Explore Sutherland

Sutherland occupies about one-eighth of the land area of Scotland. Its history and relative remoteness from major cities have helped to ensure that many archaeological features of all periods remain well-preserved. Over 8,000 have been recorded and many more await discovery. Click on the map or the key to the right to browse some of the accessible, interesting sites to be found in Sutherland.

1. Balnakeil Church

Ruined church and burial groundBuilt by the Mackay Lords of Reay and formerly the Durness Parish Church, the building now stands as a roofless ruin. The cemetery contains some interesting gravestones including that of Robert Calder Mackay (1714-78), also known as Rob Doune and dubbed ‘the Burns of the North.’ You can also see the mural tomb of Duncan MacMorroch who, because he eradicated “troublesome hindrances” for his master, was denied his wish to be buried within the church building. MoreBack to top

2. Smoo Cave

Cave interiorThis spectacular limestone sea-cave is the largest in Britain. It was formed by a burn that runs down into the rear chamber, as well as by erosion from the sea. We know that our prehistoric ancestors used this cave for thousands of years, probably on a seasonal basis, as they have left behind piles of rubbish known as middens. One midden is visible just inside the cave entrance as a large mound of mud-covered shells, the left-overs of millennia spent foraging for tasty molluscs. Mixed within the shells other finds, such as carved stone and bone tools probably used to extract the meat from the shell, have also been found. The discovery of Norse boat fittings dating from the 10th to 13th centuries indicates that the cave was used by Norse sailing ships to shelter from storms. MoreBack to top

3. Ard Neakie Limekilns

Lime kilns and pierArd Neakie, a promontory within Loch Eribol, is home to two pairs of impressive limekilns. Built into the cliff in about 1870, the kilns were fuelled by coal or coke brought in by sea, possibly from Brora. The limestone was extracted from a quarry, which can still be seen behind the kilns, and was poured into the top of the kilns with the fuel. After burning, the ‘quick’ lime was removed from the draw holes below and taken away by cart. The lime was then used to neutralise the acidity of the soil in many parts of the county so that better crops could be grown. MoreBack to top

4. Dun Dornadilla (or Dornaigil) Broch

Broch with triangular lintel © Nicki MacRaeThe Iron Age broch of Dun Dornadilla is not as extensively laid out as Carn Liath (see No 11), and is now filled with fallen rubble. However, at more than 6.5 metres high, the remaining wall of the broch gives an idea as to the sheer size and scale of these impressive fortified buildings. MoreBack to top

5. Castle Varrich (Caisteal Bharraich)

Towerhouse interiorThis small roofless towerhouse, possibly dating from the 16th century, occupies a dramatic hilltop location and commands magnificent views over the Kyle of Tongue. In medieval times it was a significant seat of the Mackay Chieftains but the site may date back as far as the Norse period. MoreBack to top

6. The Strathnaver Trail

Corrugated iron church at Syre on the Strathnaver TrailFollow 24 miles of winding road from Altnaharra to Bettyhill, along the shores of Loch Naver and through a spectacular landscape of hills, rivers and rocky outcrops to the white sandy beaches and spectacular cliffs of Torrisdale Bay. Along the way-marked route visit burial cairns and standing stones of the Neolithic and Bronze Age, Iron Age brochs, early Christian chapel sites and burial grounds, 18th-century deserted settlements and vernacular buildings of 19th-century rural industry.Back to top

7. Suisgill Bridge Souterrain

A souterrain entranceThis souterrain lies beside the road, an iron grille covering the opening. A souterrain is an underground tunnel or chamber, often roofed and constructed using drystone walls. The exact function of a souterrain is, however, unclear. Many hypotheses have been put forward ranging from underground food stores, hiding places, shelters, animal houses and places of worship. MoreBack to top

8. Baile an Or

Baile an Or today © The Baile an Or ProjectIn 1868 the discovery of gold in the Strath of Kildonan hailed the start of the Sutherland Gold Rush. Over 500 prospectors flocked to the strath, many of them living in purpose-built wooden huts which came to form the settlement of Baile an Or (Village of Gold). The gold rush, however, was short lived and by December 1869 licences were no longer being issued following complaints about the environmental impact of the diggings. All that remains today is a small bridge, a reconstructed miner's hut and the flat ground that once was home of Baile an Or. MoreBack to top

9. Helmsdale

Bridge, ice house and war memorialHelmsdale was planned by the 1st Duke of Sutherland between 1817 and 1820 as a herring fishing station (although it is located on the site of a much older settlement). Although this industry is no longer thriving, the picturesque harbour still functions as a base for fishing boats harvesting lobster, crab and white fish. Spanning the river Helmsdale and a little upstream of the current road bridge is an attractive twin-arched bridge built by Thomas Telford between 1809 and 1811. To the south of the bridge is an icehouse which was used to store fish prior to transportation. Built in 1824, this is one of the best preserved estate icehouses in Sutherland. Back to top

10. Brora

Clynelish distilleryBrora is a town that has developed around, and been dominated by, industry and industrial enterprise. The early 16th century saw the start of coal and salt extraction but these industries were abandoned by 1630. In 1811-13, the Duke of Sutherland reinvigorated local industry with the sinking of a new coal mine, the building of a new brickworks, and the construction of a harbour and adjoining saltpans - all were linked by a horse-drawn tramway. In 1814 'Brora New Town' was laid out, and five years later, Clynelish distillery was set up to provide a market for local grain and to discourage local farmers from supporting illicit distillers. The mine, brickworks and saltpans all closed in 1828, but reopened in 1872 after the arrival of the Duke of Sutherland's railway and in 1890 a woollen mill started production. The coal mine operated until the 1970s. Back to top

11. Carn Liath Broch

Broch entrance © Lynn FraserCarn Liath is an excellent example of a broch, a Late Iron Age fortified circular tower, perhaps once the home of a tribal chief or high status family. Brochs were built as large and imposing structures, built of double walls within which passages and staircases were built. Carn Liath has an internal diameter of 30ft and the walls, in places, are 18ft thick. The entrance, complete with a small guard cell, is still intact in the eastern arc of the broch.

Interpretation boards give an excellent picture of how these fascinating structures may have looked and how they were used. MoreBack to top

12. Dunrobin Castle

Dunrobin Castle and gardens © Andrew TaylorThe home of the Dukes of Sutherland, this splendid castle dates from at least the 14th century and incorporates many later adaptations and additions. A complete transformation began in 1841 when the 2nd Duke of Sutherland commissioned Sir Charles Barry (architect of the Houses of Parliament) and William Leslie to remodel the whole place in fairytale style. A small museum is located within the grounds that contains a fine collection of carved Pictish stones, cross slabs and other archaeological finds from around Sutherland. MoreBack to top

13. Golspie Bridge and Sutherland Clan Stone

Bridge and obeliskThe bridge over the burn at Golspie was built about 1810 and was the rallying-place of the Sutherland clan. On a parapet is an obelisk bearing a Gaelic inscription which means 'The Chief of the Sutherland Clan to the head of the little bridge calls the Sutherland men of the victories.' Located just beyond the bridge is Golspie Mill. Built in the 1820’s it was the largest water flour mill in Sutherland. The mill is now a private residence. MoreBack to top

14. Duke of Sutherland's Monument

Close up view of the monumentErected on the top of Ben Bhraggie is the enormous statue of the 1st Duke of Sutherland. It was designed by Sir F L Chantrey and erected in 1837 by the Duke’s tenants.  The statue is an unpopular reminder to many of the 1st Duke’s role in the Highland Clearances when over 5,000 people were forcibly evicted to make way for sheep farming. On a good day, the views from the top are stunning. MoreBack to top

15. Dornoch Cathedral

Dornoch CathedralThe cathedral dates to around 1239 although from 1570 it lay in ruins after the Mackays of Strathnaver burnt it down. The present building is largely the result of a major restoration carried out in 1835-7 with help from Elizabeth, Countess and First Duchess of Sutherland. The clock, which was built into the tower in 1924, is the Cathedral’s most recent addition. MoreBack to top

16. Dornoch Mercat Cross

Mercat crossThe Market Cross is used to mark the place where medieval and later markets were held. A market cross is known to have stood on the north side of the Cathedral yard since at least 1515, although the current cross probably dates from when Dornoch became a Royal Burgh in 1628.  Unfortunately, the top of the cross is now missing. MoreBack to top

17. Croick Church, Glencalvie

Writing scratched on east windowThis Parliamentary T-Plan church, built in 1827, was designed by Thomas Telford. Croick Church is best known for its connection with the Highland Clearances. In 1845 and 1854 the tenants of Glencalvie were evicted from their homes. With nowhere else to go they took shelter in the church grounds, and left their mark by scratching their names on the east window of the church. MoreBack to top

18. Carbisdale Castle and the site of the Battle of Carbisdale

Carbisdale CastleCarbisdale Castle was built at the beginning of the 20th century for Mary Caroline, the 2nd wife of the 3rd Duke of Sutherland. This side of the river Oykel was in Ross-shire until 1975, and the castle was built here because the Sutherland family would not let her settle anywhere within the county. The great tower has a clock on each face, except the north facing Sutherland because, it is said, she would not give the family the time of day. In 1933 the Salvesen family acquired the castle, and during the Second World War it became the headquarters in exile of King Hakon VII of Norway. In 1945 the Salvesens gave it to the Scottish Youth Hostels Association and it still functions as a Youth Hostel today. The name of the castle commemorates the nearby Battle of Carbisdale where the Marquis of Montrose was defeated in 1650. MoreBack to top

19. The Ord Archaeology Trail, Lairg

Chambered cairn on Ord Hill © Douglas ScottThe circular trail, which takes between 30 – 60 minutes, leads you over Ord Hill, a well preserved prehistoric landscape that consists of the remains of burial cairns, round houses and a burnt mound as well as prehistoric and medieval field systems. Back to top

20. Sallachy Broch

Broch looking out towards the lochOverlooking the loch, the Iron Age broch at Sallachy is in an impressive position. It is now in a ruined and fragile condition (please exercise caution when visiting) but it is still an excellent example of a late prehistoric fortified building. MoreBack to top

21. Ardvreck Castle and Calda House

Ardvreck Castle in twilightArdvreck Castle dates from around 1597. In 1672 the castle was seized by the Mackenzies, who then abandoned it after building nearby Calda House in 1728. Calda House, once a grand mansion, only stood for 9 years before being destroyed during a dispute over the ownership of Assynt between the Earl of Sutherland and Mackenzie of Seaforth. MoreBack to top

The sites listed here are the most accessible as defined in the Ross and Cromarty Access to Archaeology Audit of 1999.