A lonely coast of plunging cliffs and secluded bays
Scotland’s Far North is one of the most sparsely inhabited areas of Britain. Most of its settlements are little more than hamlets of greystone that are slowly giving up the struggle to make a living from an infertile land. Instead, they now provide good centres for visitors interested in fishing or wildlife, or are attracted simply by the wild beauty of a coast where the cliffs break regularly to plunge into wide, white sandy bays.
The broad sands of Balnakeil Bay sweep away over the dunes towards Faraid Head. In spring the cliffs on the eastern side of the headland are the home of nesting puffins.
At the southern end of the bay stands a ruined church, dating from 1619. A tomb decorated by a skull and crossbones is built into a niche in the south wall. It commemorates Donald MacLeod, a notorious local highwayman, who is believed to have committed at least 18 murders. Fearing that his many enemies would desecrate his grave after he had died, MacLeod is said to have paid £1,000 for this privileged last resting place.
Balnakeil Craft Village lies half a mile inland from the church, its workshops set amongst the unprepossessing barracks of an obsolete ‘early warning’ station. There are several independently owned and operated businesses in the village, run by craftsmen from all over the world. During the summer visitors may watch the craftsmen at work; they include jewellers, bookbinders and weavers.
The small crofting and sheep-farming centre of Durness stands on grassy limestone bluffs. To the south-east, as far as Loch Eriboll, the cliffs plunge into a series of safe, sandy bays, backed by rich pastures.
One of the most impressive features of this coast is the Smoo Cave – a name derived from the Norse word smjuga, meaning a ‘narrow cleft’ or ‘creek’. The main chamber, a cathedral-like cavern 200 ft long and 110 ft wide, is easily accessible from the road. It echoes to the drips of the Allt Smoo, a burn which flows off the moors inland and drops 80 ft down an open vertical shaft into a deep pool in a second chamber. A third chamber extends a further 120 ft. The second and third chambers can be reached only by experienced potholers.
Durness holds a Highland Gathering at the end of July.
The still, narrow waters of Loch Eriboll bite 10 miles into one of the least inhabited areas of the northern coast. The loch, sheltered by steep hills, is in places 350 ft deep, making it one of the deepest lochs on the west coast.
During the Second World War the loch was used for assembling North Atlantic convoys, whose crews came to know it as Loch ‘Orrible’. This is unfair, for when the sun shines it picks out the creases of the pink cliffs on the loch’s eastern shore in a breathtaking play of light and shade. In fact the name Eriboll derives from Norse words meaning ‘home on a gravelly beach’.
The island in the middle was used as target-practice for bombers about to destroy the German battleship Tirpitz in a similarly shaped Norwegian fiord in 1944. Finally, at the end of the war, German U-boats surrendered to the British Navy in Loch Eriboll.
Only a sprinkling of cottages line the shores of the loch, for this is Sutherland – an area where sheep outnumber people by more than 20 to 1.
Hidden by the bracken, just off the road on the loch’s western side, lies a souterrain. This dark underground chamber, which is reached by a flight of steps, was probably used for storing food during the Iron Age.
At the head of the loch, Craig na Faoilinn rises to 934 ft. To the west are the peaks of Cranstackie and Beinn Spionnaidh, both more than 2,000 ft high and providing spectacular mountain scenery.
A group of small crofting communities centred on Talmine was set up as a result of the 19th-century Highland Clearances, when crofters were evicted from their lands to make room for sheep. Some of the most notorious evictions took place in 1814 and 1819 in the glens of Strathnaver. They were supervised by the new leaseholder Patrick Sellar, already a hated figure in the Highlands for his evictions on behalf of the Sutherland Estates. The evicted crofters were resettled along the coast where they quarried flagstones and learned how to fish. For a century and a half they eked a living from their crofts. But the land has finally proved too inhospitable, and former crofters’ cottages now being renovated for holidaymakers.
Along this stretch of coast there is a series of white sandy beaches which are safe for bathing. At low tide, it is possible to walk across a narrow causeway of sand to the grassy mounds of the Rabbit Islands; but it would be wise to consult a local resident before attempting the crossing.
FLOWER OF THE NORThl
Found only in Sutherland, Caithness and Orkney, the tiny Scottish primrose grows abundantly in damp, windswept pastures near the sea. It is smaller than a common primrose, growing only to 2-3 in. (5-7.5 cm.) high, and has a cluster of purple or pink flowers on a single stalk.
As the road from Durness approaches Tongue, it passes over an expanse of bleak moorland which is dominated, to the south, by the solitary mass of Ben Hope and the shapely granite peaks of Ben Loyal. The lush, wooded land on the east bank of the Kyle of Tongue comes as a pleasant surprise. The village of Tongue is set back from the shore. It is a good centre for hill-walking; for fishing in Loch Loyal, 4 miles to the south; for bathing at the sandy beach of Coldbackie; and for exploring an area that is steeped in several thousand years of history.
From the village a footpath leads across a burn to Castle Varrich, which is perched on a neighbouring hillock. The ruined castle is reputed to have been a Viking look-out, but the buildings which remain suggest that it was a 14th-century stronghold. The whitewashed church of St Andrew, with stepped gables that are typical of the area, dates from 1680. Inside, the boxed wooden gallery at the back was once used by the family of the chief of the Mackay clan.
Tongue House, set amidst wooded parkland north of the village, was rebuilt in 1678 on the site of an earlier house burned down during the Civil War. Originally the home of the chiefs of Mackay, Tongue House is now part of the Sutherland estates; its grounds are open to the public only occasionally.
Bright-red letterboxes in the middle of nowhere stand out against the grey and purple of the moors beside the road which leads to a collection of small crofts based on
From the pier at Skerray it is possible to hire boats for sea-angling or for visits to the two uninhabited islands which lie off the shore. Neave Island, the site of the earliest Christian settlement in the area, is so close that when St Cormaic, a follower of St Columba, preached there it is said that he could be heard by people congregated on the mainland.
Eilean nan Ron, ‘seal island’, which contains several striking natural arches of red sandstone, was abandoned by its inhabitants only in 1938.
In the early 19th century Bettyhill would have looked more like a refugee camp than the crofting centre and resort it is today. For during the Highland Clearances, many of the tenants who were evicted from the inland estates were resettled in Bettyhill. The village which grew up as a result owes its name to Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland, the wife of the Duke of Sutherland who was responsible for many of the evictions.
Bettyhill clambers untidily up a slope overlooking the sands of Torrisdale Bay, the estuary of the River Naver and the dunes of the Invernaver Nature Reserve. To the north lies the sandy beach at Farr Bay, where semiprecious stones can sometimes be found.
Anglers fish for salmon in the River Navcr and for trout in Loch Naver, 15 miles inland. An 18th-century church half a mile east of the village now houses the small Strathnaver Museum, while the Farr Stone – a fine example of early Christian Celtic art- stands outside in the churchyard. Beside the minor road which leads south to Skelpick, groups of stones mark the remains of an Iron Age broch, a Neolithic chambered cairn and a ruined Clearance village.
On the eastern bank of the River Strathy as it flows through this scattered hamlet, a lane passes turfs of peat piled high outside greystone cottages. Several of the outbuildings are thatched, rather than slated -a rare sight in the Highlands these days. Past a lonely graveyard, the lane peters out; but the sandy beach of Strathy Bay is only a few hundred yards away across the dunes.
At Baligill, 1 mile east, a steep track leads over the grassy difftops to a thin finger of rock, perched high above creeks that echo to the hissing and sucking of the waves. A few stones are all that remain of an Iron Age fort.
North of Strathy a road leads for 3 miles along a cliff-girt peninsula to Strathy Point, where the seas have carved caves and a natural arch in the rocks around a lighthouse opened in 1958. During gales, waves of spray have smashed against the reinforced glass at the top of the tower, 135 ft above sea level. The lighthouse can be visited most afternoons; on a clear day it affords views ranging from Cape Wrath to Dunnet Head and Orkney. Gannets and skuas nest on the cliffs, and puffins and storm petrels are often seen.
DOUNREAY’S SPHERE The world’s first fast reactor produced electricity for 18 years before being superseded by a giant new reactor.
The surf creams calmly over orange sands towards the grassy dunes of Melvich beach, which is reached by footpath from Melvich village. The Halladale River cuts through the dunes to reach the sea.
Bighouse, a greystone mansion, stands on the opposite side of Strath Halladale; it was originally the ancestral home of one of the families of the Clan Mackay. Melvich has pony-trekking.
Portskerra, on the western side of the bay, is a fishing hamlet created at the time of the Clearances. Waves foam over the rocky shore, and fishing boats have to be pulled up on to the steep grassy cliffs.
Although the tides billow into Sandside Bay, the little harbour on the shore at Fresgoe is as calm as a pond. Its mirror surface is only occasionally disturbed by spray from the waves which crash against the jetty. The harbour mouth provides a window into another world. For framed between its stone walls, lobster-pots and anchors is a clear view towards the steel sphere of the Dounreay Fast Reactor.
Reay, the village at the head of the bay, has a whitewashed parish church of 1740, when the village was rebuilt after being buried by sand-dunes. The pulpit faces the ‘laird’s loft’ – a raised gallery where the laird and his family worshipped. In the 17th century the name of ‘Reay country’ was given to large tracts of mountain and deer forest in Sutherland which belonged to Mackay of Farr, chief of the Clan Mackay who took the title of Lord Reay.
BARE ROCKS AND WARRENS AT THE TIP OF THE TONGUE
A trawler passes the Rabbit Islands, which lie just outside the Kyle of Tongue. There are three islands, named after the suitability of their sandy soil for rabbits. They were once known as Eilean na Gaeil, ‘The Island of Strangers’, because Norsemen landed there, and in 1745 a French sloop bringing gold to Prince Charles Edward went aground on one of the islands.
For miles around, the flat coastal areas of Caithness are dominated by the steel sphere of Dounreay’s experimental nuclear power station. The sphere, which belongs to the Dounreay Fast Reactor, has a diameter of 135 ft – 3 ft more than the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.
It was the first fast reactor in the world to produce electricity for public use, but it closed in 1977 and it is now dwarfed – in technology as well as size – by the massive block of the Prototype Fast Reactor which began operating at Dounreay in 1974.
The main function of Dounreay is to develop the technology of fast reactors. A fast reactor can extract energy from uranium fuel about 50 times more effectively than a conventional nuclear power station; as a result, 1 ton of uranium can be used to generate as much power as some 2 million tons of coal. Dounreay also supplies electricity to the national grid through the rows of pylons which radiate from Dounreay and march away inland across the moors.
From May to September, an exhibition centre near the site explains the work of the station and organises tours. The Tourist Information Office in Thurso can also arrange tours.
OTHER PLACES TO SEE
Borve Castie, Betlyhill. Ruins of medieval castle, stronghold of Clan Mackay, on isthmus with natural arch through which small boats can pass. Daily.
Dun Domaigil Broch, 4 miles S of head of Loch Hope. Iron Age fort. Daily.
Lochan Hakel. 3 miles SW of Tongue. Bronze Age Stones, with cup-and-ring markings. Celtic fort. Daily.
Rosal, 14 miles S of Bettyhill. on B873 via B871. Pre-Clearance village in Naver Forest.
Whiten Head, E of Durness. Perpendicular cliff and series of caves. No road access, reached from sea only.