Camster Cairns: A Complete Guide

Find out all you need to know including what to do, where to stay, where to eat and how to get to the Grey Cairns of Camster, North Scotland.

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Camster Cairns (or The Grey Cairns of Camster) are two of the oldest monuments in Scotland, built in the Neolithic period about 5,000 years ago. Chambered cairns are stone burial monuments usually built on hillsides or skylines.

The Camster Cairns are contemporaneous with the Cairn of Get, which is approximately 20 minutes' drive away, near Ulbster. But they are older than the Clava Cairns near Inverness, which date from the early Bronze Age and are approximately 4,000 years old. 

Where is Camster Cairns?
The Grey Cairns of Camster are in the historical county of Caithness in the far north of mainland Scotland. They are around 25 miles south of John O'Groats and 97 miles north of Inverness, the main city of Scottish Highlands.

Camster is located near the North Coast 500, a 500-mile driving route around the Northern Highlands of Scotland. The cairns are around 6.5 miles north of the coastal village, Lybster and nearly 8 miles south of the village of Watten. The nearest town is Wick, around 15 miles away, with a population of around 8,000 people.

What to do at Camster Cairns
To approach the Grey Cairns of Camster, you follow a single track road either from the north or south of Camster, through a sparsely populated, occasionally forested terrain punctuated by isolated houses, farming activity, wind turbines, sheep and woodland. 

Once you arrive at the cairns, there are two monuments nestled in the hillside at Camster. The cairn immediately in front is known as the "Round Cairn" whereas the larger cairn situated slightly higher up the incline on the right is called the "Long Cairn".

A path between the cairns is laid out with duck board. This can be slippy sometimes with wet weather, so appropriate footwear is advised. It is possible to enter inside each of the cairns' chambers for someone of moderate build and agility, however they can be wet depending on the weather, so waterproof trousers can help.

The cairns are cared for by Historic Environment Scotland and information is provided at the site to assist visitors' self-guided tour. More from Historic Environment Scotland

About the Grey Cairns of Camster
While much work was undertaken in the latter half of the twentieth century to open the Grey Cairns of Camster to the public, the cairns are not well-understood for two reasons: firstly, Caithness archaeology is less researched than it perhaps deserves. Secondly, some research findings and records have been lost. 

The Round Cairn
The round cairn was discovered in 1851 and excavated in 1865. Roy Ritchie undertook excavations in 1966-7 however his work was unpublished and all records lost. The round cairn features one chamber.

The Round Cairn

Inside the Round Cairn

The Long Cairn
The long cairn is larger than the round cairn and features two chambers.

The first investigations into the long cairn were made by Joseph Anderson and Robert Shearer in 1865-6. Initial work to excavate the cairn was undertaken between 1966-8 by Roy Ritchie. Large scale excavations and studies were completed by John Corcoran between 1971-3. However following his illness and death, the results of his work were not published. Lionel Masters completed the excavation between 1976-80 and the restoration project concluded in 1981. 

The Long Cairn

What to do near the Grey Cairns of Camster

The Cairn of Get
If you are interested to see a cairn which has been restored and reconstructed less extensively than the Camster Cairns, then the Cairn o' Get provides a valuable insight. This is a round cairn like that at Camster, around 10 miles from the Grey Cairns of Camster, around a 20-minute drive along the A99. 

The Cairn of Get Loch Watenan

Parking for the Cairn of Get is at Loch Watenan, a short drive across the road from Whaligoe Steps (0.6 miles) and around a mile's walk to the Cairn O'Get.

Whaligoe Steps
Nearby the Cairn of Get, you find Whaligoe Steps, a descent of 300 odd steps down a rocky edge in nearby Whaligoe, which was used by fisherwomen in the nineteenth century to carry catches of fish from Whaligoe Harbour to the local market. If you are lucky, neighbouring residents will sometimes share more information with visitors about the history of the steps and the work undertaken by locals to preserve them. More about Whaligoe Steps

Wick
The nearest town and an historical harbour, Wick has a heritage museum which sympathetically tells the history of the town's people and its nineteenth century boom in the herring fishing industry. The town also has a distillery, responsible for Old Pulteney whisky, as well as surrounding castle ruins, cairns and coastline stretching towards John O'Groats. More about Wick.

Wick Harbour

Where to eat 
There are no public facilities at Camster however there is a range of restaurants and cafes nearby for different tastes and budgets.

  • Wick (15 miles) has a variety of restaurants and cafes including Bistro No. 1 at Mackays which serves traditional Scottish cuisine and locally sourced ingredients and Bord De L'Eau, a French restaurant with daily fish and seafood specials. More dining options at Wick
  • Waterlines, Lybster (6.5 miles) a local heritage museum known for its fresh crab roll sandwiches. More about Lybster
  • Whaligoe Steps Cafe, Whaligoe (8.5 miles) located at the top of Whaligoe Steps, providing lunch and dinner with sea views. Phone to check opening times before travel as seasonal opening applies. More about Whaligoe Steps

Where to stay

  • Wick has accommodation from hotels, bed and breakfasts to camping. The surrounding North Coast 500 route also has bed and breakfasts. More about Wick

How to get to Camster Cairns

  • By car: there are two main ways to approach The Grey Cairns of Camster: from the north, coming from Watten, Caithness and from the south, coming from the A99 near Lybster. 
  • By train: the nearest railway station is Wick, with a direct rail connection to Inverness, the principal city in Scottish Highlands. Plan your journey

Drives

The approach to Camster Cairns
See a late afternoon drive to Camster Cairns approaching from the north, from the A882 near Watten. The road is mainly single track and you pass by the Camster wind farms and also the forest at Camster. There are often sheep grazing at the roadside. Once you arrive at Camster Cairns, roadside parking is free and there is space for around 3-4 vehicles.

Thurso to Wick
Here is the journey from Thurso to Wick, the two principal towns in Caithness on the far north east coast of Scotland. This journey is made via the A882, and is the most direct road linking the two towns. En route, you pass by the turning for Camster Cairns, just after Watten. See a full narrative of the journey here. 

Wick to Lybster Harbour
This drive takes you from the town of Wick south along the A99 and passes the turnings near Ulbster for Whaligoe Steps and the Cairn of Get. It continues to Mid Clyth, near the Hill O' Many Stanes and south past the turnings for Camster Cairns before ending in Lybster Harbour. See the full journey here.

Further resources
Read our complete guides to Lybster and Wick.