Thursday, 3 May 2012

Cape Wrath and Sandwood Bay

Cape Wrath. The northwestern extremity of the British mainland. It bears the brunt of Atlantic and Arctic weather but is named not for anger, but from the Norse Hraf, turning point. Cape Wrath was the marker Vikings from Orkney used to turn south and raid Ireland and the Hebrides. However if you don't have a longboat, and want to get to Cape Wrath, you are going to have to work for it.

Cape Wrath from the east:


There are two ways to Cape Wrath, 20km and a ferry ride from the nearest public road. The first is to approach it from the Kyle of Durness in the east.

Kyle of Durness:


This is easier in physical effort than walking in from the south, as a tiny passenger ferry takes you to a jetty, the start of a dilapidated unclassified road, which is otherwise entirely unconnected with the rest of the national road network. At the other end of the road is Cape Wrath lighthouse. A minibus takes passengers there, past the remains of old, burnt out vehicles on the blasted moor. This is a bombing range, and trips by the road are dependent upon it not being active. Thus in some ways, it is less hassle to approach Cape Wrath by foot from the south. This also affords the walker a trip to Sandwood Bay, largely acknowledged as the finest beach on the British mainland.

Approaching Sandwood Bay from the South:


Sandwood used to be known for its great inaccessibility, but if you visit today it is clear how popular it is. In summer there are usually plenty of cars parked at Blairmore, and you will meet folk either on the track out to Sandwood or in the dunes of the beach itself. But on my first visit to this beach in 1996, I had it entirely to myself.

Sandwood Waves:


Sandwood Bay is supposedly haunted by the ghost of a shipwrecked mariner, and a crofter over a hundred years ago claimed to have seen a mermaid here. You scoff - until you get the bay to yourself in windy weather. This extract from my 1996 diary gives a feel of the place:
Cape Wrath looked a long way still. I descended with excitement to beach, to face the booming surf. Gulls flew about, ignoring me. A cacophony of express train breakers. I stood alone facing the giant breaking waves, the wind whistled in, spindrift loosened from the dunes racing by my feet. This place had an oceanic feel I've not experienced on any other mainland British beach. Would I stick my neck out and say this is possibly the best beach I've ever seen? I wouldn't want to say so! For there is something different, something indefinable here that made me uneasy. It had such a powerful atmosphere, and I was the only person there. The seabirds carried on their business, ignoring my presence. Breakers streamed spume. My footprints were washed away by the waves. It was as if I were never there.
You can still experience this atmosphere by visiting Sandwood Bay out of season, or, as we did on my second visit, by walking from the last house on the west coast along the deserted, orchid and bog-cotton scattered coastal seacliffs from Sheigra, descending to the Bay after the seastack Am Buachaille.

Am Buachaille:


Oh, but if Sandwood Bay is not enough? You really want to experience this area to the full? Then the extended walk to Cape Wrath is a must. As soon as you ford the river issuing from Sandwood Loch and look back on the bay from the north, you are venturing on a magnificent trek into proper, unvisited wilderness.

Sandwood Bay from the north:


The route is trackless, and dwarf pine and other mountain plants - more familiarly seen high on Munros, not at 200m above sea level - can be seen on the journey.

Given good weather and a strong southerly wind, you can be at Cape Wrath quite quickly: but the temptation will be to linger, to follow the edge of the seacliffs and watch the seabirds and waves crashing in. I was lucky with the weather on my one and only trip to the Cape.

The north coast cliffs from Cape Wrath:


I will leave you with my diary again at this extremity of Scotland:
I was blown along the cliffedge to the Cape, the lighthouse perched precariously on its clifftop above two jagged seastacks. I hadn’t realised before how high the lighthouse lay above the sea. White flecked waves and surging tides. Took a self timer picture of myself, the sea and headlands having a headbutting competition and the gulls flying between like so many flecks of fishy dandruff. Windblown and exhilarated I shouted:

"I've made it!"

But there was nobody about to hear. A door left open by a tourist in the information barn was banging in the wind. The lighthouse complex was a ghost town. Not a soul about. No bus. The sheep eyed me boldly. I was getting chilled in the wind from which there was no shelter, so walked the few miles east to the bothy. It lay in a perfect little bay just east of the Cape, a pale nest of sand between dark cliffs and moor with a twin-spired seastack offshore. I wound down to the sand. A flock of oystercatchers sifted the far end of the beach. There was a seal on the beach too, gulls in the air, and the wind tangled my hair and met the swell coming pounding in from the Arctic Ocean. I hadn’t seen a soul all day, and I just knew that the fishing net-festooned bothy was going to be empty. I collected some driftwood by the cliff-breaking sea and lit a fire, lulled into a trance by the flames cackling with air pockets, and the sun slowly set beyond the edge of the land. The cry of the oystercatchers, the flickering flames, the eternal crashing of the waves.
There are prettier capes in the world. But I have never been anywhere with such an atmosphere as this lonely, windswept, stormtossed area.

Kervaig Bay:

1 comment:

blueskyscotland said...

You,ve managed to capture better photographs on this walk than any I,ve got Robert.I remember being happy to reach Kervaig as the wind was cold,constant and head on. Wild coastline.