“ near Durness, Sutherland „
Balnakiel Bay is one of the most northerly beaches in Britain but for me the remote location at one of the most northerly points of the British mainland only adds to its charm. It's true that its is a long drive to get there but when you do, providing that the weather is fine, then you will not be disappointed. I've always considered the fine sandy beaches of north west Sutherland in the Scottish Highlands to be one of Britain's best kept secrets. These beaches rival those found in Cornwall, often dubbed "The English Riviera" but they have the added advantage of being virtually deserted even if you visit them on the hottest day of the year. Mention these Scottish beaches and many people will tut, imagining bitter cold winds and rain. I wouldn't recommend these beaches in the middle of winter but during the summer the constant bad weather is a myth. I have visited the beach at Balnakiel Bay and others nearby several times and on each occasion I have been blessed with temperatures of around 30 degrees Celsius, even if there has been a big black cloud above me on the BBC weather map. This place is a world away from anywhere else in Britain in many ways, including it often seems also with the weather. During the summer the sun barely sets and one of my early childhood memories is sitting on top of the rocks above Balnakiel watching the sun set over the bay at a quarter past midnight. The beach itself can be approached by car from Durness via a narrow, twisty single track road that winds down to the sea. At the end of the road there is a car parking area and the ruins of an old church dating from 1619. From here the road extends about a further mile down a private road to a golf course. From the car parking area its only about a 100 metre walk across the sand dunes before the huge arc of the sandy bay opens in front of you. Between Balnakiel and Faraid Head at the opposite end of the bay there is over 2 kilometres of fine white sand. I was here most recently in August 2008 and we walked the full length of the beach and back and never saw another single person all day, although another car had joined us in the car park when we returned. It was a lovely sunny day and by the time we returned back to our dwellings we were both badly sunburnt despite applying gallons of lotion throughout the day. Faraid Head is designated as an area of Special Scientific Interest (SSI). The sand dunes are the largest in Britain and there are many rare birds and plants. Much of the peninsula is out of bounds to the general public as it is owned by the Ministry of Defence but the caves below the head can be approached on foot at low tide. These caves are the haunt of Black Guillemots, a rare sea bird that nests on the ledges inside the cave and there were dozens of seals lazing around on the rocks when we visited. One thing that is striking to any visitor that comes here for the first time is the colour of the sea, which is so free of pollution that it is a turquoise blue colour. Overall I would say that Balnakiel Bay is one of the most magical places that I have found in Britain.
Sometimes you just need to get away from it all. And you can’t get much further away than the very north west of Sutherland where, as the Bonxie flies, the next stop is the Arctic Circle. So if you, too, like to occasionally pull on the walking boots and wander far from the madding crowds, come with me while I ramble (!). I headed north west with the specific intention of going as far as I could without falling into the sea. Thus I found myself guiltily savouring the comforts of a small hotel in the village of Durness, in north west Sutherland. North west of Durness, the road continues for only a mile and a half, then it’s on with the boots if you want to reach the ocean. In the comfort of an armchair, I studied the Ordnance Survey map. I discounted Cape Wrath on this occasion. It is accessible by passenger ferry (a rowing boat with an outboard, only six at a time please!) and minibus, if you’re prepared to risk a skelp round the ear from a live missile. The Ministry of Defence have the area pretty well monopolised, and who’s going to argue? So it was to be Faraid Head. It didn’t appear to feature in any of the “Where to Walk” books, so that gave it a head start anyway. No waymarkers or duckboards. I’d be on my own. And so the following morning, after spending a delightful ninety minutes in Balnakeil Craft Village, I parked beside the House of Balnakeil. It did appear lived in, so I didn’t pry too closely. Belonging at one time to Lord Reay, Chief of the Clan MacKay, parts of the house are said to be lined with the timbers of a shipwrecked Spanish galleon. There was no path to follow, only a kilometre or more of shimmering white sand. Patches of light cloud relieved the monotony of the sun, and a gentle breeze kept the midgies at bay. I left the beach by a track which took me steeply up the dunes. The track at this point was substantial enough to be used (rather precariously) by a vehicle, but there was no evidence of current use. Obviously this was the “road” indicated on the map, and it was useful to have something discernible to follow. I soon veered off it though, heading east for a nameless cove which attracted by tantalising glimpses through the marram grass. The patch of shingle below was not particularly accessible, but as I perched above it, seated on cushions of sea-pinks, I watched pied wagtails scampering on the shore, and eider duck bobbing in rafts on the waves beyond. Northwards and upwards I climbed, following not a path, but merely the cliff edge. At the highest point, I lay and looked down on the backs of the shags, guillimots and kittiwakes flying and perching below me. Sadly, the most northerly point, Gob-nan-Leac, is fenced off. This is also a military area. When nasty things knock lumps off Cape Wrath, this is where they are hurled from. I suppose the war games have to be practised somewhere. I can’t say I approve. But follow the perimeter fence to the westerly cliffs, look towards Garve Island (An Garbh-eilan), and see if you spot a dolphin. This is apparently a favourite haunt, although this day I was out of luck. But if you can’t see a seal or two, you’re looking through the wrong end of the binoculars! Turning south, I traversed the close cropped grass where some cattle grazed and wheatears hopped around them, then dropped towards the sandy beaches on the west side of the peninsula. To the piercing cries of myriad oystercatchers, I beach-combed my way back towards the An-Faraid headland. Rising over this before the final drop back to the Balnakeil sands, the view over the bay was something from another world. Or perhaps from this world right enough, but from another age. The sun shimmered on the water; the intense beauty of the sparkling white sands became engraved on the memory forever; and the bobbing seal watched the human watching him. Near the parked car was an old church and churchyard, which further investigation revealed as the early seventeenth century Balnakeil Church, the first to be built in Sutherland. A sortie round the churchyard threw up a monument to the famous Celtic bard, Rob Donn, who spent most of his life in Durness. A fitting end to a day of visual poetry. And now some basic info. Durness is some 60 miles NW from Lairg, on the A838. The car park at Balnakeil is 1½ miles NW of Durness. Hotel, B&B and a camping/caravan site are all available in Durness, but it is a tiny place and facilities are limited. OS Landranger Sheet 9 – Cape Wrath – refers.