After dropping Alex at the bus station in Inverness, I drive up the West coast to one of the most remote parts of the Scottish mainland. The town of Durness is the main center around here, but if the tiny one horse town is too bustling for you, a ferry goes across to Cape Wrath, the unforgiving North-West tip of Scotland which is the last scrap of land until Canada.
I start my trip in the late afternoon without enough time to make it all the way to Durness, so I spend the night in Ullapool which is only a few hours out of Inverness. Ullapool is a fantastic little harbor town that has a lot going on for such a small place. After the tackiness of Inverness, the array of cute gift shops and homely pubs is a breath of fresh air. It’s a Saturday night and the problem isn’t finding live music but deciding which band I want to see the most because every pub in town has something happening. I decide on a bunch of young lads who are in town for the evening playing some traditional tunes. They are solid players but half the fun of the show is their amusing lyrics and the banter between songs. Highlights include a song about a jaboozie (which is what you get when you spill too much whisky in a Jacuzzi), and another about some lads from Lewis who go fishing and end up in the wrong town. As the band remark: apparently that’s funny in Lewis.
The following day I make the drive up to Durness, a remote little town in the far North-West of Scotland where I spend the next couple of days. Durness is famed for it’s beautiful beaches but my bikini stays buried in my pack. The beaches are exceedingly gorgeous, and there’s plenty of them to choose from, but it isn’t exactly tropical up here. Even at midsummer, I swaddle up to go pretty much anywhere outdoors. It’s not just the air temperature either. This is probably the windiest place I’ve ever been in my life. That makes it sound awful, and if it was slightly less windy it probably would be, but it’s SO windy that it’s just completely ridiculous and kind of entertaining. Nothing makes a cliff walk more exciting than the wind constantly trying to pitch you off the side. You know that amusing scenario where you try to walk along the same bit of sidewalk as someone else and you both keep nearly walking into each other? Try the more extreme version where sudden gusts are constantly threatening to bash your heads together. Photography turns into an interesting dilemma as well. Everything is so beautiful that you want to take lots of photos, but it’s so windy that getting a steady shot is next to impossible. In fact, if the photo you get depicts what you were originally pointing your camera at, call that a success.
I’m a bit early to check into my hostel so I spend the day exploring the surrounding area. Not far to the East is the Smoo Cave, a large sea cave that many ancient artifacts have been found inside. The name is wonderfully original. Smoo is derived from the Norse word for cave, so it’s basically the Cave Cave. Nice. There are three large chambers to it, the first two you can walk through and the third is by guided tour only as you need to go by boat. I don’t bother with the tour but the second chamber has a nice waterfall inside. The cave seems to be Durness’ main tourist attraction as it’s the only place the bus tours stop. Why you would drive all this way, look at a cave for a bit and then get back on a bus and leave again is beyond me.
Not far to the West of Durness is the Balnakeil Craft Village. It’s an old military base that was built as a warning station in the case of a nuclear attack but was never really used for anything. In the 60’s it was abandoned for military purposes and bunch of artists moved in. In the summer they open their doors to visitors. There are numerous galleries, which I have a brief look around, but my favorite thing about the place is Cocoa Mountain. The last thing I expected to find out here was a chocolatier. It’s not cheap but everything is delicious. I splash out and get the richest hot chocolate I’ve ever had that is supposed to be a ‘chaser’ for my whisky truffles. Least effective but most delicious chaser ever.
The craft village sits just up the hill from Balnakeil Bay. It’s as pretty as any of the beaches around here, but there’s a nice little ruined church and graveyard down by the water that’s worth checking out.
The next day I take the ferry (read small boat being driven by a slightly drunk Scotsman) to Cape Wrath. Cape Wrath is the most remote part of the Scottish mainland. There’s one guy who lives on the island and a minibus that runs people between the ferry and the Cape Wrath lighthouse which is about a 45 minute drive from where the ferry drops you. Most of the time the bus is the only vehicle on the road here but the area is sometimes used for military exercises. It’s Europe’s largest live firing range and the only place in the Northern Hemisphere which combines land, sea, and air training. The bombs they deploy here can be up to 450 kg. The bus drives across these areas and you can see the broken down military vehicles that are used as targets and a lot of craters from where the bombs have been dropped. One of the targets has been painted bright pink by the local primary school children. Our guide isn’t entirely sure why, but the Americans have been known to bomb the wrong island occasionally and there are rumors that the children thought maybe this would make it easier to hit.
After a long drive through the firing range the bus comes to the Cape Wrath lighthouse, which is one of the many lighthouses that was built by Robert Louis Stevenson’s grandfather. He and his sons built many of the lighthouses in the UK and some overseas as well. Visiting his father in some of these lonely places is thought to have inspired some of Robert Louis Stevenson’s stories.
The last lighthouse keeper left the lighthouse in 1998 but there is still a man who lives near by and runs a small cafe there during the summer. It astounds me that anyone lives out here. It’s a harsh unforgiving place. I thought Durness was hard to handle but the wind at Cape Wrath is absolutely bitter, even in what should be the blazing summer sun. I wander around the cliffs for a while but it’s not long before my fingers start to freeze, even wrapped up in my merino gloves. I’ve been in snowy places that were warmer than it is here. I retreat inside the cafe to warm up. It’s a cool spot to visit but I’m glad we’re not staying too long.
Scotland’s rugged North-West really is like the edge of the world. I’m glad I’ve made the trip up, but it’s not somewhere I’d want to hang around for too long. I can’t believe that people live in places like this. The isolation alone must be maddening but I can’t even fathom how hard winters must be up here. The midsummer chill is quite enough for me.
Listening to: Right Here, Right Now – Fat Boy Slim