Wick sits on the north east coast of Scotland, just over a 2 hour drive north of Inverness and just over 20 minutes south of John O'Groats. It is one of two principal towns in the Caithness region of Scotland, the other being Thurso.
In the days when waterways were the main means of travel and transport, Wick's position along the mouth of the Wick River and the North Sea made it an ideal trading port. During the time of Viking rule it was named 'Vik' which is Old Norse for 'bay'.
In 1589 it gained Royal Burgh status in recognition of its importance as a commercial seaport and as the fishing industry expanded, so did the town. The biggest growth took place during the fishing boom of the 19th century, and at one stage Wick was the busiest herring port in Europe.
Although there are now only a fraction of the boats that once worked out of the harbour, the sea continues to provide other work opportunities in offshore industries.
Things to do in Wick
I'm not going to sugar-coat it (and apologies to any Wickers reading this!) - my first impression of Wick wasn't a great one - granted I never ventured further than the town centre but all I could see was a place that looked a little tired and not that appealing to a visitor so I didn't stick around very long. Fast forward a few years of frequently stopping in the town on my travels to and from Orkney, along with several holidays in the area, and I have been won over by Wick. The layers of history, the stunning scenery and the warmth of Wickers who always seem to be up for a chat has seeped into my bones and I now relish my regular trips here.
The road that passes through the town forms part of popular North Coast 500 and is the main route for anyone travelling to the far north east coast of Scotland, including the famed John O' Groats and the Gill's Bay ferry route to Orkney. Despite being in a strategic position for capitalising on the booming north coast tourist market, I often hear complaints from locals that visitors don't stop here in any meaningful numbers or for any length of time. Maybe, like me, they are guilty of judging the town on its initial faded appearance, or maybe they just don't know what there is to do and don't stop long enough to find out.
Either way, I'm hoping this blog post with my favourite discoveries of things to do in and around Wick goes some way to rectifying that and maybe makes some amends for my own unfair judgement. Maybe it will even convert a few of you that have initially written Wick off to give it another chance like I did, or convince those of you planning to explore the north coast of Scotland to add it to your itinerary. It is a place that deserves a longer stay to really appreciate everything on offer in the area and hopefully this list inspires you to do exactly that.
Visit the Wick Heritage Centre
Don't be fooled by the unassuming exterior of this heritage centre near the harbour as once inside you will realise the museum is both a Tardis and an Aladdin's Cave. The volume and variety of objects is almost overwhelming so I recommend taking your time to soak in everything there is to see.
Rooms have been furnished to give a sense of bygone times, with a bigger exhibition space dedicated to Wick's significant fishing industry. However, one of the highlights that makes this centre unique is their collection of local photographs taken by three generations of Caithness photographers.
Known as the Johnston Collection, the images document over a century of local life from 1863 to 1975 and include the era when Wick was the herring capital of Europe. I highly recommend this as your first port of call when visiting the town as it will give you a deeper understanding and appreciation of Wick's significant history.
Walk to the Castle of Old Wick
It may not be Scotland's grandest fortification, but theCastle of Old Wick is one of Scotland's oldest castles, thought to date back to the 1100s, which makes the fact it is still standing at all quite a feat. Its precarious clifftop location is great for defensive purposes but also means it stands at the mercy of the North Sea, as has done for hundreds of years, making this squat ruin mightier than it looks.
The 1-mile trail along the blustery coast from Wick to reach the castle ticks the boxes for scenery and history. The square tower was once four storeys high and would have been the residential part of the castle which included a hall, living room and private chambers. Surrounding the tower are remains of other structures that would have included servant's quarters, workshops, bakehouse, brewhouse and stables. Indeed, the extensive fortress would have covered much of the headland it sits on.
Today it is in the care of Historic Environment Scotland and is free to visit at any time.
Explore Castle Sinclair Girnigoe
For a more substantial castle experience, head further along the coast to Castle Sinclair Girnigoe. The extensive walls rise seamlessly from the rocks and the interior structures sit side by side like random pieces of a jigsaw that don't quite fit together.
A long time home of the Sinclair family who became the Earls of Caithness, construction of the castle is thought to have started in the late 14th century with additions built over the following centuries until it reached its full sprawling potential in the 17th century.
Due to debts run up by the 5th and 6th Earls, John Campbell of Glenorchy, a 4th cousin of the 6th Earl, took over the Sinclair family estate in settlement of money owed. On the death of the 6th Earl, Campbell obtained the title of the Earl of Caithness, however his right to the title and the Sinclair estate was disputed by George Sinclair of Keiss, a 1st cousin.
This resulted in the Battle of Altimarlach near Wick, the last significant clan battle in Scotland. Sinclair managed to reclaim the title of Earl of Caithness but a Privy Council agreed that John Campbell was the rightful owner of the land. From then on the castle fell into ruin and is today cared for by the Clan Sinclair Trust who are not only trying to preserve the structure from falling into the sea but also reverse the damage from weather and coastal erosion.
It is free to visit anytime.
Stroll around Wick Harbour
Every time I visit Wick, I am drawn to the harbour. Its not just the colourful boats and stacks of fishing creels that entice me there, I'm in love with the old buildings that still fringe the water. My favourite has to be the distinctive red herring mart which dates back to 1892 and was the first purpose built shelter and offices for fish salesmen in Scotland. Another interesting stop is the old lifeboat shed dating back to 1915.
While you're there, have a look for the information board with a photo of the harbour crowded with herring boats - it is quite a scene and a site long consigned to history - at one time over 1000 of these boats operated out of Wick.
For the best views of the harbour and beyond, walk uphill to the pilot station, a pretty little structure that was used by the local ships pilots. It is a lovely spot to sit and take in the vistas on a nice day but also a good place to shelter and watch monstrous waves pound the harbour defences when the weather turns stormy.
Stop by the world's shortest street
At 6ft 9 inches in length, Ebenezer Place in Wick holds the Guinness Record for the world's shortest street. It is so short that it only manages to accommodate the restaurant doorway of Mackay's Hotel.
In 1883 Alexander Sinclair built what is now Mackay's Hotel on the corner of Union Street and River Street. However, the council of the time instructed him to put a name on the short end of the building as they deemed it a street. Since 1887 Ebenezer Place has appeared in the town’s records and makes a fun photo stop while you're in the town.
Take the Wick River path
Following the pathway that runs alongside the Wick River on foot or by bike makes for an easy and scenic excursion from the town. Pass wading birds, reed beds and marsh meadows as the river gently meanders from the sea to the countryside.
Take a seat and watch for the ripples of fish swimming by or soak in the natural beauty from the viewing platform. Look out for the 5000 year old chambered cairn known as the Fairy Hillock and continue on towards Altimarlach where a cross marks the site of the battle between Clan Sinclair and Clan Campbell mentioned above.
This is a trail missed by many visitors despite being one of the best walks in town, in my humble opinion!
Chill out in Staxigoe
Staxigoe lies just to the north of Wick and is one of several pretty former fishing settlements along the Caithness coast. The name derives from Norse and means 'inlet of the stack'. As you arrive you can't miss the 19th century barometer pole which was used by local fishermen , a throwback to when the village was the largest herring station in Europe.
At one time up to 50 boats would gather in the small harbour which was the first port to 'salt the herring'. Today just a few small creel boats bob around just crying out to be photographed in their spectacular sea setting with a craggy stack as a backdrop.
This is a really special spot to while away an hour or two, chatting to locals, pottering about the rocks and spotting the marine wildlife that frequents this part of the coast.
Sample the drams at Pulteney Distillery
I'm ashamed to admit I haven't managed to tour Pulteney Distillery yet despite being a fan of their Old Pulteney whisky and going through a fair few bottles of their Stroma liqueur each year (see photo evidence!). In fact, I haven't even remembered to photograph the building when passing - travel blogger and whisky drinker fail!
Despite my own failings, visiting Wick's iconic distillery has to be of the top things to do in the town for those wanting to sample the local malt or for anyone wanting to immerse themselves in an authentic Scottish experience.
Founded during the height of Wick's herring boom in 1826, it is one of the most northerly Scotch whisky distilleries on the British mainland. Its coastal location brings a taste of the sea with salty notes running through the finished product which it is often called the 'maritime malt'.
Get a peek behind the scenes on one of their guided tours or book a tutored tasting masterclass.
Follow the Thomas Telford Trail
Born in 1757 in Dumfriesshire, Thomas Telford was one of the most eminent engineers of his time and in 1818 became the first President of the Institute of Civil Engineers. His work can be found all over the UK, with the Caledonian Canal and the Menai Suspension Bridge among his most famous creations.
He was a prolific designer and project manager, building piers, harbours, canals, churches and towns, including Pulteneytown in Wick. Pulteneytown was laid out by Thomas Telford for the British Fisheries Society and named after his patron, Sir William Pulteney, a former governor of the society. It was Telford's careful planning that helped the local herring industry to grow and flourish.
Pulteneytown was built on the south side of the river and was a separate settlement from Wick on the north of the river until 1902 when they merged as part of the Royal Burgh of Wick. It is thought to be the earliest planned industrial area in Scotland and is now protected as a conservation area.
There is a self-guided walking trail around the historic streets and harbour with information panels detailing the town's past. The rows of cottages are well preserved and it does feel like you have stepped back in time as you wander around.
Get a nature fix at Newton Hill Croft Community Woodland
I visit Wick on a pretty regular basis as I drive to and from Orkney, and Newton Hill Croft has become one of my favourite stops when I'm passing by. Not only is it a lovely green oasis near the town but its also perfect for walking Willow as it has an enclosed dog area where she can run around freely and sniff heather (and then pee on it!) until her heart's content.
When she's burnt off some steam, there is an easy walking trail to follow and although the woodland is still a work in progress as the trees continue to grow, it is a really pretty nature-filled spot. As the trees are still small, you can get a fantastic view across Caithness and all the way to Sutherland on a clear day.
There is a dipping pond ideal for kids, benches for a picnic and play equipment, making it a great place to visit for all ages.
Stand on the platform of Thrumster Station
Today it is only vehicles travelling on the adjacent road that that pass by Thrumster Station as the railline closed in 1944. However thanks to the Yarrows Heritage Trust, the building, platform, track and original sign have been restored. It is an eye-catching memorial to the short-lived Wick and Lybster light railway which opened in 1903 but never really fulfilled its purpose to expand the fishing trade and fell out of use when the modern road proved to be a quicker means of travel.
The building only survived as it was repurposed as a post office when the line closed. You can pick up a key locally to view the small exhibition inside. This is a quick stop that can be easily combined with a walk to Thrumster Mains Broch detailed below.
Feel the history at Thrumster Mains Broch
Caithness is undoubtedly broch central among the regions of Scotland, with more sites than anywhere else in the country. For those that don't know, brochs are Iron Age towers unique to Scotland, found mainly in the North Highlands & Islands. Their exact purpose is not fully understood although they follow a similar round design and were possibly fortified dwellings built as a display of status and wealth.
Not surprisingly there are quite a few within striking distance of Wick, Yarrowns Broch (see below) and Nybster Broch (approx 10 miles north of Wick) are two of my personal favourites, but Thrumster Mains is an easy one to visit if you're stopping in the town. It sits just off the driveway that takes you to Thrumster House, on the left hand side not far past the gatehouse.
Thought to date back to 300 BC, it stands on a site with evidence of human activity as early as 400 - 450 BC. Excavations have shown that the structure went through various phases of occupation, abandonment, modification, reoccupation and collapse over many centuries.
It appears that stones were removed for the construction and extension of Thrumster House, with others used to build a summer house. The remainder of the broch was landscaped to form a garden feature. It is a particularly special place to be when there is a fiery Caithness sunset as I discovered.
Discover Sarclet Harbour
If it wasn't for the fact that I booked a stay in a holiday cottage in Sarclet, it is likely I would never have discovered this little gem. I do have a habit of booking accommodation in places I'm not familiar with as I've found it generally leads to some fantastic off the beaten path discoveries and Sarclet Harbour is a case in point.
Although Thomas Telford first suggested this would be a good place to build a harbour in 1790, it wasn't until the late 1830s that a decent shelter for fishing boats was constructed and the surrounding village grew to a community of 450 as the fishing boom also created many associated jobs for gutters, net makers, coopers and carters.
However the growth was unsustainable as the harbour proved to be too small, with a third of the boats having to tie up in Wick which meant the fishermen had a long walk home along the clifftops. After a storm destroyed the harbour in 1870, the larger boats moved to Wick permanently, signalling the decline of Sarclet.
Today some of the old cottages remain, but most of the buildings in the small settlement are more recent and the harbour structures are ruinous. However the walk down to the sheltered rocky bay is gorgeous, as is the trail along the clifftops. When I visited in the summer, the wildflowers were in full bloom, adding some vivid colour to the dramatic seascape.
Step back in time on the Yarrows Archaeological Trail
I feel like I'm saving the best to last as this is one of the most incredible, but also one of the most under the radar things to do in the Wick area (in my opinion!). If you are a fan of ancient monuments, this is a must do walk in Caithness, in fact I would go as far as saying it is a must do walk in Scotland for ancient history (and that is coming from someone that lives in Orkney!). It is also a rewarding trail for anyone that loves hiking through wild, open moorland.
One wee disclaimer, although it is not a difficult hike, it is not an easy one either - the ground is uneven and very boggy in places, there are stiles and hills to climb, the path is not always obvious and it is not very well signposted in places. I definitely recommend walking boots and a sense of adventure before you embark on this one but I can also say that is definitely worth the effort.
On the 2.5 mile circular route you are surrounded by 250 ancient sites and will walk through 10,000 years of history. There are 7 marked monuments with interpretation boards on the route, including chambered tombs of various designs and ages, Bronze Age hut circles and the impressive remains of Yarrows Broch. I was absolutely wowed by this hike, the history, the landscape, the views and even Heilan' coos - what more could you want!
As much of the area is undeveloped, a real eerie sense of the past lingers in the air and this has to be one of my most memorable and recommended walking excursions in Scotland.
A HANDY MAP OF ALL THE LOCATIONS MENTIONED
Even more things to do around Wick
Just in case that list wasn't enough, here are a few more ideas
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Where to stay and what to do in Caithness
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