History Heritage Archaeology

Let’s Time Travel!

Stunning, deserted beaches roll across a layered landscape, giving way to majestic mountains, as rugged cliffs and rolling pastures vie for your attention, in the land of long views and big skies. The North Coast 500, one of the world’s top coastal touring routes, is rightly renowned for its extraordinary scenery: but this area can also lay claim to having a  fascinating past, a history as rich and exciting as the landscape itself.
Our guide will help you explore some of these hidden histories and incredible archaeological wonders, and celebrate Scotland’s Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology.
Hire a vehicle or motorbike at:
NB: Please note that all our itineraries are based on suggestions alone. If you would like a more comprehensive option please head to our interactive map. Please check before the availability of businesses during off season.

*Remember to pre-book meals / accommodation / other activities
*Make sure to check our
road safety section of our website- particularly how to drive single track roads!   
*Remember the legal drink-drive limit in Scotland is lower than anywhere else in the UK: 22 micrograms of alcohol per 100 millilitres of breath. If you are the designated driver and visiting  breweries and distilleries across the route, many of them will provide samples for your to enjoy back at your accommodation provider or on your return home.

*Watch out for wildlife and farm life who also like to roam these roads!
*Make sure dogs are kept on leads
*Wear sensible clothing and footwear
*Adhere to the
Scottish Outdoor Code

Banner Image Courtesy of Castle of Mey


  Even before you begin your North Coast 500 journey at Inverness, there are a number of archaeological and historic sites to make around the area. In fact, you may wish to have an additional day to explore these areas!

  Explore Scotland’s earliest beginnings and immerse yourself in the mysterious Clava Cairns (pictured), a 20-minute drive east of Inverness. This area is home to a number of Neolithic ‘cairns’, burial places for the dead, and were constructed over 5000 years ago. This area also features a series of standing stones, one of which, the ‘split stone’, may have been the inspiration for the Outlander television phenomenon!

  Spend 45 mins – 1.5 hours here.
  Now it’s time to head north and 4,500 years in the future to Culloden Battlefield and Visitor Experience (pictured), site of one of the most famous battles in British history, fought between the British Government and rebellious Jacobites, in 1746. The newly-built heritage centre between provides a detailed and interactive look at the factors which led to this battle, before you participate in the immersive ‘battle film’, which gives a glimpse into the horrors of the battlefield. Well worth a good few hours of exploring, and best of all, you can get a spot of lunch before you spend some time exploring the battlefield.

  Alternatively, or if you have time, pop into Inverness Museum and Gallery, where you can learn about the history of the Highlands, from geological formation right through to more modern times. Try on the replica of the ‘Achavrail Armlet’, a two thousand year old piece of ‘bling’!
  Stay at Glendruidh House, beautiful and exclusive country accommodation just 2 miles south of Inverness. Relaxing environs and unusual architectural features can all be found here!


Inverness to  Cromarty (approx. 41 miles)

  Start your day by heading out west to Beauly, and enjoy a gentle stroll through this quaint village. Remember to explore the genteel remains of Beauly Priory - did you know that the village got its name from the French monks who lived in the area? They called it “Beau Lieu”, which translates as “Beautiful Place”, and we’re sure you’ll agree with them! Be sure to check out Campbells of Beauly which stocks a lovely range of bespoke knitwear and countrywear (perfect for those long jaunts out to see historic sites!)

  Afterwards, why not enjoy a tour of Glen Ord Distillery (pictured) in Muir of Ord, just a few miles north of Beauly? Glen Ord distillery was founded in 1838, making it one of the oldest in Scotland. Situated on the edge of the Black Isle west of Inverness, Glen Ord continues to malt its own barley and to use the long fermentation and slow distillation methods followed there for generations. Well worth a visit - just make sure you’re not driving if you’ve tried a few nips!
  All that walking deserves energy replenishment – so visit the fresh and exciting Chanterelle Kinkell for some fantastic gourmet dishes. This highly-rated restaurant is new on the scene but is already mushrooming (sorry…!) This restaurant is just off the NC500 - head to Conon Bridge on the A862, taking ‘School Road’ onto the A835. Head a little south and turn right onto the B9169 to Easter Kinkell, where Chanterelle Kinkell is located. 

  So now you’re in prime ‘Black Isle’ territory – named so because of the quality of the soil. And good soil means cultivation, which means plenty of prehistoric and historic activity! Now we’re going to take you to one of Scotland’s quaintest historic charms: a ‘Clootie Well’.

  After lunch, head back along the route you just took on the B9169, turning left onto the A835. Take the 2nd exit on the Tore roundabout onto the A832. About two miles along the road you’ll spot a sign for the ‘Clootie Well’, so pull in here. To the right of the entrance is the Clootie Well…but hang on, just what is it?

  The 'Clootie Well' Well is a healing well which was dedicated to St Boniface (or Curidan). In Scots, a "clootie" or "cloot" is a strip of cloth or rag. Clootie wells are wells or springs, almost always with a tree growing beside them, with an assortment of garments or rags left, often tied to the branches of the trees surrounding the well. The tradition is that if you are ill you need to tie a piece of cloth that belongs to you to the tree near the well after it has been dipped in the water of the well - a bizarre piece of Scots history!

  You’ll only need to spend 30 minutes or so here, but you may wish to take a walk around the forest, which is rather pretty.

  After the Clootie Well, you can continue east through the pretty seaside villages of Munlochy and Avoch, but make sure you make a stop at historic Fortrose, and wander through the impressive remains of Fortrose Cathedral. You can spend 45mins – 1 hour here.

  FUN FACT: Fortose is the birthplace of the Brahan Seer, a mythical individual and prophesier, who apparently predicted such events as the Caledonian Canal’s construction and the destruction of the bridge at Bonar Bridge.

  After Fortrose, make time to visit one of the north’s most interesting museums, Groam House Museum (pictured)  in Rosemarkie, which houses an impressive array of Pictish carved stones. The interlaced designs and knotwork on some of these stones is incredible – this place is a ‘must-visit’ museum!

  Afterwards you may wish to visit Chanonry Point or The Fairy Glen, but it’s been a long day of history-ing, let’s get some dinner! 
  Cromarty is a picturesque village with a number of restaurants – why not get a lovely home-made pizza from Sutors Creek (pictured) You may wish, however, to have dinner at your accommodation for the night, The Factors House. This luxury B&B accommodation is listed in the Top Picks for Scotland in the 2016 Michelin Guide, so makes the ideal place to rest your legs after your day.

Cromarty to  Dornoch (approx. 83 miles)

  After your lovingly prepared breakfast at Factors House, you’re ready to start the day.
  Start with a wee stroll around Cromarty, and admire the many beautiful houses in the village. After this, then it’s time to head along the northern coast of the Black Isle, the B9163. Just beside the village of Balblair is the stunning conservation project of the Kirkmichael Trust, who are busy repairing the ancient and once derelict and dangerous buildings here. Here, the trust will display some of the most beautiful and well-kept headstones in the Highlands, each with a distinctive tale to tell - our fave is the skull with wig  (pictured) !
  Enjoy the drive back onto the Tore Roundabout and take the A9 across the Cromarty Bridge. Time for lunch now – and where better to enjoy some beautifully prepared lunches than at the Storehouse of Foulis. Delightfully set on the shore of the Cromarty Firth, in the heart of Munro country, you can enjoy lunch by this fully restored 18th Century, grade A listed, Storehouse. If it’s a nice day, then you can eat outside and admire the view up and down the Cromarty Firth.
  Continue along the A9 until you spot signs for the B1975 to Portmahomack and the Tarbat Discovery Centre. This is another excellent museum, with a number of Pictish Stones housed within an historic church. Do you dare enter the crypt, where a grizzly massacre occurred in the 15th century?
  Head back the way to came and continue north to Dornoch, passing through the royal burgh of Tain. If you have time, pop into Tain through Time and learn more about the area.
  However, for a truly poignant historic visit, you’ll need to take a wee drive off the main NC500 route. Take the first exit on the roundabout just before the Dornoch Firth, and carry on until you reach Ardgay. Continue through Church Street and follow the signs for Croick Church, about 10 miles away on single track road. Croick Church is nestled deep within the Sutherland landscape, and was the scene of a sad tale of the Highland Clearances. Here, local villagers were rounded up, having been evicted from their land. At Croick, some of them scratched their names into the church windows (pictured), and some even wrote messages reflecting their belief that this was their punishment from God for their ‘wickedness’(!) The scratching are ghostly reminders from a tragic period of Highland history, but this is a real hidden gem in the North Highlands.  A must for any discerning fan of the past.
  Afterwards, you can get dinner at the Crannag Bistro at nearby Bonar Bridge, or head back to the A9, and onto Dornoch, where you’ll spend the night. You have an array of luxury choices when it comes to accommodation – from Links House, to The Steading, to Fionn Lodge (pictured). But how about spending the night in Dornoch Castle – a 15th century castle converted into a hotel, overlooking the equally historic Dornoch Cathedral - it doesn’t get any more historic than that! You can also expect to get a fine evening meal here, or sup an incredible array of whiskies.

Dornoch to  Helmsdale (approx. 30 miles)

  Rise and shine – boy have we got an activity-packed day for you!

  The eastern coast of the North Coast 500 is absolutely rammed with historical treasures, so let’s see how many we can fit in. However, most of these have been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, so they’ll probably still be around if you want to come back again. These next few sections are shorter journeys, but there really is so much to see and do along this stretch.

  We highly recommend a little walk around Dornoch – an incredibly pretty little village, with rows of well-kept traditional houses, a wonderful heritage centre, Historylinks, and an historic Cathedral - the most northerly in mainland Scotland. However, within these charming streets lies a grim secret – Dornoch was reportedly where the last witch was burnt at the stake in Scotland! A memorial stone can be found in Carnaig Street to Janet Horne, who, in 1727 had been accused of witchcraft (for turning her neighbours’ daughter into a pony) and was stripped, tarred and burned alive…

  For a more gentle afternoon activity, the award winning Dunrobin Castle in Golspie will not disappoint. So, head north and prepare to be dazzled by falconry displays, a museum, and the Castle and Gardens themselves – something for everyone here.  The opulence of the castle contrasts with the poverty and misery which the inhabitants of Sutherland were forced to endure during the Highland Clearances – you’ll have a chance to learn more about this later, however.
  Enjoy a bit of traditional fayre at The Trawler Inn, a highly-rated fish and chip shop in Golspie. 

  Just north of Dunrobin is ‘Carn Liath’, the impressive remains one of the most enigmatic and complex prehistoric structures Scotland has to offer – the broch. Brochs were built during the Iron Age – that’s 2000 years ago – and were huge, drystone towers, some of which reached 40 feet high.

  Most brochs are now ruinous mounds, but Carn Liath was excavated in the 19th century by the Duke of Sutherland, whose grand castle just lies barely a mile to the south, and is one of the prehistoric highlights on the North Coast 500. Clamber up the well-trodden internal stairs and enjoy the broch. If this interests you, then why not visit Caithness Broch Project's website?

  Next up on the itinerary is Timespan Museum and Gallery, (pictured) which mixes an in-depth look at local heritage with vibrant and dynamic artistic exhibitions. Here you can learn more about the Highland Clearances, including a virtual tour of Caen, a now-derelict Clearance Village.
  Your accommodation tonight is the lovely Culgower House,  former Victorian Farmhouse built in 1850. Your host Catriona will take good care of you, and can prepare a number of yummy dishes for you (with 48 hours notice).  For dining out you have a good variety of choices, but we suggest the Bannockburn Inn, where you can enjoy Mey Selection Steaks as well as a few accompanying ales too!

Helmsdale to  Ackergill (approx. 38 miles)

  The next leg of the journey is just as jam-packed with history as the rest of the area. There are numerous stop points and pretty harbour villages, so you may wish to ask Culgower House to make you a packed lunch so you can enjoy a wee snack on the way.

  Continue north on the A9 until you arrive at Dunbeath, and look out for signs for Dunbeath Heritage Centre. This museum contains a real wealth of information on the local area, from Vikings to the writings of Dunbeath’s most famous son, Neil M. Gunn, whose birthplace can also be found in the village. There are a number of short and enjoyable walks here – why not check out Dunbeath broch, or take a gander round the harbour – don’t forget to say hello to ‘Kenn’ if you do! It’s worth spending a good 45mins – hour here.

  If social history and agricultural history is more your thing, then just north of Dunbeath is another lovely heritage centre, Laidhay Croft Museum. This beautifully-restored 18th century replete with eye-catching thatched roof, also has a lovely café nearby, so you may wish to stop here for a bit of early lunch. 

  Between Lybster and Wick is a real history lovers paradise. It’s worth venturing 10 miles off the North Coast 500 to the Grey Cairns of Camster, (pictured), one of the premier prehistoric sites in the north of Scotland. Enjoy the peace and solitude here, and prepared to be transported to another time.

  Back on the NC500, you can witness a‘mini-Stonehenge’ in the form of the “Hill O’Many Stanes”, dozens of foot-high prehistoric stones set in rows. No-one quite knows what they were for, but it’s possible they were used as a calendar or even astronomical purposes.

  Just a little further north is two beautiful historic sites on either side of the road. On the left you can find the “Cairn Of ’Get”, another prehistoric cairn, and on the right is the famous Whaligoe Steps – one of the NC500’s historic highlights. Here you’ll find steps almost carved into the cliffs, leading down to what was once a harbour – which, given the size of the landing area, almost beggars belief! Back at the top you can enjoy Scottish and Maltese dishes at the Whaligoe Steps café.

 Image courtesy of Caithness Broch Project
  Onwards to Wick – there are a number of historic highlights to enjoy here. You can talk to Old Wick Castle, one of the oldest castles in Scotland (dating from around the 1100s), or visit the most northerly whisky distillery on the mainland at Old Pulteney Distillery; or get your photo by the shortest street in the world, Ebeneezer Street, located at Mackays Hotel!

 No visit to Wick, is complete however, without popping into Wick Heritage Centre. This museum, which displays remnants of Wick’s 18th, 19th and 20th history, has been described as a Tardis – much, much bigger than how it appears! Nearby is the ‘The Blackstairs’, painted by the artist L.S. Lowry in 1936.

  We also highly recommend a visit to Sinclair Girnigoe Castle, one of the most impressive coastal castles in, well, anywhere in the world! The fortifications of this mighty castle, found at Noss Head north of Wick, hug the cliffs of the north coast, and you would be forgiven if you thought you had stumbled into Game of Thrones after visiting this amazing place. Allow a good hour for a visit here!

  Sinclair Girnigoe image courtesy of Caithness Broch Project
  Sick of castles yet? You can stay the night in the magnificent castle by the sea. Unwind with an exceptional night of luxury at the historic Ackergill Tower (pictured) on the shoreline of Sinclair Bay.  Watch out for the ghost of Helen Gunn, however...

  Alternatively, Mackays Hotel can offer luxury accommodation, or The Clachan B&B

Ackergill  to  Tongue  (approx. 80 miles)

  Our journey continues as you wake from your luxurious accommodation. Head north, and make a quick stop at The Caithness Broch Centre (seasonal opening hours) just north of Keiss. You may wish to visit the nearby Nybster Broch, and try to imagine eking out a life here 2000 years ago.

  Further north, and you can make the obligatory photo stop at John O’Groats signpost, before an enjoying a coffee from Natural Retreat’s Storehouse.

  After this, you can visit the Queen Mother’s favourite getaway at the Castle of Mey, which also has rather beautiful and well-maintained gardens, as well as a petting zoo, with all kinds of cute animals – so it’s a great stop for kids - this is a great place to stop to enjoy a scone and tea too. Further east, at Dunnet, you’ll find Dunnet Bay Distillery, home of the highly-commended and award-laden Rock Rose Gin. Book ahead for tours and get an insight into one of Scotland’s fastest-growing markets.
  In Thurso you can spend an hour in the 5-star Caithness Horizons, (right), which provides a detailed look at the prehistory of the area, including some cracking standing stones, and also features some great exhibits on the area’s social history. In particular, the development of the cutting-edge nuclear power plant at Dounreay is reflected here, and even has Dounreay’s control panel, which has only recently been installed: it’s a thing of pure marvel, and looks like it belongs in a James Bond villains’ lair!

  Drop into Y-Not Bar and Grill, close to Caithness Horizons, for some top quality meals. Specials change weekly – but we always go for the burger!

  Continue out west, past the bonny villages of Reay and Melvich, until Bettyhill. Strathnaver Museum can be found here, and you can learn more about the local area, and especially about the Highland Clearances, at this converted church. This area was particularly affected by the Clearances, and you’ll no doubt note several empty and derelict croft houses along your North Coast 500 journey, reminders of the Highlands’ troubled past.
Continue to Tongue, where you’ll spend your evening.
  Bunk up for the night at Kyle of Tongue Hostel, cosy and affordable, with stunning views of the nearby Ben Loyal and Ben Hope across the causeway. There a few choices for dinner in Tongue and the surrounding area, such as The Tongue Hotel, The Craggan and The Ben Loyal Hotel.

 Tongue   to  Lochinver  (approx. 90 miles)

  In the morning, you can enjoy a wee clamber up An Garbh to Caisteal Varrich, just opposite the Tongue Hotel. It is believed this castle, once the seat of Clan Mackay, was built on top of an existing Norse fort. Beautiful vistas across the Kyle of Tongue to be had here – those Vikings had an eye for a view!

  You may also wish, however, to visit another broch site, just off the North Coast 500, and at the foot of Ben Hope. The broch is Dun Dornigail, and is one of Scotland’s best brochs – here the walls survive in one section at over 7 metres! Check out the triangular lintel over the doorway, Iron Age architecture at its best.

  Keep on going west, to Loch Eriboll. You may wish to explore the crescent-shape islet of Ard Neakie which has a couple of lime kilns on it, but, for a hidden history treat, continue round to the other side of the loch. Just north of Laid, you’ll find an area rich in history - soutterrains (prehistoric, underground food stores) just to the right of the road, marked by two stones. Further up the hill there is an interesting piece of ‘graffiti’, stones laid out to spell the word ‘Hood’. These were left by sailors from the HMS Hood in the 1930s, as Loch Eriboll was once used as an anchorage by the Royal Navy, given the loch’s deep waters. This graffiti is particularly poignant, as HMS Hood was sunk with the loss of 1418 men – and only 3 survivors. Hidden deep within this landscape, further into the hills, there is a remarkably well-preserved Iron Age ‘wheelhouse’, and for those with a sense of adventure (and spare time) you may wish to seek this out!
  Smoo Cave Hotel is a great place to unwind for a while – and serves some cracking lunches too. Our favourite is the plump and delicious scallops, sourced locally!

  Continue into Durness, past Ceannabeinne, the scene of a Clearances riot in the 19th century. At Durness you can visit Smoo Cave, a geological wonder and one of the largest sea caves in Britain. You may also wish to visit Balnakeil Church, which contains the grave of the infamous and violent crook Donald Macleod. His grave is half-buried under the church walls, so that his enemies could not desecrate his remains!

  Fun Fat: From dastardly and dangerous Donald to one of Durness’ most more peace-loving visitors: John Lennon often spent childhood holidays in the village. It’s thought that “In My Life” is based on his time spent here.

  It’s time to loop down south, and onto Lochinver. Taking the B869 along the coast allows you to visit Clachtoll Broch at Clachtoll, surely one of the prettiest locations for a broch.
(If you are travelling by motorhome and it is more than a standard VW T5 conversion (ie about 16 – 18 ft in length), please take the alternative route (A894)

From this point onwards, the scenery really takes over. What area may lack in prehistoric and historic sites, it makes up for in gorgeous panoramas and mountainscapes, so take your time driving and enjoy the views.
  Spend your evening in Glencanisp Lodge, a traditional Victorian hunting lodge, which offers comfortable accommodation for the night. You may wish to opt for a more opulent night’s sleep at Lochinver’s Inver Lodge, which can also provide you with a truly mouth-watering, Michelin-Starred dinner!

Lochinver to Poolewe (approx. 86 miles)

  Take a trek east to Loch Assynt, where you can enjoy sumptuous mountain views, and the iconic Ardvreck Castle, (pictured) built in the 16th century by Neil Macleod, the laird of Assyny, and Calda House, built in the 17th century by the 3rd Earl of Seaforth.  Both are evocavtive monuments and you could get lost in time wandering about their ruins - just watch out for the numerous ghosties which reputedly haunt these buildings!

  Afterwards, if you’re feeling up for a wee hike, explore the Inchnadamph Bone Caves, where some amazing discoveries have been made. These limestone caves were investigated in the 19th century, by the geologists Horne and Peach, and were found to contain signs of human habitation – human skeletons, an iron blade, a reindeer horn implement, and a pin made from walrus ivory. The caves’ history goes back even further however: the carved glens and mountainous landscape you find yourself is a remnant Scotland’s Ice Age, and many different types of animal used to prowl this land… and the remains of animals not normally associated with Scotland have been found at these caves, from arctic fox to brown bear!

  Continue south to Ullapool.
  Enjoy lunch in the traditional settings of The Arch Inn, you deserve it after all that exploring.

  Make a wee visit to Ullapool Museum, (pictured), which contains a number of exhibits detailing this pretty fishing village’s past.

  Afterwards, continue south – but don’t miss out on the Corrieshalloch Gorge and the Falls of Measach, a stunning 200-foot waterfall. The suspension bridge is not for the faint-hearted!

  Keep going south, and have your camera at the ready for the wonderful scenery of the west. Feeling peckish? Drop into Aultbea Hotel or Isle of Ewe Smokehouse to get something to nibble on. Your next stop is Inverewe Gardens, a pretty and extensive estate and gardens, instigated by Osgood Mackenzie in 1862. 
  Savour enjoy the decadent environs of Pool House, (pictured), a 300 year old former hunting lodge, which later saw service in WW2 as Command Headquarters of the Russian Arctic and North Atlantic Convoys. Speak to the owners, and they’ll take great delight in discussing some of the WW2 remains you can visit in the area, as well as their own plans to create a fascinating new museum based on the area’s wartime stories.

On a budget? Then you can also stay in Poolewe Hotel, which also serves evening meals to non-guests, or the 4-star Corriness House B&B.

 Poolewe to  Inverness (approx. 150 miles)

  Again, the scenery is the main highlight of this part of route, but the west is not without its historic charms. Just south of Poolewe is the village of Gairloch, with a great wee heritage centre. Gairloch Museum (pictured) is an award-winning museum which looks at the history of the area: fathom the mysteries of the Pictish Stone; relive life in crofter’s house, school house and village shop; examine the locally-built fishing boats and compare them with today’s purpose-built, sea-going hulks – so much to do!

  From here, continue down to Applecross, where you can visit Applecross Heritage Centre, which again takes a look at the area from prehistoric beginnings to more recent social history.

  The remains of a broch close to Applecross village, which took a star turn in 2006 when it featured on a Time Team excavation. Close to the broch a roundhouse reconstruction can be found – would this be your ideal accommodation for your NC500 journey? Don’t forget to visit the Hebridean-style ‘Crac’ barns, atypical West-coast Scotland style vernacular buildings. These have been lovingly restored by the local archaeological landscape partnership, and are worth checking out.

  Why not pop into the Applecross Smokehouse (right) and pick up a few bits and pieces for a packed lunch? Derrick and Lorna are passionate about local produce, so give them a visit and get yourself some delicious smoked goods.
  It’s time to complete your time-travelling journey and head back to Inverness. On your way home, you may wish to visit Urquhart Castle, situated on the shores of Loch Ness. Explore the castle walls, and remember to keep an eye out for Nessie! 

We hope you enjoyed your NC500 experience, and that the heritage, archaeology and history of the North Highlands live long in your memory!

Become a Standard Member for only £15 
to unlock our FULL itineraries

buy now