Despite many visits to wonderful Durness, I had never been to Cape Wrath. Not sure how I managed to ignore that ‘tick list’ destination – the most north westerly point of the UK mainland. It was our last day this far north so after packing up the tent from its beautiful pitch above Traigh Allt Chailgeag, we decided to drive past the tiny jetty at Keoldale and check the timetables for getting across. I had done absolutely no homework on getting there – usually, I have things planned like a military campaign. But then, our main purpose in being here was to Climb Mountains which, daily, the cloud and winds were ruling out.
As we drove along the single track road it looked like another holiday ‘good idea’ was scuppered, as the ferry car park was mobbed and there was a long queue of folk on the jetty, most of Durness by the look of it! And this was at 9.45am!
We parked up anyway, strolled along and joined the queue. A bit bemused, I chatted to a couple who explained the crowds; the weather had cancelled yesterday’s trip and everyone had been told to turn up at 11am for the first crossing today. But the tiny motor boat ( seating 5 max ) was already plowing its way back across the choppy inlet having dropped the first group of would-be visitors off at the other side. There, a single minibus awaited, maximum capacity 16 plus driver.There were already far more than that on the jetty. Mumblings and grumblings began behind us. One couple bemoaned the fact that they had travelled from Germany no less, to see this famous spot. German efficiency was clearly no match for the ferryman deciding to get up a bit earlier that morning. We had wandered into a maelstrom of tension and frustration in the peaceful and beautiful surroundings of the Kyle of Durness! A very bizarre start to the day.
The boat chap, a Harris man, seemed quite stressed by the sheer demand to get across and the Health and Safety nightmare of helping slip – prone tourists into a small wobbly boat . Apparently someone , earlier, had almost fallen between the boat and the jetty albeit into three feet of water. Someone ahead of us remarked nervously that there were no lifejackets. I half expected to see them about turn and leave; the Germans would have been delighted.We could all count and there were far too many of us to all get to Cape Wrath on this sole morning trip.
‘Manana ‘and ‘must see’ are alien concepts to a Gael – my husband is one and I can vouch for that.The ferryman’s furrowed black brows in his weather beaten face said ‘these people are mad’ but he was doing his best. We made it – just- the last two people to get aboard and paid the £6 a head to him for the return 5 min crossing. A wad of £ notes looked in danger of being carried off by the wind off as he sorted out change while steering the boat at the same time. I recognised his very northern features – that mix of Gael and Celt – jet black brows, high cheekbones and ice blue eyes.Many of my mother’s family – Uist people – looked very much the same. His Gaelic lilt was also familiar, the same as my husband’s. Gaels always recognise each other by voice, an immediate connection in a land which is trying to save this beautiful, lyrical language.
‘Come back in three hours!’ he shouted a couple of times to the disappointed crowd left behind.
We paid the minibus driver £12 each and climbed aboard. Those first over would have been sitting in the bus for a good 45 mins by now.
And so the journey began. An hour to cover 11 miles on the UK’s only ‘U’ road meaning 1Unclassified.The area is owned by the MOD and used for target practice by NATO troops 6 weeks a year during April and October. Hence OS maps mark it as a Danger Area. Judging by the state of the road quite a few shells had gone off target. American fire, the driver winked to the couple from the USA beside him. It was no wonder a very ancient minibus was being used, rocking and pitching and bumping along; the road was atrocious.But the driver’s commentary was interesting and entertaining and proved that the old jokes are always the best. He had me laughing out loud a couple of times anyway.
We passed official sentry boxes, Victorian stone bridges and some beautiful views of the enormous sands around the headlands.But soon, we were crossing very empty, desolate moorland.
Finally, Robert Stevenson’s Lighthouse came into view and we caught a brief glimpse of Sandwood Bay, 8 miles away.
You get 50 minutes at Cape Wrath which is enough time to enjoy and admire this most remote of outposts. I didn’t expect it to be quite as spectacular with sea stacks and arches and the long line of cliffs seemingly endless in each direction.Straight – winged fulmars cruised endlessly across the cliffs. We stood on the fog horn platform and just drank it all in , the vast ocean where the Atlantic and the Pentland Firth meet and surge. Not today though, as the sea was surprisingly calm.
The Ozone Cafe is run by the only man who lives there all year round and a hard job he has too.There was a queue for soup and sandwiches and for getting postcards stamped ‘Cape Wrath.’ We gave up after a wait, deciding we’d rather enjoy the wonderful location than waste time in what to be honest is a fairly depressing interior. The buildings are not well kept. We did clamber up the Lighthouse itself and made it as far as the first floor before being told that it was only open to a private group (the Association of Lighthouse Keepers no less) which we’d inadvertently gate crashed. I wondered where all these other folk had come from…..
There are no toilets at Cape Wrath so it’s a case of hiding behind one of the stone walls and hoping you get done before someone hops over and finds you in an undignified squat.Men of course don’t face the same problem.
It was time to go and I chatted to a lone chap who told me he had been warned not to do the trip by companions he’d left behind near Lochinver. Bizarrely , he’d been told that it ‘wasn’t great’ up there (not sure if this meant the Cape or the whole area) and he was astonished at how wrong they had been.
It was a quieter bus on the way back, with a brief stop to let us photograph distant Kervaig bay, a beautiful beach where a bothy is maintained for anyone’s use. The Clo Mor cliffs are close by, the highest on the British mainland.
Sweeping above the final mile or so to the jetty, the Kyle of Durness’s magnificent sands revealed themselves, a superb sight.
We were amongst the first off the minibus at the jetty and four journeys would be needed to get us all back.We headed off the bus pretty quickly to make the first crossing, though most folk seemed happy to dawdle and take some final photos. The tide was well out by now and the boat briefly ‘touched bottom’ halfway across – no wonder such a small, shallow craft is used.There must be tides when it is impossible. In all we were around 3.75 hours for our trip. I wouldn’t do it again but I’m very glad we managed it this once. It was an adventure to a wild, lonely and spectacular corner of Scotland reached by the very few .
Kylesku Inn now beckoned, a beautiful place for lunch overlooking Loch Glencoul in an area with some of our finest mountains and grandest landscapes.It’s an empty, fast road for most of the way though your chances of driving it without a few photo stops are slim.
I was slightly shocked at how the Inn had changed as we sauntered down the tiny village, sleepy and peaceful.The sun was making its usual afternoon appearance, kidding us on that summer was here before disappearing in the next weather front.
Langoustines for Chris and a huge bowl of mussels in white wine for me….they were superb.The shellfish unfortunately had been frozen and some had that slightly soft, watery texture.Not so good, given the nearly £20 cost.It got chilly so we moved inside ,amazed st the transformation of the characterful old Inn into a large, pastel coloured quite swish place.Ordered an apple crumble dessert but it was really poor…this also used to be one of their specialities…but it was just stewed fruit topped with granola topping.What a swizz! I love a good crumble.However, Chris had made the right choice with ice cream and homemade honeycomb which was to die for.I did mention the crumble disappointment to the pleasant young waiter but you never truly expect they’ll take the constructive criticism back to the kitchen, despite him asking ‘how the food was.’
Ah well….two lunches in a row which had their faults, overall.Location made up for it though….it is just a joy to be in Kylesku, always. No regrets. Another great day in the far North West.