The far north eastern tip of Scotland hides many gems particularly the astounding wildlife and its millennia of history.

Distance from Mey House: 0 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/9svEd

Unlike its Orcadian neighbours, the north Highlands does not do a good job of promoting its own rich diversity of sites. There is a frustrating lack of road signs indicating the presence of points of interest and when you do discover a site there is often a distinct lack of visitor information to explain what lies before you. It is for this reason that we created the EXPLORE section on the Mey House website as a way of helping visitors to the area identify places to go and sights to see.

After years of investigation, we think we have done a reasonable job though we recognise that there is no substitute for local knowledge which is why we are delighted that a bespoke tour company, Caithness Wildlife Tours, has stepped into the void left by the tourist authorities. To put them and their knowledge to the test we embarked upon their generalist ‘Discover Caithness’ tour of wildlife and historic sights one beautiful spring day.

We were collected from Mey House by the owner and sole tour guide, Kate Willis, in her immaculately presented and comfortable limo-bus and almost immediately we stepped aboard, our tour began. It was going to be a tough call for Kate to make an area so familiar to us interesting and captivating; or so we thought! We were taken first to Dunnet Head (the most northerly tip of mainland Britain) to see the birdlife that make the towering cliffs their home and no sooner had we arrived, we were taken down a path that I had never seen before which led onto a natural viewing platform that gave a commanding view of the cliffs below us. Not only were we provided with our own personal set of binoculars but Kate also had a powerful spotting scope that allowed us to get intimate with the comings and goings of the Puffins, Kittiwakes, Fulmars and Guillemots that soared on the updraft.

From Dunnet we headed to Harrow Harbour to view the seals but on the way we stopped at a field that I drive past almost every day. This field never gets a second glance from me but under Kate’s guidance we spotted several pairs of Lapwings engaged in an aerial display of courtship that was fascinating to watch and from overhead we were serenaded by Skylarks and Curlews.

Duncansby Head and its monumental Stacks came next and once again the knowledge of our guide made a familiar place fascinating all over again. We learned about the geology of the area and how it shapes today’s landscape, in particular how migrating marine and birdlife takes advantage of its unique structure and location including the enigmatic Puffins which colonise here within easy viewing – a must see!

The tour heads southwards from Duncansby and you can select any number of the dozen or so sites to visit including the ruins of the fascinating Sinclair Girnigoe Castle, the Bronze Age Cairns at Camster and the mysterious standing stones at Achavanich – time is your only restriction.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: There are three specially commissioned day tours for guests of Mey House and all are customisable to your own preferences; heritage, wildlife or the generalist ‘Discover Caithness’ tour.

GREAT FOR: An uncompromised tour tailored to you.

RECOMMENDATION: Choose one of our commissioned day tours as part of a multi night stay at Mey House and you will be collected from, and returned to Mey House. See our ‘OFFERS’ page for more details.

Summer home to Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, today it stands in testimony to her love of Caithness.

Distance from Mey House: 1 Mile
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/JD1XE

We first visited the Castle and its walled garden in 2006 when, on a day trip from Durness to John O’Groats with our respective ‘olds’, we stopped at the Castle on an unplanned visit. Both of our Mothers were obsessed with beautiful gardens and my Mum was a lover of all things ‘Royal’ so it was a no brainer for us to call in.

The castle was built in the 16th century by the 4th Earl of Caithness and it remained the property of the Clan for 300 years during which time it underwent extensive remodelling.

By the time Elizabeth bought it in 1952, the castle and its grounds were in a poor state. Once renovated, Her Majesty would visit every summer for several weeks to get away from the hubbub of Royal life and to entertain friends and family (the Queen, Prince Philip and all of her grandchildren have all visited). When in residence, she lived quite plainly with minimal fuss which is probably why, of all of the royal residences, Mey was her favourite.

We bought tickets for a guided tour of the castle and whilst we waited for our allotted time, we headed for the walled gardens. Passing through the heavy wooden door was truly like entering ‘The Secret Garden’, transitioning from the rural landscape of Mey into a horticultural wonderland. The Mums were in rapture, oohing and ahhing every few metres (I did get them to sit still for a few moments on The Queen Mum’s favourite bench so that I could capture a photo, it’s one of my treasured memories). When it was time, we wrestled the ladies from the grasp of the gardens and headed for the Castle’s front door where we met our guide.

The inside of the castle is in a time warp and just as it was when the Queen Mother was last there. We were surprised to find the castle so simply furnished; no ornate furniture, no grand dining room, threadbare carpets and a TV which was considered old fashioned even when Elizabeth was using it. It’s no wonder Princess Margaret never stayed at the castle, I should think it was far too plain for her taste!

The tour took about 40 minutes to complete and it was a fascinating insight into the private life of a Monarch. When I asked my Mum what she thought of her impromptu visit to a Royal home she said, “The Castle was as uncomplicated as the Queen Mother herself” and I think that says it all.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: The castle is generally open May to September but check their website to confirm as the castle is shut during Prince Charles’ annual visit.

GREAT FOR: Heritage, history and a beautiful garden.

RECOMMENDATION: The castle has an excellent gift shop and café (the cake is fabulous).

The Orcadian archipelago has a natural and human history that is so rich that anything other than a personal guided tour will be a mere skim across its surface.

Distance from Mey House: 2 Miles

Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/WQ9w9

Sally-Ann had visited Orkney before via the John O’Groats MAXI day excursion and I had been on a self-guided tour and whilst both had their merits, each left too much of the culture and heritage of the islands undiscovered. So, in the depths of winter 2015 we ventured across the Pentland Firth on the Gills Bay ferry and spoiled ourselves with a private guided tour with ‘Orkney Uncovered’.

We were met off the Pentalina ferry at St. Margaret’s Hope by Kinlay Francis, joint proprietor of Orkney Uncovered and our guide for the day. We were warmly welcomed and ushered aboard an immaculately presented and comfortable limo-bus and within minutes of stepping ashore, our tour commenced.

We had chosen the ‘Orkney Explorer’ tour as we wanted to get as full an overview of the islands as possible, and as soon as we left the port Kinlay began his insightful commentary. Not only did he point out features in the environment that would have been invisible to the casual observer but he also added vibrancy and colour to the landscape by sharing facts, myths and legends of the people and places associated with our immediate vicinity. He then skilfully intertwined the local story with the wider development and diversification of the Orcadian culture.

So, what differentiates a private tour from the other generic tours that are available? Well, take our journey over the Churchill Barriers for example; Kinlay shared the same facts and figures about their construction as the guide on the MAXI tour but here the similarity ended. Rather than travelling straight over them to reach the next destination, Kinlay stopped and told the background story to the events that led up to their construction. He told of the German reconnaissance missions that identified gaps in the maritime defences, how U47 exploited these gaps and slipped silently into Scapa Flow, he described how it sighted, targeted and sunk HMS Royal Oak and then Kinlay concluded the story by describing the aftermath of the tragedy including the rise to fame and fall from grace of the commander of U47. Throughout, Kinlay referred to maps, pointed at associated environmental features and showed period photographs whilst he also encouraged us to interject and ask questions to aid our understanding.

The differences continued. After a delicious lunch at the Standing Stones Hotel, we decided that instead of going to Skara Brae we would, at Kinlay’s recommendation, take a detour to the wonderful cliffs of Yesnaby. The sight of the crashing waves, at least 30 feet high, smashing relentlessly against the mighty cliffs was awesome; the sea spray circled skyward and the bright January sun pierced the mist creating numerous mini rainbows. It was magical and was the highlight of our day.

Our private tour with Orkney Uncovered was fantastic. Having a professional guide at our sole disposal, comfortable transportation to relax in and the flexibility to stop and go when we wanted made it ‘our’ day and,therefore, well worth the money.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: There are four individual day tours to choose from and all are customisable to your own preferences; ancient, wartime, walks and wildlife or the generalist ‘Orkney Explorer’.

GREAT FOR: An uncompromised tour tailored to you.

RECOMMENDATION: Choose an ‘Orkney Uncovered’ tour as part of a multi night stay at Mey House and all transfers, ferry crossings and refreshments (including lunch) are included as part of the package. See our ‘OFFERS’ page for more details.

Hidden away on the back streets of Wick is the home of one of the best Scottish single malts.

Distance from Mey House: 21 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/hVUzX

I love whisky so long as it’s not too peaty and over the years I have settled on a couple of favourites but it was on one particularly vibrant Hogmanay at the Castle Arms that I was introduced to Old Pulteney by a couple of fishermen from Orkney. They insisted we drank the top shelf and the 12 year old local Highland single malt is where we started and very nice it was too! So, as a sacrifice for our guests and purely for the purposes of market research, Sally-Ann and I headed off to the distillery to participate in one of their tours around the factory.

The Old Pulteney distillery was founded in 1826 in the heart of a suburb of Wick which gave the whisky its name, Pulteneytown. The township was constructed specifically to house the community of fishermen and their families that flocked to the area to exploit the boom in herring fishing; its fortunes waxed and waned in unison with the fishing industry, being bought and sold numerous times and closing completely during the period of prohibition in these parts (1930 to 1947). Today, it still stands on its original foundations and with a similar footprint despite the passing of almost 200 years.

I had been to one other distillery before (Glenmorangie) and whilst fascinating, I did find it quite industrial and a little too corporate for my liking so I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Old Pulteney really is what is says on the bottle; old!

Original stone buildings house a fascinating mixture of original machines and modern equipment creating a sense of authenticity that I found lacking at Glenmorangie. One particular fact that reinforces the continuity in heritage is that the water for the whisky is derived from the same original source (Loch Hempriggs) which flows along the original waterway built by Thomas Telford in 1807!

The tour was fascinating, taking you right through the distilling process starting with the barley and ending in a storeroom that housed hundreds of barrels filled with golden liquid of various ages. Our tour lasted for about 45 minutes and culminated in a round table tasting session where strangers became acquaintances as we partook in a dram (or three) of the glorious Old Pulteney single malt whisky.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:Tours operate weekdays throughout the year but only at weekends between May and September (expect disruption during the annual maintenance shutdown in July/ August). Tours run at 11am and 2pm.

GREAT FOR: The personal anecdotes given by the tour guide.

RECOMMENDATION: The £6 tour offers great value for money and include one shot of 12 year old malt at the end of the tour. Safer for driving!

Rescued from dereliction, this Caithness long house was home to the same family for over 150 years.

Distance from Mey House: 41 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/MRFxN

Just like many tourists, we would often pass the museum on our way to somewhere else and comment ‘we must stop in there’ and then keep on driving. One Sunday afternoon however, we had the opportunity to head out for a few hours and so it was that we found ourselves heading to Latheronwheel harbour via the Laidhay Croft Museum.

We parked in the little car park and wandered to the entrance where we were met by an enthusiastic volunteer who cheerily took our entrance fee and invited us to look around. The croft is a traditionally built long house which has the living quarters sandwiched between the livestock sheds – an intentional design that utilised the warmth generated by the animals as an additional heat source for the residents in the depths of winter. The roof is covered in rush thatch insulation just as it would have been during its’ 150 year tenure but the white washed walls are a new addition.

We stepped over the threshold and found ourselves in a narrow series of dimly lit rooms, the first being the combined living room and bedroom which consisted of a small hearth and two box beds. Next door is a rudimentary kitchen area and next to that a small scullery.

Underneath all the clutter it is as you might expect; sparse. I say ‘underneath the clutter’ as the museum has attracted many bequests over the years from other crofts that were being cleared and perhaps out of a sense of obligation, many of these donated artefacts have been placed on display around the house. However, a lack of curation has created a confusing and cluttered exhibition which is a real shame.

Perhaps the error is on my part? I was expecting to see how an original crofter’s home would have looked in a frozen moment of antiquity and not a display of artefacts from across the era. I understand that the curators are probably trying to add extra value to the visitor experience by showing them lots of ‘stuff’ but, in my case, I would have been far happier with seeing a lot less. Perhaps to encourage return visits, the curators could change the interior every year to showcase how it might have looked during different eras? That way, all of the donated artefacts would be seen in context and the museum would have a reason to attract repeat customers.

Is it worth going to? Yes it is but there is (currently) little reason to return a second time.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Located on the A9 south of Latheronwheel, it is open Monday to Saturday from June to September between 10am and 5pm. Cost is £2.50 for adults and 50p for children.

GREAT FOR: An insight into how a single family lived and worked the same croft for over 150 years.

RECOMMENDATION: Use the museum as a break in your journey – it won’t take you long to tour and it’s worth the meagre entrance fee.

We knew little about Wick when we moved to Caithness but one hour spent at its Heritage Centre changed all that!

Distance from Mey House: 21 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/M84lu

Throughout the 19th century, Wick grew at an explosive pace. The promise of fortunes to be made from the burgeoning herring business attracted entrepreneurs and industrialists alike, whose talents and investment turned the town from a small antiquarian village formed by the Vikings into the largest fishing port in Europe.

The harbour and shorefront grew over the century until at its peak, 1100 boats operated from its harbour, catching 250,000 tons of fish each year which all had to be gutted and salted by an army of ‘fisher girls’. Wick expanded to accommodate them all but instead of sprawling like a typical industrialised town of the period, the ‘Great and the Good’ built a town with grand bridges, chapels, churches and a hospital all connected via broad streets lined with attractive granite faced houses. They even hewed an outdoor swimming pool out of the rocky shoreline which is still used every summer even to this day!

However, the good times didn’t last. The steady industrialisation of the fishing business took its toll on the herring stocks which gradually depleted, until by the mid 1930’s the fish stocks collapsed, taking with them the very fortunes of the men who plundered them.

Wick never recovered its former grandeur and today, the town looks down at heel but if you take the time to visit the Wick Heritage Centre you will rediscover the fortunes of ‘old Wick’ through the original articles, artefacts and photographs of the day.

The centre sprawls across several former terraced houses and is divided into sections, each dedicated to specific elements of Wick heritage all of which are brought to life through the displays of objects both large and small. We were surprised to discover original fishing boats suspended from ceilings, original Victorian deep sea diving equipment accompanied by photos of the men who wore it and an old colour film showing the women gutting the herring. But it’s not all about the sea; there are recreations of the interiors of typical homes of the period, authentic clothing modelled by unconvincing mannequins, machine tools in a workshop, original artworks, a recreation of a Victorian photographic studio and my favourite, the amazing collection of photographs depicting the real people and real places of Wick taken by three generations of the Johnston family between the middle of the 19th century and the 1960’s.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Located at Bank Row, Wick KW1 5EY where there is limited on street parking. The centre is spread across two floors with the upper ones accessible by chair lift for those with restricted mobility.

GREAT FOR: Run by volunteers and full of bequeathed items it is as authentic as you are ever going to get so well worth the meagre £4 entrance fee.

RECOMMENDATION: If the weather permits, walk up through the terraced gardens at the rear of the centre to see the view from its top tier.

A large ruinous building on the outskirts of Castletown hints at the area’s industrial past.

Distance from Mey House: 9 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/xrI3q

The first time we traversed the northern coastline of Scotland, we were surprised to see a large grey dilapidated stone building at the western end of the glorious Dunnet Bay. The kids were desperate to go exploring but its poor condition concerned me and so we drove by without stopping.

We must have passed again a dozen times over the intervening years, always wondering what on earth it could have been and just why was it either not being demolished, reconstructed or at the very least, promoted! I eventually discovered what it was after I took the turning opposite the building which led me passed a large dry stone wall, a small harbour and yet more derelict buildings until finally, huddled in a corner we found the Castlehill Heritage Centre.

The nearby village of Castletown was a purpose built village constructed in the early 1800s by the entrepreneur James Traill to house the workers he employed to take advantage of the burgeoning demand for paving stones from across the British Empire. Mr Traill recognised that not only was the area between Thurso and John O’Groats situated above a huge deposit of high quality flagstone which was located very close to the surface but that its proximity to the coast would provide easy transportation of the quarried stone to the rest of the world and so he embarked upon a programme to exploit it.

The area boomed for decades until the creation of concrete paving stones killed off demand and the industry collapsed. Castletown village struggled on whilst its industrial heritage crumbled and only now is it slowly being protected from total destruction by a small band of volunteers who have founded the Castlehill Heritage Centre.

The centre is housed in one of the old industrial buildings and rudimentary would be a good word to describe it! The centre lacks glitz and glamour and it reminds me of a museum I once visited in the 1970s but don’t let its lack of facilities put you off as the volunteers have done a great job of creating a trail around the old industrial buildings to highlight their functions in times past and with the back drop of the glorious Dunnet Bay, it is well worth stopping to take a look. Inside the centre itself you will find artefacts and photos charting the rise and fall of the flagstone industry as well as other exhibits that shine a light on the area’s history (including a Merlin engine from a World War 2 Hurricane that crashed in the area in the 1940s). There is generally an exhibition running highlighting a specific part of local history but please set your expectations closer to that of a school project display rather than that put on by a museum!

Oh, in case you’re interested, the ruined building at the western end of Dunnet Bay is all that remains of the mill that was built in 1818.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: The centre is open all year though only on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons. The centre is well signed from both directions, look for the brown tourist signs.

GREAT FOR: Lifting the veil on the industrial past.

RECOMMENDATION: The signed trail around the old buildings should be walked irrespective of whether you enter the heritage centre; the information boards are excellent.

Billed as the North Highlands’ premier sporting event, the Halkirk Games has been held almost every year since 1886 (the World Wars did intervene).

Distance from Mey House: 21 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/4zxLd

I am no expert on Highland sporting events but even I knew of the Halkirk Games so it was with some enthusiasm that we headed off to the games park on the last Saturday of July. The sun shone, the wind was low and there was a respectable queue to pay the entry fee which boded well for the organisers. We grabbed some lunch from one of the vendors (burger and chips), took a seat on one of the many benches that lined the sports field and ensured we were in full view of the ‘Heavies’. Let the entertainment begin!

Unlike our own Mey Games, this is serious stuff with competitors for ‘The Heavies’ from the USA, Poland and Australia competing side by side with our own home grown talent and my goodness, some of these lads are enormous! They threw, hurled and tossed all manner of heavy weights as if they were made of paper but the event that caught my eye on the programme was ‘The Farmers Walk’. Not having a clue what this was I joked with Sally-Ann that I could enter that one and be in with a good chance of winning it. The event was announced and two gentlemen wheeled in on a special dolly a HUGE stone – so big indeed that the two men had noticeable difficulty in manoeuvring the massive stone into its position before they then disappeared returning with an equally massive stone, heaving and hauling that one too, (I found out subsequently that each stone weighs about 150 pounds or 70 kilos). Up stepped a mountain of a man who proceeded to grasp the handled chains that were affixed to the stones, grimaced and then lifted them both off the ground and proceeded to walk along a predefined course before dropping the stones after 5 metres or so to rapturous applause from the crowd.  I quickly withdrew my application…

It’s not all ‘strongmen’ as there are also the wonderful Highland dancers, cycling races, bagpiping competitions and all manner of track events (for the serious athlete as well as enthusiastic kids). Combine the events going on within the arena with a good selection of traders’ stalls, a beer tent and a fun fair and you can be pretty sure that you will find something that makes you smile. The Halkirk Games are well worth the entrance fee and we heartily recommend it to you (keep your eye on the weather forecast though as one year it rained so hard that only 40 spectators turned up)!

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Held in the games park at Halkirk on the last Saturday in July – tickets are purchased at the gate.

GREAT FOR: Authentic Highland spirit!

RECOMMENDATION: Get there early and stay for the day.

Little changed in two centuries, the picturesque village and harbour are well worth a visit.

Distance from Mey House: 34 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/OiDK5

I was not surprised to learn on my first trip to Lybster that most visitors don’t even know about the harbour nestled less than a mile from the broad streets of the village as the main thoroughfare is quite captivating but in antiquity, one could never have existed without the other and you should make a point of seeing both.

The harbour came first; a rudimentary pier was built in the 1790s after Thomas Telford identified it as a strong candidate for development ahead of the boom in herring fishing. Its developer was the local landowner General Patrick Sinclair who also designed and built the village from scratch in the early 1800s and what is most striking about the village when you first turn off the A99 is the width of the main thoroughfare which is very Georgian in appearance and quite unusual this far north. I have seen photographs taken of the village over the past 150 years and it has changed very little indeed so it is well worth parking the car, buying an ice cream and just ambling up and down the street to enjoy it.

Travel three quarters of the way down the main street, take the right hand turn (Harbour Road) and follow it for little less than a mile to discover the sole reason for the existence of the village; Lybster Harbour. In the heyday of herring fishing, this little harbour was the third busiest fishing port in Scotland with more than 350 boats and 1500 fishermen operating from this safe haven which today, still plays host to a modest fleet of local boats. However, it is about to benefit from the next bonanza from the sea as Lybster is set to become a maintenance hub for the new Beatrice offshore wind farm that is to be the third largest in the world with over 350 giant turbines each standing 200 metres tall and located only 10 miles offshore. Whilst I am sure that the local community will benefit economically from the new development I can’t help but feel a little saddened that the glorious view from the harbour that I enjoyed on a beautiful May morning will disappear, obscured by hundreds of gracefully rotating turbines rising above the sea.

Right down at the shore front you will find ‘Waterlines’, a converted smokehouse that today serves as a museum describing the life and times of the people of Lybster since the 1800’s and as it is free to enter, it is well worth a nose around although I would suggest that it more suited to young enquiring minds rather than hard-core heritage hunters. The café located on the ground floor of the museum is bright, airy and well worth your patronage.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Lybster is off the A99, 13 miles south of Wick and has good visitor amenities.

GREAT FOR: The view of the harbour, the wide main street and the lemon cake served in the Waterlines café!

RECOMMENDATION: The road to the harbour is narrow and steep and with little parking at the Harbour front I should imagine that it can get quite chaotic in the summer. I would suggest that if you are able, walk to the harbour from the main street, there are plenty of benches to sit on to catch your breath and to soak up the fabulous views.

The stately home of the Dukes of Sutherland and Britain’s most northerly great house.

Distance from Mey House: 71 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/oJsLP

Turn down the driveway to the castle and you find yourself in a tree lined avenue leading you not to an austere Scottish castle but what appears to be a French Chateau – but looks can be deceiving! What you see today is the result of 600 years of development of what began life as a fortified square Keep that had walls six feet thick, (the remnants of which still remain buried deep within the building). As the castle evolved from a place of refuge to a house of grandeur, the building was modified, added to and in 1845 completely remodelled to what you see today.

On our first visit, we headed straight for the beautiful formal gardens which we wandered for an hour, bathed in warm summer sunshine. It’s surprising just what grows here considering how far north it is; the sheltered location and proximity to the sea keep the worst of the winds and frosts away. We are not ‘garden’ people but even so, we were quite impressed!

We watched the falconry display (fascinating) and then ambled along to the museum. What a bizarre place the latter is; you walk in and are immediately presented with the heads, skins and torsos of preserved animals that were hunted and shot by the Sutherlands over the years. I found this greeting a little disturbing and I can imagine that it might offend some peoples’ sensibilities, so be warned! Get past the animal mortuary and the historical and archaeological exhibits that are on show are interesting and well curated.

So, onto the Castle. Of the 189 rooms that the property has, you can access only 18 but oh my goodness, the wealth and influence of the Sutherlands is there for all to see. Ornate grandeur is everywhere – panelled rooms, sweeping staircases, polished silver, enormous paintings, tens of thousands of books, priceless antiques and photographs of visiting royals and politicians who were no doubt invited there to be impressed (Queen Victoria amongst them). You make your way along a prescribed route through the building and are met by a guide in each room who is there to bestow the history and anecdotes of what lays before you. Hats off to the guides as we never felt hurried nor made to feel a nuisance despite being there right at the end of a very busy August day.

I really enjoyed our visit and it was well worth the money but I left with very mixed emotions. Having read about the Highland Clearances and visited many sites that were violently cleared, I cannot help but reflect that much of what I had just seen was paid for by the misery and suffering of the poor souls who were evicted at the command of the Sutherlands. As is often the way, what you see before you is not always the full picture.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: We don’t normally feature attractions this far from Mey House but as it is such a convenient place for our guests to break their journey we have decided to include it. Located on the A9 at Golspie, it is open from 1st April to 15th October 2017; Adults are £11.00, OAPs £9.00 and children £6.50.

GREAT FOR: Seeing how the other half lived.

RECOMMENDATION: Use the castle as a break in your journey – the café serves good fare, if a little pricey!

If you are considering travelling to the Orkney Islands for anything other than an organised day trip, we recommend you travel on the Pentalina from Gills Bay.

Distance from Mey House: 2 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/WQ9w9

On our first ever sailing we were unsure of the protocols for boarding so we thought we had better give ourselves plenty of time to make the 2 mile journey from Mey House. We left 15 minutes before boarding closed! Boarding was quick and efficient and whilst Dad made his way to the lounge, I headed up on to the ‘sun deck’. We set sail bang on schedule and I sat, camera in hand, taking it all in.

Sailing passed several of the smaller islands I was surprised to see so many derelict properties along their coastlines. Now, regular visitors to the Highlands will not be unfamiliar with sight of the occasional abandoned property but this was ridiculous; the place was littered with them (I subsequently learned that almost 50% of the islands are uninhabited and that 9 were abandoned in the last 70 years).

The crossing was quick and smooth and made more enjoyable by a 20 minute chat with a complete stranger who turned out to be an enterprising Glaswegian who travels to Stromness twice a week to buy a tonne of fresh brown crabs that he then transports back to his factory in Glasgow where they get packed and flown (still alive) to China!

The Pentalina was launched in 2008 and it is the fastest car ferry crossing to The Orkney Islands by far (a return journey is an hour shorter than The Northlink ferry route that sails from Scrabster and it is cheaper too saving between 20% and 40% depending on your mode of travel).

Less than 75 minutes after leaving Mey House, we had landed at St. Margaret’s Hope on the island of South Ronaldsay. Marvellous!

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: There are generally three sailings per day in each direction with the first departing Gills Bay at 9.30 am and the last departing St Margaret’s Hope at 4.50pm. Despite the Pentalina carrying over 340 passengers it gets booked up quite quickly so be sure to make an early reservation (particularly if you plan on taking your car).

GREAT FOR: Swift and efficient transport all year round and convenient too (only 5 minutes from Mey House).

RECOMMENDATION: If you are travelling over for the day by car, you can quite easily make it as far as Skara Brae which is at the furthest point on the west of the island of ‘Mainland’ and take in a few other points of interest too. However, if you plan on spending time in Kirkwall or travelling further afield you should really consider staying for a few days. We would be delighted to help you plan your itinerary and recommend places to eat and sleep.

No more than a mile from the sandy beach at Dunnet Bay and a couple of miles from Dunnet Head is the time capsule home of Mary-Ann Calder; a crofter’s cottage preserved as a testament to how an ordinary family lived over the past 150 years.

Distance from Mey House: 6 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/zBhvR

The small cottage and its series of outbuildings have been occupied by Mary-Ann’s family since they built it in the 1850’s and though Mary-Ann added a few ‘mod cons’ during her 90 years of residence it has not really changed since the 1930’s.

The seasoned traveller to the Highlands will know that visitor attractions up here can often be quite unsophisticated compared to their counterparts ‘down south’ and Mary-Ann’s cottage is a perfect example of this. There is no fanfare on its approach, no flashing lights proclaiming its intent and no managed car park with visitor services but what you will find is an example of how we used to live displayed in all of its ordinariness.

We visited with my two teenage kids and it was a bit of a gamble on my part as I feared it would be too ‘analogue’ for their tastes, however I shouldn’t have worried. We were greeted by two very friendly local ladies who volunteer their time to act as guides and their enthusiasm for the place quickly grabbed all of our attentions. They took us on a leisurely ramble through the property and told us about the life and times of Mary-Ann and her forebears as they went. It felt a little bit voyeuristic at times as the cottage is just as Mary-Ann left it, (even with a peat fire still burning in the grate with a kettle boiling over it). You get to see where the family slept (squeezed into two small box beds), her clothes (bizarrely, including her underwear), how the outdoor lavatory arrangements worked (the women squatted in the horses stalls, the men in with the cattle) and probably most poignant of all, her chair by the fireside expectantly awaiting her return.

It’s well worth the meagre entrance fee even if heritage is not necessarily your thing; you will certainly leave with a sense of just how little one really needs to survive.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Turn off at the Northern Sands Hotel, Dunnet and take the first left as the road bends to the right. Follow the road till it bends right again and Mary-Ann’s cottage is on the left just at that turning.

GREAT FOR: Those interested in Scottish Heritage.

RECOMMENDATION: We spent almost an hour at the cottage but in truth, you could be there for 30 minutes or a couple of hours depending on your interest or schedule. Don’t arrive too close to closing time or else your visit will be rushed (it closes at 4.30pm).

Every year in August, the Mey Highland Games are held in a field just west of the village of Mey. It is the smallest highland games in Scotland and was originally conceived as more of a sporting pageant to entertain the Queen Mother during her annual vacation at The Castle of Mey.

Distance from Mey House: 1 Mile
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/1cQmA

These days, the Games primarily exist as an opportunity for Prince Charles (or The Duke of Rothsay as he is known in these parts) to informally meet and greet the locals during his summer vacation at the Castle. Every year, just like his Grandmother before him, Charles takes a break from Royal life and comes to get away from it all up here in Caithness; reportedly he loves the freedom the place allows, particularly the opportunity to drive himself in his own car.

Our first Mey Games was a damp one but everyone entered into the spirit of the day with one eye always on the weather as it gathered itself in the west. We wandered around the ramshackle stalls selling local produce for a while and dived for cover in the tea tent every time a shower arrived. Though the games started at 2pm, Prince Charles arrived at about 3pm and he was piped into the arena by the band of the Royal British Legion (my former employer as it happens).

The Games themselves were very unpretentious and had more of a feel of a school sports day rather than a Royal event but we enjoyed the entertainment which included running races, karate demonstrations, hammer throwing, tossing the caber and the tug o’war competition (which the Prince judged personally). The Highland dancing was my personal favourite as I had never witnessed it before; earnest young women and girls performing on a makeshift platform displaying the most wonderful talent and skill, interrupted only by the occasional rain shower and punctuated by equally earnest mothers wiping the platform dry!

What was most bizarre about the afternoon was just how low key the Royal presence was. Of course there were secret service personnel doing their best to look inconspicuous but the Prince moved happily and effortlessly around the ground and waved and smiled at the crowd. He left after about an hour but not before he handed out the day’s prizes to the participants who by now were looking pretty cold and damp.

We didn’t know quite what to expect of the Mey Games as it was the first Highland Games we had ever been to but we loved its simplicity and lack of pretention and will definitely be back next year.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: No tickets are required in advance, just pay at the gate.

GREAT FOR: Meeting the future King and simple old school outdoor entertainment.

RECOMMENDATION: Take a fold out chair, a waterproof and a camera.

Caithness is different in almost every way from the other Highland regions but unfortunately most travellers know nothing about what it has to offer!

Distance from Mey House: 14 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/GzVuZ

It is a sad fact that over the recent past, Caithness and Visit Scotland has done a poor job at marketing and promoting the county, particularly when compared with the Western Isles (Gaelic culture), Sutherland (landscape) and the Orkney Isles (heritage). This is a real shame as Caithness has so much to offer!  However a positive step to addressing this lack of awareness was taken in 2008 when The Highland Council, in partnership with the Dounreay Regeneration Fund, founded ‘Caithness Horizons’ in the old town hall in the centre of Thurso.

I knew little about ‘Horizons’ before visiting and I must confess that my expectations were not high mainly because my experience of Authority-led institutions were that they tended to be designed and run by committee and hence lack customer focus (a quick look at their website confirmed my suspicions)! However, despite this apprehension I was pleasantly surprised when I stepped over the threshold.

I found that ‘Horizons’ was laid out in specific segments each dedicated to a specific aspect of Caithness; from archaeology to geology, social history to natural history and collections of objects and art of local social significance

There is also a large section dedicated to the founding, operation and decommissioning of the Dounreay power station; it explains why the north coast was chosen as the cradle of the British nuclear industry and how for 70 years it has been the main source of employment for the Thurso area taking over where the flagstone and fishing industries left off.

By far the best part of the exhibition was the 10 minute video shown (on a loop) in the small auditorium. The mini documentary summarises the highlights of Caithness and brings to life the ‘still life’ objects and artefacts that you will have viewed in the static displays. Indeed, if you only have 15 minutes to spare, we would recommend spending them all watching this!

Overall, I thought that Caithness Horizons was a good step towards putting Caithness on the map and I certainly left more knowledgeable than when I arrived though I can’t help but feel that it lacked a little heart and soul.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Caithness Horizons is open 7 days a week between April and September and 6 days a week the rest of the year (closed Christmas / New Year public holidays). Admission is free.

GREAT FOR: Discovering that Caithness has more to offer than just John O’Groats!

RECOMMENDATION: Park in the car park on Riverside Road and walk up through to the town centre following the signs.

Observing the wonderful coastline of Caithness from the shore is one thing; experiencing it from the ocean is something completely different.

Distance from Mey House: 21 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/mltw1

Ever since I caught a glimpse of the receding coastline from aboard the Pentlandia en route to Orkney, I had hoped that I might one day take a sea tour to view it up close. So it was that waking on a gloriously sunny day over the Easter holiday weekend we decided that would be the day. A quick call to the boat charterers ‘Caithness Seacoast’ in Wick confirmed our seats on the 11 o’clock departure.

Upon arrival we were greeted by friendly staff and introduced to the other passengers (there were only four paying guests aboard but the boat can take up to 12). We donned some very fetching orange waterproofs and matching life jackets, boarded the boat and departed Wick harbour heading south.

The eastern coast of Caithness does not have the imposing cliffs of its northern shore but the rugged rock faces are still impressive. With sea caves galore, hidden inlets, sea arches and partially submerged skerries the geology itself is quite a sight when viewed from a distance but on several occasions William Munro (our skipper) took the boat inside some of the caves and weaved cautiously through narrow gaps in the rocky shoreline and it was only then that their size and rugged beauty were truly revealed.

It wasn’t all water and rock though as no sooner had we left the calm waters of the harbour that we found ourselves chaperoned by all manner of bird life; Skuas, Auks, Gulls, Kittiwakes, Fulmers, Guillemots and even Puffins were seen in abundance. On our forays up close to the cliff faces we came within a few metres of their nesting sites which was quite an assault on the senses as the cacophony of bird noise combined with the pungent whiff of the layers of guano mixed uneasily with the gentle rocking of the boat but I am happy to report that all stomachs thankfully remained ‘below deck’!

Our tour took us as far south as Whaligoe Steps (see the blog post in our ‘Heritage’ section) and overall, we were at sea for around 75 minutes which was plenty long enough. William was the perfect guide; knowledgeable about the sea, the wildlife, the geology and the heritage of human habitation along the shore but he was never overbearing and more importantly, never reckless (much to the relief of Sally-Ann).

Our trip was dominated by the seabirds which was no surprise when you consider we were out during their nesting season but William reliably informed us that later in the season we would have seen Basking Sharks, Seals, Dolphins and even Orcas!

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: There are a range of tours designed to cater for most requirements from a quick 30 minute cruise to a 3 hour trip to Lybster. Departures are dependent on tide and weather.

GREAT FOR: Getting interactive with nature.

RECOMMENDATION: Call the ‘Caithness Seacoast’ office to check sailings and availability (01955 609200).

The stunning Dunnet Bay has more to offer than just the golden beach – Sea Drift will help you make sense of it all.

Distance from Mey House: 6 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/aIg8i

Sited at the eastern end of the 2 mile long beach at Dunnet is a two story building that sits right on the edge of the sand and it would be too easy to assume that it was solely associated with the camp site that dominates that corner of the bay. Fortunately, the upper floor is actually a visitor centre dedicated to the flora and fauna of the immediate area.

On a Spring day, with heavy rain clouds hanging above the seemingly unending Caithness horizon, Sally-Ann and I decided to venture into Sea Drift prior to taking a walk along the beach. As is so often the way in Caithness I felt that as I stepped over the threshold I had been transported back in time as the centre has an air of simplicity that reminded me of places I visited in the 1980’s. Please don’t interpret this as a denigration of the centre because it isn’t meant that way; Sea Drift fulfils its ambition more than adequately and it does it with some good old fashioned hand drawn illustrations, static arrays of dried flowers, stuffed animals, skeletal remains of sea mammals and some basic interactive displays.

We ambled around the centre for a few minutes completely alone and then as if by magic, the park ranger appeared! Once he arrived, his personal knowledge and experience brought the various displays to life. He told us about the plethora of birdlife, explained the migratory activity of the marine mammals and teased us with imaginative descriptions of the wild flowers that would soon erupt across the area. He then invited us to look through the telescope to view up close the numerous birds wading on the Dunnet Bay foreshore and circling above the cliffs at Dunnet Head. He also encouraged us to come back later in the season to take up the offer of a free ranger guided walk for the full up close and personal experience.

We left the centre more informed than when we had arrived and whilst there was no ‘wow’ factor, we have found that the information gleaned that day has helped us to inform our guests at Mey House about the flora and fauna of the area.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: The opening hours are weekdays 2pm – 5pm and weekends 2pm – 6pm from April to the end of September (closed all day Monday). It’s free to enter though a donation on departure won’t go amiss.

GREAT FOR: Young children will particularly enjoy the smaller room, full of intriguing puzzles and activities.

RECOMMENDATION: Even if you have nothing more than a passing interest in the natural environment then we heartily recommend that you spend 15 minutes prior to your walk along Dunnet beach or your trip to Dunnet Head as it will make either more enjoyable.

Not the most northerly point in mainland Britain, but the furthest inhabitation from Lands’ End.

Distance from Mey House: 6 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/TDn9s

When we first visited in 2004, we were frankly underwhelmed even though I didn’t really know what to expect. What we found was a ramshackle collection of tacky souvenir booths, a derelict hotel, dirty public toilets and litter blowing in the wind; the only shining star was the rustic café that sold honest unpretentious food.

John O’Groats is named after an early inhabitant, a Dutchman (Jan de Groote) who held the concession to operate the ferry between Caithness and the Orkney islands in the 18th century (his grave is in the nearby church at Canisbay). It is perched on the edge of the Pentland Firth in clear view of the Orkney Islands and its fame grew in the early years of the 20th century as pioneering motorists vied to be the fastest driver between the two most distant habitations on the mainland.

Today, the challenge of completing the journey still draws contestants in their hundreds, most arrive by car, some on a bicycle, even a few on foot and whilst most urbanites would think just travelling to Groats is mad enough, in 2013 one man swam from Lands’ End and another carried a fridge on his back whilst he jogged the 874 miles for charity.

Thankfully, Groats has received some welcome investment over the past few years making it a destination worth stopping at for something other than a photo under the famous sign. There are now some upmarket shops, boutiques, a museum and the rustic café has to compete with a Starbucks! The derelict hotel has thankfully been renovated into self-catering holiday flats which has removed the biggest eyesore (though the colourful Scandinavian style extensions divide opinion). We of course are now regular visitors to John O’Groats and we hope that it will continue to evolve into a destination worthy of its notoriety but we also hope that it also stops short of the ‘Disneyesque makeover’ that has befallen Land’s End.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Be prepared to be underwhelmed by the destination but savour the journey to reach it.

GREAT FOR: A photo under the famous sign and loads of souvenirs.

RECOMMENDATION: Take a day trip to Orkney or one of the maritime wildlife tours but make sure you book in advance as they are very popular at the height of the season. Also, the stacks at Duncansby Head are worth the effort (weather permitting).

Britain’s answer to Route 66, this 500 mile tour will guide you around the unique north Highland coastline.

Distance from Mey House: 0.1 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/OdAUNe

There is no doubt that the Northern Highlands are one of the most stunning locations in Europe. The vistas, culture, food and drink are amalgamated by its people into a heady potion for those seeking respite and relaxation away from the whirlwind of modern living. We had circumvented the route many times over the years, before it was branded the North Coast 500 (or NC500) and we couldn’t agree more that it deserves formalising for the benefit of the curious visitor.

The route has an official website (www.northcoast500.com) which will highlight places not only to stay, eat and visit but also locations for essentials such as ATM’s or fuel stations. However, don’t just blindly follow the prescribed route as you will miss some fabulous sights and experiences – we highly recommend going ‘off piste’ for the following three diversions:

Firstly, there is no point in travelling this far north and NOT visiting the islands of Orkney for a day to see amongst many things the World Heritage sites of Skara Brae and the Ness of Brodgar. There are two great ways to see the Islands in a day and you can read about them both on our website.

Secondly, fancy a diversion through a wilderness littered with heritage sites, adorned with wildlife and enshrined by some of the biggest vistas in the Highlands? You and precious few others will find it all by diverting off the NC500 west of Thurso down the A897 to Kinbrace and westwards to Altnahara. The cautious can head north again to re-join the NC500 at Tongue but for those with a spirit of exploration, take the unnamed track toward the hamlet of Hope – that’s our favourite!

Finally, whilst on the west coast there is a path less trodden that takes in some great views of the lochs and mountains. Divert off the NC500 south of Lochinver and take the unnamed single track road heading to Achiltibuie. This road will offer many an opportunity to dive off and explore numerous dead ends before it re-joins the NC500 at Drumrunie north of Ullapool.

And the question we are most often asked – where are the best places to eat and sleep on the NC500? Well, for accommodation a night or two at Mey House goes without saying but we can also recommend Mackays (at Durness), The Kylesku Hotel (at Kylesku) and The Torridon Hotel (at Annat). For eateries you should try The Captain’s Galley (Scrabster), Am Fuaran Bar (Althandu), The Applecross Inn (Applecross) and Kishorn Seafood Bar (Strathcarron).

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: The official NC500 website and smartphone Apps are fantastic resources but don’t rely on them whilst traversing the route as you won’t be able to get a phone signal on considerable stretches of the route and where you can, it will seldom be 3G! Therefore, we strongly recommend that you plan your route and stops ahead of travel and take an analogue back up with you (paper map, tour guide etc.).

GREAT FOR: A well curated self-guided tour around the Highlands.

RECOMMENDATION: Don’t follow the route clockwise nor try to cram it into 5 days – that’s what the masses do! If you fail to follow our recommendation then you and the rest of the herd will be in constant competition for places to stay and eat, particularly if you, like them start the route on a weekend.

If you would like a taste of the Orkneys but your time is short, then the MAXI tour is packed with highlights to provide insights and memories.

Distance from Mey House: 6 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/TDn9s

Having not visited the Orkney Islands before and being keen to learn more about the inviting lands I view from our home every day, it was with excitement that I embarked on the MAXI Tour, with John O’Groats Ferries, one beautiful late Spring morning when the sun was up and the sea was calm.

After an efficient 40 minute sea crossing to Burwick, sitting on the top deck with my 20 other companions for the day, we were greeted by Stuart, our cheerful coach driver and guide for the tour. He proved to be the font of knowledge for all things ‘Orkney’ and certainly made the day for me with his insights, humour and genuine interest in all his guests.

Stuart explained the history of Scapa Flow as we travelled over the Churchill Barriers towards Kirkwall, the capital, for a short toilet / coffee stop. Once refreshed, we started the tour in earnest, heading for Stromness, followed by Skara Brae, the Ring of Brodgar, Stones of Stenness and finally back to Kirkwall for a longer stop. This provides the opportunity to investigate St Magnus Cathedral, the Bishop’s and Earl’s Palaces, the Orkney Museum and varied craft and food shops which litter the Kirkwall streets. Time is tight here and needs to be planned as you don’t arrive until 4pm, the Palaces’ last entry is at 5pm and shops also close around 5pm. The Cathedral is open until 6pm however and is well worth a visit and a chat with Fran, the principle custodian who is full of knowledge and enthusiasm for the cathedral and associated topics. I spent an enjoyable 15 minutes with her which then saw me running for the coach before it left at 5.45pm for our final destination – the Italian Chapel.

This last stop rounded off a day I will not forget in a hurry. I felt educated on the history, landscape and culture of the islands we visited and thoroughly fulfilled in gaining knowledge, that will help advise our guests on how to make the most of their day trip!

As lunch is not provided and it is a long day, be prepared! Either take a packed lunch or take the opportunity for an early lunch at Stromness (you’ll be here between approx. 11.45am and 1pm). Alternatively you could enjoy a sandwich or light lunch at the café at Skara Brae, the next stop, before embarking on the tour.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Boarding is at 8.45am at John O’ Groats and you’ll be back at approx. 7.45pm.

GREAT FOR: An overview of Orkney – the sights, the culture, the climate and the people.

RECOMMENDATION: For visitors who have even less time, a shorter HIGHLIGHTS day tour is available from 1 June until 31 August, leaving at 10.30am and returning at 6pm.