Following my tendon injury, I returned to walking with some trepidation: help would not be available at Cape Wrath if anything were to happen.
I took the small ferry boat across the Kyle of Durness before disembarking and starting the eleven-mile walk up to Cape Wrath and its lighthouse. What remains of the road built by the Northern Lighthouse Board (Scotland’s equivalent of Trinity House), now resembles a pot-holed track with patches of old tarmac. Probably the things that have survived best is one of the original narrow bridges constructed for horse and cart, and eleven granite mile markers, each with a number etched into it. As I made my way across barren moorland, punctuated with the odd loch, these milestones counted me down to mainland Britain’s most north-westerly headland.
Along the way I passed just three isolated cottages and a further one adapted for Ministry of Defence use. Since 1933 Cape Wrath has been used as a naval gunnery and aerial bombardment live firing range - thankfully no red flags were flying on the day I made my gradual climb towards the Cape. My only company was a large herd of deer seen silhouetted on the nearby skyline.
On reaching the lighthouse built in 1828, I could see that a large settlement once existed there. Vast walled gardens surrounded the Light where keepers’ families would have grown their vegetables and kept their own chickens and animals. Automation saw the lighthouse community depart: today the permanent population of the Cape is two, a father and daughter, who run the small café and bunkhouse at the lighthouse. I saw the area on a relatively calm day so was able to venture to the cliff edge, look back east, before turning and making my way south over open, untracked, rough moorland towards Sandwood Bay.
At times the going was tough, bog-hopping, clambering in and out of peaty stream beds and wading through high rain-soaked grass. I knew I’d also have to cross several streams and two rivers, and after heavy rainfall two nights previously I anticipated getting my wet feet. On a couple of occasions, it was a case of finding the safest place to wade across, using my walking pole to balance and counter the strong currents.
Eventually Sandwood Bay came into view – a welcome sight of a sandy beach backed by a loch and sand dunes. From the south it is only accessible on foot along a four-mile rough track across peat and heather. Regularly used by wild campers, Sandwood’s unspoilt nature owes much to its remoteness. Having emptied my boots and wrung out my socks for the third time, I took that track south to Blairmore. Thankfully, I’d survived the walk without any further injuries.
On entering the fishing port of Kinlochbervie we found ourselves mingling once again with North Coast 500 tourists. My route kept me with the NC500 through Rhiconich, Laxford Bridge, the Tarbet peninsula, Scourie and alongside the magnificent Loch a’ Chairn Bhain (often referred to as Loch Cairnbawn). At Kylesku I discovered the futuristic road bridge opened in 1984 by HM the Queen; before this bridge was constructed drivers followed a long circuitous route that involved the use of a small car ferry.
Kylesku also has a naval connection, recorded on a small memorial cairn sited in the bridge viewing car park. During 1943 crews of two-man chariots (human torpedoes) and four-man X-Boats (midget submarines) trained in the nearby loch. The midget submarines of the 12th Flotilla then went on to attack the German battleship Tirpitz hiding in a Norwegian fiord.
Joining the coast route heading for Lochinver, I entered an area referred to as Assynt country. Scotland is a geologist’s dream: its entire landscape has been shaped by glacial effect. Above me, I’ve seen high rocky ridges decorated with huge boulders which, on the skyline, look like large beads widely spaced on a necklace. Known as glacial erratics, these boulders were deposited there by glaciers as they slowly melted and ground their way seawards about 25,000 years ago. Everywhere I look there are mountains, rocks and lochs of all shapes and sizes, with many of the lochs having marvellous displays of flowering water lilies.
The landscape certainly influenced the way roads were initially built, following routes that meandered, circled mountains and entered valleys. More recently, it’s clear that engineers have just blasted their way through obstructions, but that doesn’t mean Scotland has been ‘levelled’! The dramatic scenery has put my heart, lung and leg muscles to the test many times this week. Coupled with soaring temperatures it has made walking exhausting, but an end of day sea dip has helped keep my cool!
See Photo Album No 41 – Striking South