Faraid Head and Balnakeil Bay are located on a peninsula on the north coast of Scotland, 3 miles north of Durness. The peninsula is a popular tourist destination thanks to the wide expanse of golden beach at Balnakeil Beach which faces a shallow bay.
The area behind the beach is covered in dunes and grasses which are a favourite nesting site for a variety of seabirds. Discover this stunning area with this complete visitor guide.
While Scotland’s west coast islands usually take first prize for the number of amazing beaches you’ll find (hello Isle of Tiree) you shouldn’t be too quick to discount Scotland’s mainland either, especially in the far north where it’s relatively tourist-free compared to the rest of the country.
There are lots of secluded bays along the northwest tip of Scotland but one of my favourites sits on a rocky headland more or less at the very end of Scotland’s road network, three miles north of Durness.
This is a region I suspect would be very infrequently visited by tourists if it weren’t for the amazingly popular North Coast 500, especially when you consider the nearest city of Inverness is located more than 120 miles south.
Durness can be easily found if you follow the A838 as far north as you can go, with the southern route following the Kyle of Durness and the eastern approach circling Loch Eriboll – two stretches of water that arguably offer the best wildlife-watching experiences in Scotland.
From Durness, you’ll see signs pointing to the village of Balnakeil from which point you’ll be able to park up to explore the wild, open expanse of Faraid Head.
This promontory reaches out into the Pentland Firth for over two miles and in my opinion it’s a ‘must-do’ for all visitors to the area, especially if you’re looking for somewhere to take a quiet walk.
Balnakeil village is a small hamlet that appears fairly unimpressive at first glance apart from the enormous 1700s Balnakeil House that was at one time used as the summer palace of the Bishops of Caithness.
Today, the house is privately owned so unfortunately you can’t see much of it apart from what’s open from the roadside, but there are at least the remains of Balnakeil Church opposite which can be explored to your heart’s content.
The church is even older than the great house having been built all the way back in 1619, and while it’s completely in ruin it’s quite interesting to walk around the old graveyard and look at the headstones. It’s also where you’ll first catch sight of the magnificent Balnakeil Bay.
The bay is wide and sweeping with a vast expanse of white sand fringing some of the most beautifully clear turquoise waters you’ll ever hope to see.
Thanks to the fact that it’s protected by the coastline to the west and high sand dunes to the east it’s also sheltered from the biting winds that roar in from the North Sea.
Venturing onto the beach and looking out across the bay is one of those ‘wow’ moments you’ll end up never forgetting so it’s understandable that many visitors don’t explore any further than Balnakeil Bay.
However, there’s much more to Faraid Head than this stretch of sand and pushing on through the thick swathes of marram grass will lead you onto what I personally think is one of the nicest walks in Scotland.
1: Lots of wildlife, gorgeous scenery, and peace and quiet. What more does anyone need?
2: There’s a great walk through the dunes at Faraid Head on easy-going paths, or you can take the tarmacked road instead.
3: Balnakeil Beach is perfect. One of the best beaches in Scotland in fact, and the sea is super-inviting thanks to the shallow bay that’s protected by the headland of Faraid Head.
1: There are no facilities in the bay so take a packed lunch with you. If you want hot food I recommend heading to Balnakeil Craft Village which has a pretty good café.
2: Sango Bay is another nice part of the coastline which lies a few miles east. It’s a bit rockier than Faraid Head but it’s very picturesque.
3: Head east on the A838 to explore the legendary Smoo Cave after you’ve explored Faraid Head. Smoo Cave offers visitors the chance to explore the largest sea cave in Britain.
Although the peninsula is privately owned and used for grazing sheep the furthest point is easily accessible thanks to a narrow road that cuts through the dunes to a Ministry of Defense training facility.
What you’ll see on the highest point of the dunes is an old 1950s radar station, and this small collection of lookout towers and low-slung military buildings is the reason a tarmacked road slices through the otherwise rough terrain.
Even so, although the road makes progress easy for much of the walk the ferocious winds blowing in from the north cover the majority of it with sand so it gets a bit tricky to follow at times.
If you were hoping the road offers access to Faraid Head’s pinnacle for wheelchairs and pushchairs, I’m afraid you’re going to be out of luck.
As with the majority of Scotland’s wilderness areas you’ll want to take a pair of binoculars (see my recommended optics) and a camera with you for this walk as there’s a surprising amount of wildlife to see.
The area is also a prime spot for watching puffins, so if you’ve any interest in Scotland’s cutest seabird you might like to set up camp near the dunes and look towards the sea. You’ll find more information in my guide Where to See Puffins in Scotland.
See my guide to recommended binoculars to use in Scotland.
Imagine the scenery of Lord of the Rings and you’ll have a good idea of what it’s like to explore this remote corner of Scotland – which is most probably why there’s a local legend that says the area inspired Tolkein to write his fantasy books.
I’ve no idea if that’s true or not, but I can certainly see how this rugged, otherworldly landscape would inspire thoughts of far-away lands.
A criss-cross network of paths runs through the dunes and it’s enjoyable to just wander off in random directions to see where they take you.
That being said, there are so many walks in this part of Scotland you could potentially get lost if you’re not careful which is why I always recommend grabbing an OS map before leaving home. Buy OS Landranger maps direct from Ordnance Survey.
One other point to note is that because this part of Sutherland is so remote there’s hardly any light pollution and if you stay there after dark (from October through to April) you’ll be able to witness the magnificent spectacle of the Aurora Borealis dancing in the sky in a mesmerizing display of cycling colours.
It’ll be cold – take your thermals – but it’ll also be an amazing experience and one that’ll nicely round off a visit to this remarkable part of Scotland.
Things to do
Faraid Head Walk: Enjoy a walk at Faraid Head, a scenic promontory that has stunning views of the sea and the surrounding landscape. It’s a great way to admire the wildlife of the area and there’s a good chance you’ll catch sight of seals and dolphins as you make your way around the headland.
Birdwatching: Faraid Head is a dream come true for birdwatchers. Its cliffs serve as nesting grounds for various seabirds including guillemots, puffins, and razorbills. Make sure to take your binoculars (link to binocular reviews) for a closer look.
Durness Beach: Just a short distance from Faraid Head, you’ll find Durness Beach, known for its white sands and turquoise waters. It’s the perfect place for a relaxing day of picnicking, sunbathing, or even a swim if you’re brave enough to face the cold water. The nearby campsite is a fantastic location for exploring the surrounding area – click here to see recommended tents.
Balnakeil Craft Village: For those who love arts and crafts, a visit to Balnakeil Craft Village is a must-do. In the village, you can browse a variety of local artisan shops that showcase the best of Scottish arts and crafts.
Photography: With its rugged landscape, dramatic cliffs, and stunning sea views, Faraid Head is a wonderful location for setting up a camera. Whether you’re a professional or a hobbyist, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to photograph the raw beauty of Scotland’s far northern coastline.
Geographical Location: Faraid Head is located in the northern part of Scotland, in a remote area of Sutherland. It is positioned on the peninsula of Durness, which extends out into the North Atlantic Ocean.
Historical Significance: Faraid Head has a deep historical significance. It was used as a naval observation post during World War II and the remnants of these military installations still exist.
Popular Among Hikers: The headland is well-loved by outdoor enthusiasts. It offers challenging and rewarding hikes with panoramic views over Balnakeil Bay and the North Atlantic Ocean. Faraid Head is also part of the popular North Coast 500 route.
Unique Geology: Faraid Head is of significant geological interest due to its exposed rock formations which reveal millions of years of geological history.
Protected Area: Faraid Head is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). It has been recognized for its sand dune system which is one of the largest in Britain.
Archaeological Interest: The area is of archaeological interest, with several ancient structures and artefacts discovered over the years, including an old Viking settlement.
Things to do nearby
Smoo Cave. Lairg IV27 4QA. 8-minute drive. One of the largest sea caves in Scotland.
A guided tour allows visitors to travel deep inside the cave and view an underground waterfall via a dinghy boat ride.
Balnakeil Craft Village. 21E Craft Village, Balnakeil, Durness, Lairg IV27 4PT. 4-minute drive.
An independent craft village located near the village of Durness. Local artists sell a variety of artworks including pottery, paintings and woodwork. There is a café on site.
Sango Bay. 2010 A838, Lairg IV27 4QA. 6-minute drive.
Scenic beach with sea stacks. The beach is renowned for the crystal clear sea in the bay that is ideal for swimming and snorkelling. There are clifftop walks along the coastline and there are several campsites nearby.
Balnakeil Beach. Lairg IV27 4PX. 2-minute walk.
A wide, sweeping stretch of golden sand dunes that overlook the Kyle of Durness and the Achiemore peninsula. Parking is available near the ruins of the historic Balnakeil Church.
Durness. A838, Durness, Lairg IV27 4PN. 5-minute drive.
A small country village that is lightly populated but frequently visited thanks to its central location that offers access to the coastline. There is a store (one of the few in the area) in the village centre.
Frequently asked questions
How do I get to Faraid Head?
Faraid Head is reached by taking the road from Durness past Balnakeil craft village to Balnakeil car park. Follow the single-track road alongside Balnakeil Beach which runs to the tip of the promontory.
Address: Balnakeil Bay, Durness, Sutherland, IV27 4
Directions map: Google Maps
Where do you park at Faraid Head?
There are free car parking areas near the kirkyard that faces Balnakeil Bay.
Where is Balnakeil?
Balnakeil is located at Faraid Head on the southern edge of Balnakeil Beach. Balnakeil is part of the parish of Durness, Sutherland, in the northern Scottish Highlands.
What visitor facilities are there at Faraid Head?
There are no visitor facilities at Faraid Head other than a car park.