Keiss Castle Coastal Walk: Scotland’s NC500 Hidden Gem

Set against the backdrop of Sinclair’s Bay, at Scotland‘s northern edge, Keiss Castle boldly faces the North Sea. This captivating sight is part of the picturesque Caithness region, conveniently located just 13 kilometers (8 miles) from both Wick and John O’Groats. The Keiss Castle coastal walk, a short yet mesmerizing coastal path, is a highlight in this area, offering stunning views of the dramatic cliffs and the expansive North Sea, along the rugged charm of Scotland’s North Coast 500 (NC500).

The walk’s focal point is Old Keiss Castle, a 16th-century ruin, perched on the edge of a cliff. Despite its state of ruin, the castle’s commanding presence offers a glimpse into Scotland’s storied past.

Along this short coastal path, you’ll have a chance to spot the varied local wildlife that inhabits this unique landscape. You’ll also discover markers of the region’s archaeological heritage, including ancient brochs and echoes of early settlements, a place where history and nature intertwine.

In this guide, I’ll unveil the essence of Keiss Castle, nestled in the heart of Scotland. I will guide you through the journey to this remarkable site, offering insights into the serene walk that leads there. To enhance your experience, I shall also provide helpful practical information on how to get here, accommodations, and dining options, as well as answer some frequently asked questions about this iconic Scottish landmark.

The Keiss Castle coastal walk, though brief, is an experience, ideal for history enthusiasts, nature lovers, or those seeking a peaceful escape. This walk, another true gem on Scotland’s NC500, promises to captivate and leave a lasting impression.

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Old Keiss Castle coastal walk Caithness: a splendid view of the beautiful castle ruins on a cliff viewed from a distance during the coastal stroll. | timeless travel steps
a splendid view of the beautiful Keiss castle ruins rooted gallantly on a cliff, viewed not too far during the coastal stroll on an autumn’s day

About Keiss Castle, Caithness

Perched on a picturesque promontory along Keiss Beach, the ruins of Keiss Castle stand dramatically on the Caithness coastline, telling a story of historical grandeur and architectural ingenuity. Now a shadow of its once-majestic form, the castle’s remains resonate with the echoes of a storied past.

Bearing the marks of time, the half-fallen and weather-beaten ruins poignantly illustrate the relentless force of nature against human constructs. These remnants, some clinging to the cliffs while others have succumbed to the elements, add a hauntingly beautiful aspect to the site’s historical charm, ensuring its story endures through the ages.

This architectural marvel, a mere stone’s throw from Keiss Harbour and Keiss Village, is a testament to the Z-plan castle design that was prevalent in England and Scotland. Its structure, sprawling across three levels, features distinctive roundhouses at two opposing corners, a common characteristic of the period’s design.

Old Keiss Castle Today

Today, Old Keiss Castle stands as a hauntingly beautiful relic, its evocative ruins perched precariously on a rugged cliff edge. Overlooking the vast, blue expanse of the churning sea, the castle is a poignant reminder of a bygone era. The relentless waves of the North Sea crash against the rocky shores below, weaving a symphony of natural sounds that echoes through the castle’s time-worn walls.

Situated strategically along the North Coast 500 route, this historic site is an integral thread in the rich tapestry of Scotland’s past. As the elements continue to sculpt its ancient stones, Old Keiss Castle remains a captivating landmark, offering visitors a vivid window into Scotland’s turbulent and vibrant history.

Keiss castle coastal walk shore line ©
Keiss beach

A Brief History of Old Keiss Castle and Keiss House

Keiss Castle first entered the annals of history in 1623, during a tumultuous time marked by defiance and conflict.

The Story of Old Keiss Castle

Old Keiss Castle’s story is closely linked with George Sinclair, the Fifth Earl of Caithness, who found himself at odds with the King. This conflict led to Sir Robert Gordon’s intervention and the subsequent capture of all Sinclair castles, including Keiss, forcing George Sinclair to flee to the Orkney Isles.

The tides of fortune eventually turned, and the castles, including Keiss, were restored to the Fifth Earl’s son. However, the tranquility was short-lived as land disputes ensued. It wasn’t until 1710 that Keiss Castle found a new chapter with Sir William Sinclair.

Sir William Sinclair, sold his primary landholdings in Dunbeath in 1752, and embarked on constructing a new residence. This led to the creation of Keiss House, a grand mansion that marked a shift from the medieval fortifications of the old castle to a more contemporary, residential design, leaving the old stronghold to gracefully succumb to time.

The new structure underwent various ownership changes and significant remodeling by David Bryce in 1860, known for his Scottish Baronial style influence.

Keiss Castle perched on the cliff overlooking Sinclair's Bay of the North Sea
Keiss Castle perched on the cliff overlooking Sinclair’s Bay of the North Sea

Keiss House (New Keiss Castle)

Meanwhile, Keiss House stands separately just a few meters away, as a private property, illustrating the social and architectural changes over the centuries. Its current form, influenced by Bryce’s renovations, showcases the transition from medieval architecture to modern residential styles.

The estate, with restricted access indicated by private signs, remains shrouded in privacy, leading to limited public information about its current status and residents. The details of Keiss House’s current ownership and inhabitation are likely confined to local property records or community knowledge, respecting the privacy of its owners.

The intertwined histories of Old Keiss Castle and Keiss House (New Keiss Castle) are reflective of Scotland’s rich and turbulent past, marked by power struggles and architectural evolution.

the grand Keiss House Caithness
Keiss House, Caithness

When is the Best Time to Go on a Keiss Castle Coastal Walk?

The best time to visit the ruins of Keiss Castle is typically during the late spring to early autumn months, from May to September. During this period, Scotland enjoys its warmest and driest weather, making outdoor activities and exploration more pleasant. The longer daylight hours also offer ample time to enjoy the scenic walk to the castle and the surrounding landscapes.

However, this time of the year is also when the midges thrive, creating a challenge for outdoor enthusiasts as these tiny insects are known for their persistent presence, especially in Scotland’s rural and coastal areas.

If you prefer a more solitary experience and don’t mind cooler weather, late autumn and early spring can also be good times to visit. I visited in September, and was fortunate to experience very little rain, and plenty of sunshine. As you will see from the photographs in this post, it was a beautiful day bathed in autumnal colours on this coastal walk to Keiss Castle.

The castle, with its dramatic backdrop of the North Sea, can be especially atmospheric during these quieter months. Just be prepared for changeable weather and dress accordingly.

Keiss Castle ruins viewed from a distance while on the coastal walk
Keiss Castle perched on a cliff and brochs sprinkled around the landscape

Where is Keiss Castle, Caithness?

Finding Old Keiss Castle is relatively straightforward on the NC500 route, especially when travelling from John O’Groats. The route is well-marked and guides visitors through landmarks such as Keiss Village and Keiss Harbour.

Old Keiss Castle is situated on the northeastern coast of Scotland, specifically in the captivating Caithness region. This historic structure is perched on a cliff overlooking Sinclair’s Bay, facing the vast expanse of the North Sea, presenting a scene straight out of a fairy tale. The relentless battering of the North Sea waves against Keiss Beach has left its mark on the castle, slowly eroding its structure and adding to its haunting allure.

The castle’s location along the eastern shore of Caithness makes it a striking feature against the backdrop of the rugged Scottish coastline.

Old Keiss Castle stands near the village of Keiss, which is 13 kilometers (8 miles) north of Wick, one of the major towns in Caithness, and the same distance south of John O’Groats, which makes it easily accessible

The proximity of Old Keiss Castle to the North Sea is one of its most defining characteristics, offering dramatic views of the sea and the coastline. The castle is also a notable point along the popular North Coast 500 route, making it an integral part of the experience in exploring the northern reaches of the Scottish mainland. With its strategic position on a cliff edge in Sinclair’s Bay, Old Keiss Castle presents a picturesque yet haunting vista, a testament to Scotland’s rich history and the natural beauty of its coastal landscapes.

If you venture further south around the headland, past the serene Keiss Beach and harbour, you’ll encounter Castle Sinclair Girnigoe. This castle, another jewel in the Caithness crown, shares a common history with Keiss Castle, both having been under the ownership of the influential Sinclair family. These castles, standing as silent sentinels along the coast, offer a glimpse into the region’s storied past and the legacy of the Sinclair lineage.

closer look at Keiss Castle, Caithness
Keiss Castle, Caithness

Location Overview: Keiss Village, Keiss Harbour, and Keiss Castle Coastal Walk

Keiss Village: This charming, small village is situated in the northeastern part of Scotland, just a few miles north of Wick on the road to John O’Groats, making it an accessible destination for travellers exploring the North Coast 500. It serves as a gateway to Old Keiss Castle and offers a glimpse into the serene Scottish countryside. The village’s landscape is dotted with brochs and other ancient structures, offering a glimpse into Scotland’s distant past.

Keiss Harbour: The harbour in Keiss, constructed in 1831, is an integral part of the village’s history. Located a short distance from the village, Keiss Harbour is closer to the coast and provides a more direct route to the castle along the scenic shoreline.

Keiss beach ©
Keiss beach

How to Get to Keiss Castle on the NC500 Route, Scotland

Accessing the iconic landmark of Keiss Castle involves navigating to Keiss Village or Keiss Harbour, both serving as ideal starting points for your journey.

Travel Options

By Road: Driving to Keiss is straightforward, with the village and harbour both accessible via the A99 road. This route is particularly scenic and offers a beautiful drive along the northeastern Scottish coast. For GPS navigation, you can use the postcode KW1 4XB for 📍Keiss Village.

By Public Transport:

Bus: There are bus services available from major towns like Wick, with routes passing through Keiss. The bus journey offers an authentic local experience. Stagecoach Highlands #281 and #80 service this route twice daily. You can check schedules on their official website here.

Train: While there’s no direct train service to Keiss, the nearest major train station is in Wick. From there, you can catch a bus or taxi to Keiss.

Parking Options

Parking for Keiss Castle coastal walk can be found in Keiss Village or near Keiss Harbour.

In Keiss Village, ample parking can be found along High Street. This area is ideal for leaving your vehicle before you embark on the coastal walk to Keiss Castle.

Near Keiss Harbour, there’s limited parking available around the bend adjacent to Sinclair Bay Lodges. This spot is closer to the coastal path leading directly to the castle.

For those using GPS, the nearest parking locations can be found using the postcode KW1 4XB.

Reaching Old Keiss Castle, whether by driving, bus, or a combination of train and bus, is a journey filled with scenic views and a taste of the Scottish highlands. Parking in Keiss Village or near Keiss Harbour provides convenient access to the start of the Keiss Castle coastal walk, and an opportunity to experience the natural beauty of the Caithness region.

signage to the entrance of Keiss Castle shoreline
signage placed next to the gate giving access to the coastal path

Overview of Keiss Castle Coastal Walk

  • Trail Type: Out & Back.
  • Distance: 1.9 kilometers.
  • Estimated Time: Approximately 30 minutes.
  • Elevation Gain: A gentle 10 meters.
  • Difficulty Level: Very Easy, suitable for all ages and fitness levels.
  • Starting Point: Keiss Harbour.
  • Navigation Tip: A map for guidance is recommended.

This delightful walk is perfect for those who want to immerse themselves in Scotland’s coastal scenery without committing to a strenuous hike. The short distance and minimal elevation gain make it an ideal choice for families, casual walkers, or anyone looking to enjoy a quick, scenic stroll. Starting from the charming Keiss Harbour, the trail offers picturesque views and a chance to explore one of Scotland’s historical gems.

structures, brochs, remnants from time gone by visible during the coastal walk to the ruins of Keiss Castle
structures, brochs, remnants from time gone by visible during the coastal walk to the ruins of Keiss Castle

Keiss Castle Coastal Walk, Caithness

The coastal walk to Keiss Castle indulges you in the natural splendour of its coastline.

The Keiss Castle coastal walk length is only a short distance of a mere 1.9 kilometers. This scenic path meanders to the ancient Old Keiss Castle, a short but captivating trek. It’s a leisurely walk, one that can be comfortably completed in less than 30 minutes, filled with peaceful moments, panoramic ocean views, and the sight of seabirds gliding above.

Your adventure begins near Keiss Harbour, where a footpath diverges left behind Sinclair Bay Lodges. Winding through wild fields, this path treats you to the first distant views of Keiss Castle, an intriguing silhouette against the coastal backdrop.

Look out for the Keiss Harbour Ice House, a 19th-century heritage site, located in the vicinity of Keiss Harbour. This ice house, a testament to historical preservation, embodies the architectural ingenuity of the early 1800s. It features a singular chamber design, characterized by its rubble-vaulted construction, and is distinguished by a gabled ante-chamber with a central entryway, all under a traditional turf-covered roof.

As the route clings to the cliff’s edge, you are greeted with breathtaking vistas of Keiss Beach’s rugged sea platforms and the vast expanse of Sinclair’s Bay. There’s something truly special about a stroll along a rugged shoreline and the vast blue sea.

Along the way, you’ll see some historical highlights sprinkled around which include Keiss Broch and Whitegate Broch. These are two impressive Iron Age drystone hollow-walled structures, standing as testaments to ancient defense strategies.

Keiss Castle coastal path on a pleasant sunny autumn day
Keiss Castle coastal path on a pleasant sunny autumn day

Drawing nearer to Old Keiss Castle, the air carries the tang of sea and the whisper of winds that have shaped the land for centuries. Perched on a promontory overlooking Keiss Beach and Sinclair’s Bay, the castle’s ruins, fenced off for safety, still exude a romantic aura of bygone times.

The path around the castle offers diverse views of the ruins, each angle uncovering a new aspect of its timeless beauty.

As you gaze upon the remnants, it’s natural to let your imagination reconstruct the castle’s past splendour, piecing together a vision of its historical grandeur. Spend some time here, on a leisurely walk along the nearby coastal path to gain varying perspectives of the castle. The ruins intriguingly appear to alter in shape and character from different viewpoints, offering a diverse visual experience with each step.

In a little way inland, the grandeur of Keiss House, or ‘New Keiss Castle,’ constructed in 1755 and expanded in 1860, enhances the picturesque landscape.

fence running along the privately owned property leading to Keiss Castle ruins
fence running along the privately owned property leading to Keiss Castle ruins

While the house remains private and not accessible to visitors, its presence enriches the historical ambiance, appreciated from the old castle’s path,

TIP: For those who wish to extend their exploration, the trail leads further to Nybster Broch and the Caithness Broch Centre. You could commence your walk at Nybster Broch, parking at the Mystery Broch Car Park, and head towards Keiss Castle from there.

The Keiss Castle coastal walk elevates beyond a mere journey to ruins; it’s an exploration that weaves together the narrative of history with the untamed allure of Scotland’s coast. Unlike other ruins that echo tales of decay, Keiss Castle’s remnants stand majestically, telling a story of resilience amidst the breathtaking backdrop of the sea.

Where to Stay near Keiss Castle?

When exploring the coastal walk to Old Keiss Castle in Scotland, there are a variety of accommodation options to suit different preferences and budgets.

While Keiss itself is a small village and may have limited options, the surrounding area, including the nearby towns of Wick and John O’Groats, offers a wider range of choices. Here are some suggestions for luxury, mid-range, and budget accommodations:

Luxury Accommodations

Natural Retreats, John O’Groats: Offering luxury self-catered accommodations with modern amenities, these residences provide comfort and style with breathtaking views of the coastline.

Sinclair Bay Lodges: Perfectly situated at the commencement of the castle walk, these lodges offer a luxurious beachfront experience. Guests at Sinclair Bay Lodges can enjoy stunning views of Sinclair’s Bay and Keiss Harbour. The lodges feature well-appointed, comfortable pods, complete with the luxury of a hot tub, ensuring a memorable and upscale stay.

Mid-Range Accommodations

Mackays Hotel, Wick: This comfortable and welcoming hotel provides a cozy stay with excellent dining options and is conveniently located for exploring the Caithness region.

Seaview Hotel, John O’Groats: A charming hotel offering comfortable rooms, good food, and an ideal base for exploring the northernmost point of the Scottish mainland.

Valhalla Brae, Keiss: This charming three-bedroom house is a gem along the NC500. At Valhalla Brae, guests are treated to expansive views that stretch across to the castle and down to Keiss Beach. The property is conveniently located, making it an easy walk to the start of the castle trail.

Budget Accommodations

Sandra’s Backpackers, Thurso: A budget-friendly option, perfect for backpackers and those looking for simple, no-frills accommodation. It’s a bit further away but offers a true backpacker experience.

Sinclair Bay Apartments: These self-contained apartments provide a comfortable and economical choice for your stay in Keiss. Guests appreciate the convenience of the on-site restaurant and the bonus of free parking.

Camping Options Near Old Keiss Castle

For those traveling with a camper or caravan, the Sinclair Bay Camper & Caravan Park Up is an excellent choice. This spot does not require reservations; simply park up, pay, and enjoy the convenience and beauty of the location. It’s an ideal choice for those seeking a more adventurous and flexible accommodation option near Old Keiss Castle.

Where to Eat while Visiting Old Keiss Castle, Caithness

When visiting Keiss Castle and looking for dining options, the immediate vicinity of Keiss itself offers limited choices, given its small size. However, the nearby towns of Wick and John O’Groats provide a wider range of dining experiences. Here are some recommendations for places to eat near Keiss Castle:

In Keiss

The Village Inn: This local pub in Keiss Village offers a cozy atmosphere and serves traditional pub grub. It’s a great spot for a hearty meal in a friendly setting.

In Wick

No.1 Bistro at Mackays Hotel: Known for its excellent Scottish cuisine, this bistro in Wick offers a warm, welcoming environment and a menu featuring locally sourced ingredients.

Wickers World: This café is ideal for a casual lunch or a coffee break. Located on Wick’s seafront, it’s perfect for enjoying a meal with a view.

In John O’Groats

Stacks Coffee House & Bistro: Offering delicious meals and a range of coffee options, this bistro is great for a relaxed dining experience.

These dining options range from casual cafés to more formal bistros, ensuring there’s something to suit all tastes and occasions. Whether you’re looking for a quick bite or a sit-down meal, the areas surrounding Keiss Castle have several good options to choose from.

blue sea and Duncansby Stacks at Dunnet Head, Scotland | Timeless Travel Steps
blue sea and Duncansby Stacks at Dunnet Head, John O’Groats Scotland

Clothing Tips When Visiting Keiss Castle on a Coastal Walk

When visiting Keiss Castle, especially given Scotland’s unpredictable weather, dressing in layers is highly recommended. Here are some tips for layering effectively:

Base Layer: Start with a moisture-wicking base layer to keep you dry. This could be a lightweight, breathable top made of materials like merino wool or synthetic fibers.

Mid Layer: Add a mid-layer for insulation. This could be a fleece or a lightweight down jacket, something that provides warmth but can be easily removed if you get too warm.

Outer Layer: Your outer layer should be a waterproof and windproof jacket. Scotland’s weather can change rapidly, so having a layer that protects against rain and wind is crucial.

Pants: Wear comfortable, weather-appropriate pants. Waterproof or water-resistant pants are a good choice if you’re visiting during a wetter season.

Footwear: Good walking or hiking shoes with a sturdy grip are essential, as the terrain can be uneven and sometimes slippery.

Accessories: Don’t forget a hat, gloves, and a scarf, especially outside of the summer months, as it can get quite windy, particularly along the coast.

The above tips are aimed as a guide to dress where you are able to add or remove layers easily as the weather changes throughout the day.

People Also Ask

What did Keiss Castle look like?

Keiss Castle, in its prime, resembled a typical Scottish tower house, known for its robust and vertical structure. It featured the distinctive Z-plan design common in Scotland, with two projecting towers at opposing corners of a rectangular main block. This architectural style provided both defensive capabilities and a commanding view of the surrounding area.

Though now in ruins, remnants of its tall, imposing walls and some structural elements still give a sense of its historical grandeur and strategic importance. You can take a look at old pictures of Keiss Castle here.

Where is Caithness in Scotland?

Caithness is located in the far north of Scotland, forming the northeastern extremity of the Scottish mainland. It is bounded by the North Sea to the east, the Pentland Firth (separating it from Orkney) to the north, and the county of Sutherland to the west.

This region is characterized by its rugged coastline, rolling landscapes, and its rich history, visible in its abundant castles, brochs, and other ancient structures.

Caithness is known for its picturesque towns and villages, such as Thurso and Wick, and its proximity to the famous North Coast 500 scenic route, making it a popular destination for travelers exploring the northern reaches of Scotland.

FAQs about Keiss Castle Coastal Walk

How old is Keiss Castle?

Keiss Castle, constructed in the late 16th or early 17th century, is now approximately 400 to 420 years old. Although in ruins, its remnants still evoke its historical significance. In contrast, Keiss House, also known as New Keiss Castle, was built much later, around 1755, with further extensions added in 1860. Keiss House, still standing and well-maintained, serves as a private residence, highlighting a more modern era compared to the ancient and weathered ruins of Old Keiss Castle.

Who lived in Keiss Castle?

Keiss Castle was historically the residence of the Sinclair family, notably George Sinclair, the 5th Earl of Caithness. The Sinclair family played a significant role in the history of the region and were prominent figures in Scottish history during the time the castle was inhabited.

Who owns Keiss Castle?

Keiss Castle, with its historic ruins, is privately owned, and the ownership is linked to the owners of Keiss House, also known as New Keiss Castle. This connection underscores the historical continuity of the property, with the modern and well-preserved Keiss House standing in contrast to the ancient and weathered ruins of the old castle. The private ownership of both the castle ruins and the newer residence reflects the enduring legacy and stewardship of a property that has played a significant role in the history of the Caithness region in Scotland.

Things to Do Near Old Keiss Castle

Near Old Keiss Castle, there are several fascinating activities and sights to explore, making the most of the rich history and stunning natural beauty of the Caithness region:

Visit the Caithness Broch Centre: Learn about Scotland’s unique Iron Age structures, brochs, which are particularly abundant in Caithness. The centre offers insights into their history and significance.

Explore Duncansby Head: Experience breathtaking views from the northeasternmost point of mainland Britain. Don’t miss the impressive sea stacks and the lighthouse at this scenic spot.

Descend the Whaligoe Steps: Venture down these 365 historic steps to a remarkable natural harbour nestled between towering cliffs. It’s a hidden gem that offers a unique perspective of Scotland’s rugged coastline.

Tour Other Castles in Caithness: The region is dotted with numerous castles, each with its own story. Include Castle Sinclair Girnigoe, Bucholie Castle, Castle of Mey, Thurso Castle, and Forse Castle in your itinerary.

Enjoy the Coastal Walks: The coastline around Keiss offers stunning trails, ideal for leisurely walks and wildlife spotting, especially for seabirds and marine life.

Visit John O’Groats: Often considered the northernmost point of mainland Britain, John O’Groats is a quaint village with picturesque views, souvenir shops, and cafes.

Wildlife Cruises and Orkney Isle Tours: Embark on a cruise from John O’Groats to explore the rich marine life or take a day trip to the Orkney Islands to delve into their unique history and landscapes.

Photography and Bird Watching: The area around Keiss Castle is perfect for photography enthusiasts and bird watchers, offering a chance to capture stunning landscapes and diverse bird species.

Each of these activities offers a different way to experience the cultural richness and natural splendour of the Caithness region. You may find the following tours useful:

…as the deliberate escapist and a mindful wanderer…on Keiss Castle coastal walk

As I look back on my coastal walk to Old Keiss Castle, it strikes me as far more than a mere 30-minute shoreline stroll. It’s akin to walking through the pages of a living history book, set against Scotland’s spectacular natural tapestry.

You don’t just observe – you immerse yourself in this age-old saga. The castle’s ruins, boldly facing the wild coastline, seem to murmur tales from long ago, each stone resonating with the echoes of the past. You can only imagine just how brilliant this three-storey castle would have looked centuries ago!

The awe-inspiring scenery along the way provides a peaceful embrace, inviting you to slow down and connect deeply. This walk, indeed, is a soulful journey, a chance to experience serenity and introspection amidst the whispers of history and the embrace of nature.

Georgina at Dunnet Head Scotalnd ©

Here’s a photo of me, Georgina, at the famous Dunnet Head sign.

Before you go, take a look at some of my other posts about Scotland which may be helpful to your travels:

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How to Navigate the Duncansby Stacks Walk Without a Tour.

Is Corrieshalloch Gorge Worth Visiting on a Scottish Road Trip?

Keiss Castle Coastal Walk: Scotland’s NC500 Hidden Gem

Keiss Village: Castles, Coastline, and Caithness Charm

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The Unique Collie-Mackenzie Monument at Skye’s Cuillin Mountain;

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Inverness: A Complete Guide to the Capital of the Highland;

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