Clan Sutherland itinerary

The dramatic landscapes and seascapes of the far north of Scotland are the ancestral homeland of the Sutherlands whose clan chiefs have a long and well documented history. Taking their name from the Norse name of the land 'Sudrland', they became the most wealthy and powerful clan in the region.

Follow this five-day itinerary across the magnificent Highlands of Scotland and discover a land of inspiring landscapes and ancient castles which your ancestors called home.

  • Culloden Battlefield at dusk, near Inverness
    Culloden Battlefield, near Inverness
  • Dunrobin Castle and Grounds
    Dunrobin Castle and Grounds
  • Outside the Highland Archive and Registration Centre, Inverness
    The Highland Archive and Registration Centre, Inverness

Arrive in Inverness the beautiful, bustling capital of the Highlands and start your exploration of Highland heritage at the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery in the heart of this compact city.

Just up the hill is Inverness Castle, now home to the Scottish Court Service. The castle was defended for King George I by John, the 16th Earl of Sutherland and his men during the 1715 Jacobite rebellion.
The Highland Archive Centre in the city may also help with researching your family tree thanks to its extensive archives, the earliest of which date to the 13th century.

A few miles to the east of Inverness, you will find the atmospheric battlefield of Culloden, site of the last pitched battle on British soil. Here in April 1746, 'Bonnie' Prince Charlie's Jacobite rebellion was crushed by government forces. It’s difficult not be moved when walking around the bleak open moorland and seeing the markers showing where the various ill-fated Jacobite clans met their bloody end. The recently redeveloped visitor and interpretation centre does an excellent job of depicting and explaining the events of the day and the brutal aftermath.

Travelling further east to Elgin via Nairn and Forres, you’ll find Duffus Castle, a fine example of a motte-and-bailey castle. There were two branches of Clan Sutherland associated with the Sutherland Earls: the Sutherlands of Forse and of Duffus, both of which were centred outside the county of Sutherland itself.

Retrace your journey back to Inverness and from there, head north to Dornoch, to the west of which you may catch a glimpse of Skibo Castle.

The original castle was built by the Bishop of Caithness in 1186 and after a long and chequered history, the estate was bought by philanthropist and industrialist, Andrew Carnegie in 1898 who spent a considerable sum of money renovating it.  It is now Scotland's top private residential sporting club and famous for being the location of Madonna's wedding to Guy Ritchie.

Dornoch with its pink stone buildings and uneven Scottish slate roofs is an attractive cathedral town and was protected by the powerful Sutherland clan chiefs in its early history. Historylinks Museum explains the story of Dornoch from pre-historic times and the town is also famous for being where in 1727, the last witch-burning took place in Scotland.

Just a few miles north is Skelbo where the ruins of the 13th century castle are found on the shore of Loch Fleet. Further along the coast is the village of Golspie, which is overlooked by the 100 ft column and statue of the first Duke of Sutherland on top of Beinn a' Bhragaidh. At the beginning of the 1800s the duke owned over 1.5 million acres of land, the largest private estate in Europe. In the following years, some 15,000 people were cleared from the estate to make way for more lucrative sheep farming during what became known as the Highland Clearances.

Just north of Golspie stands Dunrobin Castle, the principal seat of the Sutherland chiefs. It was first built by Robert, the 6th Earl of Sutherland in the late 14th century. It was the 2nd Duke, in the 19th century who transformed that typical Scottish castle into the beautiful French-style palace you can visit today. There are also beautiful formal gardens with falconry displays and a museum of souvenirs brought back from hunting trips around the world.

Follow the coastal road north to Helmsdale. The village was originally a Viking settlement but was greatly extended as a planned village to accommodate some of the people cleared from their crofts by the Duke of Sutherland. The Timespan Heritage Centre retells the story of the Clearances and other historical events which took place in the area, including the 1869 gold rush! Enjoy a break in the peaceful riverside gardens and café.

The village of Forse is a further 20 miles along the coast. This is where the second branch of the Sutherland clan originated. The ruins of Forse Castle are perched on top of precipitous cliffs and date back to the 1200s. Forse became part of the Sutherland estate in the 1400s. A son of William, the 5th Earl married the daughter of the Keith family who owned the land. As a wedding present, the daughter was given the land from the castle to as far inland as she could ride in a day. Unfortunately for her, she fell off her horse at Tachar, (near Achavanich on the A9).

Continue on to the historic town of Wick, where the sheltered harbour once played host to the hustle and bustle of hundreds of herring fishing boats. As well as a wealth of exhibits and photographs, The Wick Heritage Museum has restored a fishing boat, the Isabella Fortuna which can be seen in the inner harbour.

Continue north along the coast until you reach John O'Groats, often erroneously referred to as the most northerly settlement on the British mainland. From here you can look across the waters of the Pentland Firth to Orkney.
The late HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother liked this view so much she spent much of her time at her beloved Castle of Mey. The castle, built between 1566 and 1572 is open to the public and shouldn't be missed.

Head west for the Strathnaver Museum in Bettyhill. Here the strath, or valley, of the River Naver reaches the dramatic coastline of this wild corner of Scotland, one of the last great wildernesses in Europe. There were feuds for many centuries between the Sutherlands and the Mackays who were neighbours here. Both clans settled their differences by the time of the Jacobite rising in 1745 when they fought alongside each other.

Using the leaflets and signposts available locally, spend some time exploring the Strathnaver Trail which takes you from Bettyhill down the course of the River Naver. You will see evidence of Strathnaver's occupation from Stone Age times to the present. Perhaps the most moving sights are the deserted, ruined farmsteads dating from the time of the Clearances. As a Sutherland, your ancestors will have farmed these rich lands before being moved off them to make way for more 'modern' agricultural practices.
From Strathnaver, journey south via Altnaharra and Lairg back to Inverness. You may want to relax and enjoy the hospitality of the Highland capital after a busy few days before starting your journey home.