The Out About Scotland complete guide to walking from Tongue to Castle Varrich in Sutherland
Category: Castle, Landscape, Loch, Walk or cycle route
Suitable for ages: 5 to 10 years, 11 to 18 years, 18+ years, 65+ years
Ideal for: Couples, Families, Groups, Solo travellers
I rate it: 7 out of 10
About Castle Varrich
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 cafe 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 over a thousand 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.
Things to do at Castle Varrich
As I already mentioned, 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.
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, with the ground floor probably used as a stable and the upper floor used as accommodation, but as there’s no roof 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’ve got powerful binoculars you might even catch a glimpse of whales swimming near the mouth of the loch, though I suggest you take a short drive further up the coast to Talmine Bay (which you can read about in my Complete Guide to Talmine Bay) for your best chance of seeing them.
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 top place to have a BBQ if it isn’t too busy.
What I liked about this attraction
- It’s an easy walk from the village of Tongue
- The views from the castle viewing platform are stunning
- It makes a great stop-off point if you’re exploring the Kyle of Tongue
My top tips
- There are a couple of cafes in Tongue if you want a coffee pre/post-walk
- Combine a visit with the beautiful Talmine Bay on the opposite side of the Kyle of Tongue
- Take binoculars to birdwatch from Castle Varrich’s viewing platform
Photos and video
Address and map
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 cafes.
Prices and opening times
Special offer! Click this affiliate link to purchase a Historic Environment Scotland Explorer Pass from Viator. Your 5-day or 14-day pass allows free entry to more than 77 castles, cathedrals, distilleries and more throughout Scotland. With passes starting at just £35 (as of 2019) it’s an absolute bargain!
Castle Varrich is open 24/7, 365 days a year.
There is no fee to visit Castle Varrich.
- Telephone: NA
- email: NA
- Website: NA
Getting there: Car park nearby (in Tongue)
Getting around: Disabled access, Easy-access paths, Pushchair access, Stairs (at Castle Varrich)
On-site conveniences: Hot drinks, Restaurant/cafe, Snacks, Toilets (all in Tongue village)
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