Join us in this travel blog post where we enjoy the Wick to John o’ Groats stage of the North Coast 500, discovering ruined castles all the way up to the very tip of Great Britain.
Over the years, we have explored the sections of the NC500 route several times, although not necessarily the complete route in one single journey. Indeed, our travels in this area began even before it had been called the North Coast 500. Our travels have opened our eyes to the beauty of the route and has given us the opportunity to also find hidden gems off the beaten track.
Commonly known as “Scotland’s Route 66,” the North Coast 500 has quickly become an iconic, must-do tourist route, having only been formally marketed as such back in 2015. The NC500 is actually 516-miles long, starting and ending at Inverness Castle, running along a mainly coastal route through the traditional counties of Inverness-shire, Ross and Cromarty, Sutherland and Caithness. It has become so popular that has been described as "Scotland's Route 66."
Our day started with a hearty breakfast at Mackays Hotel in Wick, which along with its excellent hospitality, can lay claim to the shortest street in the world! At just 6ft 9in, Ebenezer Place, must be the quirkiest stop along the NC500!
Wick itself is a pleasant town and royal burgh, straddling the River Wick. The name Wick appears to be from a Norse word, vík, meaning bay. The Wick Heritage Museum is a great stop for finding out more about Wick, however, the museum was closed at the time of our trip due to Covid-19 lockdown. Wick can also boast of its own distillery – Old Pulteney – however, this was also temporarily closed to visitors due to the pandemic. Never mind, as this will be a great excuse to visit Wick again in the near future.
Old Wick Castle
Our day trip started with a visit to the Castle of Old Wick, or ‘The Old Man of Wick’ as it is often referred to. The castle, which was probably built in the 1100s, possibly by the half-Norse Earl Harald Maddadson, is only a 5 minute drive south of Wick. There is a small car park at the end of the narrow coastal road, which is at the start of a 10-minute walk along to the castle. The easy to follow path can be muddy in places, so make sure you are not wearing your best shoes! The first sight of the castle is very impressive, as it sits on a finger of land jutting out into the sea. The castle itself, or at least what is left of its four-storey tower, is quite small, but its positioning and the seascapes around it are breath-taking.
Castle Sinclair Girnigoe
An even more substantial fortress, located about 3 miles north of Wick, is Castle Sinclair Girnigoe. It is considered to be one of the earliest seats of Clan Sinclair. Interestingly, it comprises the ruins of two castles: the 15th-century Castle Girnigoe; and the early 17th-century Castle Sinclair. The earlier Castle Girnigoe was built by William Sinclair, the 2nd Earl of Caithness, probably sometime between 1476 and 1496. One of the more gruesome stories of this castle was set in 1577, when George Sinclair, the 4th Earl of Caithness, imprisoned his own son John, Master of Caithness. George suspected that his son was rebelling against him so held him in the castle for seven years, during which time he fed him only salted beef, with nothing to drink. Eventually John died insane from thirst! The fortifications were expanded in 1606 when Castle Sinclair was built, comprising a gatehouse and other buildings, along with a curtain wall. These were connected to the earlier castle by a drawbridge over a ravine. There is a large car park at the head of a well-worn farmers path, which leads to the castle. Again, the path can get a bit muddy, so please wear appropriate footwear.
Old Keiss Castle
Keiss Castle is a partially ruined castle in Scotland, which stands on sheer cliffs overlooking Sinclair's Bay. We had hoped to find parking on the A99 and walk down to the castle; however, this does not seem to be an option. We later found out that there is a path along the coast that can be reached from the small village of Keiss. You can clearly see the castle from the main road, as well as Keiss House which replaced it around 1755.
Our journey terminated at John O' Groats, which is a small coastal village scattered over a large area. The village boasts what must be the most photographed and iconic signposts in Scotland, which marks the direction and miles to Lands End and other destinations. Of course, this had to be a photo stop for us!
We were glad to see that there has been significant investment into the tourist attractions and facilities at John O'Groats since the last time that we visited. There are now a number of gift shops and places to eat, as well as a small visitor centre for the John O’ Groats brewery (needless to say I made a purchase or two!). It was also good to see that the Together Travel hotel had had a make over and a colourful addition of some extra lodging.
Puffin Croft Petting Farm & Farm Shop
Before we left the village named after the Dutch ferryman Jan de Groot, we had two more stops to make before heading back to Wick. First up was Puffin Croft. This is a small petting farm with lots of friendly donkeys, goats, pigs and sheep. There was also Rabbit Town and plenty of free range chickens. Ythan was fascinated by the animals, although he was a little hesitant at feeding them, preferring more to throw the carrot pieces at them that we purchased from the farm shop.
Further along the road from the farm, we came to Duncansby Head. These are high cliffs that rise to the east of John o' Groats and is home to a lighthouse built in 1924. The main attraction here, however, is a ten minute cross country walk to see the Stacks of Duncansby (be prepared to get muddy!). The seas were rough and the sky gloomy, but this only added to the drama of view. The path extends down the coast, and you can get much closer to the Stacks, but we were quite happy to stop where we were. On the way to our view point, there is another feature worth seeking out – the Geo of Sclaites – which is a huge cleft bitten deeply into the cliffs, and you will hear the cacophony generated by here by the seabirds.
After a satisfying dinner at the Seaview Hotel back in John o’ Groats, it was time to head home to our base at Mackays Hotel, Wick, for a well earned rest and to get ready for our next adventure.
Remember, take the challenge, discover what is in your backyard, whether you live in Scotland, in the other parts of the British Isles or even Europe, venture into the fairy tale land of Bonnie Scotland.
Join us next time when our family adventures continue as we explore the islands of Orkney. Until then, happy reading and safe travels.
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