This article covers the entire northern coast of Scotland, from Duncansby Head in the east to Cape Wrath in the west. A coastline filled with craggy cliffs, bays, lochs and large headlands, this draws tourists from far and wide not only due to its northern prominence but also because of the amazing landscape that surrounds the coast.
Duncansby Head to Strathy Point
The coastline can be split into two broad sections, with the first being between Duncansby Head in the east and Strathy Point, located roughly in the centre. Bordering the Pentland Firth along the eastern section, and the Atlantic Ocean on the western side, this coastline consists of a mixture of relatively low cliffs (for Scotland at least) containing large headlands, rock stacks, layers of rock on the shoreline, and numerous coves and bays of differing sizes. Although some settlements exist along the coast – the largest of these being Thurso – these are rather few and far between. It is also amazing how remote the landscape here is – behind the cliffs, the land is rather gently sloping in terms of terrain, with the Scottish Highlands visible in the distance to the south. Very few trees grow here, with various types of grasses making up much of the vegetation growth. Looking out to sea from the clifftops, although the southern Orkney Islands are visible in the distance, it becomes apparent just how incredibly vast the landscape is.
Of the many headlands along the coastline, Duncansby Head, St. John’s Point, Holborn Head, and Strathy Point, all stand out as notable cliff promontories. However, the most important headland has to be Dunnet Head. Although Duncansby Head to the east is the most north-easterly point of the Scottish (and British) mainland, Dunnet Head is the most northerly. Containing a solitary lighthouse resting on top of stunning cliffs around 100 metres (300 feet) high, Dunnet Head is accessible by road. Great views can be seen of the vast sea and the cliffs on either side . Much of the headland is used as a nature reserve, and is home to puffins, razorbills, fulmars and kittiwakes . However, although Holborn Head – located just to the north of Thurso – is not the most northerly point, it is also rather impressive. It includes the impressive Clett sea stack and many blowhole formations, where the sea erodes through the cliff and strong waves blow water upwards through the rock .
Numerous coves and bays feature along the coastline; some of these are large in size, with the widest being Dunnet Bay. Located directly south of Dunnet Head, this bay contains an arc of sand, and is suitable for paddling, swimming and surfing . Examples of other bays include Sandside Bay, Melvich Bay and Strathy Bay. These are smaller in size, and are enclosed by cliffs – each of these contains a slither of sand, and is located in a rather quiet and tranquil landscape .
The picturesque seaside town of Thurso is the most northerly town on the Scottish mainland. As well as containing a variety of independent shops, restaurants and hotels, two art galleries – the Swanson Gallery and Caithness Horizons – are located in the town. . Villages along the coast include John O’Groats – located close to Duncansby Head, this is the most north-easterly settlement in Britain. Along with its small harbour providing ferries to the Orkney Islands, this is seen as an ‘end of the road’ type of location within Great Britain, and it is common for tourist-related journeys between Land’s End in Cornwall and John O’ Groats to take place, as this is the longest possible journey to make in the United Kingdom . Other villages include Dunnet, Castletown and Portskerra.
Strathy Point to Cape Wrath
Compared with the coastline to the east of this stretch, the coastal features between Strathy Point and Cape Wrath consist of significantly higher cliffs and large headland promontories. With the northern tip of the Scottish Highlands reaching the north-western part of Scotland, the terrain here is nowhere near as flat as eastern areas. The towering cliffs provide an ideal habitat for many bird species, including seagulls, puffins, ptarmigans and guillemots. Several large glacially-carved coastal lochs stretch inland for a few miles, adding to the rather extreme landscape. Despite this, a few small sandy coves and bays remain tucked between the cliffs and the sea. Although a few small villages are dotted along the coast, the human population is notably far lower than to the east.
The Strathy Point headland stretches dramatically into the sea. With its impressive natural arch and almost 360-degree views along both sides of the coastline, whales and dolphins are frequently spotted during the summer months . However, although Whiten Head is great for its towering cliffs, and Fraid Head stands out with its juxtaposition between rocky cliffs at the northern tip, and sand dunes across the south of the headland, Cape Wrath is incredibly impressive. Forming the most north-westerly point on the Scottish (and British) mainland, Cape Wrath consists of cliffs that tower more than 150 metres (500 feet) above the sea. This is far more remote than the other headlands – not only is this located within a Ministry of Defence training area, but it is also inaccessible by road, with only private minibus tours travelling to the rocky promontory .
Small beaches exist intermittently along the coastline – many of which are sheltered from the elements, including Armadale Bay, Farr Bay and Sango Bay. However, Torrisdale Bay and Balnakeil Bay are wider and backed with sand dunes. Three large loch inlets interrupt the coastline, mainly due to the periodic erosion of rock by glacial activity during many past Ice Ages – although two of these (Kyle of Tongue and Kyle of Durness) expose sand flats during low tide, Loch Eriboll is a relatively deep inlet bordered by steep rocky hills on either side. Great views of the surrounding mountains can be seen from the shoreline of each inlet.
Providing great views of Torrisdale Bay, the village of Bettyhill includes stone cottages and the Bettyhill Hotel . However, whereas the village of Tongue gives amazing views of the Kyle of Tongue and the rugged hills to the west, Durness is the most north-westerly village in Scotland. It sits above the rocky and sandy coastline of Sango Bay, and includes shops, accommodation and a pub .