Explore Caithness

Caithness is framed by the sea on two sides and the mountains of Sutherland on the third. It has a strong identity, which looks northward to Orkney and Shetland as much as south to the highlands. Beneath huge, empty skies its windswept landscape contains nearly 5,500 archaeological features of all periods.

Click on the map or the key to the right to browse some of the accessible, interesting sites to be found in Caithness.

1. Badbea Clearance Village

Badbea memorialThe village of Badbea lies perilously perched atop dramatic cliffs. It was built to house highlanders that had been evicted from their homes in the early 19th century to make way for sheep farming. Most of the new tenants were forced out to this marginal and desolate location from the inland straths of Langwell, Berriedale and Ousdale.

The villagers lived in crofts comprising a longhouse with attached byre and a small field. At its height 28 families were crammed into the Badbea. Conditions were rudimentary and life was hard - and dangerous. Stories tell how children had to be tethered to posts and rocks as they played to prevent them falling off the precipitous cliffs. The 19th century saw many of the tenants emigrate to America and New Zealand in search of a better life with the last remaining house being abandoned in 1911. The same year a memorial was erected to the inhabitants of this bleak and remote village. MoreBack to top

2. Dunbeath

View from Dunbeath broch (green valley and burn)Dunbeath strath contains a wealth of archaeological sites of all periods. Call into the Dunbeath Heritage Centre (signposted from the A9) for details of walks and trails.Back to top

3. Achavanich Stone Setting

Achavanich stone settingThis enigmatic monument consists of 36 large stones, hewn from local rock and set out in a horseshoe plan. The purpose of the stones is unknown - it is possible that they served as a focus for ceremonial or ritual activity around 4000 to 5000 years ago; they may be aligned on the stars and the movements of celestial bodies or positioned so as to focus on prominent features in the landscape. For now, all we can do is surmise...MoreBack to top

4. Hill o' Many Stanes (Mid Clyth Stone Rows)

Hill o' Many StanesTwenty two rows of stones up to 3 feet high can be seen at this intriguing prehistoric site. Nearly 200 stones survive and they probably once extended further to the east where socket holes can still be seen. Nobody is sure what the stones are for although a ceremonial, ritual or astronomical function is likely. Now lost, a large standing stone used to lie to the north-west. MoreBack to top

5. The Grey Cairns of Camster

Camster Round CairnThe spectacular 'Grey Cairns' are a group of Neolithic chambered burial cairns (in use around 4000 - 3000 BC). The central chamber of each cairn would have received the dead, the bodies taken there, perhaps by family members or priests, via a narrow passage. The largest of the cairns is Camster Long Cairn, created by overbuilding and extending two smaller round chambered cairns. Located to the south of Camster Long is a round chambered cairn. Following excavation these cairns have been extensively restored and the chambers can now be entered.Back to top

6. Cairn of Get and Garrywhin Hillfort

Stone slabs at Garrywhin fortCairn of Get is a round chambered burial cairn dating from the Neolithic period. Excavations of the chamber in 1866 uncovered flint arrowheads and Neolithic pottery alongside the bones of the people once interred within. No longer roofed, you can walk into the cairn and enter the burial chamber. Beyond the cairn is a substantial 19th century stone dam which would probably have provided water for Whaligoe Mill. Walk across the dam and you will reach the Late Bronze Age - Early Iron Age fort of Garrywhin (1000 BC - AD 100). The fort would have commanded views across an impressive landscape of burial cairns and standing stones, hut circles and brochs - today, most of these sites are concealed under the heather. Back to top

7. Yarrows Archaeological Trail

Long cairn on Yarrows Archaeological TrailThis trail offers an opportunity to discover an exceptional archaeological landscape which has been used by over three hundred generations of people. Sites to be seen include a well preserved Neolithic Long Cairn (around 3000 BC), an Iron Age Broch (200 BC - AD 200), the remains of numerous Bronze Age/Iron Age roundhouses or 'hut circles' (example) and burial cairns. A leaflet to accompany the trail is available from Tourist Information Centres and from the leaflet box at the trail car park. Back to top

8. Castle of Old Wick

Castle of Old WickDramatically perched on the cliffs of this jagged promontory are the remains of the Castle of Old Wick. The rectangular keep would have prevented unwanted visitors from setting foot on the promontory, helping keep safe the two rows of buildings located behind. The buildings, of which now only the foundations survive, are separated by a central roadway known as 'Castle Walk' that leads to what may be a walled garden at the tip of the promontory. The castle is first recorded as held by Reginald Cheyne in the mid 14th century. The castle design, however, would indicate it has much older origins and perhaps dates back to the 12th century and the time of the Norse. MoreBack to top

9. Wick

Telford Street, Lower PulteneytownWick is first mentioned in the Orkneyinga Saga which describes how, in 1140, Earl Ronald of Orkney came to 'Vik' - a name derived from Old Norse meaning bay or anchorage. Wick was made a royal burgh in 1589 and prospered on a small scale until 1810 when the British Fisheries Society commissioned Thomas Telford to construct a harbour and a new town and began to promote the town as a centre of herring fishing. The town, built on the south side of the Wick River, was named Pulteneytown after Sir William Pultney, the Governor of the society. By the mid 19th century Wick had become the largest herring fishing port in Europe.

Although the failure to conserve stocks has meant the herring fishing industry has largely declined, the working harbour is still a busy and interesting place today. Telford's Pulteneytown is a fascinating place to walk with many interesting buildings. Visit the Tourist Information Centre for many other things to see and do in this characterful town. Back to top

10. Castle Sinclair and Girnigoe

Castle Sinclair and GirnigoeLocated some 40 to 60 feet above the crashing sea and occupying a narrow, rocky peninsula, this late 15th century castle is a dramatic and impressive site. Built for the Earls of Caithness, who still own the castle, it occupies a strong defensive position. The castle is protected on its northern flank by the steep cliffs and on its landward side by two deep rock-cut trenches. Between the two trenches a gatehouse stood guard with a drawbridge giving access.

The castle has recently undergone excavations and parts of the castle have been consolidated and made safe. At the time of writing work was ongoing and public access on the castle grounds was not permitted, although it can still be viewed from outside. It is envisaged that the castle will be open to the public in due course - please take advice from Tourist Information Centres. MoreBack to top

11. Keiss

Warehouse by Keiss harbourThis small village approximately 8 miles north of Wick boasts a wealthy archaeological heritage. Beside the cemetery is the Kirk Tofts or Road Broch, a good early example of an Iron Age (c.1st century BC) fortified tower. Over the next few hundred years it underwent a number of modifications and alterations, including the strengthening of the walls and the blocking up (and later unblocking) of the original entrance. Cross the road and walk down South Street toward the coast and Keiss harbour. En-route you will pass the Parliamentary T-Plan church built in 1827 to a design by Thomas Telford. The small rubble walled harbour was built in 1831 along with an attractive 3-storey warehouse and turf-covered icehouse. Walk north along the shore to find two more fine examples of brochs, Keiss and Whitegate, juxtaposed alongside two Second World War Type 24 hexagonal pillboxes (north and south). Continue on to Old Keiss castle which was built by the Earls of Caithness in the late 16th or early 17th century. Set back a little from the cliffs is the present Keiss Castle which replaced it in 1755. Back to top

12. Nybster Broch and Caithness Broch Centre

Nybster broch during community excavations in 2011Nybster Broch was probably built between about 200 BC and AD 200 and was re-used during the Pictish period (AD 300-800). The Caithness Broch Centre offers an opportunity to explore the Pictish and Viking heritage of Caithness. MoreBack to top

13. Canisbay Parish Church

Canisbay parish church and burial groundAlthough having undergone a series of alterations and repairs primarily in the 18th and 19th centuries, the core of Canisbay Parish Church probably dates to about the 15th century. The site's history, however, is much older than this. The church is built on a mound under which lie the remains of a broch. Evidence that this site was appropriated by some of the earliest Christians can be found in the church's dedication, to St. Drostan, a Scottish abbot from around 600 AD. Evidence from the mid 13th century also mentions the presence of a church at Canisbay.

A number of murals and tombstones of fine quality are contained within the church and the walled burial ground, including some from the Groat (or de Groot) family of John o'Groats. MoreBack to top

14. Dunnet Bay Norse Settlement

Dunes at Dunnet Bay © Iain Sarjeant Caithness Biodiversity CollectionBeneath the sand dunes along Dunnet Bay lie the hidden remains of an extensive Norse settlement dating to AD 1000 -1300. Occasionally the remains of buildings are revealed by the shifting sand, only to be rapidly covered again. Within the Seadrift Visitor Centre is a display which shows some of the artefacts found. MoreBack to top

15. The Castlehill Flagstone Trail

Workers cottagesFollow the fascinating trail and discover the quarry, factory, windmill, working area and workers cottages at Castlehill, the birthplace of the Caithness flagstone industry. A thriving industry at the end of the 19th century, the quarried and dressed flagstones were exported all over the world from the nearby harbour which, like the other buildings on this site, is constructed using Caithness flagstone. The industry declined with the advent of concrete paving slabs, but in recent years there has been a revival, with a growing popularity for Caithness flag as an architectural material. Back to top

16. Thurso

Building with unusual round stair towerThurso is mainland Scotland's most northerly town; there has been a settlement here from at least the 12th century. The oldest part of Thurso can be found on the west bank of the river by the harbour. Be sure to take a walk down Shore Street which contains many houses dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. Although modernisation has obscured some of their original features, no.16/18 incorporates an unusual 2 storey round external stair tower. The winding streets will lead you to the ruins of Old St Peter's Church, which dates mainly to the 16th and 17th centuries, although a church has stood on this site from at least the 13th century. Old St Peter's Church fell out of use in 1832 when the new St Peter's Church in St John's Square replaced it.  In summer the churchyard is open during the day, in winter a key is obtainable on request from the Town Hall.

In 1719 the Sinclairs of Ulbster acquired the lands of Thurso and in 1798 Sir John Sinclair built a New Town to the south and west of the Old Town. Laid out on a regular grid with wide streets, the New Town retains much of its character. In the mid 1950's the Dounreay Nuclear Power Development Establishment was built 8 miles west of Thurso, and the town experienced something of a boom as many migrant workers arrived and settled here. It is said that the population tripled within 10 years of the plant being built. Back to top

17. St Mary's Chapel, Crosskirk

Chapel and burial groundThe chapel survives as a roofless nave, and a chancel reconstructed in 1871 as a burial place for the Gunn family. The graveyard, enclosed by stone walls, was still in use in 1872. A few hundred metres to the south of the chapel is a healing well dedicated to St Mary.  The chapel is thought to have been built on a much earlier religious site as a Pictish symbol stone and evidence of 8th century occupation were uncovered during excavations of a nearby broch. MoreBack to top

18. Cnoc Freiceadain Chambered Tombs

Long cairn looking north towards Dounreay and the coastLocated on top of Cnoc Freiceadain are two well preserved Neolithic long cairns; Na Tri Sithean and Cnoc Freiceadain. The burial cairns, which are set at right-angles to one another, are now covered with turf but stones projecting through the grass indicate the location of internal chambers or cists. On a clear day there are excellent views over a rich prehistoric landscape towards Dounreay Nuclear Power Development Establishment and to the sea beyond.Back to top

19. Broubster Clearance Village

Buildings in Broubster clearance villageBy the road edge are the remains of Broubster, a planned village, which was established in the late 19th century to re-house some of the tenants evicted from the Broubster and Shurrery estates. Four rows of buildings can be seen, one still partly roofed with turf. The last inhabitants left in the 1950's. MoreBack to top

The sites listed here are the most accessible as defined in the Caithness Access to Archaeology Audit of 1998.