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Around The Very Top: Cape Wrath Lives Up To Its Name

Published on: 31 May, 2015
Updated on: 6 Jun, 2015
Around The Very Top of Scotland

Around The Very Top of Scotland

Martin Giles is cycling around the top of northern Scotland with his son Tom. This is a report on the day they spent in Durness. Find other reports in the series by searching on: “Around The Very Top”.

By Martin Giles

At first glance, Durness might not seem a good place to spend a rest day. It is a small, spread out community of between 300 and 400 souls (depending on whether you believe the locals or Wikipedia).

The layout was dictated by its history as a crofting community: each croft needed some land – not too much, the Scottish aristocratic landowners did not want them to become too independent – but enough for the subsistence farming carried out by the crofters, who may have been thrown off land further inland to make way for sheep in the Highland Clearances.

In fact I left Durness wishing I had had more time to explore. There is plenty to do.

One surprising fact about the settlement was that it had been a holiday destination for John Lennon when a boy. His aunt had married a man from these parts who had a croft, so John, between the ages of nine and sixteen, spent summer holidays here.

One of the three stones erected in the John Lennon Memrial Garden in Durness bearing extracted lyrics from the song In My Life

One of the three stones erected in the John Lennon Memrial Garden in Durness bearing extracted lyrics from the song In My Life.

It is believed to have inspired the song In My Life, a song I knew well and had always imagined was to do with Liverpool scenes rather than the remotest corner of Britain.

The inhabitants have constructed a garden in his memory. Horticulture is a definite challenge in these latitudes and Chelsea medal winners need not look over their shoulders but the three stones each with part of the song lyrics are touching.

Sango Beach were a boyhood John Lennon would have played.

Sango Beach were a boyhood John Lennon would have played.

The skill of his songwriting is that he identified sentiment with which we can all identify, in Durness, in Guildford, in Timbuktu, come to that:

There are places I’ll remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I’ve loved them all

Our major objective for the day was to take the ferry and bus to visit the lighthouse at Cape Wrath. We had enquired about it on the day of arrival.

Ron at the B&B had said that he did not think the ferry would be operating that day because of the weather and, after a pause, because the ferryman had had a wee dram the night before.

Luckily, any hangover presumably cured, the ferry was apparently running on our rest day, but it could only take twelve people and it was first come, first served. We were advised to wait for the afternoon sailing at one o’clock.

Balynakiel beach.

Balynakiel beach. Click on image to enlarge.

An afternoon sailing would suit us well. We could walk down to Balnakiel beach and visit the craft centre located in a nearby former defence establishment, not from the Second World War, as might easily be imagined, but from the Cold War as part of an early warning system for nuclear attack.

The beach had been described by Ron as a mile away but he described most things as a mile away: the hotel we had walked two miles to for dinner on the previous evening,  the ferry two and a half miles away, Edinburgh….

So we suspected it would prove to be further, but we did not mind. It was worth it. The stretch of sand was perfect and the cold temperatures, even in summer, meant it remained unspoilt.

The stretch of sand was perfect.

The stretch of sand was perfect. Click on image to enlarge.

By the beach was a ruin of the old village church and the cemetery. Kathy, from Kent, who with Ron ran our B&B, said that no one was considered to be really from Durness unless you had ancestors buried here.

Durness cemetery by the old ruined church. To properly belong to Durness it is said one needs ancestors buried here.

Durness cemetery by the old ruined church. To properly belong to Durness it is said one needs ancestors buried here.

The familiarity of the names – not only Mackay (naturally, in Mackay country), but Morrison, Beattie, McDonald, etc too – showed how well spread and influential is the Scottish diaspora.

Perhaps a race used to dealing with the vagaries of what can be a harsh environment is perfectly trained to build an empire, and the Scots were often the brains as well as the manpower behind the development of the British Empire.

It had started to rain and we sheltered as best we could in the church ruins but we could not afford to linger, the ferry sailed at one, so we decided to brave the rain and walk back up to the craft centre. The heavy shower continued and we got quite wet.

Our march back towards Cocoa Mountain. Can anyone identify this car that emerged from nowhere?

Our wet march back towards Cocoa Mountain. Can anyone identify this car that emerged from nowhere? Click on image to enlarge.

The building by the entrance was clearly an old guard room. We had only so much time. Cold and wet, the lure of a hot drink in the Cocoa Mountain cafe was too much.

We were enjoying our coffee and mini chocolate croissants when another customer emerged suddenly from the bathroom, knocking into a waitress carrying a tray with more coffee. It spilled on the floor, but the waitress’ colleague was quickly on hand to mop up and put out the obligatory “Caution wet floor” sign.

Minutes later the rotund manager emerged from the chocolate factory door, took a few paces in our direction and slipped on the still wet floor, missing the warning sign by millimetres.

He was clearly angry and embarrassed. “Who mopped the floor?” he asked. The assistant said he had and was summoned to receive a ticking off behind the glass door from which the manager had emerged.

I could not hear the conversation but I am pretty sure it went: “In this country we have very strict Health & Safety rules. When a floor is wet you must put a sign out to warn others so that they don’t slip up.”

Assistant replied: “I did put up the sign.”

Manager: What?

Assistant: “I put the sign up – there it is.” He pointed at the sign.

Manager: “Hmm, well [now back in my earshot] mop it again to make it drier.” Classic.

Still smiling, we marched smartly back to our B&B, dropped off some purchases and realised that we would have to cycle to the ferry to be there before one o’clock.

The wind on the way back had almost dried us out and the brisk walk had kept us warm. Neither of us felt the need for any extra layer or two.

We pedalled the two and a half miles to the ferry. No one was waiting. Was the ferry running? Tom spotted a sign. “Next ferry 2pm.” we had been given duff info.

We walked on the sandbar soon to be covered by the tide. On the other side the former ferryman's cottage.

We walked on the sandbar soon to be covered by the tide. On the other side the former ferryman’s cottage. Click on image to enlarge.

There was nothing else for it. We would just have to wait. The rain kept off at first and we walked on the sand, returning to a bus shelter affair when another shower commenced. Once we were stationary it was pretty chilly.

Soon we were joined by a German couple from Stuttgart. We chatted but the hot air did not noticeably raise the temperature. It was more like February than late May.

Some more passengers arrived and we moved down to the slipway. After waiting this long we had no intention of being pushed aside by queue jumpers.

Then a man who had been waiting in a minivan the whole time shouted down to us that he had heard by radio that there was a ten minute delay on the bus the far side. So the ferryman was here already.

Someone joked that the small boat tied up near the slipway was the ferry. I had assumed that the ferry was on the far side but hang on, the ferryman was on this side.

The small boat was indeed the ferry.

The small boat was indeed the ferry.

The small boat was indeed the ferry but there was no hesitation from any of the passengers. Even if we did fall overboard we could not get much colder.

The ferryman appeared a hardened salt properly clothed for the conditions.

The ferryman appeared a hardened salt properly clothed for the conditions.

The ferryman looked to be a hardened salt. Unlike us he was head to foot in oilskins topped with a furry hat with deployed ear flaps. He knew what to expect. Any fool can get cold. I was that fool with a nice fleece laying useless in a B&B drawer.

The short crossing took a few minutes. The ferryman explained that he would collect fares on the return journey. There was no easy way to dodge them.

On arrival at the other side a very jocular and hearty Scot explained that he would drive us the eleven miles to the lighthouse. He would stop there for 40 minutes after which everyone must be ready to leave.

We set off. It was immediately clear that progress would be slow. Even Surrey County Council would have been ashamed of the road surface. It had been constructed purely to service the lighthouse and tarmacked just once, in the 1950s. By now it was more pot hole than road.

The minibus on the road that was mainly potholes.

The minibus on the road that was mainly potholes.

Sitting in the London LDV minibus, though, it was not too uncomfortable. The driver gave a running commentary explaining that the crofters who had occupied the Cape left in the 1950s. The old ferryman’s cottage and a former croft were now owned by doctors.

Other buildings were Ministry of Defence, mainly there because of the live firing ranges on the Cape, used predominantly by the Royal Navy and the RAF.

Common seals were basking in the sun that was making a fleeting appearance and later on we saw a grouse.

The landscape was pretty barren – a good place for a live firing range in my view. Even if the matelots and the Brylcreem boys (as we soldiers would disparagingly call them) missed the range completely, missed it by miles even, they still would not do any damage.

Tom by the Cape Wrath lighthouse fully automated in the 1990s it is now controlled from Edinburgh.

Tom by the Cape Wrath lighthouse fully automated in the 1990s it is now controlled from Edinburgh.

The eleven miles took 40 minutes. We arrived at the lighthouse to find some passengers already there. They were not lost souls who had missed the last bus but walkers who had thought it would be fun to walk here from the south, cross-country – there is not even a footpath or track.

A view of the cliffs near the lighthouse. Some of the cliffs on Cape Wrath are the highest in Britain.

A view of the cliffs near the lighthouse. Some of the cliffs on Cape Wrath are the highest in Britain. Click on image to enlarge.

There was a cafe run by a man known for his taciturnity. Shortly after moving here with his wife she had decided to go shopping in Inverness. It took her three weeks to get back. The weather closed in and she cold not get back across the water. Well, that was her story. Perhaps she was looking for some conversation.

We ventured out from the cafe. It was bitterly cold, and Tom and I were bitterly regretting not putting on more clothes. Dressing for active cycling, where the exertion created plenty of body heat, was obviously a different ball-game.

We retreated back to the cafe, as did everyone else. Before long the driver said it was time to return. Relief all round but I think it is one of those places that you are glad to say you have visited. In better weather, or just the right clothes, I am sure the experience would be different.

So don’t let me mislead you – a visit to Cape Wrath which boasts the highest cliffs in Britain is definitely worthwhile.

The rain started again as we arrived for the return ferry crossing. As we remounted our bikes for the uphill ride to Durness it fell steadily heavier. We were soaked. Even my pants were wet, a sure sign of a proper soaking.

But we were still glad we had done it. Even though we had paid for the privilege it felt like we had passed some kind of survival course.

If despite, or because of, my account you feel like upping sticks and moving to this neck of the woods there seem to be at least three job offers on the table.

The local doctor is about to retire and the people of Durness are anxious that a replacement is found. Second, according to Kathy at the B&B, anyone who is an electrician/plumber, and preferably a gas fitter too, would not be able to sleep, such would be the demand on his or her time.

Finally Ron, apparently unaware of the financial position of most students, asked Tom if he would like to buy the B&B itself. It is very lucrative, he confided. Tom checked his wallet but decided not to make a bid.

But Ron is probably right. There was a trail of on spec customers that arrived while we were there.

Probably a good business opportunity for someone who really wants to get away from it all. You can’t get much further away from everything than Durness, but I for one would happily return to explore some more.

Next: the ride to Tongue.

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test One Response to Around The Very Top: Cape Wrath Lives Up To Its Name

  1. Harry Eve Reply

    May 31, 2015 at 8:58 am

    1926 Bentley 3 litre, chassis number AP320, engine number AP308.

    Visit VintageBentleys.org for a fun ride in this car which has a body frame of plywood rather than ash.

    I visited Cape Wrath in the 1950s (or was it the 60s?). In those days the minibus was a small Commer (regret chassis and engine numbers unrecorded).

    I remember the lighthouse having a loud foghorn and we were fortunate to be there on foggy day.

    The tourist experience was peering into the mist, getting very cold, and being deafened by the foghorn.

    If I remember correctly, the next treat was to visit the inside of an early experimental nuclear power station.

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