Stretched along the coast of the most northerly coast of Scotland is the epic North Coast 500 road trip. This “Route 66 of Scotland” takes you through some of the most rugged, beautiful and overall bewitching scenery in the world. From stretching beaches to towering mountains, this road trip literally has it all. A highlight of the NC500 is the history available at every twist and turn. Explore this incredible history with this guide to the main Castles of the North Coast 500.
In 2018 we headed north, exploring the remote and spectacular highlands of our home country. We absolutely fell in love with the scenery along this route, learning the history of this fascinating place. The incredible history of the NC500 will take you on a walk through time as you explore the eight ancient castles along the route. Ranging from abandoned ruins to reconstructed masterpieces, these ruins will give you incredible insight to the lives of the residents hundreds of years before.
We quickly discovered that the entry fees for the castles are closely related to the condition of the structure. The ruined castles are entirely free to visit and explore, meanwhile the reconstructed castles charge a hefty entry fee. Being budget backpackers, we mostly preferred the free exhibitions. Although this was mostly due to the reduced cost of the trip, it was also due to the lack of a complete picture of the castle. In the same way as a book gives a clearer picture than a movie, the ruined castles give more opportunity to use your imagination than the reconstructed ones. With the information boards sitting beside the castles, you can really let your imagination run wild.
The famous Inverness castle sits high above the city, overlooking River Ness. Although the original site dates back to the 11th-century, the structure visible today was built in 1836. This castle isn’t open to the public at the moment unfortunately, as it houses the Sherriff Court. However, with increasing public pressure, there is a chance it may open in the near future. In April 2017, the northern tower was opened as a view point to the public and provides an incredible view over the beautiful city. We stood by River Ness and admired the stunning red sandstone architecture as we enjoyed a picnic.
A perfect start the the road trip of a lifetime.
Home to Clan Dunrobin, Dunrobin Castle dates back to the Middle Ages. The majority of the current structure has sat here since built between 1835 and 1850. This castle lies north of Dornoch, on the east coast and is one of the largest castles in the northern highlands.
It is £11.50 entry, which we decided not to pay, instead enjoying the castle from the exterior. Go for a walk around the grounds and admire the outside of the building instead, as well as the quiet beach at the bottom of the hill.
Surrounded by the still waters of Loch Assynt, the ancient ruins of Castle Ardvreck are a sure sight to behold. Thought to date back to 1590, this castle was constructed by the Clan Macleaod. This was then the stronghold for Clan Macleod until 1672, when it was captured by Clan Mackenzie. It was then inhabited until 1737, when a mysterious fire destroyed it beyond repair.
As you drive along the winding A837, you will see these ruins sitting proud above the glistening waters.
Castle of Old Wick (ruin)
This was one of our favourite castle stops, believed to have been built in the 1100’s. This castle dates back to the days when the Norwegian Earldom of Orkney included Caithness. There is even evidence of occupation of this land dating back before the structure you see today was built.
Sitting on a thin stretch of land jutting out to sea, with cliff drops on either side, this castle is one of the more dramatic ones you will find on the route. The structure you find here once stood 4 stories tall, along with additional buildings housing workshops and other quarters.
Drive along a bumpy road before you reach Wick and you will find the ruins of Old Wick Castle. Despite the castle part of the castle collapsing, it remains an impressive sight against the skyline. There are information signs on the walk up to the castle which you can only imagine how they lived all those years ago.
Castle Sinclair and Castle Girnigoe (ruin)
The largest castle ruins on the Nc500 are the cliffside wonders of Castle Sinclair and Castle Girnigoe. The 15th century Castle Girnigoe and 17th century Castle Sinclair are believed to be one of the earliest seats of Clan Sinclair. Located around 3 miles north of Wick, these ruins are the most spectacular ruins you will find on the road trip.
Perched on the side of the cliff, these castles hold a fascinating historical tale. The structure was constructed between 1476 and 1606, with adaptions made to them spanning some 100 years. Throughout this time, these castles remained occupied by either Sinclair or Campbell, with ownership passing between the two. Occupation of this castle came to an end in 1680, when a siege to Castle Sinclair and Girnigoe saw it damaged so badly, it was never inhabited again.
This castle site is free entry, although there is a donation box on the gate. Reconstruction of the ruins aims to make Castle Sinclair the first castle on the North Coast 500 to be wheelchair accessible.
The fully restored Castle Leod has a fascinating story of how it came to be. The earliest structures on this site are believed to date back to the 12th century, with additions being made to it constantly between then and the structure you see today. This ancient structure has been home to both Clan Macleod and Clan Mackenzie over the last 500 years.
This castle has remained inhabited throughout the vast majority of its life, apart from a short period of time at the end of the 18th century when it fell into disrepair. The castle was repaired during the 19th century and has been improved since then to the structure you see today. It remains home to the Earl of Cromotrie and is open to the public on a certain number of days.
This castle will be a familiar sight to all of the Outlander fans out there, being widely thought of as the main inspiration for Castle Leoch. However, during filming location consideration, it was instead decided to use Doune Castle for the home of Clan Mackenzie.
Castle of Mey
The reconstructed structure of the Castle of Mey sits just west of John O’Groats. The structure you see today was built between 1566 and 1572, with additional structures being added later in the 17th and 18th centuries. The name of the castle was also changed during this time to Barrogill Castle.
This castle is particularly fascinating as it has remained inhabited since its construction 450 years ago. It is now used as a visitors centre, with visitors topping 27,000 in its first year of opening in 2007. It is open between the 1st May and 30th September 7 days a week, apart from 10 days in July/August time when it is used as accommodation.
This castle has also been featured in of works of fiction, such as the novel “Spy Castle” and the Netflix show “The Crown”.
One of the oldest castles on the NC500, Castle Varrich sits high above the local village of Tongue. This ancient castle is shrowded by mystery, with the exact dates of origin and construction mostly unknown. It is thought to have been the ancient seat of the chief of Clan Mackay, over one thousand years old.
Consisting of two floors plus an attic, it is far from the largest castle on the North Coast 500. However the condition of the remains are quite astounding given the 1000 years of aging. You can reach the ruins of Castle Varrich by a relatively easy, one hour walk from the town of Tongue. Follow the signposts and you can’t miss it. As you enter Tongue, you will be able to see the ancient ruins sitting above the Kyle of Tongue. In 2017, a spiral staircase and viewing platform were installed to give visitors access to the stunning views over the Kyle of Tongue and surrounding mountains.
The incredible castles of the North Coast 500 tell a beautiful tale of this countries fascinating history. During your trip to Scotland’s most remote lands, you will fall in love with the incredible culture and landscapes just waiting to be discovered. Don’t waste another second and get booking your next visit to the ultimate road trip, the NC500.
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