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Issue 39 - Getting out there

Scotland Magazine Issue 39
June 2008


This article is 10 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Getting out there

Sally Toms goes exploring in Scotland's far north west

As Editor of two magazines, it isn’t always easy watching your writers whizzing about over the length and breadth of Scotland to bring me, and you, the best stories. Oh boo hoo, Iknow. There are worse jobs! But like countless other millions, 90 per cent of my time is spent at my desk.

So when, at the beginning of the year, I was invited by a hotelier to Durness at Scotland’s most northerly westerly tip, I was on my way before you could say ‘can I put that on expenses?’ This corner of Scotland has a desolate beauty all of its own. It is a landscape of few trees, wide rolling hills and dry stone walls, of shabby crofts and stock fencing, sheep and nibbled grass, and possibly the most dramatic coastline to be found on our little island – sheer cliffs and countless bays of beautiful, wide beaches of blonde sand punctuated with jagged black rocks.

Durness itself is an isolated coastal community, heavily reliant on crofting and tourism. A hundred or so hardy, utilitarian homesteads cling to the windswept landscape, loosely arranged around the village shop and licensed premises (funny how that always happens).

It is certainly remote. Inverness, the nearest centre of civilisation, is a good two and half hour drive across a lunar landscape of hills, heather and stone. For soft tourists like me, or anyone not used to the single track A836, it is well not to let yourself be distracted by the scenery or else you take your life in your hands.

But once you arrive at Durness you can be assured of a very warm welcome. I have always felt that the further you travel to get somewhere, the heartier the welcome you receive. The locals aren’t even averse to chasing you down the road when you have brazenly walked out of the pub without paying for your meal (apologies to the Sango Sands Oasis for this Editor’s absent mind).

‘Attractions’ in the five-star VisitScotland sense of the word are few and far between up here, but all are worth visiting.

Smoo Cave, for instance. For a small fee you can travel by dinghy into the inner chambers, it doesn’t go in all that far admittedly, but you do get a fantastic view of the underground waterfall. There are more spectacular caves in the world, admittedly, but the history of this one is fascinating – stories abound of smugglers, spooks and ancient Mesolithic cave-dwellers.

The Craft Village at Balnakeil is a hippy treasure, and you simply mustn’t leave without taking a walk to the remains of Durness Old Church and Balnakeil Bay. Roofless and ivyclad, the church was built in the 1600s on the site of a much older church that is recorded as having supported the Crusades in the 12th century. It’s a wonderfully eerie experience to wander among the grey tombs trying to dicipher the names of the families that go back for centuries.

One of these tombs, marked with a skull and crossbones, is that of a notorious highwayman named Donald McMurdo. Legend has it he murdered his victims by throwing them down the blowhole into nearby Smoo cave. In later life he funded the church generously, and got himself a nice little resting place within its hallowed walls.

All this might not be news to avid readers of Scotland Magazine – these place names and legends have featured fairly regularly over the years. But how many of us are guilty of not seeking them out?

Especially when those places are difficult to get to. I certainly am.

Lordknows I spend too much time in the office, and I hereby promise to try and get out more in the future. We have been so lucky in this country, with our history, our landscape and our climate (yes, really).

The least we can do is enjoy it.