Stretched along 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.
One of the many highlights of the NC500 is the history available at every twist and turn. Explore this incredible history with this guide to the main North Coast 500 castles.
In this guide, we will discuss all of Scotland’s most magical castles, including where they are and what their history is. Below is a list of all of the NC500 castles that will be discussed in greater detail later in the article.
- Inverness Castle
- Dunrobin Castle
- Ardvreck Castle
- Castle of Old Wick
- Castle Sinclair
- Castle Girnigoe
- Castle Leod
- Castle of Mey
- Castle Varrich
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 into 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 on NC500 are entirely free to visit and explore, meanwhile, the reconstructed castles charge a hefty entry fee. Being budget backpackers, we mostly preferred 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.
North Coast 500 Castles – The Ultimate Guide to Scotland’s Historical Sights
North Coast 500 Castles
Entrance Fee – £5 Adult / £3 Child
The first of the North Coast 500 castles is the famous Inverness castle, which 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 Inverness Justice Centre.
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 viewpoint 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.
Also Read – Best Sights on the North Coast 500
Entrance Fee – £12 / £7.50
Home to Clan Dunrobin, the Dunrobin Castle on the NC500 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 £12 entry, which we decided not to pay. Instead, we emjoyed 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.
Castle Ardvreck (ruin)
Entrance Fee – FREE
One NC500 must see sight is the ancient Castle Ardvreck. 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 Macleod. 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 proudly above the glistening waters.
Castle of Old Wick (ruin)
Entrance Fee – FREE
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 Girnigoe (ruin)
Entrance Fee – DONATION
The largest castle ruins on the Nc500 are the cliffside wonders of Castle Sinclair 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. By donating whatever you can to this cause, we can ensure everyone will have the opportunity to enjoy the beauty of Scotland.
Entrance Fee – £10 Adult/ £5 Child
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. You can browse these days and the cost of a trip here.
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
Entrance Fee (Castle, Garden and Grounds) – £12 Adults/ £6.50 Child
Entrance Fee – (Garden and Grounds) – £6.50 Adult / £3 Child
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”.
Castle Varrich (ruin)
Entrance Fee – FREE
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.
Where to Stay on the North Coast 500
All throughout the incredible drive that is the NC500, you will find unique, cosy and some down-right bizarre accommodations to choose from. The North Coast 500 route is forever growing in popularity, with huge peaks in interest during school holidays. Make sure you book your accommodation well in advance to ensure you are not disappointed!
You can browse all of the available hotels on this route over here, and get booked up before they book out.
If camping is more what you are interested in, you have the fantastic choice of wild camping or campsites. You can even choose to alternate between the two, saving money and experience the beauty of Scotland’s nature.
Or if you prefer a more comfortable stay on your NC500 road trip, read our complete guide to the best campsites on the NC500.
What to Pack for the North Coast 500
When it comes to packing for Scotland, you are going to need to pack pretty much everything you own. The weather in Scotland is very unpredictable, with 4 seasons frequently being seen in one day. There are a few items that we highly recommend you pack before heading to the north coast of Scotland.
Given the beautiful sights and scenery that you are no doubt going to see around Scotland, we highly recommend packing a good camera for your trip. If you want to read more about the cameras we use and why we love them, check out the link below.
This one is a given. If you are in Scotland, chances are you are going to get rained on. Pack a good, waterproof jacket to ensure your trip is not ruined by a sudden change in weather.
All along the route of the North Coast 500, there are loads of really beautiful walks and trails leading to sights. It is therefore important to pack shoes that will be suitable for walking through mud and up hills.
A Good Camera
Of course, possibly the most important item you can pack is a good camera for all the icnredible North Coast 500 photos you are going to get . You are going to want to capture the beauty of the North Coast 500 for memories and to show off the spectacle of Scotland to your friends and family.
There is going to be a lot of driving during your road trip around the best of Scotland’s north coast 500 highlights, so in car entertainment is a must.
Stopping points around the NC500 itinerary are few and far between, so you will need to stock up on snacks before you leave. Stop off at one of the larger supermarkets in this NC500 guide and get your roadtrip snacks before you set off.
FAQs About the NC500
What is the best way to get around the NC500?
Due to the remote location of the NC500, the only way to get around is to drive. Renting a vehicle is, therefore, the most popular way of touring this epic road trip for overseas visitors. It is up to you whether you wish to rent a car and pack a tent for this trip to the highlands, or whether you wish to rent a campervan for a more comfortable trip.
Where does the North Coast 500 start and finish?
The official starting point (and ending point) of the North Coast 500 Circuit is at the beautiful city of Inverness. It is, of course, is entirely up to yourself where you wish to join the circle, so long as you make sure you see as much of it as possible. We recommend starting on the East coast and saving the incredible West coast for last.
How long does it take to drive the NC500?
A very popular and important question when it comes to the Nc500 driving experience. The answer to this is a simple one; it can take however long you want it to. Some people race around it in one day, and some people slow travel it for over a month.
For us, 8 days was the answer, with no two nights spent in the same place, although plenty of time to see lots of sights. You can pitch up in a spot here and explore the surroundings for two of three days before moving on, or you can make some quick pit stops at each one and get going.
So there you have it, your ultimate guide to the castles of the North Coast 500. If you have been to Scotland recently, let us know how you found it in the comments below. What were your favourite sights? What did you think of the castles? Where was your favourite stop? Let us know in the comments below.
If you are planning a full trip to Scotland, make sure you check out the rest of our guides and Scotland content to ensure a stress-free adventure. We will gladly answer any questions you have with regards to your trip, so either DM us or send us an email.
Don’t forget that sharing is caring! Be sure to share this article with your family and friends to let them know all about your big plans. Maybe even inspire them to visit the NC500 castles themselves! Catch up with us on social media and see what we are currently up to. Tag us in your photos from your North Coast 500 adventure on Instagram so that we can share them with the rest of our community.
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