It may be home to the shortest street in the world, but Wick is worthy of more than a quick drive past.
Too often NC500 tourists head through on their way to John O’ Groats and overlook a fabulous part of Scotland.
Yet stunning scenery, craggy coastlines and castles galore all await as I discovered on my trip to the UK’s most north-easterly town.
And where better to set base camp than Mackay’s Hotel, where their excellent No 1 Bistro is the only address on Ebenezer Place, the shortest street in the world at just 6ft 9 inches long. The door sits at the wedge point of three streets, home to the popular, friendly hotel.
I’ve been through Wick numerous times and the chance to stay and explore was too tempting. Here are seven reasons to visit:
It’s a short walk from the hotel to the harbour where Vikings used the bay at the mouth of the Wick river for their longships and trading vessels. The Norse Vik means bay.
During the late 17th and early 18th century it was a hub for Scotland’s herring trade with 200 fishing boats and an annual catch of 13,000 barrels of salted herring. By the 1860s there were 1,100 herring boats and the trade supported 650 coopers.
At the height of the summer season the town’s population of 6,000 swelled to 15,000 as migrant workers helped meet the demand and incredibly the town’s 47 inns sold 800 gallons of whisky a week!
Today it is still a working harbour with a fascinating history best discovered in the brilliant Wick Heritage Museum. It doesn’t look much from outside but it’s a Tardis housing remarkable collections, including a number of furnished rooms portraying past times. Beyond the museum and its collections of oral history and artefacts, you can explore its tranquil terraced garden built around the courtyard of traditional Caithness flagstones. The Wick Preservation Society have also lovingly restored the Isabella Fortune, a traditional Fifie fishing vessel.
After an excellent breakfast, the sun came out and I took the chance to explore Wick’s coastline on foot – something many people fail to do in their rush to complete the NC500. As a veteran of the drive, I can’t emphasise enough the value of breaking it up and unlocking its many secrets.
From the hotel, it’s a comfortable walk along the harbour and coast to the Castle of Old Wick. Along the way it goes past The Trinkie – a natural sea water pool that offers a refreshing if somewhat chilled dip. Trinkie is the Scot’s word for trench and the whitewashed pool was created 70 years ago from part of a quarry. It is in a magnificent rocky setting and whilst I was there, a few seals were bobbing up and down just metres off the pool walls. It is said that on a hot day up to 100 people swim there but in October there were just a few hardy souls although they did seem to be having fun in what is fast becoming a compulsory activity. Wick actually has two outdoor pools, the other being the North Baths on the other side of the harbour where they host an annual swimming gala.
Castles and coast
The Old Castle of Wick was built in the twelfth century by the Earl of Caithness, making it one of the oldest in Scotland. It enjoys a strong defensive position on the cliffs and is accessed across a narrow strip of land. It’s well worth detouring around 400m further along the coastal path for a view of the Brig o’ Stack – an impressive natural arch.
On the other side of Wick, half a mile from Noss Head lighthouse, is the magnificent Castle Sinclair Girnigoe accessed by a wooden bridge. It’s steeped in history and was at one time occupied by Cromwell’s troops. To truly capture its imposing nature you need to explore on foot where you will be rewarded with stunning views and a sense of grandeur.
Whilst on my walks and marvelling at the coastal scenery, friendly tourists insisted that I didn’t miss Whaligoe Haven just a few miles south of Wick. And what a jewel this is. It’s dramatic harbour, surrounded on three sides by 250 feet cliffs, is reached by the Whaligoe Steps – all 365 of them zig-zagging down the cliffside.
The natural harbour at the foot of the steps is still a landing point for herring, salmon, whitefish. Just imagine the fisherwoman who used to haul baskets of fish up the steps every day during the booming 1800s.
John O’Groats & Duncansby Stacks
Of course, any trip must feature the traditional end point of Britain and a picture at the signpost. Over the years the area has developed with good cafes and eating places as well as a brewery. And if you are lucky, it’s a great spot for catching the Aurora Borealis. It’s also a starting point for coastal walks, watching wildlife and for a highly recommended day trip to Orkney. The John O’Groats ferry runs from May to September and takes in Skara Brae, the Ring of Brodgar, the Stones of Stenness and the Churchill Barriers.
If you are going to do a walk from John O’Groats then head to Duncansby Head to see the incredible sea stacks. They’re dramatic and again a superb spot for spotting sea life. Head the other way and you get to Dunnet Head which is the most northerly point mainland Britain and offers equally impressive scenery.
Northern Lights Festival
By luck, my stay coincided with the Northern Lights Festival which brings together artists, musicians and poets to share stories and music that capture the area’s history. The final day saw a visually striking procession through the town led by Storm, a ten-metre-tall puppet goddess of the sea.
Wick Harbour was lit up with seven distinctive installations providing a fascinating and mesmerising experience of film and sound. Despite the wind and rain it was not something to be missed or rushed and it lived up to its billing as a truly remarkable walk-through of Caithness’ coastal history. Besides, what better way to warm up than a glass of Old Pulteney malt in Mackay’s exceptionally well stocked whisky bar.
A warm welcome awaits with brilliant local knowledge of where to explore and what to see. All the staff at the award-winning hotel were friendly, cheery, helpful and informative.
No 1 Bistro
Superb meals featuring the finest of local fayre in a lovely setting. A delicious taste of the Highlands for lunch and dinner. And, of course, you are dining in the only address in the shortest street in the world.
Not just the tasty traditional Scottish but lovely healthy options too. Sets you up perfectly for a day of discovery.
An excellent selection of nicely furnished rooms, all en-suite, catering for families, couples and lone travellers. There are also some very spacious doubles, including ones on the wedge of the three streets. And there are fantastic views of the river and bridge into the town centre.
I’m partial to a few nice drams and this cosy traditional bar has a fantastic collection thanks to owner Murray Lamont’s love of the finest malts. He even has a merit qualification from the Scottish Whisky Association. Whisky holiday packages and private testing are on offer too.
The ideal spot for a short walk into the town centre or down to the harbour, below, and exploring the coast. And superb too for a short drive to the numerous attractions and destinations all within 30 minutes.
The hotel offers fabulous self-catering accommodation, either in their town houses, apartments or Langhills – a five bedroom holiday house with hot tub. The three bed modernised town houses are part of an attractive courtyard development which was originally a fish curing yard.
Contact Mackays Hotel, Union Street, Wick, Caithness, KW1 5ED Tel: 01955 602323 www.mackays hotel.co.uk