It's (almost) the furthest north you can go in mainland Britain – and this iconic location, surrounded by spectacular scenery and wildlife, is well worth the journey
A visit to John O'Groats, in Caithness, is a must if you're travelling in the far north of Scotland.
It's an undeniably touristy place, but as the most northerly inhabited point of mainland UK – as well as the finishing point of the epic Land's End to John O'Groats hike or cycle ride – it's become a place of pilgrimage for many.
For those arriving on foot or two wheels at the end of the End to End challenge, the village is surely a very welcome sight indeed. Taking around two weeks to cycle, or three months to walk, this challenge requires stamina and perseverance – and completing it is an amazing achievement.
The village at John O'Groats consists of a small cluster of houses, shops and cafes nestled next to a tiny, picturesque harbour.
Many visitors make straight for the famous sign: it's 874 miles from here to Land's End in Cornwall. To get as far north as possible (in John O'Groats at least) walk to the very end of the harbour wall, where there are superb views out to sea. And, by looking back towards the land, you get a fantastic view of of the harbour itself too, flanked by a row of brightly coloured houses – part of the luxury hotel The Inn at John O'Groats.
In the village, there are shops selling all sorts of souvenirs. Look out for bottles of the locally made Rock Rose gin, as well as traditional Scottish crafts and items such as knitwear, tartan – and, of course, whisky and shortbread. And if you want to buy a souvenir labeled with the village's name to prove that you made it this far north, you'll be spoilt for choice.
What many people don't know, though, is that John O'Groats – despite being the country's most northerly inhabited point – is not actually the most northerly point of the UK's mainland.
That accolade goes to Dunnet Head, a 25-minute drive west along the A836. This stretch of road is part of the fantastic North Coast 500 route – a 516-mile loop around the northern Highlands that encompasses stunning beaches, historic castles, and wild, rugged scenery.
Dunnet Head is one of the stops along the route. The peninsula points into the North Sea, with superb views out to the Orkneys, and from the car park there are exhilarating walking routes along the top of the spectacular sea cliffs.
Dunnet Head is a RSPB Nature Reserve, and the cliffs are home to puffins in summer. Also look out for razorbills, guillemots and kittiwakes.
Dunnet Head Lighthouse is one of several Scottish lighthouses designed by Robert Stevenson (grandfather to Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island). It's a beautiful building that – although not open to the public – is worth a closer look.
A track leading uphill from the lighthouse takes you past derelict old army buildings to a summit viewpoint – with more far-reaching views. Even on a sunny day, the cliff top site can be cold and windy, so be prepared!
Because of these views – which stretch across the whole northern coastline from Cape Wrath to Duncansby Head – the headland was important during the Second World War. On a clear day, it's possible to see the entrance to Scapa Flow – a huge natural harbour in Orkney that was a base for the British Navy during both world wars.
For even more fabulous views, and another lovely lighthouse, head to Duncansby Head, a short distance from John O'Groats.
Duncansby Head is the most northeasterly part of the British mainland – it's actually a mile or two further away from Land's End than John O'Groats is.
The lighthouse perched on the headland played an important role in the days when sailing boats travelled through the Pentland Firth, the channel of sea between Orkney and mainland Scotland. The waters near Duncansby Head are notoriously dangerous – and this is reflected by their nickname, 'Hell's Mouth'.
Another testament to the power of the waves can be seen along the cliff-top footpath, heading south from Duncansby Lighthouse. A series of majestic sea stacks soars out of the sea, eroded into jagged columns and a rocky arch by the relentless pounding of wind and water. This wild and dramatic scenery is well worth going the extra mile for!
Heading back to the car park, you'll pass a massive cleft in the cliffs – this is the Geo of Sclaites. Pause for a while to watch the seabirds swooping and diving into the chasm – a mesmerising sight.
Where to Stay
The Seaview Hotel is a cosy and welcoming hotel that's just a short walk from all the attractions of John O'Groats village.
Guest rooms are situated either in the main hotel building or in a smart annex across the road. We stayed in an en-suite family room in the annex.
There's a communal sitting area on the ground floor of the annex, with some beautiful handmade furniture crafted from wood.
Green Adventures May 2019
Our room was pleasant and very spacious, with views towards the coast and across the Pentland Firth. Tea and coffee-making facilities and complimentary toiletries were provided.
The room was an L-shape, with bunkbeds for the children in one section and a comfortable double bed in the other. There was also a sofa and a desk – this meant there was plenty of space for a family of four. For budget travelers, there are also hostel-style rooms and glamping pods.
Seaview Hotel's Groatie Room Restaurant offers a range of local produce – for example locally sourced salmon, that's smoked and prepared in the hotel's own kitchen. A full Scottish breakfast is served in the restaurant, with plenty to choose from including cooked food, cereals, toast and juice.
If you're collecting superlatives – and many visitors to John O'Groats are – the hotel's bar is the most northerly pub on the British mainland.
There are over 130 malt whiskies to choose from, as well 30 different gins – the locally produced Rock Rose gin is highly recommended!
The Seaview Hotel is a good base for exploring the region – it's within walking distance of the sea stacks and lighthouse at Duncansby – and is also an excellent overnight stop if you're exploring the North Coast 500 route, or heading even further north across the sea to Orkney.