By Craig Neil
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Perched on top of an exposed promontory on the Kyle of Tongue sits Castle Varrich, a small fortified tower that offers superb views of Ben Loyal mountain from its sturdy viewing platform.
The castle is easily accessed from a well-managed footpath that runs from the village of Tongue through woodland and fields.
Discover Castle Varrich with this complete visitor guide.
|Parking:||None at the castle. Free car park in Tongue.|
|Facilities:||None at the castle. Restaurant and shop in Tongue.|
1: Castle Varrich is an easy walk from the village of Tongue and the path is in a good condition. Much of it is gravel with the occasional stretch of rough grass.
2: Admittedly this isn’t the biggest attraction in Scotland by any means, but the scenery from the viewing platform is stunning.
1: There are a couple of cafés in Tongue if you want a coffee pre/post-walk and there are B&Bs if you’d like to stay overnight.
2: Combine a visit with the beautiful Talmine Bay on the opposite side of the Kyle of Tongue.
3: Take binoculars to birdwatch from Castle Varrich’s viewing platform. You’ll find a selection of budget optics in the binocular review page.
One of the great things about the north Highlands is that it’s full of little surprises, from driving to the brow of a hill and finding a stunning mountainscape stretching away into the distance to stumbling into a quaint country village with a wee café that sells THE best cream cakes you’ve ever tasted.
One example of such an event happened to me when I visited Ben Loyal (a mountain in Sutherland) and looked down to see an enormous sea loch that had exposed a vast stretch of sand as the tide made its twice-daily retreat.
A rocky coastline ran parallel to picture-postcard heather-covered meadows and the sun glinted off an azure-blue sea in the distance.
It was, put simply, perfect.
I decided to return the next day and a quick search on Google told me that the loch is, in fact, the Kyle of Tongue, and the surrounding countryside has been designated as a National Scenic Area – one of only forty in Scotland.
When I returned the following day I set Tongue as the destination into my sat-nav and set off in the direction of the coastal village, only to pull into a layby near the A838 bridge when I saw an intriguing small fort perched high on a rock outcrop overlooking the loch.
I summoned the powers of Google once more and discovered that the fort is called Castle Varrich (or Caisteal Bharraich in Gaelic) and it was the seat of the chief of the Clan Mackay for hundreds of years (although the fort we see today may have been built on top of an existing Norse fort in the 14th century).
A short drive later and I was in Tongue’s car park opposite the Ben Loyal Hotel and a quick chat to the staff confirmed there’s a path running from the village all the way to the castle.
They must get quite a few visiting hikers in this small village because the track is surprisingly walkable, with lots of gravel across the wide path to make sure it’s nice and even.
And to be honest, I can understand why people come here. Although it’s a relatively short walk at around two hours in total it’s exceptionally pretty, with views across the Kyle of Tongue that offer photo opportunities not only of the landscape but also of the wildlife that lives there.
Castle Varrich is yet another hidden gem in Scotland that totally surprised me and I recommend you take a look if you’re ever in the area.
If you’d like to join a tour of Scotland’s best castles take a look at my recommended Get Your Guide castle tours.
This is a nice and easy walk that won’t take more than a couple of hours to complete, although the views from the top of the castle make up for any shortcomings in its duration.
From the Ben Loyal Hotel simply walk up the road a hundred yards or so and you’ll see a sign pointing to a footpath that leads to Castle Varrich. The path is in a great condition so you could easily manage it in trainers and as it doesn’t deviate you just need to follow it till you reach the fort.
Along the way you’ll cross a very pretty river set amongst woodland while the rest of the trail follows a shallow incline through grassland.
It’s not exactly the biggest castle in the world – I’d go so far as to say it’s the smallest I’ve visited in Scotland to date – but it’s in a remarkably well-preserved condition.
The sandstone walls are around 5 feet thick and would have supported two floors when the castle was inhabited.
According to the information panels, the ground floor was probably used as a stable and the upper floor was used as accommodation, but as there’s no roof now it’s difficult to appreciate how it would have looked in its prime.
Thankfully, Historic Environment Scotland has renovated much of the structure and they’ve also installed a steel spiral staircase with a viewing platform on the top which makes a really good spot to watch the local wildlife.
Keep an eye open for oystercatchers and herons in the water and eagles and owls in the surrounding heathland, and if you have binoculars with you (link to my recommended optics), you might even catch a glimpse of whales swimming near the mouth of the loch.
Sea life is prevalent in the area, but for the best chance of seeing whales I suggest taking a short drive further up the coast to Talmine Bay (which you can read about in my Complete Guide to Talmine Bay).
As a top tip, I recommend you drive to the A838 bridge (which you’ll need to cross anyway if you’re going to Talmine) and stop at the car park viewpoint. You’ll get gorgeous views up and down the Kyle of Tongue and it’s a great place to have a BBQ.
Discover more castles to visit in Scotland with: The Best Castles in Scotland – Ultimate Visitor Guide.
Explore this area with a detailed paper map from Ordnance Survey:
Ben Hope, Ben Loyal & Kyle of Tongue – 447 Explorer.
Strath Naver / Srath Nabhair & Loch Loyal – 448 Explorer.
Strath Naver – 10 Landranger.
OS Explorer Maps: Best for walking, mountain biking, and finding footpaths. 1:25,000 scale (4cm = 1km in real world). Buy OS Explorer maps direct from Ordnance Survey.
OS Landranger Maps: Best for road cycling, touring by car, and finding attractions. 1:50 000 scale (2 cm = 1 km in real world). Buy OS Landranger maps direct from Ordnance Survey.
This is an easy walk along well-maintained paths that shouldn’t take much more than a couple of hours to complete although it’ll more than likely be extended considerably with photo stops along the way.
The walk starts in the small village of Tongue near the Kyle of Tongue sea loch, with the village offering a small shop, car parking and a couple of decent cafes/hotels (Ben Loyal hotel has great views across the loch from the rear lounge).
Start the walk by following the sign pointing to Castle Varrich near the old RBS building and follow it down through a grassy track till you get to a gate. You’ll then head towards a wooden footbridge that crosses the Rhian Burn.
Cross the footbridge and follow the winding track all the way to the castle. It’s a wide path that’s semi-gravelled in places so it shouldn’t get too muddy in winter, and as it doesn’t deviate in any direction other than the castle it’s pretty much impossible to get lost.
The path runs through a small wooded section just before you ascend the hill and along the way you’ll find a seat to give your legs a rest if needed, but although there’s a bit of an incline it’s elongated, so anyone with reasonable fitness will be able to reach the castle easily.
When you get to Castle Varrich you’ll find a steel staircase inside that goes all the way to the lookout tower at the top where a viewing platform has been installed to take in the stunning landscape of the Kyle of Tongue and the dramatic peak of Ben Loyal.
The return journey follows the exact same route you took to get there and as it’s only around a mile in length you’ll have more than enough time to reward yourself with a coffee in one of Tongue’s excellent cafés.
Things to do nearby
Kyle of Tongue. 1-minute walk. An expansive yet shallow sea loch that features a rocky coastline designated as a National Scenic Area. Visitors flock to the area for the views of Ben Hope and Ben Loyal.
Strathnaver Museum. Clachan, Bettyhill KW14 7SS. 28-minute drive. A small yet fascinating independently-run museum that explores the history and heritage of north Scotland and the effects the Highland clearances had on the local population. Located close to Torrisdale Bay and its wide, golden-sand beach.
Smoo Cave. Lairg IV27 4QA. 50-minute drive. One of the largest sea caves in Scotland. A guided tour allows visitors to travel deep inside the cave and view an underground waterfall via a dinghy boat ride.
Ard Neakie Lime Kilns. Lairg IV27 4UJ. 21-minute drive. A historic landmark on a spit of land that juts out into Loch Eriboll. The shoreline is mostly shingle and is backed by low cliffs. Superb walks are possible away from the shore.
Borgie Forest Walk. Thurso KW14 7TH. 17-minute drive. Scenic forest walk that takes visitors through moorland, alongside hills and close to a number of lochans.
Generally flat and open, the area is well-known amongst wildlife spotters for the number of red deer and buzzards that live there.
Frequently asked questions
How do I get to Castle Varrich?
Address: Tongue, Lairg, IV27 4XE
Directions map: Google Maps
Did the Mackay clan fight at Culloden?
The Mackays fought at Culloden in various regiments on both the government and Jacobite sides. 27 Mackay’s are recorded as fighting for the Jacobites.
Did the Mackay clan have a castle?
Clan Mackay used the ancient site of Castle Varrich in Sutherland as their power base. Though the remains of the castle is little more than a tower today, at one time it had two floors, an attic, and underground caves that are believed to have been used by the Mackay’s.
What visitor facilities are there at Castle Varrich?
There are no visitor facilities at Castle Varrich.