A short walk along the rugged coastline of the northeastern tip of Scotland brings you to Old Keiss Castle. This splendid castle ruin sits precariously on the cliff edge, ready to crumble at any moment into the wild waters of the North Sea. The walk from Keiss Harbour follows a desolate Highlands beach landscape in the Caithness wilderness, to bring you to one of the most charming castles along the NC500 (North Coast 500).
In this guide, we’ll give you a brief overview of what and where Keiss Castle in Scotland is. In addition, we’ll detail how to get to Keiss Castle and provide a little description of the walk. Afterwards, we’ll finish with some accommodation options, where to eat and drink as well as answer some commonly asked questions about Keiss Castle.
To see footage of the wild landscape of Caithness in Scotland, where you’ll find Keiss Castle, then 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 and the beginning of our NC500 road trip into the Caithness area. Though feel free to watch more for some North Coast 500 inspiration.
For other great natural attractions and hikes in Scotland, check out our guides on The Falls Of Kirkaig, 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.
About Keiss Castle
Keiss Castle stands hauntingly on a small promontory along the Keiss Beach coastline. Its current form is a shadow of its former glory. And yet, somehow it still manages to evoke enough historical grandeur to give a glimpse of how magnificent this tower house would have once been.
The castle, just a short walk from Keiss Harbour, is constructed over three levels. There are two roundhouses at opposing corners since Keiss Castle follows the common Z plan castle designs popular in England and Scotland.
The first mention in the history books of Keiss Castle is in 1623. George Sinclair, Fifth Earl of Caithness defied the King and so Sir Robert Gordon was sent to deal with the Earl. In what followed, all of the Sinclair castles were captured. Furthermore, George Sinclair retreated to the Orkney Isles.
With all that being said, at some point, the castles including Keiss, were returned to the fifth Earl’s son. After some ensuing years of land disputes, Keiss Castle was eventually bought by Sir William Sinclair in 1710. Certainly, he was responsible for the building of New Keiss Castle, or Keiss House. And Old Keiss Castle was left to ruin.
Where Is Keiss Castle?
Old Keiss Castle lies in the northernmost reaches of Scotland. The exposed tower house is slowly being eroded by the crashing waves of the North Sea as it batters the Keiss Beach coastline. Sat on a small promontory on Sinclair’s Bay, Keiss Castle is as hauntingly fairytale looking in person as it is in pictures.
Falling within the Caithness region of Scotland, Keiss Castle lies just 8 miles (13km) north of Wick, and 8 miles (13km) south of John o’ Groats.
Further south around the headland, passing by Keiss Beach and harbour is Castle Sinclair Girnigoe. This is another well-known Caithness Castle along the NC500. The Sinclair family owned both castles.
How to Get to Keiss Castle
You can access Keiss Castle in Scotland from either Keiss Harbour or Keiss village. Keiss is a very small place, and so you’ll find ample parking on the High Street, which runs through the centre of the village. From High Street, walk down towards Keiss Harbour. But, at the final bend in the road that turns right down to the harbour, you should take a small trail that leads into grassy fields on the left.
Dan and I actually found parking here. There’s not much space, but it’s possible to pull in and park up around this bend. It’s next door to the Sinclair Bay Lodges.
To get to Keiss, you’ll follow the A99 from either direction. Dan and I were completing the NC500 in a clockwise direction, and so we headed south to Keiss Castle after visiting Duncansby Head, on the northeasternmost tip of Scotland.
If you want to visit Keiss Castle by public transport, you should travel from Wick. From Wick, you’ll take bus 77 towards Gills, and alight along the A99 once you arrive at the turn-off for Keiss. The walk down to Keiss Harbour and the trailhead is about 5–10 minutes.
Without a doubt, reaching Keiss Castle, 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.
Keiss Castle Walk Preview
- Trail Type: Out & Back
- Distance: 1.9km
- Time: 0.5 hours
- Accumulated elevation gain: 10m
- Difficulty: Very Easy
- Trailhead: Keiss Harbour
Keiss Castle Walk
The coastal walk to Old Keiss Castle is not a challenging or long trail. At around 1.9km, this coastal walk is certainly short and sweet. With barely any elevation gain, you’ll likely finish this adventure in less than half an hour. You can expect a quiet walk with lovely ocean views, soaring seabirds and interesting castle ruins.
Leaving the road winding down towards Keiss Harbour, you’ll take the footpath to the left, behind the Sinclair Bay Lodges. Here, the grassy trail cuts across the wild fields and you’ll be able to catch sight of Keiss Castle up ahead.
Follow along the cliff edge, where views over the rocky sea platforms on Keiss Beach and out across Sinclair’s Bay are particularly impressive. En route to Keiss Castle, keep a look out to your left. You’ll pass by Keiss Broch and Whitegate Broch.
What’s a Broch?
A broch is a drystone hollow-walled structure. They are traditionally found in Scotland and date back to the Iron Age. They are roundhouse structures that were, most likely, used for defensive purposes. But, the origins of the broch are often up for debate.
Eventually, you’ll reach Old Keiss Castle, cutting a lonely figure as it occupies a tiny promontory that sticks out across Keiss Beach and into Sinclair’s Bay.
Old Keiss Castle
Old Keiss Castle is not safe to walk around. This much is evident, even without the addition of metal railings erected to keep visitors out. Still, it’s wonderful to marvel at from the entrance. The crumbling ruins give off tiny glimpses of its former use and your mind can’t help but dream up and romanticise just what Keiss Castle may have looked like back in time.
You can walk up and down the coastal trail to capture differing views of the ruins, which, incredibly, does seem to morph and change shape depending on which angle you look at it.
If you look behind the ruins across the grass, you’ll spot Keiss House. Often dubbed as ‘New Keiss Castle‘, this grand home was built as a replacement for Old Keiss Castle. New Keiss Castle was built in 1755. Additionally, further extensions were made in 1860 by David Bryce. As this is now privately owned, it’s not possible to visit. But, you can enjoy the views of it from Old Keiss Castle’s coastal path.
It’s possible to keep walking along this stretch of coast to reach Nybster Broch and the Caithness Broch Centre. Alternatively, it’s possible to start the walk to Keiss Castle from Nybster Broch, parking at the Mystery Broch Car Park, and complete the out and back this way around.
Either way, once you have enjoyed the ruins, simply retrace your steps the way you came. If you’re anything like Dan and I, you’ll have a packed NC500 itinerary. To that end, we found the walk to Keiss Castle the perfect short trail to speed hike.
What’s speed hiking? It’s a great way to cover a trail faster, for fun! Find out more about speed hiking here.
Nearest Accommodation to Keiss Castle
Despite Keiss village being small, there are in fact a few great accommodation options to choose from. Below, we’ll take a look at the best budget, mid-range and luxury options.
- Budget – Sinclair Bay Apartments: the self-contained accommodation at the Sinclair Bay Apartments offer a comfortable and affordable stay in Keiss. The onsite restaurant is a big hit with guests. Additionally, there’s the use of free parking also.
- Mid-range – Valhalla Brae: this three-bed house is a beautiful stay along the NC500. At Valhalla Brae, guests can enjoy extensive views across to the castle and right down to Keiss Beach. It’s also within very easy walking distance to the castle trailhead.
- Luxury – Sinclair Bay Lodges: positioned right at the castle walk trailhead, Sinclair Bay Lodges sit right on the beachfront, with fantastic views across Sinclair’s Bay and Keiss Harbour. The small but well-designed pods are comfortable and clean, with the use of a hot tub. What more could you ask?
Keiss Castle Camping Options
For those with a camper, you could consider Sinclair Bay Camper & Caravan Park Up. No reservations are necessary, just park up and pay.
Places to Eat and Drink Near Keiss Castle
Admittedly, there isn’t much option in Keiss Village for food and drink. So, your best option is to head down to Wick, which is just a 12 minute drive away. Below, are some dining options at Wick.
- The Village Inn: for some great pub grub, The Village Inn in Keiss is a great option. It’s also really your only pub option. But, patrons love it here.
- Morags: for well-priced coffee and cake, head to Morags in the heart of Wick.
- Wickers World: this popular cafe on the seafront in Wick is a popular stop for a quick bite to eat and a good coffee. Wickers World is a great place to sit and watch the world go by.
What Did Keiss Castle Look Like?
The basic look of Keiss Castle still exists today. Incredible, really, given its state of disrepair and its precarious position teetering on the cliff edge. Still, you can check out an artist’s impression here.
How Old Is Keiss Castle?
Old Keiss Castle was built in the late 16th or early 17th century. It’s likely the castle was built on top of an existing fort of some sort. George Sinclair, 5th Earl of Caithness (1582-1643) commissioned the construction of the castle.
Where is Caithness in Scotland?
Caithness is an area covering the most northern and eastern parts of Scotland. To the north, the Pentland Firth separates Caithness from the Orkney Islands. Whereas, to the east is the expanse of the wild North Sea. Within Caithness is Dunnet Head, the most northerly point on mainland Britain.
Who Owns New Keiss Castle?
As New Keiss Castle, AKA Keiss House is a private residence, it’s unknown who owns it. But, nor should we need to know, as we can’t visit anyway.
Other Things to Do Nearby
- Caithness Broch Centre: Caithness has more brochs than any other area of Scotland. So, to learn more about their history and use, you should definitely visit the Caithness Broch Centre, just north of Keiss Castle.
- Duncansby Head: enjoy the views across the North Sea from the most northeasterly point on mainland Britain. And remember, Duncansby Head is more than just the lighthouse – be sure to check out the sea stacks too.
- Whaligoe Steps: you should certainly take the 365 steps down to the incredible natural harbour at Whaligoe, set between two high-rising cliffs.
If you’ve enjoyed Keiss Castle, other Caithness castles you can check out along the NC500 include Castle Sinclair Girnigoe, Bucholie Castle, Castle of Mey, Thurso Castle and Forse Castle.
Hiking Essentials For Old Keiss Castle
These are our five hiking gear essentials for the Keiss Castle 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.
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
I wouldn't walk anywhere in Scotland without a rain jacket. You just never know
A great backpack for hiking, short walks and sightseeing
The DJI Mavic Air 2 is an awesome drone that takes incredible aerial footage. The NC500 never looked so good!
- Sunrise: sitting on the northeast coast of Scotland, watching a sunrise over the ruins of Keiss Castle and enjoying a beautiful crisp morning on the beach is an amazing experience.
- World War II remnants: as well as the old brochs along the Keiss Beach and Sinclair’s Bay coastline, you can also see old war fortification pillboxes. This area was pivotal in protecting the Caithness coastline and the UK with its proximity to Orkney, where a lot of Navy ships were housed.
- 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. Get Your Guide offer some fantastic excursions below.
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