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Think of the extremities of the British Isles and you will automatically think of John O' Groats and Lands End. These are famous as the most north easterly and south westerly points respectively but it doesn't take too much thought to realise that there are two more extremities too, these being Dover and Cape Wrath, the most south easterly and north westerly points. This review is about Cape Wrath, in the very top left hand corner of Scotland, the least visited of these four places.
I have been to Cape Wrath twice, once as a child and then some twenty years later as an adult, yet to the best of my knowledge it was completely unchanged between these visits with the passing of time.
Cape Wrath lies about 20 miles to the west of Durness in Sutherland, but can only be reached by boat since Cape Wrath lies on a peninsula that is owned by the Ministry of Defence.
There is a small Passenger Ferry that takes you across the Kyle of Durness at Keodale. This crossing takes about 15 minutes and at the other end there is a minibus waiting for you which then takes you on the 12 mile drive across the wild moorland to the lighthouse at Cape Wrath.
There are two minibuses stationed on the Cape Wrath side of the water and ferry crossings take place whenever there are enough passengers to make the journey viable (minimum of 4 people), between 1st May and 30th September.
The ferry is operated by a local man called Mr Morrison who can be contacted on 01971 511376. For information on the Minibuses telephone 01971 511287 or 511343. You have to pay separately for the Ferry and Minibus as they are owned by different people but the combined cost works out at about £12 for Adults and £6 for Children.
It is possible to take Bicycles across on the Ferry by prior arrangement with Mr Morrison.
The ferry journey across the Kyle of Durness is a perfect opportunity to get close to the Common Seals that spend their time lazing on the sand banks in the middle of the water.
The Kyle is tidal and the last time that I was here my ferry was diverted to rescue a flock of Sheep that had got themselves stranded on one of the sand banks. Other more common delays with the ferry occur due to military activities and there are times when no one is allowed to cross.
The journey to the Lighthouse may only be 12 miles but it takes about 40 minutes and the road is more or less just a narrow dirt track. The scenery however more than makes up for any travel sickness that you may suffer and takes you across one of the least accessible places in the British Isles called "The Parph"
THE ABANDONED VILLAGE
At the point where the ferry lands and the minibus collects you, you will notice a small building with a tin roof and this is all that now remains of an abandoned village that was once on this side of the water.
This Building was actually the School House where Children from the Village were educated. Between 1935 and 1938 there were 38 Adults and 10 Children that lived on the Cape. With the exception of the lighthouse keeper all of the adults were shepherds which worked for two different farms on the Cape. The last villager left the Cape in 1948.
There are a few other buildings scattered about on the Cape and all of these are now the property of the Ministry of Defence.
This is the name given to the area of land owned largely by the Ministry of Defence and covering 270 square Kilometres of moorland sandwiched between the B801 road to the south and the A838 to the east.
The geographical remoteness of this place makes it a special place in itself but the fact that it is virtually out of bounds to all visitors adds to the mystery and this complete lack of human contact has meant that much of the fauna and flora of this region is unique. It is for these reasons that the whole area is now designated as a SSSI (Special Site of Scientific Interest).
The remoteness of the Moorland and the close proximity to the Coast makes them deceptive as the highest point above sea level here rises only to around a thousand feet yet looking around you could quite easily be fooled into thinking that you are amongst Scotland's highest Mountains.
THE FAUNA AND FLORA
The isolation of this area has meant that many species of moorland plants have survived here that have disappeared from elsewhere, and a variety of Artic and alpine plants normally found only on the highest mountains exist here right down to sea level. These include plants such as Mountain Avens, Moss Campion and Purple Saxifrage, whilst the Scottish Primrose grows abundantly here but the only other place in the world where this species still exists is in the Orkney Islands.
Bird life on the Moorlands can seem to be surprisingly scarce as the lack of large vegetation means that there are few land mammals and therefore only a small number of larger birds of prey like Golden Eagle and Buzzard are found here. The sea cliffs however support some of the largest sea bird colonies in the Northern Hemisphere and these cliff ledges, packed full of Guillimots, Razorbills and Puffins provide food for Peregrine Falcons and one of Britain's smallest falcons, the Merlin.
There is another bird that has returned here too within the last 20 years. The magnificent White Tailed Sea Eagle, on the verge of world extinction less than 50 years ago is now nesting again on the Parph.
On the Moorland there are many rare Mosses and Lichens and the heather lined slopes are the home of Ptarmigan, a member of the Grouse family found only on the top of the Cairngorm Mountains in the UK over 3,500 feet high and in a few isolated locations in the Alps, yet here it breeds right down to sea level. The Ptarmigans here are also unique in the fact that this is the only population in the world which retains its brown summer plumage throughout the year. Other populations including those in the Cairngorms turn pure white in winter to camouflage themselves in the snow, but here the climate is much milder and the ground is seldom covered in snow for long periods even in the harshest of winters due to the high level of sea salt in the air and so turning pure white would be a disadvantage for the Ptarmigan here.
The lighthouse stands 122 metres high on the top of the cliffs of Clo Mhor (pronounced Clo-Var, a little like the English word "Clover") at the head of Cape Wrath and dominates the area.
The lighthouse was built in 1828 and designed by Robert Stevenson, whose grandson was to later become famous for building the steam locomotive "Stevenson's Rocket"
There is no doubt that this lighthouse has saved many hundreds of lives and its position here at the head of one of the most treacherous parts of water in Britain makes it of paramount importance.
It is possible to go inside the lighthouse and climb its 81 steps to the top of the tower and on a clear day the views from here towards Balnakiel Bay near Durness are breathtaking. It is also a sobering thought to realise that as you face north west there is nothing between you and Iceland, whilst turning 45 degrees to your left there is no land until Nova Scotia in Canada.
The geographical location of Cape Wrath is 58` 37.5` N. latitude; 50` 00.0`W. longitude.
The Clo Mhor Cliffs, sometimes spelt Clo Mor are the highest sea cliffs in Europe and are also the most vertical. At their most severe point just to the east of the lighthouse there is a 630 metre vertical drop straight into the sea.
The lighthouse flashes every 30 seconds and has done so uninterrupted for over a hundred years. The light that it emits has a nominal range of 24 miles and a candle power equivalent of 240,000 candles.
If you are ever fortunate enough to find yourself in this part of Scotland then a trip to Cape Wrath is highly recommended as a lifetime experience.
The journey to the Lighthouse may be a little awkward and only possible via a boat and a minibus but this only helps to add to the adventure and ensures that this place remains unspoilt for future generations to enjoy.
The Cape can be reached only on foot from the south, or by taking a passenger ferry from Keoldale near Durness across the Kyle of Durness, and then walking, cycling or taking a minibus. The journey of around 11 miles to the lighthouse takes the visitor through a desolate and virtually uninhabited region. The area is used as a military bombardment range by the Royal Air Force; hence travel to the Cape is restricted at certain times of year. There is a lighthouse at the cape, built in 1828 by Robert Stevenson, which was manned until 1998. Overlooking the Cape are the ruins of the Lloyd's signal station which was used to monitor shipping.