Castle Varrich, the North Coast’s Rough Diamond

by Keith Savage · 1 comment

Castle Varrich outside Tongue, Sutherland, Scotland

The north coast of the North Coast 500 is the least exciting span on that mammoth road trip of marketing genius. As you move from west to east the landscape steadily shrinks back into the earth, and the span from Tongue to Thurso is especially unremarkable with only a few small settlements and sites of interest. The northwestern horn including Durness, Loch Eriboll, and Tongue, however, has a few incredible stops. Chief among those is Castle Varrich, a small, ruined tower house on a hill opposite Tongue.

I had no expectations once we rounded Durness and began heading east. Everything I’d read and heard from friends in Scotland was that the northwest coast was the enduring highlight of the North Coast 500, and, to be fair, that’s pretty accurate. I was pleasantly surprised by the drive to Tongue, however, as the mountains of Ben Loyal and Ben Hope rear up through the mist. A long bridge crosses the Kyle of Tongue, which cuts through the land to create two hills: Tongue town stands on one and across the water, majestically sited beneath the wide sky, stands ruined Castle Varrich.

Castle Varrich? I’d never heard of it, but my first view of the castle was one of those perfect moments of utter Scottishness. You know what I mean — the magic of the history, the romance of the scenery — it all comes together here at the distant edge of Scotland. Tongue itself is a tiny, two-street town with a nice pub in the Ben Loyal Hotel. We stopped, and while my parents enjoyed refreshment at the pub Sarah and I decided to hike up to the ruins. A handy sign in town led us downslope along pastures and across a footbridge spanning the narrowed Kyle of Tongue.

The path leading up to Castle Varrich beyond the water was wide and of surprisingly good quality. It snaked through copses and up the hillside past broom and heather. We didn’t pass a soul along the way, and that gave me the space to notice the vibrance permeating this special place. Sarah and I discussed my book, and all these ideas came to me. Maybe it was due to the fact that I felt like I was in my book! This ruined castle on a hill with a forgotten history — you could almost hear the flute’s melancholy strains on the wind.

We were nice and warm by the time we reached Castle Varrich. The view from the castle is stupendous, taking in Ben Loyal, Ben Hope, the Kyle of Tongue, and the north sea beyond, and you can see why the denizens of old would have chosen to fortify this place. The remains of Castle Varrich are quite small. The compact tower house has 5-foot thick walls of squared sandstone, and the top has fallen off in the preceding centuries.

One of the interesting facts about Castle Varrich is that not much is known about the castle. The exact age and origin are mysteries, though prevailing wisdom states that it was built in the 1400s on the site of an older Norse fort. One tale tells of a Thorfinn who fought a pitched sea battle here in the 11th century, while another one relates that this was the ancient seat of Clan Mackay. I love these gaps in history. It leaves so much room for imagination.

The view from Castle Varrich and the feel of the old stones beneath my hands kept us there for quite awhile. It’s a special place, one that many people never reach even on the North Coast 500, and it remains one of my favorite stops on that route. Along with Dun Dornaigil Broch, Castle Varrich makes a strong case for seeing mainland Scotland’s far northwestern corner.

Alison WilkinsonNo Gravatar May 17, 2017 at 10:06 PM

Thanks Keith 😊

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