As the most northerly point of mainland Scotland, and Britain for that matter, a trip to Dunnet Head is an absolute must along the NC500 (North Coast 500) scenic road trip in the Highlands. The small promontory that juts commandingly into the Pentland Firth, as if attempting a first pump to the Orkney Islands, shelters the wonderful Dunnet Bay and Beach to its west, with wild and rugged cliffs to its east. On the northern point of Dunnet Head, is a pretty lighthouse and stone plaque symbolising your arrival to the most northerly point of Scotland. Of course, it goes without saying, this is where you’ll be stopping for a photo.
But, there are plenty of other things to enjoy around Dunnet Head too. So, in this guide, we’ll give a brief overview of everything you need to know about visiting Dunnet Head – the most northerly point of Scotland and the UK.
To see footage of the wider NC500 road trip, feel free to watch our NC500 Hikes production.
The NC500 has some epic natural attractions. Read our 25 Epic Beaches To Visit On The NC500 and Complete Guide to Hikes Along the NC500 guides for information about other wonderful things to do on your road trip.
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About Dunnet Head
Dunnet Head is a wild and breathtaking peninsula in Caithness on the north coast of Scotland. In fact, Dunnet Head’s main claim to fame is that it marks the most northerly point of mainland Scotland and Britain. Steep rugged cliffs drop into the vast chilly waters of the Pentland Firth below. To the west is the sweeping arc of Dunnet Bay, one of the best beaches along the NC500.
Calling the peninsula home is an array of birdlife, including the puffin, which usually frequents Dunnet Head from April to July. A lonely lighthouse sits atop the sea-battered cliffs of Dunnet Head. It’s the typical white-washed stone build, with yellow trim, frequently seen around the Scottish coast. You can see very similar at Stoer Lighthouse on the northwest coast of Scotland.
Dunnet Head History
Dunnet Head Lighthouse was built back in 1831 by Robert Stevenson – the grandfather of Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson. I wonder if Dunnet Head and Bay inspired the popular novel. The cliff walls of the Dunnet Head promontory reach some 90m high, meaning the 20m high lighthouse was ample enough in stature to shine enough light out to sea. Some 37km (23 miles) in fact. The lighthouse was occupied by an operator up until 1989 when it became automated. It’s now under the management of the Northern Lighthouse Board.
As well as being a beacon for seafarers, Dunnet Head played in role in World War II. Minor fortifications and a radar station were added to help defend the military naval base at Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands. An artillery range was also in use on Dunnet Head during the war.
Where Is Dunnet Head?
Dunnet Head lies to the northeast of Scotland, overlooking the Pentland Firth which divides mainland Scotland from the Orkney Islands. The peninsula falls within the Caithness area of the Highlands, which is one of the most remote parts of the country. Nearby to Dunnet Head and Dunnet Bay is the famous John o’ Groats, which is just 24km (15 miles) away. The UK’s most northerly city, Thurso, lies east of Dunnet Head, some 21km (13 miles) away.
Feel free to click on the interactive Google Map below to see where Dunnet Head is located.
How to Get to Dunnet Head
The easiest way to get to Dunnet Head is to drive there yourself. Of course, if you’re visiting as part of the NC500 road trip, this will be very straightforward.
If you don’t have access to your own set of wheels, then we recommend hiring something. When hiring a car, 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.
Public transport is surprisingly easy for Dunnet Head. Your best bet is to base yourself in Thurso. Then, from Thurso, you can take bus #915 towards John o’ Groats and alight at this bus stop in Dunnet. From here, you can freely roam down to Dunnet Bay or take one of the many coastal routes towards Dunnet Head Lighthouse.
What to Expect at Dunnet Head
Dunnet Head is wild and windy. The landscape here is so typical of Caithness and its remote and isolated position is part of its magic. Dan and I visited in August and despite being summer, the cloudy weather dictated the use of a wind jacket and beanie at times. But, the beguiling beauty of this most northern point of mainland Scotland and the UK will leave you utterly charmed.
Things to Do at Dunnet Head
Although Dunnet Head makes for a great short stop along the NC500 road trip, there are a number of different things you can do here, depending on the amount of time you have. Dunnet Head is a wonderful place to walk and cycle around. It’s even great for horse riding. It’s a bird lovers paradise and the striking cliffs and rugged landscape also make it a photographer’s dream. Let’s take a look at a few popular things to do at Dunnet Head.
Dunnet Head Lighthouse
One of the most popular things to do at Dunnet Head is to admire the lighthouse (sorry, no going in) and of course, get your photo taken at the stone plaque signalling your arrival at the most northerly point in Scotland. Because we’re not going home without the proof, right?
The stone is located a little off from the car park, with the pretty lighthouse beyond. The views out to sea are exceptional, especially on a clear day. The east of the Scottish Highlands is much flatter than the west, so don’t expect towering mountains to envelop the Dunnet Head peninsula. Instead is a wide expanse of grassy farmland with vertigo-inducing drops into the frothy sea below. It’s refreshing and shows off a totally different Scotland. It’s raw and remote, and we liked it.
Birdwatching At Dunnet Head
Dunnet Head head is an RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) Reserve. Certainly, from the clifftops you can enjoy spotting a plethora of stunning seabirds such as puffins, razorbills, guillemots, fulmars and kittiwakes. There’s a purpose-built viewing platform to help you spot them, with plenty of information plaques around to tell you a little about each species.
Of course, the puffins seem to be everyone’s favourite. But, when are puffins at Dunnet Head I hear you ask? Well, to see the Dunnet Head puffins, you’ll need to time your visit from April through to July/August. That’s because during these months the puffins return to the cliffs, and they’re much easier to spot.
You can read more about the birds at Dunnet Head from the RSPB website here.
On the outskirts of Thurso, and to the west of the peninsula, is the sweeping Dunnet Bay. Despite its rather long 3km length, Dunnet Bay is quite sheltered and is one of the best beaches along the NC500 for watersports and sunbathing alike. On a windy day, you’ll likely spot surfers out enjoying the swell. The sand dunes surrounding Dunnet Beach are also a favourite of many birds, so keep a lookout for oystercatchers and eider ducks.
Castle of Mey
The Castle of Mey is a grand stone castle just east of Dunnet Head. The castle was lovingly restored by Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, and used as a holiday residence up until her death. In fact, she frequently visited Dunnet Head due to its proximity to the castle. Since then, the late Queen Elizabeth II opened it up to the public between May and September. So, if you time your visit right, you can have a peek inside.
Mary Ann’s Cottage
Mary Ann’s Cottage, located here, is a traditional stone cottage on Dunnet Head. A visit to this Dunnet Head cottage provides an excellent insight into what remote life in the often harsh weather conditions of Dunnet Head would have been like. Mary Ann’s Cottage overlooks the beautiful Dunnet Bay and is open from 2–4.30pm from Tuesday–Friday. The rest of the week the cottage is closed.
There is a car park at the cottage, and guided tours are available. Check here for more information.
Other Attractions Close to Dunnet Head
The NC500 attractions and interesting places just keep coming! Below, are a few of our favourites close to Dunnet Head.
- Duncansby Head: incredible sea stacks, another lighthouse and bird watching at this incredible spot on the NC500. There’s more opportunity to spot puffins at Duncansby Head too.
- John o’ Groats (guide coming soon): with Lands End in Cornwall, this small town is famous for marking the longest distance between two inhabited places in the UK. You’ll find many charity events put on between the two towns.
- Melvich Beach: a stunning golden sand beach of toasted terracotta, framed with grassy sand dunes. It’s one of the most picturesque beaches along the NC500.
Where To Stay Near Dunnet Head
Below, we’ve handpicked the best budget, mid-range and luxury Dunnet Head accommodation options close to the peninsula and bay.
- Budget – Greenland House: located in Castleton, just west of Dunnet Head, is Greenland House. This beautiful period property is thoughtfully decorated and is superb value for money. You can opt for breakfast too, if you like.
- Mid-range – Northern Sands Hotel: the Northern Sands Hotel is fabulously located on the NC500 route and enjoys a prime position next to Dunnet Bay. There’s free parking and a lovely on-site restaurant too.
- Luxury – Dunnet B&B Escapes: located on the Dunnet Head peninsula is the wonderful Dunnet B&B Escapes. The individual units enjoy garden access and views across Dunnet Bay. Some units come with a small kitchen and all guests can take advantage of the lovely cooked breakfast each morning, which by all accounts is great.
Windhaven Camping and B&B is located on the eastern side of Dunnet Head and incredibly enjoys its own private beach! There’s ample field space to pitch the tent along the cliff top, which is particularly wonderful for watching the sunrise. If you prefer not to camp, the Windhaven Camping and B&B also provide bed and breakfast units. All come with private bathrooms and enjoy a la carte or cooked breakfasts. In addition, you can also request a packed lunch – perfect for getting you on your way for more NC500 exploration around the most northerly point in Scotland!
Also, right on the Dunnet Bay seafront is Dunnet Bay Caravan and Motorhome Club Campsite. Part of the Caravan Club group, you know what you’re getting with these guys, and it’s a reliable and friendly stop along the NC500.
Of course, wild camping is permitted in Scotland. However, campers need to follow a standard set of guidelines. These rules revolve around respecting the countryside and ultimately staying safe. Tents should also be out of view from the roadside, where possible. Also, if using a car park with your camper, don’t linger too long into the day or arrive too early in the evening.
Travel Insurance For the NC500
Whether you’re from the UK or further afield, travel insurance is a necessary evil, especially if taking on a road trip like the NC500.
SafetyWing is an excellent budget-friendly travel insurance provider. Personally, Dan and I have used SafetyWing’s Nomad Insurance many times to ensure our trips. The Nomad Insurance is fantastic value for money with a smaller additional cost to add a partner. Unlike most other insurance companies, there’s an option to pay on a monthly basis, similar to having a prepaid phone plan. Better yet, there’s no lock-in contract. In addition, you can cancel at any time, which will take effect the month after.
For shorter trips, it’s also possible to use Nomad Insurance for trips lasting just days or just 2–3 weeks. Indeed, SafetyWing is cheaper than almost all other travel insurance policies and covers just as much and sometimes more.
SafetyWing is a modern travel insurance company that is certainly leading the way in terms of how travel insurance should work in the future.
Travel Essentials For Dunnet Head
These are our travel essentials for visiting Dunnet Head and Lighthouse at the most northerly point of 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.
- Swimmers: just in case the weather’s good and you feel brave enough for a dip at Dunnet Bay.
- Binoculars/camera: plenty of wildlife to be watching and photographing here.
- The North Face Venture Jacket: a fantastic windproof/waterproof jacket, because you know, this is still Scotland after all.
- Osprey Skarab 30L Day Backpack: a great backpack for day trips, 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 when the sun drops and you want to enjoy a sunset.
You should also pack water, snacks and sunscreen.
Bonus Tips for Visiting Dunnet Head
- Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin: Jimmy Page enjoyed frequent visits to Dunnet Head and Bay. He even donated funds to help rebuild nearby Harrow Harbour.
- Restocking of Dunnet Bay: the lochs on Dunnet Head are restocked every two years with brown trout. So, for any anglers out there, you can fish, with a permit, between April and October.
- Weather: you can’t always rely on the weather to behave in the Highlands. You can always be prepared though and check the local forecast for Dunnet Head before you go. Check the Met Office forecast here.
- Tours and Activities: there are some pretty cool tours around the north coast of Scotland, including GetYourGuide‘s surf lessons at Dunnet Bay beach.
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