Landscapes, Places to stay

Living on the edge: Cape Wrath Cafe

Meet the man who is no stranger to isolation: John Ure, owner of the most remote cafe and bunkhouse in the UK at Cape Wrath

Words by Nick Drainey

It is one of the most inhospitable places in Scotland. In February, it is often impossible to go outside without being blown off your feet by gales howling in off the Atlantic Ocean and even when the wind drops, snowdrifts leave it cut off from the rest of the country.

But Cape Wrath is home for John Ure, and he wouldn’t have it any other way, whatever the weather may bring. Just getting there is an adventure in itself, involving a journey across the narrow Kyle of Durness on a small boat and an 11-mile trip up a bumpy, single-track road.

John Ure, who lives and works at Cape Wrath. Credit: Nick Drainey

Cape Wrath covers more than 100 square miles on the far north-west point of Scotland, separated from the rest of the mainland by the tidal Kyle of Durness to the east and miles and miles of open, boggy moorland to the south. At the tip is a lighthouse, perched on 921-foot cliffs, the highest on mainland Britain. It is surrounded by Britain’s biggest bombing range – the only place in Europe where 1000lb bombs can be dropped, leaving the area closed for ‘war games’ up to 120 days a year.

However, John manages to successfully run the adjacent Ozone Cafe and a bunkhouse with his daughter, Angela, and welcome more than 6,000 people a year (when coronavirus is not restricting travel plans).

It was 25 years ago that John and his late wife Kay arrived at this outpost on the most north-westerly tip of the mainland. The reason for being there was simple: “We had three small kids in Glasgow and didn’t want them to grow up there,” he says.

They had joined a charity run by Historic Environment Scotland, which aimed to save buildings at risk. First, they tried to move to Ardnamurchan Lighthouse, further down the west coast but they missed that opportunity. Then they found buildings at Cape Wrath were available on a £1-a-year lease after being compulsorily purchased by the Highland Council. The lighthouse tower is still owned and operated by the Northern Lighthouse Board, but the former Principal Lighthouse Keeper’s house and the machine room have been transformed into a home, cafe and now a bunkhouse.

The Ozone Cafe at Cape Wrath Lighthouse. Credit: Martin Cameron/Alamy

John says conditions were harsh at first: “It was really hard to start with because there was no power and water. The first 10 years we spent renovating; it was derelict more or less.” And it is no understatement when John, who used to run a roller shutter business, says: “It changed my life completely.”

Even with generators, thick walls and a water supply, the weather can make Cape Wrath a tough place; winds have been recorded at more than 100mph.

John says: “February is the worst. It is storm force for most of the month. You can’t go out really. You can get coal from the shed, but you can’t go up the hill or anything like that because you would get blown off your feet – it shoves down some of the (drystone) walls.”

“I find it quite entertaining. Once you get the fire on you can sit and watch the sea being wild, it is quite nice. The walls of the house are quite substantial.”

This is an extract. Read the full feature in the March/April 2021 issue of Scotland, out on 19th February.

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