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The Out About Scotland complete guide to Duncansby Head near John o’ Groats
Category: Animals, Beach, Landmark, Landscape, 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: 8 out of 10
About Duncansby Head
If you love visiting Scotland’s attractions you’ve likely considered the most northerly point of mainland Britain at John o’ Groats. Maybe you want to see the amazing coastline in that part of the country, or perhaps go there as part of a North Coast 500 road trip.
Or maybe like me you’ve already visited Lands End and want to tick the box to say you’ve been both as far north and south as you can go on our little island.
That was my main reason for visiting the tourist-trap of John o’ Groats, and while I have to admit the visitor centre is quite good I was a bit miffed when I found out the northern-most point of Britain is actually a few miles further along the coast at Duncansby Head.
This part of Scotland’s coastline is absolutely gorgeous though, so I had no problem grabbing my walking boots to head off from the John o’ Groats car park to see what the real northern point of the UK looks like, and once I’d set off I was blown away by how pretty it is around there.
There are several points of interest along this popular walking trail, from the white-sand beaches near the Ness of Duncansby and Sannick Bay to the Duncansby Lighthouse and nearby Duncansby Stacks, and of course not forgetting the dramatic Geo of Sclaites with its cacophony of nesting seagulls and puffins.
You’ll get plenty of photo opportunities along the way and as the return route can be completed at a leisurely pace in around 3 hours you’ll not feel too rushed to get back to the car park.
It’s not a long walk by any means at around 5 miles point-to-point but it rewarded me at each step along the way with spectacular sea views towards Orkney, the monumental sea stacks at Duncansby Head, and a dizzying number of seabirds circling in gigantic squawking flocks at the Geo of Sclaites.
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Things to do at Duncansby Head
This is a wild and untamed part of Scotland – think steep cliffs, windswept moors and miles of uninterrupted coastline – and it’s one I whole-heartedly recommend you take the time to explore if you like the thought of going off-grid for a few days.
If you’re unfamiliar with John o’ Groats and Duncansby Head you might be wondering how difficult it is to find, but rest assured there are plenty of tourist signs pointing in both directions from Wick in the south to Thurso further round the coast to the west, and the area is featured on all the free NC500 maps.
Even so I still recommend picking up an Ordnance Survey map once you get there because there are so many great places to go for walks in this part of Caithness, and a decent map will certainly help you make the most of the area. Buy OS Landranger maps direct from Ordnance Survey.
I’d say that pretty much anyone will be able to reach the first landmark on the route, which is the most northerly lighthouse in mainland Britain – Duncansby Lighthouse. There’s a car park right next to the lighthouse so you can miss out the section from John o’ Groats if you want but that would be missing some of the best bits of the walk.
The path from John o’ Groats closely follows the sea and passes alongside some beautifully clean beaches before opening up into wide-open fields that are home to lots of curious sheep, so don’t be surprised to have a hundred pairs of eyes watching you as you make your way across the short-cropped turf.
Once you get to Duncansby Head Lighthouse – built in 1924 but now unmanned – you’ll be able to explore the nearby Site of Special Scientific Interest at Duncansby Stacks that continues south to include the 4-mile stretch of coast further down at Skirza Head.
The stacks are just a 40-minute walk from the lighthouse across easy-going paths along the cliff edge and are the mid-point for the short walk shown on the map below, but you can carry on all the way to Inverness if you want.
This is part of 147-mile John o’ Groats Trail that follows the coastline from Inverness to the famous north-eastern headland, but unless you’re after an epic trek I suggest just walking to the Duncansby Stacks before heading back to the John o’ Groats visitor centre as you’ll see many of the best views of the trail in one compact area.
Your options are to simply retrace your steps back along the same path you came on or circle around the fields towards John o’ Groats village, with both routes using the stacks as their mid-point.
These impressive geological formations were created by the north sea eroding the softer parts of the cliffs to leave behind two gigantic pinnacles. There are actually three stacks here, one that’s still joined to the cliffs with the Thirle Door arch, and two others that are completely separate from the mainland.
The stacks are home to huge seabird colonies and it’s worth taking the time to watch the birds coming in to land and heading back out to sea on the hunt for fish, especially if you’ve got your binoculars with you. It’s an amazing sight but to be honest I was more impressed by the enormous gorge a little way nearer the lighthouse called the Geo of Sclaites.
This vast chasm cuts right through the cliffs to the crashing waves more than a hundred feet below and in every nook and cranny you’ll see gulls and puffins clinging on to their little piece of rock.
It’s obviously a popular spot for birdwatchers because there are wooden boards laid into the ground so that you don’t get too caught up in the muddy quagmire, and there’s a fence all the way around the gorge so you don’t get too close – which is a good idea because these cliffs are almost vertical to the point where it makes you dizzy looking down.
So to sum up – I think whether you’re an enthusiastic walker, a fanatical bird watcher, or simply looking for something to do after visiting John o’ Groats you’re pretty much guaranteed a great experience if you take the time to explore the beautiful coastline surrounding Duncansby Head.
What I liked about this attraction
- Duncansby Head is an easy walk from John o’ Groats so it’s easy to combine both attractions in one visit
- The little beaches are clean and great for kids and the cliffs are dramatic and full of wildlife. This walk offers something for all ages
- The visitor centre at John o’ Groats is great and there are a couple of decent cafes for a pre/post walk munch
My top tips
- Sannick Bay is a very picturesque beach and is definitely picnic-worthy. Stick some sandwiches in your backpack
- The stacks are an amazing sight – take your camera with you
- If you just want to see Duncansby Head and the stacks you can drive to the lighthouse car park instead of the one at John o’ Groats
Address and directions map
- Telephone: NA
- email: NA
- Website: Northern Lighthouse Board
Prices and opening times
There is no fee to visit Duncansby Head.
Duncansby Head is open 24/7, 365 days a year.
Getting there: Car park on-site (at John o’ Groats visitor centre and Duncansby Head lighthouse)
Getting around: Uneven paths
On-site conveniences: Gift shop, Hot drinks, Picnic area, Restaurant or cafe, Snacks, Toilets (all at John o’ Groats)