Northern Scotland: Caithness and the Orkney Islands

If you’re looking for a remote, wild and natural country nearly devoid of any kind of city life, the northern territories of the Scottish Highlands may be just what you seek. We spent six awe-inspiring days in Wick and the Orkney Islands, and both destinations will satisfy your cravings to get away from it all and escape to simplicity.

There are a few options to get to Wick; in addition to a train station, they also have a small airport that services Wick, John o’ Groats and Thurso, and of course, you can drive. We opted for a short flight from Edinburgh on Logan Air and upon arrival, took a five minute taxi to Mackay’s Hotel. If you are traveling to Wick/Thurso/John o’ Groats, you should definitely plan to rent a car. Don’t bother with the online car rental sites – search for a local dealer and call them directly. We were able to rent a car in Thurso which is a  30-minute train from Wick, and a cute little town to boot.

Wick is small but there are a few attractions to see in town, and it makes an excellent base to explore the coast. In Wick, I suggest making the Heritage Museum your first stop to learn about the area and its history. There’s a small fee to enter, but you will be treated to 25 rooms of photos, artifacts and memorabilia, spanning the history of Wick. The photographic display is fantastic and I was wishing it took up more space in the museum. There are also rooms replicating some of the local residences during Wick’s heyday as a herring fishing mecca, as well as fishing boats, the inner workings of an old  lighthouse, military uniforms, pottery and glass, printing presses and even the crown and robes of the former Herring Queen (now called the Wick Gala Queen).

Down the street, the Pulteney Distillery offers tours and whisky tastings, and there are hiking trails along the coast. When you’re ready to eat, I recommend No. 1 (Mackay’s restaurant, which is top notch), Bord de l’eau, and for decent pizza and meatballs, Devitas. We happened to be in Wick during Gala week and got to watch a great small town parade complete with floats, a queen (formerly the Herring Queen) and a piper band. We had a great time and the locals in Wick were some of the friendliest we’ve ever met.

From Wick you can easily explore Thurso, John o’ Groats and the coast by car. We stopped at Dunnett Head, the most northern point in mainland Britain, the Duncansby Head lighthouse, and the Duncansby Head stacks. To reach the stacks, park at the lighthouse and walk across the field to the edge. Be on the lookout for puffins perched on the cliff edge. In John o’ Groats, there’s a small visitor area with a café that sells sweets and drinks and a few ice cream shops. This area is fairly remote so don’t expect a lot of villages for food or gas. Your best option for both is in Thurso or Wick. We ate a nice lunch at YNot in Thurso.

After three nights we made our way to Scrabster to catch the Northlink Ferry to Stromness in the Orkney Islands. We were not bringing a car on the ferry and did not need to arrive 90-minutes early, contrary to the instructions for check-in. We booked our tickets online but you can also purchase tickets about 45 minutes before the ferry departs. Boarding begins about 20 minutes prior to departure. The ferry was very comfortable with lots of seating, a full restaurant and two bars. We arrived in Stromness 90-mintues later and took a taxi to Kirkwall where we would be staying for three nights (we stayed at the West End hotel which I do NOT recommend despite its high Trip Advisor rating).

As with Wick, it is imperative to rent a car to get around the Orkneys unless you plan to be with a guided tour group. Again, do not rely on Expedia or other online brokers to locate a rental car. Search online for local dealers in Stromness or Kirkwall and call them to book well in advance of your arrival. We erroneously thought we could get around the island by bus but realized quickly that would not be a viable option (bus service is available but it is limited). After calling four rental agencies I was finally able to reserve a cargo van for two days. It wasn’t a glamourous vehicle but it definitely got us around!

During our short visit on the Mainland, we walked around the charming seaside village of Kirkwall that is home to St. Magnus, a massive 1,000 year old cathedral and palace ruins, toured Skara Brae, a fascinating Neolithic village that is believed to be at least 5,000 years old, and visited Skaill Home Farm mansion, the home of the man who discovered Skara Brae. We drove across the Churchill Barriers to see an Italian Chapel built by Italian POWs during WW2, and took a walk through a ruined renaissance palace in Birsay. We saw the famous Highland cattle and watched a lawn bowling tournament after dinner one night.

Six days was the perfect amount of time to explore these two scenic areas in the far north of Scotland. At the end of your stay you will be relaxed, restored and inspired by the history and wild, natural beauty of the Scottish Highlands.

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One comment

  1. We fell in love with Scotland in 2017, and are still considering relocating to the Isle of Mull or the Highlands. Planning an extended stay maybe 2020. The Orkneys were fascinating, especially Scara Brae and Skaill House. The Orkneys are rated the #1 tourist destination in the UK and Western Europe (T&L). Glad you had a good time.

    Liked by 1 person

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