as a major local industry, with hard-wearing flagstones being shipped out of Caithness to pave the streets of cities all around the globe.
The area’s harbours are rather quieter these days but Caithness has a well-earned claim to fame for the other kind of fishing; salmon angling is available on several rivers, and there are countless lochs that attract dedicated trout fishers year after year. Meanwhile, some of the best sea-angling grounds off the British coastline are in Caithness waters.
There are regular sailings to Orkney by passenger ferry from John O’Groats and by vehicle ferry from Scrabster and Gills Bay, while sightseeing cruises are available along the coast near Wick and also in the John O’Groats area.
Although generally flat, the county does have some notable hills, such as Morven and Scaraben.
The central area between Wick and Thurso contains some of the finest farming land in the north. The best of the area’s livestock is on display every summer at the various agricultural shows, the centrepiece being the County Show in July, alternating between venues in Wick and Scrabster. The summer months also see fun-filled galas in the towns and villages.
Considering the relatively small population of the county – around 26,000 – there’s an impressive range of visitor attractions, some of which are listed here:
- The Castle and Gardens of Mey: The much-loved holiday home of the late Queen Mother is regarded as the jewel in the crown of Caithness tourism. Her Majesty turned a dilapidated stronghold into a royal retreat that she visited annually for half a century until her death at the age of 101 in 2002, and now it has become one of northern Scotland’s biggest visitor attractions. “From my first sight of the Castle of Mey I fell in love with this district,” the Queen Mother once said. Tours of the castle and gardens are hugely popular, and the quality of the visitor experience has been enhanced further by the addition of a purpose-built tearoom and gift shop and the opening of an animal centre featuring unusual breeds. The Prince of Wales (officially known as the Duke of Rothesay when in Scotland) has been a regular visitor to the castle since 2002 and it is clear that he feels a strong attachment to the county his grandmother adored so much.
- Caithness Horizons: A superb attraction showcasing the rich heritage, wildlife and ecology of this distinctive county. Located in the restored Thurso Town Hall and Carnegie library, this outstanding facility houses a museum, interactive exhibitions and displays along with a café. Forming part of the entrance to Caithness Horizons are the Skinnet and Ulbster standing stones, which reveal significant Pictish carvings following two years’ intensive restoration in Edinburgh. The social history of Caithness is brought to life by a series of interactive film clips. The story of Dounreay – the atomic site that dominated the economic development of Caithness from the 1950s onwards – is also featured.
- Wick Heritage Centre: An award-winning museum telling the story of Wick’s rise to prominence as a major herring port. It’s a veritable treasure trove of local heritage, run by volunteers from the Wick Society. Special features include a lighthouse dating back to the mid-1800s which is still in working order and the much-admired Johnston photographic collection – representing the work of three generations and four photographers from the same local family.
- Dunbeath Heritage Centre: A focal point for the rich culture and heritage of the Dunbeath area, concentrating on the life and works of locally-born author Neil Gunn. The centre, operated by Dunbeath Preservation Trust, is located in the former school building where Gunn was a pupil over a century ago. It has recently been extended and now has an exhibition area showcasing archaeological artefacts. Other features include two innovative floor-maps: one based on the Dunbeath Water, immortalised in Gunn’s book Highland River, and another laid out in stone in the shape of an Iron Age “wag”.
- Mary-Ann’s Cottage: A small homestead with outbuildings, run by Caithness Heritage Trust, situated a few miles from Dunnet Head. The cottage was built in the middle of the 19th century and was occupied by members of one family, the Youngs. It remains as an almost perfect example of the way in which crofters lived and worked before mechanisation. Visitors are given a guided tour and are told about Mary-Ann Calder (née Young) and her family.
- Waterlines: Telling the story of Lybster’s rapid rise to become one of Scotland’s foremost herring ports. This attractive east coast village was planned 200 years ago by an enterprising local laird. By the late 1830s Lybster was the third largest port in the country (after Wick and Fraserburgh), with 101 boats fishing out of its harbour.
- • Caithness Broch Centre: Opening in the summer of 2009 at Auckengill, on the Wick/John O’Groats road, the centre explores the rich archaeological landscape of the far north. The county has an abundance of brochs – large stone towers built over 2000 years ago – as well as chambered cairns and stone circles. An innovative display highlights the prehistory of the area.
- Castlehill Heritage Centre: Find out about the heyday of the Castlehill flagstone trade and many other aspects of local life at this centre located in a former farm steading and dairy. It is operated by Castletown Heritage Society, a community group committed to preserving the character, history and traditions of the village of Castletown and the parish of Olrig.
- Clan Gunn Heritage Centre: Located in the 18th-century Old Parish Church of Latheron, this museum tells the compelling story of a proud Scottish clan descended from the Vikings.
- Laidhay Croft Museum: This charming heritage centre, located in a typical “longhouse” croft building, celebrates rural life in days gone by.
- Pulteney Distillery Visitor Centre: The home of the multi-award-winning local whisky, Old Pulteney, known as “the maritime malt”.