For a fantastic stop along the NC500 (North Coast 500) in Scotland you should consider a walk to the wonderful ruins of Castle Sinclair Girnigoe. Situated on the Noss Head headland, with views across Sinclair’s Bay, you’ll find a quick and easy walk to this history-filled castle. To help with discovering the bygone time, there are plenty of information boards detailing the former life of this incredible castle and its owners, the Clan Sinclair, in the northeast highlands of Scotland.
In this guide, we’ll tell you a little about Castle Sinclair Girnigoe, where it is and how to get there. Afterwards, we’ll tell you about the walk. Following that, we’ll suggest some places to stay nearby, other things to do in the area and answer some commonly asked questions about the castle.
Castle Sinclair Girnigoe sits in Caithness in northeastern Scotland. To see footage of the wild landscape here, please watch our NC500 Hikes YouTube production.
For other great castle walks along the NC500 in Scotland, check out our guides on Old Keiss Castle and Castle Varrich. Otherwise, read our Complete Guide to Hikes Along the NC500 post, where we talk about 18 great NC500 hikes.
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About Castle Sinclair Girnigoe
Castle Sinclair Girnigoe has a rich history. Originally built in 1476, the castle was the main seat of the Clan Sinclairs. The castle is made up of two castles, so to speak. The first is Castle Girnigoe, followed by the extension of Castle Sinclair in the early 17th century. At this time, George Sinclair, the 5th Earl, requested for the castle to become permanently known as only Castle Sinclair. But, as both names were written down, it became known as Castle Sinclair Girnigoe.
Amongst the castles’ history is the gruesome story of the 4th Earl imprisoning his son for 7 years at Castle Sinclair Girnigoe. After suspecting him of rebelling against his rule, the son was locked up and fed only salted beef and no water, causing him to die of madness. And, I assume, lack of water!
The 6th Earl transferred the castle to Sir John Campbell of Glenorchy due to heavy debts. As such, Castle Sinclair Girnigoe has undergone many a siege and seen plenty of battles as the Sinclairs fought to regain ownership over the years.
Today, the Sinclair family still own the castle. Additionally, a trust was formed to deal with the Castle Sinclair Girnigoe restoration and preservation. On top of that, the castle, found on Noss Head, is also the only castle in Scotland to be listed by the World Monuments Fund. This means the organisation is committed to the preservation of the historic castle. Good news for us walkers and sightseers.
Where Is Castle Sinclair Girnigoe?
Castle Sinclair Girnigoe is located around 4 miles (6.5km) north of Wick in the Caithness region of northeast Scotland. The castle ruins look out over Sinclair’s Bay and beyond into the wild waters of the North Sea. The splendid Castle Sinclair sits on the northern edges of the Noss Head headland, where you can find the lighthouse of the same name.
View Castle Sinclair Girnigoe here.
How to Get to Castle Sinclair Girnigoe
The closest major town to Castle Sinclair Girnigoe is Wick. Travelling north out of Wick, you’ll follow the coastal road past Staxigoe all the way to Noss Head headland and the car park for Castle Sinclair Girnigoe.
If travelling to Castle Sinclair Girnigoe by public transport, you should first head to Wick, where you can then take a longer coastal walk (described below) to reach the castle ruins on Sinclair’s Bay.
Getting to Wick is fairly straightforward. From Inverness, you can shoot straight up to Wick via train. You can check the timetables here. Alternatively, you can catch a bus. From the north coast at Thurso, you can take bus 82 and from John o’ Groats take bus 77. Journey times are 45 and 30 minutes, respectively.
Of course, the easiest and most straightforward way to travel through the northern reaches of Scotland and complete the NC500 is with your own set of wheels.
If you don’t have access to your own car/motorbike/camper, then we really recommend hiring something. If hiring a car on a trip, we always get the ball rolling with a search on RentalCars.com. Booking a car with Rentalcars.com is easy and stress-free, plus they offer an unbeatable free cancellation policy too.
Castle Sinclair Girnigoe Car Park
You’ll find the Castle Sinclair Girnigoe Car Park along the road to Noss Head Lighthouse. The car park is free of charge with ample parking space. It’s not possible to camp overnight in the car park though. Please only use the car park for your visit to Castle Sinclair Girnigoe. You can find its location, here.
For a short walk to one of Scotland’s finest castle ruins, the 2km out and back walk to Castle Sinclair Girnigoe is an excellent option. Especially if you’re travelling along the epic NC500. Castle Sinclair Girnigoe is open 24 hours a day and is free to visit and so makes it extremely convenient to fit into a packed-out NC500 itinerary. The trail is flat, the views across Sinclair’s Bay wonderful and the castle ruins very enjoyable to explore. In fact, a visit to Castle Sinclair Girinigoe is a fantastic way to spend an hour or so in Scotland.
Castle Sinclair Girnigoe Walk Map & Preview
- Trail Type: Out & Back
- Distance: 2km
- Time: 0.5–1 hour
- Accumulated elevation gain: 25m
- Difficulty: Very Easy
- Trailhead: Noss Head Car Park
- Map: Wikiloc
Castle Sinclair Girnigoe Walk Description
From the Castle Sinclair Girnigoe Car Park, cross over Noss Head Drive Road, and walk down the long trail towards the coast. The trail is exposed and the views out across Sinclair’s Bay are beautiful. The Noss Head promontory is flat (for Scottish standards) and on a clear day, views should be fairly uninterrupted.
As the trail begins to round towards Castle Sinclair Girnigoe, you’ll pass a series of information boards. Certainly, you should halt the walk to have a read. You’ll get used to seeing these boards dotted throughout the walk and castle. Also, around this point, you can take a short grassy offshoot towards the cliff edge of Sinclair’s Bay. Here, you might just spot some playful seals frolicking on the rocky platforms at the base of the cliff edge. Also, you’ll get to enjoy some of the incredibly layered sea stacks that look particularly wonderful along the east coast of Scotland.
Castle Sinclair Girnigoe, Wick
After retracing your steps to the main trail, it’s onwards to the castle. The trail follows to the left of the castle before it swings around at the northern end to meet a wooden bridge. As you walk alongside Castle Sinclair Girnigoe, you’ll get a real sense of the size and grandeur of this once magnificent seat of power. If you’re travelling the NC500 in a clockwise direction, like Dan and I, you’ll probably have passed much smaller castle ruins like those of Old Keiss Castle and Castle Varrich. Castle Sinclair Girnigoe is much larger, with much more to explore.
The main entrance to Castle Sinclair Girnigoe crosses a wooden bridge. This leads you through the main entrance into the castle ruins. Once inside the castle, you’re free to explore the ruins as you please. Although, be mindful, some areas of the castle may be fenced off at different times as restoration work takes place.
As you meander the castle, you’ll read various information boards, giving interesting and informative facts about the ruins. The lookouts over Sinclair’s Bay through the stone windows give an idea of just how wildlife on this exposed stretch of land must have been.
Noss Head Landscape and Sinclair’s Bay
Outside of Castle Sinclair Girnigoe is equally as interesting too. The landscape, weathered and battered by the rough North Sea in Sinclair’s Bay, has shaped the rocky coastline over thousands of years. The pastry layer rocks create defensive outposts. If you wander down below the castle, between the ruins and the hilltop path that leads to the ruins, you’ll find an enclosed little bay.
The bay is rocky but you can see just how convenient this defensive natural harbour into Sinclair’s Bay would have been. It’s not long before your imagination will be whisking you away to centuries past, imagining the hustle and bustle of all that might have been going on here, long ago.
Once you’ve enjoyed your Castle Sinclair Girnigoe exploration, simply retrace your steps back to the car park.
The short walk and interesting castle ruins at Sinclair Girnigoe are one of the best stops along the east coast section of the NC500. The sizeable ruins, full of intrigue are the perfect way to discover more of the history of the Scottish Highlands. After all, Scotland is littered with castles. So, it would surely be rude not to visit one of two as you journey through this marvellous country.
You can make the visit to Castle Sinclair Girnigoe a longer walk if you like. To do so, you will begin the walk in Staxigoe, just north of Wick. A coastal path will lead you along the exceptionally picturesque cliff top towards Noss Head. You should see the lighthouse from some distance away. Once at Noss Head, and having enjoyed the lighthouse views, continue along the coast towards Castle Sinclair Girnigoe.
Nearest Accommodation to Castle Sinclair Girnigoe
Given the proximity of Wick to Noss Head and Castle Sinclair Girnigoe, you won’t struggle for accommodation options in this part of Scotland. Below, we’ll take a look at the best budget, mid-range and luxury options.
- Budget – Nethercliffe Hotel: located in downtown Wick is the popular Nethercliffe Hotel. Here, guests enjoy views across Wick Bay and of course, a hearty Scottish breakfast.
- Mid-range – MacArthur House Bed & Breakfast: the MacArthur House Bed & Breakfast is in an excellent location near the waterfront in Wick. Guests love the clean rooms and fantastic breakfast. Plus, the free parking is a win too.
- Luxury – Lighthouse Keeper’s Cottage: to experience what life would have been like living on the Noss Head headland, you can’t go wrong with a stay at the Lighthouse Keeper’s Cottage. Albeit much warmer and comfier than castle life hundreds of years ago. The holiday cottage is well-equipped. Additionally, views across Sinclair’s Bay from the private garden are spectacular.
Keiss Castle Camping Options
If you want to camp close to Castle Sinclair Girnigoe, then we’ve heard you can find a campsite close to the Noss Head Car Park. You’ll see signs for it at the car park itself. You can’t book a spot, it’s first come first served. This campsite doesn’t currently display on Google, so it may be temporary.
Alternatively, you’ll find Sinclair Bay Camper & Caravan Parkup and Wick River Campsite close by. Sinclair Bay, in particular, is in good proximity to Old Keiss Castle.
Can You Visit Castle Sinclair?
Yes! In fact, it’s an absolute must. As described above, the walk is short and beautiful and the castle ruins are themselves superb. A quick stop here is a great choice.
Where Does the Sinclair Clan Come From?
Most historians agree that the Clan Sinclair originally came from Normandy, as the Saint-Clairs. Eventually, over the years, they became the Sinclairs, a major Scottish Clan.
Where Is the Sinclair Clan Located in Scotland?
The Clan Sinclair owned lands in the northernmost reaches of Scotland. These include Caithness, the Orkney Islands and Lothian. The clan chiefs were Barons of Roslin and later the Earls of Orkney and Caithness. Their primary ancestral seat was located at this castle on the Noss Head headland.
What Are Castle Sinclair Girnigoe Opening Times?
Castle Sinclair Girnigoe is open all year round, 24 hours a day. It’s also free to enter, although donations are welcome.
What Visitor Facilities Are There at Castle Sinclair Girnigoe?
There are no facilities at Castle Sinclair Girnigoe. A visit to the castle will likely be a quick stop, and any food, drink or comfort breaks can be made in nearby Wick.
Who Owns Castle Sinclair Girnigoe?
The Clan Sinclair Trust manages the castle. Admission to the castle is free, though there is an honesty box at the trailhead to the castle, where you can leave a donation to the trust. This goes towards the upkeep, preservation and restoration of the castle.
When Was Castle Sinclair Girnigoe Built?
The earliest model of Castle Sinclair Girnigoe was built around 1476. Further expansion happened in 1606. This is when the names Girnigoe and Sinclair merged to be one castle.
Things to Do Nearby Castle Sinclair Girnigoe in Scotland
- Noss Head Lighthouse: Noss Head Lighthouse is a stone’s throw away and enjoys fantastic views of Sinclair’s Bay and the North Sea.
- Old Keiss Castle: another stunning castle ruin overlooking Sinclair’s Bay, just north of Castle Sinclair Girnigoe. Old Keiss Castle is worth a look in as you travel along the NC500.
- Duncansby Head: the most northeasterly point of mainland Britain is home to some astonishing sea stacks and plenty of birdlife, such as puffins. We loved Duncansby Head.
- The Wick Heritage Museum: discover the history of Wick and the industries that made this remote little town thrive at the Wick Heritage Museum.
- Pultenay Distillery Co.: because Scotland is the home of whisky, so it makes sense to pop into at least one distillery as you tour the country. Old Pultenay is on the outskirts of Wick.
- Ebenezer Place (the world’s shortest street): it’s 2.05m long. Be careful you don’t walk straight past it! Location found here.
Hiking Essentials For Castle Sinclair Girnigoe
These are our five hiking gear essentials for the Castle Sinclair Girnigoe walk at Noss Head! For a more extensive hiking gear list, check out our 66 Travel Accessories That You Must Travel With. Alternatively, for a general summary of everything you’d need for a trip to Scotland and the North Coast 500, visit our Ultimate Packing Checklist.
- Merrell Moab Mid Gore-Tex Hiking Boots: these hiking boots are super comfortable and lightweight.
- The North Face Venture Jacket: a fantastic windproof/waterproof jacket.
- Osprey Skarab 30L Day Backpack: a great backpack for hiking, which has plenty of space to store your gear.
- The North Face TKA Glacier Fleece Jacket: an excellent warmth:weight ratio fleece jacket that’ll help keep you warm.
- Columbia Convertible Trousers: a value for money pair of water-resistant convertible trousers.
- Sunrise: sitting on the northeast coast of Scotland, watching a sunrise over the ruins of Castle Sinclair Girnigoe is an amazing experience.
- Castle Sinclair Girnigoe Game of Thrones: although Castle Sinclair Girnigoe looks like a castle straight out of Game of Thrones, it wasn’t in fact ever used as a set. For a castle used in GoT, you should visit Doune Castle. This castle was also used in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
- Girnigoe pronunciation: The correct pronunciation of Girnigoe is actually very straightforward. Gur-ney-go is said as it’s spelled and comes from a Norse word meaning a rocky inlet or ravine next to the sea.
- Discover Caithness: why not explore more of the extraordinary Caithness landscape and seascape with a tour of the Orkney Isles or a wildlife cruise from John o’ Groats? Certainly, Get Your Guide offer some fantastic excursions below.
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