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Issue 63 - Turning Point

Scotland Magazine Issue 63
June 2012


This article is 6 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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Turning Point

We reach the some of Scotland's great unpopulated expanses

Having reached its zenith, our journey around the coastlands of Scotland continues down the west coast of Sutherland. This is a largely empty landscape of grassy hilltops, tall sea cliffs and sandy bays punctuated with vicious looking rocks. Sutherland has Britain’s lowest population density, just two people per square kilometre, so if the daily grind is getting you down, this is the place to get away from it all.

Castle of Mey
A few miles west of John O’Groats lies the Castle of Mey; a very homely residence that was once the private palace of the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. The castle, formerly known as Barrogill Castle, was in an awful state of repair when chanced upon by the Queen Mother during the 1950s, only recently widowed from her husband George VI. She fell in love with it at once, and after an extensive renovation of the house and gardens, the castle became her personal retreat for the next 50 years. The Queen Mother was a keen gardener and also oversaw the renovation of the beautiful formal gardens, as well as the walled kitchen garden.

Her last visit was in October 2001 at the grand old age of 101, but the castle continues to be kept in her memory, and attracts nearly 30,000 visitors per year.

Daily life in a community as remote as Durness is not something that we, in the rest of the UK, can fully comprehend. For example, on our last trip to Durness, we were told that our absent host had popped out to the supermarket, and when asked when she might return, were told quite simply: ‘tomorrow’. The supermarket was in Inverness.

Proximity to supermarkets notwithstanding (though being able to get home before all your frozen goods defrost would, sometimes, be an advantage), Durness is a delightful town with all the amenities you could need, and it’s a great base for exploring the coastline of this area.

One of the main attractions is Smoo cave, the largest sea cave in Britain. Descend the stairs to the beach and you can’t fail to miss the huge, gaping mouth in the base of the limestone cliff. Inside is a covered wooden pathway and bridge leading to a spectacular cascade that falls 25 meters into a deep pool. Short boat trips into the cave cost only £3 per adult, and run daily from April-September.

Cape Wrath
The evocative name of Scotland’s most northwesterly promontory comes, not from its forbidding location, but from a mispronunciation of its Gaelic name: Am Parbh (‘am parve’). This, in turn, derives from the Old Norse word ‘hvarf’ meaning ‘turning point’, marking the spot where more than 1,000 years ago Viking raiders would turn their ships for home.

Cape Wrath is inaccessible by direct road - to reach it you must take a passenger ferry (which operates from May to September) from Keodale across the Kyle of Durness, and from there, hop on a minibus to the lighthouse.

The stone-towered lighthouse at Cape Wrath stands 120 metres above cliffs facing the Atlantic Ocean. There is no land in a direct line between it and America. The lighthouse was built by Robert Stevenson in 1827 and was manned until 1998, when it was converted to automatic operation by the Northern Lighthouse Board.

Today, the lighthouse is also home to Britain’s most remote café: the Ozone Cafe seats eight people (which you might even call optimistic) and is open 24 hours a day all year, so you can always be sure of a sandwich and a good cup of tea at Scotland’s most lonely outpost.

To the east of the lighthouse, above the bay of Kearvaig, are the highest sea cliffs in mainland Britain, the Clo Mor Cliffs. They have a drop of 281m (nearly 1000 feet), which affords spectacular sea views and support an immense seabird colony with thousands of puffins, razorbills, fulmars, kittiwakes and guillemots.

Around Cape Wrath is a military firing range, which is generally out of bounds to the public when exercises are occurring.

Sandwood Bay
About five miles further down the coast from Cape Wrath is Sandwood Bay. This huge arc of pristine pink sand has been called Britain’s best beach. On a sunny day, the waters are so clear and blue as to look almost tropical, and the tall dunes that surround the bay give the impression of being inside a huge amphitheatre. Its certainly Britain’s least accessible beach; to reach it you must take a four mile walk through moorland. But this guarantees that, even in the height of summer, you are quite likely to have the beach all to yourself.

Many visitors are overcome by the uncanny feelings this desolate and majestic beach can evoke.

This stretch of coast is one of the oldest inhabited parts of Scotland; add to this that the bones of many a wrecked ship can still be found buried beneath the sand, and it’s no wonder that tales of ghosts, mermaids and spirits abound. One common story is of a bearded mariner sighted during storms, and who has appeared to crofters collecting driftwood on the beach bellowing “All on this beach is mine, begone!” Kinlochbervie Myth and legend is left firmly behind at Kinlochbervie, just a few miles down the coast from Sandwood. This village has a small population but has become one of Scotland’s largest fishing ports, as nearly all the vessels fishing on the east coast of Scotland land their catches at the depot here, before being transported in large refrigerated lorries to destinations across Europe.

Kinlochbervie also roughly marks the spot where the landscape changes. The coastline becomes less distinct, as deep indentations of water distort the boundary between land and sea.

Imposing sea cliffs are replaced with vast sea lochs, dotted with tiny islands of grey stone. Inland, machair and moorland is replaced with myriad lochs, both large and small, and rich with life.

From Tarbert you can take a ferry to Handa Island. Barely one square mile in diameter, this little island is of international importance for seabirds, but back in the 19th century more than 60 people called it their home. These isolated communities had a very unique structure: the oldest widow on the island became ‘queen’ and it even had a parliament of elders who met daily to allocate work that needed doing. Sadly, the potato famine of 1848 put an end to the vestiges of these island tribes and, like St Kilda and many others, the inhabitants of Handa were forced to emigrate.

Eas a’Chual Aluinn Head a few miles inland and you will discover the wonderfully Elvish sounding Eas a' Chual Aluinn, an impressive natural wonder that really does look like something from Middle Earth. It is Britain’s tallest waterfall which, at 658 feet, is nearly four times the height of Niagara.

Getting to it is well worth the effort, but requires travelling some distance on foot and should not be attempted without both fair weather and good map-reading skills. Alternatively, is possible to take a boat trip from the slipway outside the Kylesku Hotel and view it from Loch Bearg.

The road sweeps inland here, by Loch Assynt, and bypasses many picturesque villages such that cling to the rocky coast. To get to them, you must first navigate many single track roads that twist and turn around hills and quiet lochs, but it is worth the effort; stunning views, tiny whitewashed cottages and quiet pebble beaches are waiting to be discovered by the intrepid traveller.

The next village of any size on our journey south is Ullapool. This town was designed and built in 1788 by Thomas Telford and the British Fisheries Society to exploit the herring boom, and the streets have the distinctive grid-like layout of purposebuilt settlements.

Today it is a peaceful fishing village with a strong reputation as a centre for music, the arts and performance. It has festivals throughout the year, including the Ullapool Book Festival, Ullapool Guitar Festival and music festival Loopallu. Add a range of facilities and cultural activities available and you have the perfect Highland holiday.

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