Whether you are already planning your visit to Sutherland and Caithness or just starting to dream about it, there are so many amazing ideas packed into this blog about where to go, what to see and how to enjoy the most from your time in the North Highlands, no matter the season.
With thanks to Alan and Yvonne from Ceol Mor Highland Lodges who have shared with us their favourite things about Sutherland and Caithness in autumn and winter from their many travels and adventures across the region.
They have so many more wonderful ideas and experiences to share, so be sure to check out their luxury lodges and get in touch if you'd like to enjoy a stay yourself.
Sunrises and sunsets
In the shoulder seasons, the sunrises and sunsets can be seen so much more easily due to the shorter days.
Winter ones for us are especially beautiful – watching them as we have our breakfast is a never ending treat. We love seeing a bit of still water and catching the reflections. The ‘afterburn’ that the low sun creates on the underside of the clouds is just stunning, like in the first photo.
In the autumn, the browns and oranges reflect the low light and create magical scenes. The quality of light is super special.
The Night Sky
Shorter days, means longer nights. Don't let these go to waste by staying indoors.
Use one of several apps (Aurora Watch UK or the Glendale App) to know if the Northern Lights are going to make a showing. There are loads of spots around Sutherland and Caithness where the lights can be seen. And don't forget to take your camera and tripod, as the camera will pick up the colours more than the human eye – this is because we usually see in black and white in the dark due to the part of the eye that is being used.
Even if the Northern Lights are not on show, take some time to watch the sky. You can see the Milky Way. Often we see Jupiter and Mars. These are things that we’ve never seen before as there is so little light pollution in Sutherland and Caithness. It’s truly wonderful.
Caithness and Sutherland have a rich history. This spreads across millennia - quite literally.
One of our favourite spots is Croick Church. This is infamous for scratchings in the windows made by desperate Highlanders who were being cleared from their land. Visiting these places out of the main season can add a bit mood to your photos – in the above photo we have sunshine and ‘lambing’ snow in April.
There are also super ancient brochs scattered around in remote locations – we love hunting these out. These brochs are a kind of Iron Age roundhouse found only in Scotland. They go back to hundreds of years BC. In the shoulder season, you find yourselves the only people here – take a moment and imagine how these ancient people lived.
One of the things we find really interesting – and sad – is the number of old buildings that have been abandoned over the years from communities that have melted away. Many in part due to the Highland Clearances.
From whole villages, to shepherds huts, to distilleries to school houses. They are often in truly amazing settings – but just not practical from a modern utility point of view.
There are some stunning ‘fancy’ castles to be found in Sutherland and Caithness.
Some have key royal connections, and some have played a key part in the history of the counties. We enjoy visiting these places just outside of the main seasons when they are quieter.
Beaches and Cliff Walks
Going to the beach is one of our top favourites – whatever the time of year. There are stunning beaches all over Sutherland and Caithness. Out of main season, you can find yourself your very own beach. It’s quite magical! Go east, west or north and you’ll find an amazing beach.
There are also many stunning walks by the beaches. Make sure you take your binoculars as there is an amazing variety of bird life on the shores. Spring is great especially as the breeding season has started and there is a particular abundance of birds.
The beaches and cliffs often have amazing features – like the Duncansby Stacks here in Caithness.
There are sea stacks on several beaches – especially across the north and west coasts. We like to head out to a beach that has some ‘extra’ features whether sea stacks, dunes or wildlife.
One of the places you must go to when in Caithness is Dunnet Head – the most northerly point of Mainland Britain. This is a must – just as Lands End is in the South West. There’s a lighthouse, and an amazing beach nearby at Dunnet Bay.
We like to explore hidden harbours. These are often full of little bits of history. Some have history from the world wars, others simply from times begone.
In the above photo is Whaligoe Steps – a fascinating relic from when herring fishing was a key part of the local economies. Life must have been pretty brutal for many back ‘in the day’.
The harbours often have lovely walks across cliff tops nearby. Due their nature, they make the best of natural sea defences that man has built upon. For us, it’s another brilliant opportunity for us to explore, admire the scenery and learn about the area we live in.
The waterfalls are best seen in the shoulder seasons. Whether after rainfall or snow melt – they are often just awesome. Many are truly exhilarating. Be prepared to get soaked by the spray as they cascade over cliffs and thunder through gorges. Make sure you stay safe though. The first photo is the Wailing Widow.
We love the adventure of finding the waterfalls. Many are close to a road or path but still require a bit of ‘hunting’ down. Pictured is the Alltnacaillich waterfall which is one of the most remote ones we’ve discovered. There’s a sense of achievement when we discover them.
There are some stunning woodland walks around us – these we particularly enjoy in the shoulder seasons. Either to see the beautiful colours of Autumn or the fresh colours of Spring. Also, it’s lovely to be free of the midgies on these walks outside of the summer.
Many of the wooded walks have lovely streams (burns) running through them. Like the waterfalls, these are so much better to see in the Spring and Autumn.
Here we’re on the Carbisdale trails which has to be our top favourite as it’s so varied with the burn, forest, high point views, a pretty lochan and even a battle site.
The environment where we live is so full of nature and taking part in foraging experiences that can be booked in the Autumn is incredible.
The variety of edible things growing in what many would call a harsh environment is a real eye opener. Fungi, berries, nuts, leaves…the list goes on. We love to learn and these experiences are an amazing opportunity to do just that.
Wildlife and Birdlife
An absolute favourite of ours is seeing the wildlife and birdlife. We’re really blessed with such a variety. The first photo is of a White Tailed Eagle with a chick. It’s such a delicate balance to be in the position of taking a photo like this (with a long lens) and being sure not to disturb the birds. We even see these birds from our house on occasion. We really feel privileged.
Just seeing a buzzard sitting on top of a telegraph pole is something we love to see – and it’s pretty common. We are always scanning the high points as there’ll often be a beauty sitting on top looking for its next meal. It's wonderful to see nature in action.
The winter is great for seeing animals like the otter – there’s a greater chance of seeing them as their feeding opportunities are reduced, but the challenge is finding them. You've got to keep your peepers peeled and there’s a good chance of being rewarded with something special.
Deer are a common sight throughout Caithness and Sutherland. In the summer months they tend to stay higher up on the hills so you may have to keep your eyes peeled to spot them, but in the autumn and winter months they descend into the glens and are everywhere.
Seeing them in the snow is a special sight that is really magical – it makes use feel we’re living somewhere else.
Unusual and Quirky Things
Whenever we hear about something unusual to see, it goes straight to the top of our list of things to see. In the first photo we have the ‘Unknown’. Hidden in Borgie Glen there is an 8’ iron skeleton on a hill top. It's really a little scary! And, why??? We read that it was in memory of a man who was eaten to the bone by midgies...
Whether discovering by accident or on purpose, the quirky things are amazing finds and they add a real sense of fun to our adventures.
Finding a strange thing on a beach is one of the best things. A deserted beach outside the summer with a Hermit’s Castle looking out to sea is pretty surreal. Really, why on earth would someone do this? Absolutely fascinating and we LOVE it.
We drive to Lairg a lot – for a great restaurant The Pier, a post office, shop and all sorts of community stuff going on. It’s also the ‘Crossroads of the North’ and as such we often drove through on the way to somewhere. The ‘Wee Hoos’ is a real eye catcher – either in the swirling mists, lit up at Christmas or just when the water is like a mirror.
An enormous part of our adventures is just the driving to where we want to go. The scenery is breath-taking. We are frequently stopping in a layby or parking spot to admire the scenery and take a photo. In the shoulder seasons, the roads are quieter and there can be unspoilt miles with hardly another vehicle to be seen.
There is EPIC scenery all the time. Seeing snow capped mountains, mirror like lochs, glorious sun rises and sun sets from the road side where you often get a view that is never going to be the same another moment is a fabulous experience that we live for on all our adventures.
There are iconic land marks on many of the drives. The Kylesku bridge is just one we often see. We like to have a spot of lunch at the Kylesku hotel and have also had an amazing anniversary meal there. Going for a walk over the bridge is a must!
Which is best – Suilven or Cul Mor? Both are fabulous mountains to see on a trip out west. The snow-covered mountains are so pretty. I think we like Cul Mor best – after all we have climbed this one and it’s similar to our name Ceol Mor. It feels like we’re on another planet when we drive past these in the winter.
Rainbows and more
Inevitably, it does rain a fair bit in Sutherland and Caithness. However, the sun shines a lot too. We never tire of seeing fabulous rainbows across the glens and hills.
We have even seen a lunar rainbow – known as a Moonbow. Quite a rare thing to see and mostly likely seen in the Autumn.
Using our drone, we have also captured an Icebow on camera. The sights that the weather phenomena show us is awesome.
Where We Live and Our Community
One of the things we truly love best about where we live is our community, friends and the special places we meet up. The Pier in Lairg is a popular place for us to have a meal or even just a coffee or hot chocolate. There is always something going on. The community spirit here is surely second to none.
Living in the Kyle of Sutherland area is fantastic to be surrounded by stunning nature and an amazing community. The shoulder seasons are when the scenery really shows character and we never cease to be amazed by the sights we see.