On the rugged north coast of Scotland, perched on an exposed hilltop overlooking the Kyle of Tongue, is Castle Varrich. With just a quick walk from the village of Tongue, a small ruin with a rich history is found. The walk to Castle Varrich provides incredible highland views and an opportunity to discover more about Highland life. In particular, that of the Clan Mackay and their ancestral castle. A stop-off at Castle Varrich is certainly a must along the NC500.

In this guide, we’ll give a brief history of Varrich Castle and its connections to the Clan Mackay of Scotland. We’ll also look at how to get to the castle, where to park and give a brief description of the trail. Lastly, we’ll look at accommodation options and other things to do around the Kyle of Tongue and this section of the NC500.

To see footage of the Castle Varrich walk in Scotland, please watch our NC500 Hikes YouTube production. For your convenience, when you press play below, the video will start exactly at the section showing Castle Varrich. Though, feel free to watch more for some North Coast 500 inspiration.

For other great attractions and hikes along the NC500 in Scotland, check out our guides on Wailing Widow Falls, The Bone Caves and Duncansby Head. Otherwise, read our Complete Guide to Hikes Along the NC500 post, where we talk about 18 fantastic NC500 hikes.

Caisteal Bharraich, Tongue

Castle Varrich, or Caisteal Bharraich in Gaelic, is a small two-storey tower house. The castle sits on a hilly promontory, known as An Garbh Chnoc, overlooking the Kyle of Tongue. The walls of Castle Varrich were originally at least 1.2m thick. Now what’s left is a tidy castle ruin, with the addition of a thoughtfully built iron staircase from the ground floor. This leads visitors to a spectacular viewing platform form. From here, you can enjoy the castle itself, whilst also appreciating the landscape around the Kyle of Tongue.

The stunning landscape of which Castle Varrich in Tongue sits has been recognised and awarded National Scenic Area status. There are 40 such areas in Scotland, with Loch Maree on the NC500 being another.

The origins of Castle Varrich are thought to stretch back thousands of years. Originally, the first structure built on the site was that of an old Norse fort. Certainly, the Clan Mackay likely built their castle on top of the existing Norse fort, with the chief of Clan Mackay calling the castle home. Additionally, there are caves under Castle Varrich that the Mackays once inhabited, also.

Standing on the viewing platform gives you a real sense of how the mountainscape would have looked during these brief moments in history.

Mackay Clan Scotland

So, who are the Mackay Clan in Scotland? Well, the Clan Mackay was an ancient clan of the Scottish Highlands. They lived in the northernmost regions of the country, mostly inhabiting the areas around Strathnaver. This territory was also known as Mackay Country, because of the association with the clan. Castle Varrich was the ancestral seat of Clan Mackay, becoming the Mackay Clan Castle.

Historically, Clan MacKay was one of the most powerful of the ancient Highland clans. They fought in many battles. These were both with neighbouring clans and against the rebelling Jacobite forces.

Views across the Kyle of Tongue from the Mackay Clan Castle

How to Get to Castle Varrich

Castle Varrich is certainly an easy stop along the A838 portion of the NC500. If travelling from the west, you’ll reach Tongue Village initially via Tongue Bridge. You should look out for excellent views of Castle Varrich as you cross over the Kyle of Tongue.

If you want to visit Castle Varrich from Inverness for a day trip, it’s possible to shoot straight up through the centre of the Highlands. It’s a 92 mile (148km) journey and will likely take around 2.5 hours to drive.

You can reach the village of Tongue and walk to Castle Varrich via public transport from Thurso. Thurso is the largest and most inhabited town on the north coast of Scotland. From Thurso, take bus 803 to Talmine, alighting at Tongue. The journey takes around 1.5 hours. You can check the bus timetable here.

Getting to Castle Varrich, or any of the attractions along the NC500 in Scotland, is certainly easiest with your own vehicle. 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.

Where to Park For Castle Varrich

You can find parking for the walk to Castle Varrich at a small car park opposite the Ben Loyal Hotel in Tongue. There’s room for perhaps 10 cars max. But, as the walk is so short you should be fine for a spot at whatever time of day you arrive.

Castle Varrich Walk Overview

The short walk to Castle Varrich, or the Mackay Clan Castle, has quickly become a popular stop along Scotland’s NC500 (North Coast 500). The Clan Mackay Castle ruins are easily reached via a well-laid footpath. The picturesque trail leads up to the wild headland overlooking the vast Kyle of Tongue. Indeed, as a quick pit stop to stretch the legs for a couple of hours, Castle Varrich is an ideal visit.

The Mackay Clan Castle on the Kyle of Tongue

Castle Varrich Walking Route Map

  • Trail Type: Out & Back
  • Distance: 3.1km
  • Time: 1 hour
  • Accumulated elevation gain: 110m
  • Difficulty: Very Easy
  • Trailhead: Castle Varrich Parking
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Walk Description

Firstly, cross the road from the car park and take the trail down the right-hand side of the Ben Loyal Hotel. The path is clear and there is a sign at the trailhead saying ‘Castle Varrich’.

The trail heads straight down towards Rhian Burn, a river running out into the Kyle of Tongue. At the end of this open trail, the path veers left, running alongside the burn, before taking a sharp right and then crossing a bridge over Rhian Burn. The views from the centre of the bridge and towards the Kyle of Tongue are splendid. Of course, in the opposite direction, you might just catch the jagged peaks of Ben Loyal in the distance.

On the other side of the bridge, the trail gently twists and turns as it begins to make its way uphill. Views of Castle Varrich become clearer. For Dan and I, the castle looked quite spectacular set against the August heather growing on the hillside.

Castle Varrich Viewing Platform

Eventually, you’ll arrive at the castle itself. Castle Varrich, or what’s left of it, is quite easily one of the smallest castle ruins you’ll see in Scotland. Certainly, it could be easy to feel underwhelmed. But, what it lacks in grandeur it more than makes up for in a rich history. Surely, from the top, are some of the most beautiful, far-reaching Highland views.

A steel spiral staircase has been installed at Castle Varrich to allow a safe and secure entry into the small tower. It leads up to the top of the castle, from where there are extensive views over the Kyle of Tongue.

Views from the Mackay Clan ruins on the Kyle of Tongue

After enjoying the views and becoming a member of the Clan Mackay for a quick blink in history, simply retrace your steps the way you came to complete this short walk.

Dan and I, of course, enjoyed a bit of speed hiking on the walk to and from Castle Varrich.

What’s speed hiking? It’s a great way to cover a trail faster, for fun! Find out more about speed hiking here.

Kyle of Tongue Accommodation

Staying a night or two along this northern stretch of Scotland is a truly wonderful experience. With views across the Kyle of Tongue and in the shadow of Ben Hope and Ben Loyal, it’s surely Scotland at its finest. Below, we’ll take a look at the best budget, mid-range and luxury options in the Tongue area.

  • Budget Kildinguie: The Kildinguie is a small holiday home in Tongue Village. The property features two bedrooms and a spacious kitchen and seating area. It’s the perfect location for hiking, enjoying views across the Kyle of Tongue and, of course, the short walk to Castle Varrich.
  • Mid-range The Tongue Hotel: for a traditional hotel decorated with period features, you’ll love The Tongue Hotel. The location is fantastic and only matched, perhaps, by the Scottish breakfast in the mornings.
  • Luxury Smithy House: this holiday home has three bedrooms and is centrally located in Tongue Village. The Smithy House offers guests a truly comfortable stay, with the addition of excellent views out to sea, which you can enjoy from the private garden.

Kyle of Tongue Hostel

For travellers on a super strict budget, the Kyle of Tongue Hostel could be a perfect choice. This old Shooting Lodge, developed into the hostel it is today, is located immediately after the Tongue Bridge as you cross the Kyle of Tongue. Its location is fantastic with some wonderful views. Meals and breakfast can be booked additionally, with a range of rooms to choose from.

In addition to hostel accommodation, the property also offers camping facilities! The campsite really couldn’t be a more convenient stop along the NC500.

Other Attractions Nearby

  • Smoo Cave: the exceptional Smoo Cave has an incredible hidden waterfall inside.
  • Ben Loyal: the views from Castle Varrich across to Ben Loyal are quite something. But, I dare say, the views from Ben Loyal down across the Kyle of Tongue and Castle Varrich are equally as spectacular. Plus, this is a great option to explore more of this north coast of Scotland, especially if you love hiking!
  • Ben Hope: the most northerly of Scotland’s Munros brings you to the short but steep Ben Hope. A very popular hike indeed. 
  • Balnakeil Beach: Scotland’s beaches are some of the most beautiful and pristine in the entire UK, and Balnakeil is up there with the best of them.
  • Sango Sands: another one of Scotland’s best beaches.
sango sands scotland
Sango Sands Beach

FAQs

Below we’ll answer some of the most frequently asked questions regarding Castle Varrich and the short walk to reach the ruins.

Who Owns Castle Varrich?

Despite its interesting history as the ancestral seat of the Mackay Clan, Castle Varrich is now owned by the Danish billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen. The castle sits on the Ben Loyal Estate, which Anders Holch Povlsen owns. But, what’s great, is that he’s put money towards the restoration of Varrich Castle.

How Old Is Castle Varrich?

The original date of Castle Varrich in Scotland is unknown. Though, what is known, is that it was used by the Clan Mackay from the 14th century. In addition, it’s likely the Mackay Castle is built on top of an old Norse fort. 

How Long Is the Castle Varrich Walk?

It takes little more than 20–30 minutes to walk from the car park at the Ben Loyal Pub to the Castle ruins of Varrich. The trail is a short distance of 1.5km, or, 3km return

Did the Mackay Clan Fight at Culloden?

Yes, they did. They fought against the Jacobites on the side of the British government army.

Did the Mackay Clan Have a Castle?

Castle Varrich may have been the main Clan seat of the Mackays, but they also lived at Borve Castle and Tongue House.

What Visitor Facilities Are There at Castle Varrich?

Very little. There are no public toilets, although the trailhead is in Tongue Village and so you’ll find a few spots for food and drink there. Varrich Castle is open 24 hours a day so you can visit whenever you like.

The walk to Castle Varrich

Other Sutherland Castles

Of course, this is Scotland, and there are plenty of castles to find. Here’s our pick of the best of the Sutherland Castles in Scotland, which are easy to reach along the NC500.

  • Dunrobin Castle: this fairytale castle has been the ancestral home of the Dukes and Duchesses of Sutherland for centuries. It’s completely magical.
  • Castle Sinclair Girnigoe: located a little north of Wick and not far from Duncansby Head is Castle Sinclair Girnigoe, Scotland. The stone ruin is made up of two former castles – the 15th century Castle Girnigoe and the 17th century Castle Sinclair.
  • Castle of Mey: this castle was lovingly restored by Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, and used as a holiday residence up until her death. Since then, the late Queen Elizabeth II opened it up to the public between May and September.
  • Ardvreck Castle: a beautiful castle ruin located on the banks of Loch Assynt and owned by another ancient clan of Scotland, the Macleods of Assynt.
Dunrobin Castle NC500
Dunrobin Castle

Hiking Essentials For the Castle Varrich Walk

These are our five hiking gear essentials for the Castle Varrich walk in Scotland! 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.

Hiking Essential


Why do you need this?

See it in action


These hiking boots are comfortable and well suited to the rugged terrain of walks on the NC500

This camera is hands down the best compact digital camera on the market. Lightweight, compact and durable, the Sony Cybershot RX100 VII takes fantastic photos and high-quality 4K videos

Don't even dream of going outdoors in Scotland without a rain jacket. Especially up on the north coast

A great backpack for hiking, which has plenty of storage capacity and a great size for carrying extra layers incase of chilly north coast winds

The DJI Mavic Air 2 is an awesome drone that takes incredible aerial footage.

Visiting Tips

  • Golden hour: visit at sunset for some truly spectacular views of Castle Varrich and the Kyle of Tongue against an orange-tinged sky.
  • Bird twitching: it’s possible to birdwatch from Castle Varrich’s viewing platform, so pack the binoculars.
  • History: if you want to know more about the history of Clan Mackay, Castle Varrich and the Kyle of Tongue, you can read here. After all, I’m a hiker, not a historian.
Castle Varrich pinterest

For more UK hiking content, check out our West Highlands, Cornwall and Brecon Beacons guides.


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