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Natural Caithness

Whatever your reasons for visiting Caithness, the chances are that you will not leave disappointed

Don't forget to bring your camera!


Many rare mammals, birds and fish have been sighted in and around Caithness. Harbour porpoises, dolphins (including Risso's, bottle-nosed, common, Atlantic white-sided and white-beaked) and orca (killer Whale), minke and long-finned pilot whales are regularly seen from the shore and boats. Both grey and common seals come close to the shore to feed, rest and raise their pups, and otters can be seen close to river mouths.

To the north and the east, dramatic coastal scenery is home to large, internationally important colonies of seabirds.

Caithness provides a stronghold for many once common breeding species that have undergone serious declines elsewhere, including waders, water voles and flocks of over-wintering birds.

Aurora Borealis

The effect known as the aurora borealis (or the northern lights), is named after the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek name for the north wind, Boreas.

They illuminate the northern horizon as a greenish glow or sometimes a faint red, as if the Sun were rising from an unusual direction. Discrete aurorae often display magnetic field lines or curtain-like structures, and can change within seconds or glow unchanging for hours, most often in fluorescent green. Aurora borealis occur most often around the equinox. The northern lights have had a number of names throughout history. The Cree (native americans) call this phenomenon the "Dance of the Spirits". In Medieval Europe, the auroras were commonly believed to be a sign from God.

Duncansby Stacks
Scenery & Geology

The underlying geology, harsh climate and long history of human occupation have shaped this rich and distinctive natural heritage. Today we see a diverse landscape incorporating both common and rare habitats.

The underlying geology of most of Caithness is old red sandstone to an estimated depth of over 4,000 metres. This consists of the cemented sediments of Lake Orcade, which is believed to have stretched from Shetland to Grampian during the Devonian period, about 370 million years ago. Fossilised fish and plant remains are found between the layers of sediment. Older metamorphic (granite) rock is apparent in the Scaraben and Ord area, in the relatively high southwest area of the county.

Because of the ease with which the sandstone splits to form large flat slabs (flagstone) it is an especially useful building material, and has been used as such since Neolithic times.

Caithness is a land of open, rolling farmland, moorland and scattered settlements. The area is fringed to the north and east by dramatic coastal scenery. The surrounding waters of the Pentland Firth and the North Sea hold a great diversity of marine life. Away from the coast, the landscape is dominated by open moorland and blanket bog known as the Flow Country which is the largest expanse of blanket bog in Europe, extending into Sutherland. This is divided up along the straths (river valleys) by more fertile farm and croft land.


The Caithness landscape is rich with the remains of pre-historic occupation. These include the Grey Cairns of Camster, the Stone Lud, the Hill O Many Stanes, a complex of sites around Loch Yarrows and over 100 brochs. A prehistoric souterrain structure at Caithness has been likened to discoveries at Midgarth and on Shapinsay. Numerous coastal castles (now mostly ruins) are Norse in their foundations. When the Norsemen arrived, probably in the 10th century, the county was probably Pictish, but with its culture subject to some Goidelic influence from the Celtic Church. The name Pentland Firth can be read as meaning Pictland Fjord.

Numerous bands of Norse settlers landed in the county, and gradually established themselves around the coast. On the Latheron (south) side, they extended their settlements as far as Berriedale. Many of the names of places, and not a few of the surnames in the lowland parts of the county, are Norse in origin.


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