By Craig Neil
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Duncansby Head is located approximately 5 miles along the coast from John o’ Groats. It is the furthest northeast point of mainland Britain.
The area is popular with visitors due to the number of seabirds that thrive in the area, especially the adorable puffins that are frequently seen nesting on the immense rock pinnacles of the Duncansby Stacks.
1: Duncansby Head is an easy walk from John O’ Groats so it’s easy to combine both attractions in one visit.
2: The wee beaches are clean and the cliffs are full of wildlife. The walk from John O’ Groats to Duncansby Head offers something for all ages.
3: The visitor centre at John o’ Groats is great and there are a couple of decent cafés for a pre/post-walk munch.
1: Sannick Bay is a very picturesque beach and is definitely picnic-worthy, so pop some sandwiches in your backpack.
2: For another amazing coastal view I recommend heading a few miles south to Castle Sinclair Girnigoe.
3: 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. The walk from the lighthouse to the stacks is just 0.6 miles.
If you love visiting Scotland’s attractions you’ve likely considered taking a look at 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 real northern-most point of mainland Britain is actually a few miles further along the coast at Dunnet Head.
What we have in the area near John O Groats is actually the most north-eastern point on Britain’s mainland a short distance away at Duncansby Head.
This part of Scotland’s coastline is absolutely gorgeous and I had no problem grabbing my walking boots to head off from the John o’ Groats car park to see what the furthest north-east 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 rewards at each step of 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.
This is a wild and untamed part of Scotland – think steep cliffs, windswept moors and miles of uninterrupted coastline – and it’s one I wholeheartedly recommend you take the time to explore if you like the thought of going off-grid.
If you’re unfamiliar with John o’ Groats and Duncansby Head you might be wondering if it’s difficult to find but rest assured there are plenty of tourist signs pointing towards it 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.
I’d say that pretty much anyone will be able to reach the first landmark on the route which is the dramatic 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 the 147-mile John o’ Groats Trail that follows the coastline from Inverness to the famous north-eastern headland.
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.
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 (link to my recommended optics) 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 onto their wee rock perch.
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.
There’s also a fence all the way around the gorge so you don’t get too close – which is a good idea because the cliffs are almost vertical to the point where it makes you feel dizzy to look down them.
Take note that in addition to the wildlife there are also farm animals grazing in the area, so if you have dogs with you it might be an idea to keep them on a lead.
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.
Explore this area with a detailed paper map from Ordnance Survey:
Thurso & John o’ Groats – 451 Explorer.
Orkney – Southern Isles – 7 Landranger.
Thurso & Wick – 12 Landranger.
OS Explorer Maps: Best for walking, mountain biking, and finding footpaths. 1:25,000 scale (4cm = 1km in real world). Buy OS Explorer maps direct from Ordnance Survey.
OS Landranger Maps: Best for road cycling, touring by car, and finding attractions. 1:50 000 scale (2 cm = 1 km in real world). Buy OS Landranger maps direct from Ordnance Survey.
Click the map for details
Things to do nearby
Wick. Wick KW1 5EN. 24-minute drive. One of the largest towns in Caithness, a hundred years ago it had one of the busiest herring fishing industries in the world.
Today, many visitors use Wick as a base to explore the remote surrounding area. The town centre has modern conveniences such as food stores, restaurants and petrol stations.
Castle and Gardens of Mey. Mey, Thurso KW14 8XH. 14-minute drive. A restored fortress overlooking the North Sea that features extensive grounds.
The castle dates from the 16th century was the home of the Queen Mother before opening to the public. There is a gift shop and a café on site.
Nybster. Nybster, Wick KW1 4XR. 12-minute drive. A much-visited coastal region that has a variety of wildlife walks along the seafront where visitors can watch puffins, seals and a variety of seabirds. There are also several brochs (ancient fortifications) in the area.
Bay of Sannick. Wick KW1 4YS. 12-minute walk. Picturesque bay with a golden sand beach that is an easy walk from Duncansby Head. The surrounding machir fields often have sheep in them therefore it is not advisable to take dogs.
John O’ Groats. John o’ Groats, Wick KW1 4YR. 30-minute walk. This tourist attraction is attributed as the most northerly point on mainland Britain and the signpost overlooking the harbour is one of the most-photographed attractions in Scotland.
The visitor centre is well-equipped for tourists with cafés, shops and hotel accommodation. In addition, there are beautiful coastal walks in either direction.
Frequently asked questions
How do I get to Duncansby Head?
Address: Wick, Scotland, KW1 4YT
Directions map: Google Maps
What are the stacks of Duncansby?
The Duncansby Stacks are sea stacks located just off the shore of Duncansby Head on the most northeastern point of mainland Britain.
How old are the Duncansby Stacks?
The Duncansby Stacks are composed of Old Red Sandstone which is estimated to be 400 million years old. The sea stacks were formed 6,000 years ago when erosion from the North Sea weathered away the surrounding rocks from the cliffs.
What visitor facilities are there at Duncansby Head?
There are no visitor facilities at Duncansby Head other than a free car park at Duncansby Head lighthouse. The nearest visitor facilities are located 2 miles west at John O Groats.