Durness to Cape Wrath
There are bonnier roads in Alba, roaming through greater beauty. There are quieter roads and wilder ones. There is even one a wee further north, closer to the Artic Circle by a mile or so. But there are none in Scotland as isolated and compelling as the road to the far north west and Cape Wrath.
It starts like life itself, crawling out of the sea, up a ramp near a white house with a sentinel view over the Kyle of Durness. It forges across an extremity of mainland Britain so bereft of humanity it could be primeval, a land before time began. It ends at one of Robert Stevenson’s greatest achievements, a lighthouse 523ft above sea level. The beacon is stout, emaculate and white, its occupants destined for the scrap heap in March 1998.
Close by, the ruin of the principal keeper’s house whispers to the wind about when men were men and needed. At the cliff edge, a fog horn the size of a mine entrance blasts a mournful Last Post to the memory of iron ships tossed like chips in a fish frier, fighting to avoid the siren’s sizzle. To be out here on your own could be unnerving.
But this is one road where you can guarantee exactly three motors will travel it in summer – two microbuses (white) and on a busy day, the Northern Lighthouse’s Land Rover. Like sparks zapping between the two glowing electrodes of lighthouse and bay house, the white buses annually ferry 10,000 bronzed Italians, Germans and Brits back and forth to nothing. Their incredulity that there isn’t a gift shop or even a loo at the end is perversely satisfying.
It is the journey from the ramp to Cape Wrath that is the event, and what passengers are missing. Everybody who cycles it recalls the trip with excitement. The ferry across, with customers for the bus admiring your spirit of adventure. The trepidation of entering unknown territory as you struggle up the first climb passed the white house. The last look back at civilisation and the grim blocks of the former radar station at Balnakeil beyond the kyle.
Crossing the pontoon after Achiemore and striking inland, the tenor of the adventure suddenly changes. There is nothing particularly difficult about the ride. It is another flog along crumbling tarmac through another Scottish wilderness of peat bogs, shimmering lochans and broody hills solid as rock eruptions. And yet there is an eerie quality to this single track that creeps up on you and defies immediate identification.
No roads go to or from the thin ribbon. One sad tar track dribbles down to an uninteresting jetty jutting out below Clais Charnach where supplies for the lighthouse are unloaded. Four single-storey Hebridean style cottages cling to it, two deserted, two feeling that way. All around is quagmire, but there are no midges. No agriculture. No sheep. Nature seems to have deserted this place.
The road to Cape Wrath runs high and dry, vulnerable and alone. Now and again along its rumpled 12 miles a gentle beep forces you to dismount, teeter on the narrow verge and allow Iris McKay’s white buses through. Now and again another cyclist is encountered or a walker determined to save the six quid return fare to nowhere. Mostly it is just you, the creak of your crank and desolation for as far as the eye can see.
When the bus disappears round a headland, that’s when it strikes you. The eeriness is the deafening sound of silence. There is no wheatear’s trill or skylark’s prattle. The wind has nothing to wuther through. The stream that cascades from the col between Maovally and Sgribhisbheinn is mute. Something just ain’t right, like you’ve blunder in on some sinister scientific experiment.
It seems this part of Sutherland was overlooked in God’s great business plan. But the emptiness is man made. Between 1807 and 1820 nearly 10,000 tenants were removed from Lord Raey’s estate in the first wave of highland clearances. Today every man, woman and child resident in Sutherland could carve out a couple of hundred acres for themselves and there would still be no shortage of boggy scrub for sheep to splodge through.
In 1932 Cape Wrath was leased from the family of its current owner, Andrew Elliot, for a bombing range, the only ship-to-shore facility on mainland Britain. It is controlled by the Royal Navy, though the RAF and NATO forces target the islands of An Garbh-eilean and Na Glas Leacan. Ten weeks a year the forces are allowed to strafe and bomb their little hearts out. They have no rights of access for land manoeuvres. The lease is purely a licence to shoot.
Half way. A single boarded up house facing Loch Inshore, the sort of isolated gaff many dream of retiring to. ‘MOD Property. KEEP OUT.’ Inside a renovated outhouse sits a military table and chair. On the table, a military telephone, dust free. It is an operational vedette or look-out post with a land line. Outside, the overhead telephone lines were downed years ago by the wrath of God.
Contrary to popular belief, that is not why this exposed emptiness is called “Cape Wrath”. Lapped by the waters of the Gulf Stream, the weather up here is remarkably mild. “The wind can bounce a car across two fields,” remarked ferryman John Morrison, “but it does it gently.” If you have ever spent a winter on the west coast of Scotland, you will appreciate that humour is the better part of survival.
The name derives from the Norse “hvarf”, meaning a turning point. Where the coast running north turns east Robert Stevenson (grandfather of writer RL) built his mighty lighthouse. Under pressure from powerful shipping interests in London, Bristol and Liverpool, it was erected in 1828, cost an alarming £14,000 and was originally fired by paraffin vapour. Before then, navigating the northern waters was considered such folly an Act of Parliament banned winter sailings until March.
Of the 197 beacons controlled by the Northern Lighthouse Board, Cape Wrath is one of only seven on the Scottish and Manx coastlines that remain staffed. So remote is the location, it has the unique distinction of being the only shore based lighthouse where the ‘Relief’ (of personnel and supplies) has had to be made by helicopter in the past.
Beyond its glistening white walls the turf curves to the edge of a 400ft drop and a long swim due north to the Arctic Circle. I sat well back and through binoculars watched a pod of maybe eight killer whales arch through the swell, sweeping back and forth as they herded supplies for their long migration south to the equator. White-beaked dolphins (known as Squid Hounds because of their dietary preference), bottle-noses and grey seals are also commonly seen off the north west coast.
To the east, I focused on Clo Mor, a huge slab of Torridonian Sandstone and the highest sea cliffs in mainland Britain. White streaks of guano underlined where cormorants, guillemots and shags jostled for elbow space on the lower face. In the higher tenements, razorbills and fulmers argued it out. From its ledges, Stuka winged gannets dive-bomb mackerel. Great black-backs buzz kittiwakes and savage puffins in mid-flight.
Beyond the land there was a battle royal being waged, but back down the road the peace was tense. Suddenly there was a thunderous noise followed by a smack on the head that whisked my hair forward and wobbled the bike. Bonxies ten o’clock high! At last, a sign of life. ‘Bonxie’ is Scottish for a fat lazy woman, and while the great skua is all of that, she defends her young like a fish-wife. She doesn’t intend to strike, just hassle you, but she isn’t the best judge of distances.
In fact this wasteland is throbbing with wildlife, and the people who blow great holes in the landscape are also its most enthusiastic protectors. I spoke to Commander Herdman, CO of the Cape Wrath Conservation Group, a man who is passionate about the area. He rattled off an impressive lists of birds and mammals that inhabit the bombing range, including golden eagles on Fastiven, otters in Loch Inshore and a herd of native red deer.
The military are responsible for repairing the land, but often bomb craters rapidly fill with water and are colonised by plants that attract new life. Working closely with Scottish Natural Heritage, they take on the task of monitoring the flora and fauna, building structures like nesting rafts to attract red-throated divers. While acknowledging the inevitability of a certain amount of damage, he makes the unarguable point that land management, over grazing and drainage ditches pose a far greater threat to the highland environment.
Of course, the Commander has the advantage of being able to stray from the road and explore deep into the Danger Area. We can’t, a prohibition that adds an element of claustrophobia to an already unnerving experience. What makes it all the more disturbing is the knowledge that we have Man’s (and I mean men’s) baser instinct for violence to thank for the preservation of large tracts of Britain where cornucopias of nature are left pretty much to do their own thing.
Between the deafening silence, the desolation and the violence that lurks beneath the unreal tranquility, the road to Cape Wrath is the strangest of journeys. For cyclists it usually begins in the strangest of communities, Durness, but that’s another story, best discovered for yourself.
Cape Wrath Challenge
In 1949, cycle journalist Rex Coley started a record of cyclists who had ridden to the lighthouse and back. Producing evidence of the achievement earned you a badge and certificate. Today, the CTC continue the tradition for those who have photographic proof.
Application forms from: CTC, Cotterell House, 69 Meadrow, Godalming, Surrey GU7 3HS. Enclose SAE and mark envelope Cape Wrath Challenge.