I’ve lived in Wick for over 4 years, and so while I’ve written lots about generally exploring Caithness, I’ve not written a dedicated post about our friendly east coast town – until now! Wick is situated right on the north coast 500, so if you are planning a trip, make sure you bookmark this post for inspiration and ideas!
Firstly I’ll make an observation. To someone passing through, the centre of Wick is run down and tired with many empty shops and properties in dire need of repair – I’ll be honest in saying it doesn’t give the best first impression. The town centre needs some serious investment and support to make it a more attractive place for locals and visitors. But that’s no excuse not to stop and search out the attractions that there are here. Also, Wick has a strong community feel, with many locals working hard to improve the town for us all in different spaces throughout the town on both sides of the river.
For many who are doing the North Coast 500 in an anti-clockwise manner, the focus is often to get from Inverness to John O’Groats, missing out on many beautiful and interesting places on the way. As Wick is just a 25-minute drive from John O’Groats, it’s definitely possible to spend a day here, and then arrive at John O’Groats in the early evening (which will likely be a good time of day to avoid the crowds and get your photo with the famous lamppost!). Equally, if you’re doing the North Coast 500 in a clockwise fashion, spend most of a day in Wick before heading onward to your next destination. There’s a growing amount of Airbnb accommodation, plus hotels and B&Bs available to make this possible.
In this post, I’ll share my favourite indoor and outdoor, free and paid-for activities that you can enjoy.
ART AND PHOTOGRAPHY IN WICK
Art and photography play a big part in Wick’s heritage. These are a few of my top spots!
Johnstone Collection in the Wick Heritage Centre
If you are into photography, a must-visit is Wick Heritage Centre, where the Johnston Collection is housed. Three generations of photographers documented life in Wick and Northern Scotland between 1863 and 1975. While not all of the 50,000-strong collection can be viewed in the Heritage Centre, all of these have been digitised and can be viewed online. The photos that can be viewed at the centre give an insight into local properties, agricultural and fishing history, as well as portraits of locals. The Heritage Centre typically opens on Mondays to Saturdays from April to September. A small admission fee applies and covers all the museum exhibits – it’s a very easy way to spend a morning or afternoon here! There’s also a really interesting documentary that periodically appears on BBC Iplayer every so often.
The Black Stairs
A set of steps doesn’t sound that interesting, but these were immortalised in artwork painted by LS Lowry when he visited Wick in the 1930s. At the base of the steps, there is a plaque that shows a carving of the original painting. The Black Stairs are located at the harbour end of Bank Row, next to the Memorial Garden. At the top of the stairs, there’s a bright and colourful mural depicting the harbour on the walls of the Youth Club.
The Seven Gates
Across from the Harbour, 7 salt cellars are guarded by iron gates, designed by drawings done by Wick schoolchildren in the early 2000s. If you’re having an evening walk around the harbour, the salt cellars are beautifully lit up at night and are definitely worth a look!
Haven House Art, Papigoe
Take a short drive (5 mins) or walk from the town centre (allow 45 minutes if walking along the North Head Path) to visit Lisa Weller’s art studio. Haven House, a 200-year-old house sits overlooking Papigoe Harbour and the views of the Caithness coastline are a primary source of her artistic inspiration. Lisa creates amazing seascapes and Scottish landscapes and offers painting experiences for groups of up to six at a time. You can also book an appointment to visit the studio, if you would like to browse the artwork in person – drop Lisa an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
TRAILS AND WALKS
There are lots of places to walk in and around Wick, You can wander around yourself, but I personally recommend the local company Above and Beyond Tours, whose knowledgable guides bring the history of Wick to life with their stories and retelling of local history.
Telford Trail around Pulteneytown
Dotted around lower Pulteneytown, look out for information boards that tell you a little history of this area, which was designed by Thomas Telford.
Heading inland, there’s a lovely walk beside the River. It’s a flat ‘out and back’ path. You can stop at the viewing platform to see an assortment of birds, including herons. Look and see if you can spot the resident otters too! (Use the car park outside the Norseman Hotel and walk away from the town centre). On a still day, there are lovely reflections and there are also some lovely sunsets to be seen there too. There’s often community-led work to improve the riverside area also.
Newton Hill Croft Trail
With views across Caithness, the Newton Hill Croft Trail is a beautiful spot and forestry commission site, just a 10-minute uphill drive southwest of Wick. The trail is just over a mile and on a flat gravel path. It’s a popular place to take kids and dogs to run off some steam! The site often has community-led events like tree planting.
IN AND AROUND WATER IN WICK
Being a coastal harbour town, Wick has a rich nautical history which lends itself to some water-based experiences!
Caithness Seacoast Tours
I personally rate Caithness Seacoast Tours as one of my favourite activities – I think I’ve been out on the high-speed RIB at least 4 times! It’s an exhilarating experience as you head out of the harbour for 90 minutes of exploration along the coastline. seeing the land from a new perspective, and spotting nature along the way. You also hear a lot about the history of the area. My top tip: Wear lots of layers as you get colder than you might expect! More information can be found on the Caithness Seacoast website.
Trinkie/North Baths for a dip!
If you’re a keen outdoor swimmer (and let’s face it, you have to be keen to brave the freezing north sea!), there are not one but two tidal swimming pools in Wick. Both have had extensive community-led repairs in the last year or two – at the time of writing (April 2022) the North Baths is the better one to go to, as the South Head’s Trinkie needs more repairs to the wall. If you want to join any local swims, check out this local Facebook group for more information on where swims will take place. Please note there are no changing facilities at either location, you are definitely exposed to the elements so come well prepared!
Harbours (Wick, Staxigoe and Ackergill)
At the height of its industry, Wick was the biggest herring port in Europe, and there’s a popular story that you could cross from one side of the harbour to the other, using all the boats that were in port. Nowadays, the harbour has a diverse range of commercial, fishing, and leisure vessels moored there, and the Beatrice Windfarm has its operational base by the harbour. You can walk around this industrial and working harbour area freely in the direction of the south head, where you can see a collection of boats, the old Herring Mart, and the old Lifeboat launch station. In case you want to use those boats, you may want to be careful about any preexisting damages on the vessel. You may find it rare as most boat operating firms tend to perform regular maintenance and checks of their boats. They tend to use rust-resistant Square Shank Copper Nails, high-grade engine oil, and a powerful battery to support a safe and smooth boat ride. As soon as you reach the harbour, allow 30 minutes to explore!
There are also two smaller harbours just outside Wick that are lovely, particularly for a picnic or a wander along the John O’Groats Trail – Staxigoe and Ackergill.
CASTLES IN WICK
There are two castles to explore in the area. Ideally, you’d need a car or taxi ride to get to Castle Sinclair Girnigoe otherwise it’s a 4-mile walk from Wick. The Castle of Wick is a lot closer (1.5 miles). In both cases in case of wet weather, make sure you wear footwear appropriate for tackling a muddy grass path.
Castle Sinclair Girnigoe
Castle Sinclair Girnigoe is actually two castles! There are information boards which tell you about the history, and the construction of the castles in the 15th and 17th centuries.
Castle of Old Wick
Old Wick Castle is one of Scotland’s oldest castles, with historians estimating it was built sometime in the 14th century. Take care exploring the promontory where the castle stands.
DISTILLERIES IN WICK
While you can find an assortment of breweries and distilleries around Caithness, Wick is home to just one – the maritime malt of Old Pulteney!
Old Pulteney Whisky Distillery
Opening in 1826, Old Pulteney has been distilling for almost 200 years. Visitors can buy a bottle from the gift shop, and can also book a tour/tasting – my husband has done it a couple of times with visiting friends and family, and highly recommends it. Take a look at their booking page for three tour options!
WICK’S LOCAL HISTORY
Wrecks, War History and Wildlife on the North Head Path
Follow the North Head Path out of Wick, past the North Baths for a beautiful cliff top walk. Above the North Baths there is a wartime pill box, and along the path, There are information boards at regular intervals explaining various aspects of shipwrecks and rescues, war history, and wildlife that you can spot.
World War Two Memorial Garden
During WWII a German plane bombed Wick, and to commemorate the lives that were lost, a memorial garden was created. Visitors are welcome to look around the garden and see the various artwork and displays that have been created.
Wick Heritage Centre
As well as the Johnstone Collection mentioned above, Wick Heritage Centre is home to a veritable tardis of rooms. They showcase a wide variety of exhibits, including many items donated by local members of the public. It’s manned by volunteers who are passionate about keeping local history alive and it’s well worth a visit! More information about the exhibits can be found on the Heritage Centre’s website.
The Shortest Street in the World
Wick is officially a record-breaking place – as measuring 6ft 9inches, the town’s Ebenezer Place is officially the world’s shortest street!
If you are interested in researching family or house history, you may want to book some time at Nucleus which houses thousands of local records. Nucleus also houses the archives of the UK civil nuclear industry. For more information and to book an appointment, look at this information page.
CAFES AND RESTAURANTS IN WICK
Most of Wick’s cafes and restaurants serve traditional Scottish food, however there is Devitas (Italian) and Bord De L’Eau (French), and both Chinese and Indian takeaways. The Printers Rest also serves a range of Mediterranean and middle-eastern dishes. You can get a drink, light or hearty meals at Mackays Hotel & Bistro, The Norseman, Wickers World (daytime only), Morag’s (daytime only), The Nethercliffe Hotel, The Alexander Bain (Wetherspoons). Please look online to see opening hours and menus.