The famous old herring port of Wick, on the eastern coastline of Caithness, 462km (287 miles) northwest of Edinburgh and 203km (126 miles) northwest of Inverness, is a popular stop for those heading north to explore what's often called the John o' Groats Peninsula. The town has some claim as a holiday resort as well: Robert Louis Stevenson spent part of his boyhood in Wick when his father worked here on an engineering project. Today, a sleepy nostalgia hangs over the town. There's daily bus and rail service from Inverness, from which train connections are possible via Edinburgh, Glasgow, or Stirling.
The Wick Heritage Centre, 20 Bank Row (tel. 01955/605-393), has many exhibits pertaining to Wick's herring-fishing industry in days of yore. From Easter to October, it's open Monday to Saturday 10am to 5pm; last entrance is at 3:45pm. Admission is £3 for adults and 50p for children 5 to 16.
Visitors are welcome at Pulteney Distillery, Huddart Street (tel. 01955/602-371; www.oldpulteney.com). A tour will take you on a journey back to discover the history and "art" of whiskey making. A wide range of products, including single malts produced on-site, are for sale in the distillery shop. Costing £4, tours are offered Monday to Friday at 11am and again at 2pm.
The most visited sites in the area are the two megalithic Grey Cairns of Camster, 10km (6 1/4 miles) north of Lybster on the Watten Road off A9. The ruins of the Castle of Old Wick are also worth exploring, and they're always accessible. The location is off A9, 2.5km (1 1/2 miles) south of Wick. Once known as Castle Olipant, the ruined structure dates back to the 14th century. You can still see three floors of the old castle rising on a rocky promontory.
John O' Groats
John o' Groats, 27km (17 miles) north of Wick, is the northern equivalent of Land's End, at the tip of the Cornish peninsula in England. The southern tip of England is 1,414km (879 miles) south of John o' Groats. From here, there are views north to the Orkney Islands and the Pentland Firth.
John o' Groats was named after a Dutch ferryman, Jan de Groot. His tombstone can still be seen at Cabisbay Church. The town abounds with souvenir shops, some selling small Arctic cowrie shells, once used as decoration by the first settlers in Caithness. You can take interesting walks along the coast to Duncansby Head, 3km (1 3/4 miles) east -- one of the most dramatic coastlines in this part of Scotland. Many species of seabirds, especially puffins, live among the jagged cliffs. A road leads out to a lighthouse suspended on the cliffs; from here you get a panoramic view over Pentland Firth. These turbulent waters have been a nightmare to mariners, with some 400 wrecks reported in the past century and a half.
The late Queen Mother's legacy to Scotland is the restored Castle of Mey, lying 9.6km (6 miles) west of John o' Groats on A836 (tel. 01847/851-473). Her Majesty first saw the castle in 1952 when she was mourning the death of her husband, King George VI; hearing that it was to be abandoned, she set out to restore both the castle and its gardens. She returned every summer for the rest of her life, and one of her heirs, Prince Charles, now follows in her footsteps.
Overlooking Pentland Firth and the Orkney Islands, the castle was constructed on a Z-plan between 1566 and 1572, with jutting towers and corbeled turrets. It was built by the 4th Earl of Caithness and remained the seat of this royal family for a century. The castle is furnished just as it was when the Queen Mother departed from it. You can even see her gumboots beside the dog bowl and her blue coat hanging on the back of a chair. The walled kitchen garden in July is one of the most beautiful private gardens in Scotland.
The castle and gardens are open from May 1 to July 26 and August 8 to September 30 from 10:30am to 4pm daily. Admission is £9 for adults, £8 for seniors, and £3.50 for children 12 and under, with a family ticket costing £22. Allow 1 1/2 hours for a visit.
In summer, there's daily passenger-only ferry service to Orkney. Bus tours of the island are included. The Orkney Islands are just a 45-minute sail from John o' Groats across the Pentland Firth.
Many visitors drive through the northern port of Thurso as they're heading for Scrabster, where ferries leave for the Orkney Islands. The town, located on the River Thurso, is only mildly interesting; it is used mainly as a refueling stop for those who have made it this far north. It remains a big, bustling holiday resort with a still-active fishing fleet. In the center, many restored sandstone town houses date from the 1700s.
Once an important Viking stronghold, Thurso -- meaning "river of the god Thor" -- had its greatest power and prestige in the 11th century, when it was ruled by Thorfinn, who defeated King Duncan's nephew in 1040. In medieval times, Thurso became the major trading town between Scotland and the Norse countries.
To the west are the cliffs of Holborn Head and Dunnet Head, which boast a lighthouse. Many visitors walk out to the northern point of mainland Britain for its panoramic views of the Orkneys. Thurso is 214km (133 miles) northwest of Inverness, 34km (21 miles) northwest of Wick, and 32km (20 miles) west of John o' Groats.
If you'd like to explore by bike, head for Sandra's Back Packer Hostel, 24 Princes St. (tel. 01847/894-575; www.sandras-backpackers.co.uk). Open daily 9am to midnight. Rental rates are from £14 per bed, per night.
Ullapool is an interesting village, the largest in Wester Ross, 95km (59 miles) northwest of Inverness and 383km (238 miles) north of Glasgow. It was built by the British Fishery Society in 1788 as a port for herring fishers and is still a busy harbor. The original town plan hasn't been changed, and many of the buildings look much as they did at the time of their construction. Ullapool has long been an embarkation point for travelers crossing the Minch, a section of the North Atlantic separating Scotland from the Outer Hebrides.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.