Dunnet Head Lighthouse is located at the most northerly point on the Scottish mainland. Here the cliffs fall 300 feet into the Pentland Firth. This means that it is officially further north than John O’Groats. An elevated viewpoint reveals a stunning view across to the southern tip of Orkney, only a few miles away from the mainland.
You can see the Old Man of Hoy and the Orkney lighthouses of Torness, Cantick Head, Stroma, and Pentland Skerries on a clear day. In addition, you can see Duncansby Head, Holburn Head and Strathy Point on the mainland.
The lighthouse at Dunnet Head was established in 1831. Robert Stevenson was the engineer, and James Smith of Inverness was the contractor responsible for its construction. Much of the stone used for the lighthouse and buildings would have been quarried locally. Other materials and equipment arrived by sea. However, owing to its lofty position, reaching the site by sea proved difficult. A boat landing and store were built at Brough harbour, 2½ miles to the south.
The lighthouse originally exhibited a fixed light produced through a reflector. This was changed to a dioptric lens in 1852. The 1908 optic manufactured by Chance Brothers is now on display at the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses in Fraserburgh.
The original fog signal was built in 1899, but it had to be discontinued due to erosion. Subsequently, another signal station was built nearer to the lighthouse, and a further fog signal station was established in 1952. This was decommissioned in 1987.
Near to the lighthouse minor fortifications were built during the Second World War to protect the naval base at Scapa Flow. An artillery range was located here, and Burifa Head was the site of the GEE chain of radio navigation stations.
Lightkeeper John Scott was transferred to Dunnet Head in 1952 where he remained with his family for five years.
In June 1952, the recently widowed Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother was visiting friends in Caithness. The Royal party drove past Barrogil Castle, which was in need of renovation. As Her Majesty looked at lessening her Royal duties, she thought that the castle would be an ideal Royal retreat. The Queen Mother bought Barrogil in August of that year, and after a period of renovation, this became her summer retreat, which she renamed the Castle of Mey.
On that initial visit in June 1952, the Royal party called, completely unannounced, at Dunnet Head at 9pm one evening. John Scott recalled his wife and the Assistant Keepers and their families were introduced to the Royal visitor, after which she climbed the 70 steps to the top of the lighthouse. Later she asked to see the children, who were roused from their beds and hurriedly dressed. That night was one of the clearest of the year, and after leaving the lighthouse the Royal party spent some time watching the sun set over the Atlantic.
Royal visits to north east Scotland continued for the next fifty years, especially if the Royal Yacht Britannia was cruising through the Pentland Firth. The Royal Yacht at anchor in Thurso Bay or Wick Bay was a not uncommon site! The Queen Mother’s final visit to the lighthouse was on 8th October 1979 when she met the keepers and their families. She was guided around by Principal Keeper Mr Malcolm.
The lighthouse was automated on 31st March 1989. After being privately owned for a number of years, the lighthouse cottages were sold again and in 2017 two of the cottages became available to rent.
The Engine Room is now a space for local artists, holding an art gallery.
The RSPB nature reserve at Dunnet Head is home to numerous birds including puffins, razorbills, guillemots, fulmars, kittiwakes, shags and cormorants. There is a clifftop path, car park and interpretation information.