Last updated on September 25th, 2020
Faraid Head in Sutherland, North Highland
Faraid Head and Balnakeil Bay are located on a peninsula on the northern coast of Scotland that’s located 3 miles north of Durness.
Category: Beach, Landscape, Nature
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 Faraid Head
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 loads of secluded bays along the north-west 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 international 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 away to the 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 and it’s there where 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, and 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.
Read on to learn more.
Things to do at Faraid Head
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 for a large part of its length. 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 and a camera with you for this walk as there’s a surprising amount of wildlife to see, from seals and dolphins that call the coastline their home to the ravishing land and seascapes of Sutherland on the opposite side of the bay.
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 run through the dunes and it’s enjoyable to just wander off in random directions to see where they take you, and it’s certainly an evocative experience with the sounds of rolling waves breaking in your ears and the smells of wildflowers and grasses filling your nose.
Even better though, 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 a jaw-dropping experience, and one that’ll nicely round off a visit to this remarkable part of Scotland.
- Lots of wildlife, landscapes and peace and quiet. What more does anyone need?
- There’s a great walk through the dunes at Faraid Head on easy-going paths, or you can take the tarmacked road instead.
- Balnakeil beach is perfect. One of the best in Scotland in my opinion.
- There are no facilities in the bay so take a packed lunch with you.
- Check out nearby Balnakeil craft village which has lots of gift shops and a wee coffee shop.
- Head east on the A838 to explore the nigh-on legendary Smoo Cave.
Photos and video
Address and map
Faraid Head is located around 2 miles north of the hamlet of Balnakeil and 3 miles north of Durness.
Click the map for directions
Prices and opening times
There is no fee to visit Faraid Head or Balnakeil Bay. Both locations are accessible 24/7, 365 days a year.
Car parking can be found in Balnakeil village. There is no car parking charge.
- Telephone: NA
- email: NA
- Website: NA
Getting there: Car park on-site
Getting around: Partial disabled access, Easy-access paths, Partial pushchair access, Uneven paths on the beach and dunes
On-site conveniences: Nearest conveniences can be found in Durness (approximately 3 miles away)