Sandwood Bay Judy Armstrong found white sandy beaches, irridescent seas and perfect walking weather – at Scotland’s northwest tip. Photos by Judy Armstrong
ast year, emptying an attic, I found an old calendar. Illustrating the month of June was a photo of a long, white beach. Black cliffs framed the bay at either end, lazy dunes rolled back to distant mountains and the sea smashed surf onto the sand. The caption read, simply, Sandwood Bay. It looked remote. There was no sign of human interference: no roads, no buildings, no aerials or poles. The beach looked vaguely Caribbean but the backdrop looked Scottish. So I hauled out the atlas and there it was: Sandwood Bay, a skip from Cape Wrath, almost falling off the top of Britain. I dug deeper and discovered that, since 1993, Sandwood Estate has been owned by the John Muir Trust. This conservation charity aims to preserve the wild beauty and bio-diversity, while at the same time maintaining a viable crofting community. All this meant it was likely to look the same today as it did in this decades-old calendar shot. As it happened, I was heading in that direction, so I packed a rucksack with minimalist camping kit and added in two days for a detour. North, and north, and north… Once past Ullapool, the last major township on this extraordinary coast, the road narrowed and sideslipped past lochans, coastal indents and looming mountains. Past Scourie, the view broadened and became almost austere. Black rock, pale pools, deep bogs… by the time we turned off the deserted A838 to Kinlochbervie, it felt like we were on the moon.
Kinlochbervie was slightly weird. It looked like a straggling crofting village, until we arrived at the fish processing plant and huge concrete harbour. We’d heard about awesome fish and chips at the Fisherman’s Mission, but since it was only 10am the chippie was firmly closed. There seemed no other reason to dally so we trundled on towards Blairmore, where we would start walking to Sandwood Bay. Actually, that’s not quite true. Before we got to Blairmore, we turned left at Oldshoremore because we wanted to see the beach, and have a strong coffee from the portable cafetiere that would certainly not be coming in our backpacks. And it almost spoiled Sandwood for us: the beach at Oldshoremore is one of the most glorious sights I have ever seen in my life. Sitting in seagrass above the beach, we watched tiny waves tickle the whitest sand this side of the Virgin Islands. The sea was an irridescent blue in multiple layers from cornflower to indigo, and the sun made it sparkle and jiggle. The place was deserted. After an hour a woman wandered onto the sand with two black Labrador dogs. They each made one set of tracks to the rock stacks at the far end of the beach, and another set back. Then the sea washed the prints away, and the beach was back to blank canvas. We could have stayed all day... Finally at Blairmore, we shouldered our rucksacks and set off along a rough track for Sandwood Bay. A gate blocked vehicular traffic, but a wooden sign stated Walkers Welcome. Relishing our lightweight packs and knowing we had only a short distance to
“For an hour we watched, breathlessly, as a large dog otter rolled and dived, fished and played, lay on his back with his paws on his chest.”
Sandwood Bay walk, we sauntered along the track, past little Loch Aisir and Loch na Gainimh. To our right, the view widened over open moorland to the whalebacks of Foinaven, Arkle and the pyramid of Ben Stack. Looking back, we could see the multihorned beast of Quinag, and a hint of distant Suilven. The track led us past bright blue lochans with caramel beaches. Stepping stones kept our feet dry over the outlet of Loch a Mhuilinn; I was tempted to fling off my clothes and bathe in the crystal clear pool but Duncan wouldn’t play so I kept my kit on. A few seconds later we met two teenagers returning from the beach carrying surfboards. It seemed a long way to walk just to ride a wave, but they probably thought the same about us: why go just to look at a view? After climbing around a small hill, we saw Sandwood Loch, a roofless stone cottage and a sheep enclosure, evidence of the crofters who lived here until eviction in the early 1800s, and of the livestock that they gave way for. We could smell the sea but it wasn’t until we were standing on vast, shifting sand dunes that we actually saw the beach. The John Muir Trust leaflet on Sandwood Estate says: Sense the Space and Solitude. I’m not sure about ‘sense’: the space and solitude smacked us in the face the second we got to the dunes. Noise from the breakers boomed off the cliffs, oystercatchers peeped as they probed the sand and terns twisted and dived for sand eels. Sandwood Bay looked exactly like its calendar picture. It’s about 1.5 miles long and, on a glorious day in early June, we were the only people on it. The dunes were high with narrow ridges and broad bowls. I ran down a ridge and it broke away; my rucksack and I tumbled over and over in a slippery silver shower of sand. Faced with an empty beach,
Fact File Walk distance: 15km (7km to Sandwood Bay on the track, 8km returning along the coast). Height gain approx 300m. Maps & Guides: Ordnance Survey Landranger 9: Cape Wrath. Walking in Scotland’s Far North, by Andy Walmsley (Cicerone, www.cicerone.co.uk). The Rough Guide: Scottish Highlands & Islands for general reference (www. roughguides.com) Where to stay: Wild camping on Sandwood Bay beach or behind the beach at Sheigra. The official campsite at Oldshoremore has been closed since 2002. Useful info: The village of Kinlochbervie, home to a harbour and fish processing plant, has the only facilities in the immediate area. These include a café, toilets, shop and the Kinlochbervie Hotel. Websites: The community website is www.kinlochbervie.org. This coastal stretch is part of the North West Highland Geopark: www.northwesthighlands-geopark.org.uk. Sandwood Bay is part of Sandwood Estate, owned by the John Muir Trust: www.jmt.org Getting there: Turn off the A838 at Rhiconich (hotel), for the B801 to Kinlochbervie (six miles). For Sandwood Bay, continue past Oldshoremore, and park by the public toilets at Blairmore. Other attractions: Breathtaking white sand beaches at Oldshoremore, Sheigra and Polin. Prehistoric archaeological sites at Kinlochbervie and Oldshoremore.
we chose a site for our tiny tent. The prime pitch was raised above a small lagoon, protected by dunes and marram grass, with a superb view south to a rocky sea stack. This is Am Buachaille (The Shepherd), first climbed by Tom Patey and John Cleare in 1967. Apparently they used a ladder to cross the narrow channel below the stack, but were almost cut off by the tide when returning after the climb. That level of athleticism was well beyond our modest intentions: we were more interested in admiring the view and regressing to childhood, as all adults should on a beach. We spent a couple of hours skimming stones, building sand castles and chasing waves, before walking the length of the beach itself. North toward Cape Wrath the cliffs were like fudge: brown and dark red, smeared and striped, a mix of sand and pebbles. This is Torridonian sandstone, graded and deposited by rivers around 600 million years ago. We sat on the sand, in sunshine, with no-one else for miles, with a view to an unchallenged horizon. It was exhilarating, soothing and liberating, all at the same time. Eventually, we settled down to dinner. The tide was out and a breeze blew onshore. Sandhoppers hopped, dippers dipped and a speckled turnstone strutted. But something was wrong. I could smell something rank, and it wasn’t our meal. It got worse as time passed, so I suggested to Duncan that we wander down to that rock in the now half-empty lagoon, for a view down the beach. As we walked toward the sea, Duncan started laughing. Rock? I don’t think so. Given the freedom of one of Scotland’s most idyllic, wild beaches, given more than a mile of empty sand, we had pitched our tent within 15 metres of a rotting whale. We’d heard about the many ships wrecked on this beach before the building of the Cape Wrath lighthouse in 1828, but we hadn’t banked on
the same thing happening to the wildlife. In the morning, after a night undisturbed by the shipwrecked mariner said to haunt the beach, we headed south. After climbing a narrow path up the sandstone cliffs, we paused to look back along the beach. Our whale was almost submerged. We could see Sandwood Loch as well as the sea, and north along the cliffs toward Cape Wrath. Just as when we arrived, it was deserted and pristine; a picture etched on our retinas more firmly than any photo. Skirting the cliff above Am Buachaille, we followed the coast. The vegetation was closecropped and wind blasted, on terrain that rose and fell like a shallow breath. Sometimes we had a path, sometimes not, but in general the going was easy. At one point, above another sea stack, we paused to admire the view. Movement caught my eye; I squinted into the sun and saw something I had been searching for, for years. “Otter!” I whispered. A large dog otter was wandering over the grass about 50 metres inland. As we watched, he meandered down to the rocky foreshore, preened his chest, and slipped into the sea. But he didn’t go far: for an hour we watched, breathlessly, while he rolled and dived, fished and played, lay on his back with his paws on his chest, always in the sheltered semi-circle of the bay. It was utterly absorbing, and a privilege to witness. I’ve always said that an otter sighting only counts if you can see his eyes – and this was a sighting in spades. The rest of the day was almost an anticlimax. Later we saw a couple of graceful
porpoise and the fin of a minke whale, but our hearts stayed in the bay with our sleek, confident fisherman. We headed inland toward Sheigra to see what we could find. The terrain here was tougher: boggy, with deep heather and holes. Soon we found a track, made by crofters for peat collection. Small towers of black peat rectangles were stacked in places, likely left by some of the families still working the 54 crofts of the Sandwood Estate. At Sheigra, we met the end of the road that had trickled gently out of Kinlochbervie. To our right was another paradise beach, with tent-worn patches on its cropped grass porch. To our left, the road ran to the parking at
Blairmore. In the centre was a handful of houses that looked radiant in the sunshine, but which were, I guessed, more often bashed by gales. We knew: if we were lucky to have shared time with the otter, we were even more fortunate with the weather. Billy Connolly is reported to have said: “There are two seasons in Scotland: June, and winter.” He was right: this was June, and as far from winter as New Zealand is from Scotland. But had we been a week either side, Sandwood Bay, Sheigra and this entire Sutherland coast could have been rain-drenched, wind-battered and desolate. And you know what? We would have loved it just the same.