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Caithness And Sutherland Information
Supplied by Scottish Natural Heritage, Golspie -1999


Description of the area covered

Caithness and Sutherland is a very diverse area in both landscape and wildlife terms. This immense variability reflects the complex underlying geology ranging from the generally flat landscapes of Caithness on Old Red Sandstones (flagstone) to the Lewisian gneiss ‘cnoc And lochan’ scenery of the west coast with it’s Torridonian sandstone/quartzite mountains. Much of central Sutherland is composed of rocks of the Moine series (Moine schists), named after A’Mhoine near Tongue where these rocks were first described. The climate shows strong variation from the mild oceanic west with high rainfall to the drier, more continental, east coast. The range of wildlife and habitats found here is equally diverse with virtually all northern plant and animal communities represented from coastal to mountain zones. many of the habitats and species found in Caithness and Sutherland are of national and international importance.

The low intensity management of land for crofting, farming and sporting purposes has helped maintain the natural heritage interest and created the characteristic landscapes we see today.

Caithness and Sutherland contain a wealth of prehistoric and later settlement sites. Many are well preserved and form an irreplaceable archive for understanding the past. Archaeological sites are particularly dense and well preserved in some localities, for instance, the Strath of Kildonan and Strathnaver.


Surface area: 7650 km2

Population density: 5 inhabitants/km2 – one of the least densely populated areas of Europe.

Protected areas:

142 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) including 8 National Nature Reserves (NNR), covering approximately 215, 468 hectares (2,155 km2).

19 sites of international importance and either designated or proposed under Natura 2000 network as Special Protection Areas (SPA), Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) and /or Ramsar sites.

The Peatlands of Caithness and Sutherland candidate SAC has been proposed by the UK Government as a World Heritage Site and covers an area of some 143,539 hectares (1435 km2).

4 National Scenic Areas covering 101,700 hectares (1017 km2).

Almost 28% of the surface area of Caithness and Sutherland is covered by SSSI designations and 13% by National Scenic Areas.

There are over 1200 sites of historic importance in Caithness and Sutherland, these include: 564 Scheduled Ancient Monuments, 649 Listed Buildings (of historic and architectural interest) and currently, 6 Gardens and Designed Landscapes.

Unique or outstanding natural heritage features

The Peatlands of Caithness and Sutherland – one of Europe’s largest areas of active blanket bog and now proposed as a World Heritage Site. Essentially unchanged for over 4,000 years this is one of Britain’s most ancient landscapes and home to a wide range of breeding peatland birds such as Greenshank, golden plover, red-throated and black-throated divers and several species of birds of prey.

Outstanding breeding seabird colonies of national and international importance e.g. North Caithness Cliffs Special Protection Area (SPA), East Caithness Cliffs SPA, Cape Wrath SPA and Handa Island SPA with the largest breeding colonies of guillemots and razorbills in Britain.

Internationally important populations of waders and wildfowl over winter on the sheltered shores of E Sutherland and important numbers of Ospreys use these same areas for feeding during the breeding season.

Nationally and internationally important habitats include those of the high hills found at unusually low altitudes in the extreme north, and the northernmost woodland fragments, with both pine and oak woods reaching their northern limits in the area. The limestone areas of north and west Sutherland are also of outstanding importance for a number of features.

Primula Scotica

A number of uncommon or rare plant species, e.g. The Lapland Reed – Caithness has the only site plant in the world – and Primula Scotica, the Scottish Primrose, an endemic species found only in Orkney, Caithness and Sutherland.

Nationally and internationally important geological sites demonstrating both the history of the earth’s formation over the last 2800 million years and evolution of life.

Unique or outstanding cultural heritage features:

The well preserved and irreplaceable prehistoric and later settlement sites in Caithness and Sutherland include:-

Stone rows: for instance, Mid Clyth and Achavanich in Caithness and Learable in Sutherland.

Burial cairns: including Cairn of Get, Camster Cairns and Loch Yarrows in Caithness. There are also very good examples in Sutherland.

Brochs: found throughout Caithness And Sutherland.

Wags: unique to Caithness and Sutherland and may have been used to house livestock.

Forts and castles: the cliff coastline of Caithness provides spectacular sites for forts and castles, particularly Castle Sinclair and Girnigoe, Old Keiss and Old Wick in Caithness. Interesting sites in Sutherland include Dun Varrich, Ardvrek Castle and Skelbo House. The latter is an unusual semi-fortified, prestigious farmhouse – very rare in the Highlands.

Dunrobin Castle is one of the oldest inhabited castles in Scotland. It is of considerable architectural interest and forms the centerpiece to an impressive formal garden and designed landscape which effectively (if not formally) culminates in the statue to the first Duke of Sutherland on Ben Bhraggie.

Pre-Clearance settlements: The Sutherland Clearances have a special place in Scottish history and the creation of the national identity. The remains of pre-Clearance settlements may be found throughout Sutherland but are particularly prevalent in Strathnaver and the Strath of Kildonan. Sites such as Rossal and Bad in Loskin in upper Strathnaver are of considerable historical importance through their association with Patrick Sellar and the events which led to his trail in 1816. Clearance settlements are also found in parts of Caithness, for instance at Badbea.

Fishing villages, harbours and fishing stations: show the impact of the herring industry not only at Wick but at small ports around the whole coast for example at Dunbeath, Lybster, Keiss and Whaligoe in Caithness and Embo, Helmsdale, Talmine, Skullomie and Rispond in Sutherland.

19th Century Sutherland Estate development: The transformation of Sutherland estate in the 19th century saw the construction of a range of impressive farm steadings. This continued through the Sutherland reclamations of the 1870s and 1880s particularly in Assynt, Lairg and Kildonan. This even included the building of concrete farm steadings – a very unusual feature. From the mid 19th century there developed a Sutherland Estate style of architecture which may not only be seen in a whole range of estate and public buildings but in vernacular buildings as well.

Vernacular heritage: The use of Caithness flagstones for roofs and fences makes a strong visual impact. Relic crofting landscapes demonstrating the deliberate congestion created by resettlement policies pursued in conjunction with the Sutherland Clearances are to be found particularly in north and west Sutherland and the more marginal areas of east Sutherland.


Tourism is the single most important industry in Highlands, generating approximately £373 million in holiday trips and £200 million in day trips per annum. It accounts for some 13,000 full time jobs in the area.

Tourism in Caithness and Sutherland has developed at a lesser rate than other areas of the Highlands, although it is not less important in economic terms. The main agencies involved in tourism developments recognised a need to better co-ordinate the provision of support for tourism, and so two area Tourism Strategies have recently been brought together (one for Caithness, one for Sutherland). These Strategies are, in effect, the start of an innovative "contract" between agencies and industry. A total of 84 Objectives are contained within the two plans, with each Objective having a series of specific actions (164 actions across the two areas).

For the first time the tourism industry in the north has an agreed direction. Its implementation will be closely watched by other areas, as Caithness and Sutherland lead the way in this field. The lead body for tourism in the Highlands of Scotland Tourist Board (HOST) whose Mission Statement is:

"To promote and develop the Highlands of Scotland as a world class tourist destination. Through excellence in visitor servicing, marketing and professional support for our industry".

Caithness Statistics
Population  26710
Area  1806 sq.km
Main Towns Thurso, Wick