Author: Craig Neil
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Last updated on February 25th, 2023.7 minutes to read.
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 that are a favoured nesting site for a variety of seabirds.
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.
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.
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.
Explore this area with a detailed paper map from Ordnance Survey:
Durness & Cape Wrath – 446 Explorer.
Cape Wrath – 9 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.
Things to do nearby
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.
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.
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.