Air travel still being something of a tedious lottery in the UK at present, the Boon Companion and I have not entered an airport since our return from Morocco during the very early days of Covid. We’ve contented ourselves by knocking around Scotland, and I haven’t posted much about those travels, since they’ve either been very short visits, or longer stays in places I’ve written about before.
This time, we made a return visit to the north coast of Scotland, which I’ve previously written about, but we stayed for a week in a place that we shot through very quickly during our last visit—Durness.
Durness sits at a corner in the road, where the main drag from John o’ Groats, which has faithfully followed the north coast westwards up to that point, abruptly turns southwest, cutting across the northwest corner of mainland Scotland to reach the west coast near Kinlochbervie. It’s one of those Scottish villages that seems to be smeared thinly over a disproportionately large area—coming in from the east you encounter the “Welcome to Durness” sign in the middle of open moorland sparsely dotted with houses.
You drive for about a mile before running into the little patch of mixed vehicular/pedestrian madness around the start of the short path to the Smoo Cave. Then it all thins out again for another mile before you arrive at a petrol station, hotel/bunkhouse, public toilet, and the inevitable Spar shop. And then you’re pretty quickly out the far end.
We got to the north coast by driving the long, scenic single-track road that runs from Lairg to Tongue, passing Ben Klibreck and Ben Loyal—I’ve previously written about the ascent of both these hills. We stopped on a corner of the road above Tongue to admire the view back towards the cliffs of Ben Loyal’s Sgor Chaonasaid, with the turret of An Caisteal peeping over its shoulder:
Our accommodation featured a long picture window and patio overlooking Loch Eriboll.
It really did feature all mod cons, including an outdoor bathing option:
And in a storeroom I discovered the back-up hairdryer, which enjoyed the most tin-eared product name I’ve seen in a while:
What can we call our new hairdryer? I know, let’s name it after the space capsule that suffered a catastrophic electrical fire, killing three astronauts!
We’d somewhat mistimed our visit—we’d waited until the end of the Scottish school holidays, but soon discovered that the English and German schools were still out, leading to a bit of camper-van clutter on the narrow roads and in the small car-parks. Many of these were being driven by frazzled-looking people with white knuckles who seemed absolutely amazed to discover that driving the North Coast 500 involved travelling many miles on single-track roads, and many of whom had apparently bought vehicles without a reverse gear—this being the only explanation I can think of for their inability to roll backwards a few yards to allow oncoming traffic to ease past at the nearest passing place.
So we skipped the walk to Smoo Cave, the path to which was mobbed every time we passed; and we also never seemed to get around to the John Lennon Memorial Garden. Instead, we wandered around the paths of the Durness Walking Network, which seemed to be largely deserted apart from local dog-walkers, and visited the many lovely beaches in the area, which were similar quiet—apart from what seems to be commonly known as Ceannabeinne Beach*, which sports a cluttered car-park and what Peter Irvine, in his Scotland The Best guide of 2019, eloquently calls “that fecking unsightly zipline”.
Just along the road, the beach at Sango Bay was a lot quieter, despite being right next to Durness, perhaps because it’s not readily visible from the main road:
And then there are the mile-long sands at Balnakeil Bay:
There’s a pleasant walk along the peninsula here, overlooking the beach, which passed through some beautiful wild flower meadows—I think the purple flowers below may be devil’s-bit scabious:
I know that sounds like a skin disease, but the various scabious plants were so-called because they were supposed to be good for treating skin diseases. (The “devil’s bit” refers to the appearance of the root, which reportedly comes to an apparently chopped-off end, as if something underground had bitten it.)
At the head of Balnakeil Bay sits the improbable Durness Golf Club, as well as a fine old ruined church and graveyard which the Boon Companion has rendered marvellously gothic:
And just up the road is the Balnakeil Craft Village—originally built during the Cold War as some sort of Distant Early Warning installation, then abandoned by the military and taken over by a growing community of artists, and now perhaps falling into a bit of a decline as the founding population ages.
It’s easy to discern the military origins of the barracks-like buildings, many of which have characteristic towers containing water storage tanks:
But the style of decoration is anything but military:
There’s an absolutely fascinating article about the history of the community here. Please go and read it. I’ll wait here.
There’s another lovely beach at Oldshoremore, near Kinlochbervie, but it was hosting what seemed to be some sort of beach sports day for a school outing when we were there, so I’ll show you the view inland from the Kinlochbervie road instead:
The water is Loch Inchard, and the hills on the skyline are, from left to right, Foinaven, Arkle and Ben Stack. (I’ve written about climbing Ben Stack previously.) The photograph was taken from the tiny settlement of Badcall, a name that amuses much more than is strictly reasonable.
At a time when many parts of the UK were stricken by the worst drought in decades, it was good to see that good old Scottish weather was managing to keep the local reservoirs full. Here’s the spillway of the dam at Loch Meadaidh, in the moorland above Durness, on a gloomily overcast day:
Back at base, the endlessly changing light and weather meant that we had a new view every few minutes. Here are two views of Ben Hope seen across Loch Eriboll, for example:
Wildlife encounters were largely confined to the binoculars. We had a little pod of dolphins go by as we stood on the cliff at Aodann Mhor. And a few sporadic whoops from the loch sent me out in front of the house to discover what looked at first to be an improbable assembly of two adult and four juvenile divers, but which (at the limit of my binoculars) I eventually decided were early-arriving Great Northern Divers, two in their summer breeding plumage and four non-breeding—my reference books tell me that they start to pitch up to overwinter around the Scottish coast in mid-August. The following day, I could see only three. Then I never saw them again. Presumably Eriboll was merely a stopping-off point on their way farther south.
So the only wildlife photograph I can offer you is this one, taken at the edge of our patio:
(I was going to accompany the photograph with a laboured pun about wildlife being “thin, on the ground”, but I decided against it.)
Anyway, this valiant little fellow, an impressive 7 or 8 centimetres long, is (I believe) the second-year caterpillar of a northern Oak Eggar moth.
So, that was that. By way of variety we returned south down the “Hope Road”—a narrow and overgrown ribbon of tarmac, thirty kilometres in length, that is supposedly so-named because it runs between Loch Hope and Ben Hope, but everyone knows the name is actually because you’d better just hope you don’t meet anything coming in the opposite direction. Here’s a typical section at the north end:
Farther south, the sight-lines get a little longer and there are some more formal passing places, but it’s still an interesting drive. I was keen to revisit the Hope Road because I wanted to visit the Dun Dornaigil broch. (On my previous visit to the area, I’d been unable to persuade my hillwalking buddies to stop off on our way to climb Ben Hope.)
From the broch, we took one last look northwards toward Ben Hope, and then started the long drive home.
* Ceannabeinne is actually the name of a nearby hill. The Ordnance Survey calls the beach itself Tràigh Allt Chàilgeag.