Sutherland: The Complete Guide

Experience the most incredible landscapes and seascapes. Sutherland makes up a large part of the North Coast 500, and will leave a lasting memory too. From the dramatic north-western scenery, where the mountains meet the sea, to the varied lands of the east – with scattered fishing communities, award winning golf courses, fairy tale castles, archaeological wonders and quaint harbours. Unspoilt, naturally stunning landscapes and seascapes with stretches of sand to rival those abroad, welcome to Sutherland.

Sutherland is a historic county, registration county and lieutenancy area in the Highlands of Scotland. Its county town is Dornoch. Sutherland borders Caithness and Moray Firth to the east, Ross-shire and Cromartyshire (later combined into Ross and Cromarty) to the south and the Atlantic to the north and west. Like its southern neighbour Ross-shire, Sutherland has some of the most dramatic scenery in the whole of Europe, especially on its western fringe where the mountains meet the sea. These include high sea cliffs, and very old mountains composed of Precambrian and Cambrian rocks.

The name Sutherland dates from the era of Norwegian Viking rule and settlement over much of the Highlands and Islands, under the rule of the jarl of Orkney. Although it contains some of the northernmost land in the island of Great Britain, it was called Suðrland (“southern land”) from the standpoint of Orkney and Caithness. In Gaelic, the area is referred to according to its traditional areas: Dùthaich MhicAoidh (or Dùthaich ‘IcAoidh) in the northeast, Asainte (Assynt) in the west, and Cataibh in the east. Cataibh is also sometimes used to refer to the area as a whole. The northeast corner of Sutherland, traditionally known as the Province of Strathnaver, was not incorporated into Sutherland until 1601. This was the home of the powerful and warlike Clan Mackay, and as such was named in Gaelic, Dùthaich ‘Ic Aoidh, the Homeland of Mackay. Even today this part of Sutherland is known as Mackay Country, and, unlike other areas of Scotland where the names traditionally associated with the area have become diluted, there is still a preponderance of Mackays in the Dùthaich.

Much of the population of approximately 13,000 inhabitants are situated in small coastal towns, such as Helmsdale and Lochinver, which until very recently made much of their living from the rich fishing of the waters around the British Isles. Much of Sutherland is poor relative to the rest of Scotland, with few job opportunities beyond government-funded employment, agriculture and seasonal tourism. Further education is provided by North Highland College, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands. The Ross House Campus in Dornoch was the first establishment in the United Kingdom to provide a degree in golf management. The Burghfield House Campus, also in Dornoch, is the home for the Centre for History teaching undergraduate and postgraduate history degrees to students around the UHI network and worldwide.

Visiting Sutherland for the first time and wondering what are the top places to see in the city? In this complete guide, I share the best things to do in Sutherland on the first visit. Top help you plan your trip, I have also included an interactive map and practical tips for visiting!

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18 Best places to See in Sutherland

This complete guide to Sutherland not only tells you about the very best sights and tourist attractions for first-time visitors to the city but also provide insights into a few of our personal favorite things to do.

This is a practical guide to visiting the best places to see in Sutherland and is filled with tips and info that should answer all your questions!

Forsinard Flows National Nature Reserve

CC BY-SA 4.0 / Sydneyhenderson
The Flow Country is an internationally important area of blanket bog – a globallyrare type of peatland – which covers a large area of Sutherland and Caithness. The peatlands are a vast, open landscape with scattered pool systems that are home to specialist plants, insects and wildlife. Birds that depend on this wild, unspoilt environment […]
Location: Forsinard Flows, Forsinard KW13 6YT | Distance: 20.10km
Visiting Forsinard Flows National Nature Reserve

Dunrobin Castle

Dunrobin Castle Sutherland Scotland
CC BY-SA 2.0 / jack_spellingbacon
Dunrobin Castle was mostly built between 1835-45, although its origins lie in the Middle Ages,  is a stately home in Sutherland, in the Highland area of Scotland, and the family seat of the Earl of Sutherland and the Clan Sutherland. It is the most northerly of Scotland’s great houses and the largest in the Northern […]
Location: Dunrobin, Golspie, Sutherland, KW10 6SF | Hours: 10.30am-4.30pm Apr, May & Oct, 10am-5pm Jun-Sep | Price: adult/child £11.50/7 | Website | Distance: 26.80km
Visiting Dunrobin Castle

Timespan, Helmsdale

Timespan Museum and Arts Centre is a vibrant meeting place between our past and our future; linking culture, heritage, the arts, people and their ideas. There is an award winning museum, a contemporary art programme, an art gallery, storytelling room, café, shop and riverside garden of Scottish herbs and flowers. Timespan commissions four major projects […]
| Hours: Open Easter - October, 10am - 5pm | Website | Distance: 28.90km
Visiting Timespan, Helmsdale

Skelbo Castle

Skelbo Castle
CC BY-SA 3.0 / StaraBlazkova
Overlooking Loch Fleet, Skelbo Castle was a motte-and-bailey fortification probably built in the 1130s following the suppression of a major rebellion in Moray. Attacked by Robert the Bruce in 1308, the castle was later rebuilt in stone and remained a residence into the eighteenth century. Skelbo Castle occupies an imposing site over- looking Loch Fleet, […]
Visiting Skelbo Castle

Falls of Shin

Falls Of Shin Visitor Centre
CC BY-SA 4.0 / Dalejohn31
Falls of Shin is a waterfall on the River Shin, in northern Scotland, near the villages of Bonar Bridge and Lairg. it is famous for being one of the best places in Scotland to view salmon leaping upstream. On sit it has a restaurant and gift shop, forest trails, mini golf, and children’s playpark. Free […]
Visiting Falls of Shin

Torrisdale Bay and Broch, Invernaver

Torrisdale Bay, Bettyhill
CC BY-SA 2.0 / djmacpherson
An outstanding beach with superb dunes, Torrisdale Bay is reached by a rewarding walk from Invernaver. This beautiful beach, just to the west of the historic village of Bettyhill, is situated on a headland between the mouths of two well-known salmon rivers – the Naver and the Borgie. It’s a popular place with surfers who […]
Visiting Torrisdale Bay and Broch, Invernaver

Castle Varrich

Scotland Tongue Varrich Castle
GNU 1.2 / Paul Hermans
Castle Varrich is in the far north of the Scottish Highlands, near the village of Tongue. The castle is on a local high point of rock, overlooking both the Kyle of Tongue and the village of Tongue. The castle’s precise origins and age are unknown. The ancient seat of the chief of the Clan Mackay […]
Visiting Castle Varrich

Strathnaver Museum

Strathnaver is the fertile valley of the River Naver, a famous salmon river that flows from Loch Naver to the north coast. It also refers to the ancient province of Strathnaver, which covers nearly 2000sq km of North West Sutherland, informally known as the Mackay Country (Dùthaich MhicAoidh). Strathnaver Museum is a volunteer-led, rural history […]
Location: Clachan, Bettyhill, Thurso, Caithness, KW14 7SS | Hours: Museum opening hours April – Oct, 10am - 5pm, Monday - Saturday | Website | Distance: 35.90km
Visiting Strathnaver Museum

Loch Glencoul

Kylesku Bridge On A Sunny Day
CC BY-SA 2.0 / Geni
The distinctive curving bridge linking Kylesku and Kylestrome is sometimes described as one of the most beautiful bridges in world. It sits in an amazing location, in the heart of the North West Highlands Geopark, and carries traffic over the strongly tidal stream. In the summer months, a boat trip from the old ferry slip […]
Visiting Loch Glencoul

Ardvreck Castle

Ardvreck Castle, Sutherland
GNU Free 1.2 / Paul Hermans
Ardvreck Castle is a ruined castle dating to about 1490 when the lands were owned by the Macleods of Assynt. It stands on a rocky promontory jutting out into Loch Assynt in Sutherland, Scotland. One can reach the ruins by driving along the A837, which follows the north shore of Loch Assynt from the village […]
Visiting Ardvreck Castle

Balnakeil Beach & Faraid Head

Balnakeil Beach From Faraid Head
CC BY-SA 2.0 / Heather Holdridge
Balnakeil, a little over a mile north west of the village of Durness, is a magical place. The beach is wide and white and is backed to the east by a huge expanse of tall dunes covered in marram grass. Overlooking the bay are Balnakeil House, at one time seat of the Clan MacKay, and […]
Visiting Balnakeil Beach & Faraid Head

Knockan Crag

Rock Art, Knockan Crag
CC BY-SA 2.0 / Gordon Hatton
Knockan Crag – which lies within the North West Highlands UNESCO Global Geopark – is a globally important geological site. Geologists first learned that rocks can move vast distances when continents collide through studying the rocks of the North West Highlands and geologists have used Knockan Crag to help demonstrate this for more than 100 […]
Visiting Knockan Crag

Falls of Kirkaig

Falls Of Kirkaig
CC BY-SA 2.0 / Ian Cunliffe
A rewarding walk into the heart of this amazing landscape starts at Inverkirkaig. The path starts at the car park by the river and leads 2 miles / 3.2km up a beautiful wooded glen, full of birch, rowan and hazel, then on to open moorland towards the Falls of Kirkaig. Ahead you can see Suilven, […]
Visiting Falls of Kirkaig

Handa Island

CC BY-SA 3.0 / Creando
For an unforgettable day trip, the island of Handa is hard to beat. The island is internationally renowned for its nesting seabird colonies and magnificent sea cliffs. Each May, June and July the cliffs come alive when a big proportion of the UK’s razorbills and guillemots gather to breed alongside thousands of kittiwakes and fulmars […]
| Hours: Admission charge for ferry crossing Ferry runs from April - September, Monday to Saturday - last departure to Handa at 1400 hours. | Distance: 65.50km
Visiting Handa Island

Sandwood Bay

Sandwood Bay
CC BY-SA 3.0 / Phillyacct
Reputedly the most beautiful beach in Britain, the wild and spectacular Sandwood Bay in Kinlochbervie is backed by huge sand dunes and a loch. Facing straight into the teeth of the North Atlantic, the beach has nearly 1.5 miles of wide pink sand which is flanked by cliffs. To the south it is guarded by […]
| Website | Distance: 66.10km
Visiting Sandwood Bay

Achmelvich Beach

North Side Of Achmelvich Beach
CC BY-SA 2.0 / Paul Burnett
The fine white sandy beach and turquoise water of the bay are a stark contract to the rugged beauty of the surrounding Assynt area. Sand castle builders, swimmers, kayakers, fishing enthusiasts and snorkelers alike are a common sight in and around this beautiful bay. Achmelvich is a good place to see black-throated and red-throated divers […]
Visiting Achmelvich Beach

Achnahaird Bay

View Towards Achnahaird Bay
CC BY-SA 2.0 / Gordon Hatton
This narrow inlet is a wonderful place to spend a day at the beach and a great place for birdwatching, with seabirds and waders regularly seen. At low tide an extensive tidal estuary of sand flats and salt marsh is exposed, fringed by dunes, and past that, machair. These habitats support a diversity of liverworts, […]
Visiting Achnahaird Bay

Stoer Head Lighthouse

Stoer Head Lighthouse
CC BY-SA 4.0 / DeFacto
Stoer Head Lighthouse was built on Stoer Head by brothers David and Thomas Stevenson in 1870 after being identified as one of forty-five sites in Scotland where a lighthouse was necessary to protect shipping. The lighthouse is 45 feet (14 m) high, making it squat in appearance, but the height of the cliffs on which […]
Visiting Stoer Head Lighthouse

Tours and Activities from Sutherland