Sands and cliffs that stretch to Scotland’s far North-west
The far north-west coast of Scotland is riven with bays and sea lochs which bite deep into the hills, making the coastal roads long and winding. But the care needed to negotiate them is well rewarded, for they lead to bustling fishing ports; to large nature reserves; and to quiet coves where boats may be hired for angling or for trips to small islands. Mountain walks should not be attempted without first informing the local police station.
TURNING POINT At Cape Wrath the Vikings turned south to the Hebrides. Wrath derives from the Norse hvraf, ‘a turning point’.
The north-western tip of mainland Britain, Cape Wrath is a red-rock headland rising sheer from the sea for 360 ft, and topped by a lighthouse 70 ft tall. Inland lies one of the largest expanses of uninhabited land in Britain – the 100 square miles of peat-bog, heather, scrub and rock known as The Parbh.
The only link between Cape Wrath and the outside world is a narrow track which runs from the lighthouse to a ferry across the Kyle of Durness. In summer a minibus, which runs sporadically and by arrangement with the ferry operator, carries passengers from the ferry to the lighthouse.
South-east of the Cape, the highest cliffs on the British mainland culminate in Cleit Dhubh – the ‘Black Cliff – which rises 850 ft sheer from the sea. This coast is pounded in winter by mountainous seas which sweep in from the Arctic – and on occasions in summer by the guns of Royal Navy warships which use the area as an artillery range.
South from Cape Wrath, more cliffs, broken here and there by rocky coves, run for 8 miles to Sandwood Bay.
Pale pink sand shelves gently up from the sea to huge dunes held in place by marram grass. More than a mile from end to end and a quarter of a mile from sea to dunes, the beach at Sandwood Bay is one of the finest in Britain, and except for sea-birds and the occasional walker it is completely deserted, The chill waters do not encourage bathing, which is in any case hazardous because of strong currents.
The only access to the bay is by a rough track from the tiny settlement of Blairmore, 4 miles to the south. The first 2’/: miles of the track are passable by cars – with care. The final IV: miles to the bay are along a deeply rutted path marked by cairns.
At first sight Kinlochbervie appears little busier than the other secluded settlements which straggle along the shores of Loch Inchard. It is, however, the most important fishing port in the far north-west of the Highlands. Down by its double harbour -either side of a narrow isthmus between Loch Inchard and Loch Clash – fishing boats from the east coast of Scotland land catches of white fish which are then transported to Aberdeen, Grimsby, Hull and the Continent.
To the north lies a series of tiny villages, overlooking wide, south-facing sweeps of deserted sand, which are good for bathing. The road passes Blairmore – the starting point of the track to Sandwood Bay – and ends by the crofts at Sheigra, 10 miles south of Cape Wrath.
Lying in a sheltered hollow scooped out of the rocks on either side of a bay, Scourie is a good base for hill-walking and birdwatch-ing, and for fishing for brown trout in the many lochs inland. To the north lie Tarbet, from which it is possible to visit Handa Island, and Fanagmore, from where there are boat trips to view the seal colonies of Loch Laxford.
Several families used to inhabit Handa. They lived on potatoes, fish and birds’ eggs and had their own queen – the oldest widow on the island. The potato famine of 1848 forced them to emigrate to America, however. Since 1962 the island has been a bird reserve, where vast colonies of sea-birds, including guillemots, kittiwakes, razorbills and fulmars, nest on the ledges of the red-sandstone cliffs.
Between Kylestrome on the north bank and Unapool on the south. Loch a’ Chairn Bhain divides into Lochs Glencoul and Clendhu, which then probe deep inland. From the junction of the three sea lochs there are spectacular views of the surrounding mountains – in particular of Quinag and Glas Bheinn. A bridge across the junction has replaced the car ferry which long saved motorists a 100 mile detour.
South-east of the Kylesku bridge, but difficult to reach on foot, are the Eas a Chual Aluinn waterfalls, the highest in Britain. Their vertical drop of some 650 ft makes them four times as high as Niagara. The falls can be reached on foot by a steep and rugged 3 mile track starting from the A894, 2 ½ miles south of Unapool. Alternatively a boat up Loch Glencoul into Loch Beag gives the visitor a close look at the falls; ask at the Kylesku Hotel.
A series of crofting and fishing hamlets lines the coast either side of Stoer. Salmon nets are hung out to dry beside cottages on sandy coves; while a mile inland the neatness of the drystone walls and the greenness of the pastures convey an air of relative prosperity.
But it is the beaches and the wildlife which attract most visitors to Stoer. There are safe, white sands at Achmelvich Bay and the Bay of Clachtoll, and pink sands at Clashnessie. Falcons and fulmars, seals and whales are all to be seen in the area.
The road along the peninsula ends at Stoer lighthouse. Built on top of a sandstone cliff, the lighthouse looks across The Minch towards Lewis. A walk continues to the Point of Stoer along cliffs that teem with nesting birds. On the way it passes the Old Man of Stoer, a finger of rock surrounded by a ring of seething breakers.
The ruined tower of Ardvreck Castle pokes up from a grassy point on the bare shores of Loch Assynt. It was built in 1597 as the home of the MacLeods of Assynt. In 1650 the Marquis of Montrose, while a fugitive, took refuge in the castle but was betrayed into captivity and subsequent execution by his host, Neil MacLeod.
The road to Lochinver skirts the shores of the loch, on which a scattering of tiny islands bristle with withered pines, and passes the slopes of Quinag to the north. Approaching Lochinver, the road follows the course of the River Inver which wriggles its way, between banks of rowan and birch, into the village.
When fishing boats from the east coast of Scotland land their catches of white fish at Lochinver, the port is transformed into a bustling market. For the rest of the week, during the summer months, a holiday atmosphere prevails among the stone cottages which run along the village’s pebble shore.
Lochinver is the chief village of Assynt – a rocky moonscape cratered with hundreds of hill lochs and Iochans. There are facilities for sea-angling and water-skiing, and a string of safe, sandy beaches to the north-west.
INVERPOLLY NATIONAL NATURE RESERVE
Great Britain’s second largest nature reserve, after the Cairngorms, comprises 26,827 acres of almost uninhabited wilderness. It includes the sandstone peaks of Cul Mor. Cul Beag and Stac Pollaidh; Loch Sionascaig; and an expanse of undulating moorland which stretches to the sea at Enard
The best introduction to the reserve is the nature trail which begins from the information centre at Knockan. This introduces the visitor to some of the plants and animals that are to be found in the reserve’s wide range of habitats- lochs, streams, bogs, scree, barren mountain tops and a scattering of birch, hazel and rowan woodlands.
A geological trail explains the local rock formation, which is only found in the northwest of Scotland. At the base is Lewisian gneiss, between 1,400 and 2,800 million years old – the oldest British rock. Above it lies red Torridonian sandstone. The type of rock on top varies, but it includes the white quartzite that builds the summits of many of the hills in the area.
The boundaries of the reserve can be toured by road, and there are tracks into the reserve at various points along the road.
At Achnahaird a large sandy bay bites deep into flat and windy moorland around the shores of Enard Bay. As the road from Achiltibuie to Lochinver crosses the River Polly, however, the scenery changes from sandstone moorland to outcrops of gneiss -a hard and crystalline rock which is usually covered in coarse grass. Flanking the Inver-polly nature reserve, the road rises and falls, twisting and turning along glens that lead beside rushing burns to the sea.
At Inverkirkaig the road crosses the wooded valley of the River Kirkaig and enters Sutherland – the ‘South Land’ of the Vikings. From the village, a path leads up the river, where salmon can often be seen leaping, and it is possible to walk past the Falls of Kirkaig to the summit ridge of Suilven.
Although they are often known as crofting ‘townships’, the small settlements overlooking the Summer Isles consist only of strings of scattered cottages. From Achiltibuie, the largest of these, it is possible to take boat trips around the islands.
The road from Ullapool to Achiltibuie skirts the southern boundaries of the Inver- polly nature reserve. To the north rises the jagged crest of Stac Pollaidh, while to the south, across a chain of gleaming lochs, stretch the hills of Coigach. Much of Coigach is owned by the Royal Society for Nature Conservation and managed jointly by the society and the Scottish Wildlife Trust. The local wildlife includes golden eagles, pine martens, otters and red deer.
Although the road leading south from Achiltibuie peters out at Culnacraig, a track leads along the cliffs for another 6 miles to Strath Kanaird.
SPEEDY HUNTER The pine marten uses its speed and agility to catch small prey such as rabbits and squirrels. generally called Point and almost a suburb of Stornoway, there is a much more ancient monument in the derelict 14th-century St Columba’s Church and the graveyard of Ui. Nineteen MacLeod chieftains are buried there, and the effigy of one of them, said to be Roderick MacLeod, the 7th MacLeod of Lewis, lies in the church, his features now rather weather-beaten.