Duncansby Head sits at the northeasternmost tip of Scotland and Britain. Aside from having the claim to fame of being able to stand at the most northeasterly point of the UK, the main attractions here are the wonderful Duncansby Head Lighthouse and the incredible sea stacks that protrude along the rugged coastline. Rising up like sharp daggers from the sea, it’s quite the natural wonder. The Stacks of Duncansby are an easy stop along the NC500 (North Coast 500). Here, we’ll detail a short walk to get the best views as you pass through on this epic road trip.
To see footage of the Duncansby Head walk in Scotland, please watch our NC500 Hikes YouTube production.
For other great natural attractions and hikes in Scotland, check out our guides on Wailing Widow Falls, The Bone Caves and Beinn Eighe NNR. Otherwise, read our Complete Guide to Hikes Along the NC500 post, where we talk about 18 fantastic NC500 hikes.
Table of Contents
Where is Duncansby Head & Duncansby Sea Stacks
Duncansby Head is located in Caithness in Scotland and is part of the breathtaking Highlands. It’s the most northeasterly point of the British Mainland, although sometimes that honour, mistakenly, goes to neighbouring John o’ Groats. The headland is home to the Duncansby Lighthouse, which is a major attraction in itself. But, there is something even better that lies at this remote end of Britain.
Stacks of Duncansby
A walk beyond the lighthouse and towards the cliff top leads to incredible views down the sweeping coastline and out to the North Sea. Along the weather-battered cliffs are the Duncansby Head Stacks. Here, a series of breathtaking sea stacks litter the cliff base at Duncansby Head. Requiring just a short walk from the car park, they are well worth the visit. The Stacks of Duncansby are also home to an array of birdlife, including, if you’re lucky, the puffin. With such a mix of natural beauty and incredible wildlife, Duncansby Head is surely one of the most stunning stretches of coastline in all of the UK.
About Duncansby Head Lighthouse
The pretty white lighthouse that stands at Duncansby Head was built in 1924 by David Alan Stevenson. He also built a further 25 lighthouses in and around Scotland. The Duncansby Head Lighthouse sits high above the towering cliffs on the very tip of Scotland, before dropping, sharply, into the North Sea below. Indeed, the views across to the Orkney Islands are quite something, leading the eye over the choppy waters of the Pentland Firth. You’ll be able to see just why a lighthouse was erected here in the first place.
In this guide, we’ll detail the short Duncansby Head hike, as well as provide a GPS map and trail stats. In addition, we’ll let you know how to get there, where to stay, as well as other great things to do in the area.
Duncansby Stacks Walk Preview
- Trail Type: Out & Back
- Distance: 3km
- Time: 30 minutes – 1 hour
- Accumulated elevation gain: 80m
- Difficulty: Easy
- Trailhead: Duncansby Head Car Park
- Map: Wikiloc
Stacks of Duncansby Walk
From the car park, head up and over the grassy headland. Initially, Duncansby Head Lighthouse will be on your left. You can either cut straight across or hug the cliffside, but essentially, your first stop will be Geo of Sclaites.
Geo of Sclaites
The Geo of Sclaites is a deep cleft in the cliffside. The chasm creates a narrow channel out to sea that is quite impressive. The mossy grass that grows on the top and down onto the layered rock is also home to some of the best birdlife in the area.
From Geo of Sclaites, continue the trail across the grassy tracks towards a fence at the far end. From here, you’ll get your first views of the Stacks of Duncansby Head and, of course, more of the breathtaking north Scotland coastline. Certainly, it can get pretty windy on this stretch of coast.
The first notable natural monument within the stacks is known as Thirle Door. In a stack that is still attached to the mainland cliffs, you’ll see a small arch, or door, at the base. Carved out by the same wild and unforgiving weather that cut the major stacks off from the mainland, this small sea arch is a fantastic example of the destructive power of nature at Duncansby Head. Undoubtedly, it’s quite beautiful.
Duncansby Stacks in Scotland
Beyond Thirle Door, the Stacks of Duncansby rise out of the crashing waves of the North Sea. They are jagged and rough and indeed symbolize everything rugged and wild about this northernmost area of Britain. The sharp pinnacles form different shapes as you tread the trail to get a closer look.
The walk gradually continues along the fence edge. You’ll follow it around as the trail leads ever closer to the stacks. Dan and I visited early in the morning and the fresh sea air and lack of any other visitors certainly added to the incredible experience of this wonderful natural landmark.
Duncansby Head Puffins
Duncansby Sea Stacks are home to an array of birdlife including Guillemots and Oystercatchers. You might even spot a seal or two, since they do, in fact, live all over the coastlines of the UK. But, perhaps the most popular, and occasionally elusive animal to spot, is the puffin. Dan and I didn’t see puffins at Duncansby Head during our August visit to Scotland. For a chance to see puffins, you should aim to visit between April and July.
To Return to Duncansby Head Lighthouse
You’ll notice the trail along the cliff top continues, seemingly endlessly, around the headland. Admittedly, it would be a beautiful coastal trail to continue. But, you only need to walk as far as being face on to the stacks to fully enjoy them, especially if you have a packed NC500 itinerary, like us.
After taking in the raw beauty of northern Scotland and copping a fair battering of sea air, simply retrace your steps back to the Duncansby Head Car Park.
Extended Walk to Duncansby Head Sea Stacks
For those with a little more time and desire for a slightly longer coastal walk, it’s possible to start the hike to Duncansby Head and Sea Stacks from neighbouring John o’ Groats. The John o’ Groats to Duncansby Head walk begins at the famous John o’ Groats sign, before heading down to the harbour and heading east along the pebbly beach there.
Ascending back up onto headland, you’ll round Ness of Duncansby, before continuing past the Bay of Sannick, a lovely sandy beach. From here, the trail climbs high along the grassy slopes of the north coast. Follow the trail as it hugs the edge, but not too closely, before heading towards Duncansby Head Lighthouse, which should by now come into view. Then, continue as described above in the Lighthouse to Sea Stacks Walk.
The John o’ Groats to Duncansby Head walk is a short but truly beautiful coastal walk in Scotland, with extraordinary views. The trail length is around 8.5km and takes around 2.5–3 hours to complete.
You can find a GPS trail map here.
How to Get to Duncansby Head
Now you’re sold on seeing these incredible sea stacks for yourself, as well as the Duncansby Lighthouse, let’s look at how to get there. Arriving at Duncansby Head is actually very straightforward. It’s especially easy to fit in as part of your NC500 road trip. In fact, it’s an absolute must!
Arriving By Car
Whether you’re in your own car, camper or motorhome, the road leading to Duncansby Head in Scotland is very accessible. If you’re driving the NC500 in a clockwise direction, you’ll be driving to Duncansby Head via the A836 road from the Dunnet Head direction. Follow signs to John o’ Groats, and then take the small road leading out of the village, signposted to Duncansby Head. There’s a small petrol station at the T-junction to help identify the spot. Follow this road all the way to the car park at the Duncansby Head Lighthouse. Parking is free.
If completing the NC500 in an anti-clockwise direction, you’ll hit John o’ Groats from the south, along the A99. From here, you’ll take a right turn onto the same lane to Duncansby Head. Look out for street signs pointing the way.
Inverness to Duncansby Head
If you’re not visiting Duncansby Head as part of the NC500, your most direct route is to shoot up from Inverness. The journey takes in the beautiful coastal views of the northeast of Scotland, with a drive time of around three hours and a distance of 122 miles (196km).
Getting to Duncansby Head, or any of the attractions along the NC500 in Scotland, is certainly easiest with your own vehicle. If you don’t have access to your own car/motorbike/camper, then we really recommend hiring something. If hiring a car on a trip, we always get the ball rolling with a search on RentalCars.com. Booking a car with Rentalcars.com is easy and stress-free, plus they offer an unbeatable free cancellation policy too.
Given this part of the NC500 is more populated and the landscape is easier to traverse, it’s fairly straightforward to visit Duncansby Head via public transport from the nearby town of Thurso.
Bus 177 leaves from Thurso and takes around 35 minutes to reach John o’ Groats. There is no direct public transport from John o’ Groats to Duncansby Head. So, you’ll have to walk. But, as I described above, it’s a wonderful coastal trail, so no big deal, eh?
Nearest Accommodation to Duncansby Head
There are some truly fantastic accommodation options a stone’s throw from Duncansby Head Lighthouse and Sea Stacks in Scotland. We’ve looked into the best budget, mid-range and luxury options for you.
- Budget – Seaview Hotel: located in the heart of John o’ Groats is the Seaview Hotel. The hotel has a dated but cosy feel and makes a mean fish and chips. All in all, it’s a great value for money stay.
- Mid-range – The Anchorage B and B: this fabulous B&B has some of the best ratings I’ve seen for accommodation. The homely feel, great breakfast and welcoming reception make for a truly great home away from home at The Anchorage B and B.
- Luxury – John O’Groats: the apartment facilities at John O’Groats are truly impeccable. The panoramic views across to Orkney are second to none and guests love the clean and modern facilities.
Duncansby Head Lighthouse Camping Options
The closest campsite to Duncansby Head Lighthouse is in John o’ Groats. Here, you can stay at John O’Groats Caravan and Camping Site. This is a spacious campsite, right on the seafront, and a beautiful place to sleep listening to the crashing waves at night. Sunrise and sunset are also pretty spectacular.
Can You Camp at Duncansby Head?
No, you can’t camp directly at Duncansby Head. Although wild camping is permitted in Scotland, it’s only allowed on open land. Since the fields around Duncansby Head are used for grazing livestock, it’s not permitted to camp on them. It’s also not permitted to camp overnight in the Duncansby Head Car Park either.
You can check here for more information on wild camping in Scotland.
Other Attractions Nearby
- Dunnet Head: hey, why not visit the most northerly point of mainland Scotland and Britain whilst you’re at it?
- Keiss Castle: this castle ruin sits precariously on the cliffside at Sinclair’s Bay. It has quite the romantic fairytale feel about it.
- Castle Sinclair Girnigoe: located a little north of Wick and not far from Duncansby Head is Castle Sinclair Girnigoe, Scotland. The stone ruins are made up of two former castles – the 15th century Castle Girnigoe and the 17th century Castle Sinclair.
- Castle of Mey: this castle was lovingly restored by Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, and used as a holiday residence up until her death. Since then, the late Queen Elizabeth II opened it up to the public between May and September.
Food and Drink Near Duncansby Head
- Stacks Coffee House: this deli works with local business suppliers, including cheese and coffee makers, to sell in their store. Stacks Coffee House also grows its own ingredients, which go into its super delicious food options.
- The Northern Point: this excellent cafe and restaurant serves locally sourced and seasonally grown produce to guests in front of a toasty log fire. The Northern Point sounds good to me.
- The Cabin: because it would be rude not to stop for fish and chips when you’re visiting any stretch of coast in the UK. Better stop in at The Cabin.
Hiking Essentials For Duncansby Head
These are our five hiking gear essentials for the Stacks of Duncansby walk in Scotland! For a more extensive hiking gear list, check out our 66 Travel Accessories That You Must Travel With. Alternatively, for a general summary of everything you’d need for a trip to Scotland and the North Coast 500, visit our Ultimate Packing Checklist.
- Merrell Moab Mid Gore-Tex Hiking Boots: these hiking boots are super comfortable and lightweight.
- The North Face Venture Jacket: a fantastic windproof/waterproof jacket.
- Osprey Skarab 30L Day Backpack: a great backpack for hiking, which has plenty of space to store your gear.
- The North Face TKA Glacier Fleece Jacket: an excellent warmth:weight ratio fleece jacket that’ll help keep you warm.
- Columbia Convertible Trousers: a value for money pair of water-resistant convertible trousers.
- Arrive early: as with most popular attractions, arriving early inevitably means you’ll beat the crowds. Alternatively, sunsets over the Stacks of Duncansby are supposed to be rather special, so perhaps you’ll decide to rock up at the end of the day instead.
- The wilder the better: if you love the wild surroundings of the north of Scotland and around Duncansby Head, you’ll love the Assynt area of the Highlands. Be sure to check out Stac Pollaidh, Quinag and Suilven, as well as beaches like Achmelvich and Clachtoll.
- Discover Duncansby: why not take a wildlife boat cruise or visit the Orkney Islands whilst you enjoy the delights of Duncansby Head?
For more UK hiking content, check out our West Highlands, Cornwall and Brecon Beacons guides.
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