Home schooling and holidays at the Lighthouse

We are a family that travels full time world schooling our children… our stay has by far been the most knowledgeable and wonderful stay we’ve had to date.

My favorite was the books and information provided, alot of time went into this cottage and providing details, and history. My children found a pamphlet … about a man and his life as a keepers son during and after the war. He lived at Noss Head and shares so much information about his time at the lighthouse. My children ages 11-16 all explored the grounds identifying things he spoke of.

A world schooler’s review of the Lighthouse Keeper’s Cottage

You may be home educators, or you may just want to get your kids outdoors and away from their screens while you are on holiday. This is a brief guide to resources and places to visit here with a particular focus on things that may interest children. You know what kind of experience is best for your family so we’ve grouped them roughly by topic to help you pick and choose. 

Lighthouses and light-keeping

This is the obvious topic. During your stay with us you can find out how lightkeepers and their families used to live and explore subjects like optics, maritime travel, and engineering. We have numerous books about lighthouses,  books by and about lightkeepers and their families, including a booklet and photographs given us by Brian Dishon who grew up at Noss Head. You can visit other lighthouse sites at Duncansby and Dunnet; Strathy and Cape Wrath are longer trips. The Wick Heritage Centre has the lens and the mechanism from Noss Head, and one of the former lightkeepers sometimes volunteers there.

Lightkeeper Dishon and his family at Noss Head in the late 1940s – Thanks to their son Brian for the photograph.


The World Wars

The Pentland Firth was the crucial link between the Atlantic and the North Sea and was vital in both World Wars. You can see old WW2 buildings from the Cottage and some of the most detailed aerial photographs of Noss Head were taken by the Luftwaffe over 70 years ago! There are WW2 buildings all over Caithness (many of them by lighthouses) and sea defences built along Keiss beach. A WW2 camp housed high-ranking German prisoners of war at Watten. If you get over to Orkney, you can drive over the Churchill Barriers which protect the natural harbour, and you can visit the extraordinary Italian Chapel built by Italian POWs in a Nissen Hut.

Orkney was important in WW1, harbouring the British fleet before and after the Battle of Jutland; the German Fleet still lies at the bottom of the harbour of Scapa Flow. If you travel to us up the east coast, you can find out more about the Navy in Scotland during WW1 at Invergordon.

How people used to live in Northern Scotland

Life was hard and there are several places you can visit to get a better understanding of the people and how they lived. The Heritage Centre in Wick tells the story of the Herring industry, a story which comes alive when you climb Whaligoe steps or visit tiny, peaceful Staxigoe harbour which was once the largest herring salting station in Europe. Castletown was a centre for the stone industry and the Heritage Centre shows what life was like for the quarrymen. You can see now the stone is used now when you visit the showrooms of the modern quarries, though it may be harder to visit quarries themselves.

The Highland Clearances

Badbea Clearance Village tells the moving and brutal story of the Highland Clearances, which explains why so many families in America, Canada, Australia and even New Zealand have Scottish heritage. Mary Ann’s Cottage and Laidhay Croft Museum also show a way of life that’s  now long gone.

Medieval history

If you look out of the kitchen window at the Cottage, you see a ruined medieval castle, so medieval history is easily accessible here. You can visit the Castle of Old Wick and walk on the beach past Keiss Castle and Ackergill Tower. Explore the tales of Sinclair family history to understand why there were so many castles within just a few miles.

Castle Sinclair Girnigoe from Noss Head
Castle Sinclair Girnigoe from Noss Head

The Neolithic, Iron and Bronze Ages

Caithness was near the centre of a pre-historic civilisation that stretched from Shetland to Northern France, and there is so, so much more to neolithic times than Stone Henge! You can get close enough to touch these unknown people by visiting the stones, tombs, and brochs that are so abundant in Caithness. There are also impressive neolithic sites on Orkney at Scara Brae, the Ring of Brodgar and Maeshowe. Visit the Broch Center and use the online resources of the Broch Project to find out more.

Ecology and Science

Birds, wildlife and sea-life

The wildlife at Noss Head is in its natural, vulnerable environment. Simply lying on the clifftops with a spotter’s guide and a pair of binoculars watching the birds and the seals on the beach below is a true wildlife experience. The RSPB have a birdwatching centre as Forsinard, and there are cetacean watching groups on Facebook whose members post about orca and dolphins in the waters around Caithness and near Orkney.

Weather and tides

You may not have thought much about waves before – most people haven’t – but at Noss Head you can see them on a grand scale because we have water on three sides (four, if you count the lochan!) Here you can see how the wind stirs up the waves that come across from Scandinavia and how they then shape themselves around the headland. The scale of the sea, and how quickly it changes with the weather, opens up a new perspective on topics like natural ecosystems and physics.

Rain falling in the distance from storm clouds above a platform in the Moray Firth
Rain falling in the distance from storm clouds above a platform in the Moray Firth

We have guidebooks to the sea shore, and this is a chance to discover that every beach has a different character, with different shells and seaweeds. Some have rock pools like Sandigoe, some are sandy like Keiss, some have shells and seaglass like Dunnet, some are made of pebbles like Bora, and you can even collect ancient fish from a beach that’s fossilised!

Stars and the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights

We have star books and binoculars to help you explore our autumn and winter skies, learn a few constellations and spot planets first hand. If you stay between September and March, you may get a chance to see the Aurora Borealis. Astronomy is a science in its own right, but it opens up optics as well as the history of navigation and the world’s early explorers.

The Nuclear industry

You can see the nuclear facility at Dounreay from the outside. Sadly, it is not currently possible to visit the display about Dounreay at Caithness Horizons museum which is currently closed. The nuclear archives are being transferred to Nucleus, near the airport at Wick. Exploring archives is a skill and the archivists will help you. These archives provide a rare chance to ask to see original documents, not only about the nuclear industry, but also about local history and genealogy.

If you get the chance to explore Scotland’s Secret Bunker in Fife on the way to or from us, you will get a glimpse into the threat of nuclear war in the Cold War years.

Wind farms

You can see the Beatrice offshore wind farm from the Cottage and there are wind turbines visible all over Caithness. Although there are no visitor centres, the pros and cons of wind farms are hotly debated in online websites, and this is an opportunity to explore a subject that may be more complicated than you think.

Other places for children

If your kids just want some fun or to let off steam we think the beaches at Keiss and Dunnet are hard to beat and there are lots more ideas here.

Of course, you don’t have to be home-schooling your children, or have any children with you at all,  to enjoy these places!

Online resources for outdoor learning

These resources would be useful for any family holiday. You may know about them already and they won’t all suit every family.

  • Learning Through Landscapes has a page of free resources as well as a membership scheme with other resources.
  • John Muir Awards provide a framework for learning in “wild places” and they encourage you to design your own activities while providing support and guidance if you want it. The Awards are available to families who put in a proposal (at least two weeks ahead) for ways to discover, explore, conserve and share a wild place. Their “Discovery” Award has a minimum of four days’ time commitment – just the thing for a week away. It definitely involves planning ahead and some paperwork, but their staff will help you.
  • OPAL (Open Air Laboratories) is a citizen-science initiative where you can contribute to a wide range of open air surveys like “Bugs Count” or “Biodiversity”. They have free downloadable resources, a Kids Zone, education packs and much more.
  • Outdoor and Woodland Learning (OWL Scotland) has resources created by various OWL groups across Scotland. However, most of their resources are about trees and Caithness isn’t heavily wooded.

We found other organisations promoting outdoor learning but they seem to be more about policy or training teachers. One which does have resource packs in a members-only area is the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom. The site is aimed mainly at teachers, but membership is open to “individuals with an interest in increasing the engagement of young people with their own education”.

We’ve tried to give a good selection of links to start you off, but some places close over the winter so please check visiting times when planning your trip.

Benefit from our lower prices during term time whether you are home educating, home schooling, world schooling or unschooling. Use our Book Now button to check availability and prices. The Cottage was fully refurbished in 2018, it sleeps up to six people in three bedrooms; children and dogs are welcome.