“ Scotland „
In 1976 I was just six years old yet it is a year that I still have very vivid memories of. It was one of the hottest summers on record in Britain and the heat wave burned well into mid September. It was also the first time that my parents took me to Sutherland, in the far north west corner of Scotland and the first time that I set eyes upon Sandwood Bay. Think of Britain's finest beaches and you will probably think of Cornwall with its fine sandy bays and crashing waves that roll in from the Atlantic and turn it into the surfer's paradise that it is renowned for. Think again, and think about Sutherland, 600 miles to the north. Sutherland has many fantastic beaches, which are rivalled in Europe only by those on Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides. Geographically these bays are unshielded by the Irish landmass to the west, which shelters the rest of the western coast of Britain (as is Cornwall), and therefore the waves that crash onto these shores have travelled over 3,000 miles unbroken. Surfers call these waves Atlantic Rollers" and some of them can be as high as a house before they break on the shore, but the beaches that they break upon are something else and have to be seen to be believed. Of all of the beaches in Britain Sandwood Bay is, in my opinion, the finest of them all. There are many things that make Sandwood Bay such a magnificent place. Firstly the bay stretches for almost two miles and is composed of the finest golden brown coloured sand. Secondly even on the hottest day in mid summer the place is completely deserted. I have been here many times and the most people I have ever seen is nine (yes nine!), which if you think about it nine people scattered over a couple of miles of sand is about as close as you'll ever find to deserted. The third thing that makes this place special is the location and setting. The bay is surrounded by steep sea cliffs and impressive sea stacks with a loch (called Sandwood Loch) located directly behind the beach, and there are rocky outcrops and sand dunes. Finally, and possibly most important of all, what makes this beach so special is that it is so difficult to get there. There is only one way to get to Sandwood Bay and that is on foot so this journey is definitely not for the infirm or anyone unsteady underfoot. The closest approach from a public road is from Blairmore, about 3 miles north of Kinlochbervie, where you can park your car on the grassy verge beside the single-track road, which is also known as the B801. From Blairmore it is a four mile walk to Sandwood Bay, so that's an eight mile round trip since your only way back is on foot too. Sandwood Bay is sign posted from Blairmore. This footpath takes you through a gate and onto a rough dusty, dirt track that meanders through the gently rolling heather moors. The walk itself is by no means spectacular but it is not a difficult walk as the ground gently undulates past lochs and tiny lochans . The hills to your left hide your views of the ocean until the very last minute when you cross a wooden stile and turn left down a gentle decline to the bay. The first views of the bay are spectacular and it is only at this point that the walk suddenly all seems worthwhile. Just before you begin your descent to the beach take a look at the ruins of an old crofter's cottage to your right called Sandwood Cottage and marvel at its isolation. There are many legends and stories associated with Sandwood Bay. Prior to the building of the lighthouse at Cape Wrath, seven miles to the north at the most north westerly tip of the British mainland this bay was infamous for the number of shipwrecks that occurred here. The lighthouse at Cape Wrath opened around a hundred years ago but until as recent as the 1950's this bay was virtually undiscovered. In 1935 a man called Seton George published a book called "Highways and Byways in the West Highlands". In this book Seton says of his first journey to Sandwood Bay "I was astonished at the number of shipwrecks which lie on the fine sand of this bay. All of them are old tragedies and some of the vessels lie buried in the sand far above the reach of the highest tide". The locals in the public bar at the Kinlochbervie Hotel and the fishermen in the harbour tell many a tale of the Sandwood Bay shipwrecks and the booty that they plundered from them but perhaps the strangest tales of all of are those relating to Sandwood Cottage. There are many locals who have seen the ghost of a mariner that frequents Sandwood Cottage and knocks on the windows on stormy nights. According to local legend he is all that remains of an armada galleon that ran aground here complete with its treasure and which, it is said, is still buried in the sand dunes awaiting discovery. Another story tells of a different mariner who wears a cap and a mariner's reefer jacket and walks across the sand dunes at dawn. Sandwood Bay is just about as far north west in the British Isles that you can possibly go and is approachable only by single track roads with passing places. It can take half a day to travel 30 miles on these roads and although the distance from Inverness is only a hundred miles the civilisation of Inverness seems like a lifetime away. There are two possible routes to take from Inverness, both equally picturesque so the choice is yours, but I would suggest that you approach by one route and return by the other. From Inverness on the east coast or Fort William on the west coast you can take the A835 North to Ullapool. This route takes you through wild open moorland and alongside Loch Garve, Loch Glascarnoch and finally Loch Broom, just before you reach Ullapool. Most people travelling further north on the west coast will stop off at Ullapool as this is the last of the larger populated towns before the true wilderness of Sutherland begins. Ullapool itself is a pretty little fishing town with a busy harbour, a few shops and pubs and a couple of petrol stations. From Ullapool continue on the A835 north to a place on the map called Ledmore Junction. From Inverness continue north on the A9 until you reach the turn off for the A836 just before Tain, and then fork again onto the A837 which will take you along the shores of Loch Shin until eventually you arrive at Ledmore Junction. Ledmore Junction may come as a bit of a shock since despite its bold prominence on the road map there is actually only a couple of houses here and a phone box, but it an important junction as it is where the A837 meets the A835. At Ledmore Junction continue north on the A894 to Rhiconich where you will find a hotel and petrol station. Turn left at the hotel onto the B801 to Kinlochbervie, a dead end road about 20 miles long. From Kinlochbervie continue to Braemore, almost at the end of the A801 from where Sandwood Bay is sign posted. I would definitely recommend a trip to Sandwood Bay to anyone who enjoys the outdoors and solitude. I have spoken to many people over the years about this magical place but I have only ever come across a handful of people who have ever heard of it, let alone been there and even then the response is often the same. "It sounds lovely but I bet its cold being so far north ". I may have just been lucky but I have been here now on nine different occasions, all between May and September and I have had wonderful weather every time. This is even when sometimes there has been a big dirty black rain cloud above me according to the BBC weather map. If you like remove, beautiful places and you don't mind a bit of a walk then you will love sandwood Bay.Maybe next time I go there I will find that buried treasure.
Of course, I’d heard about the ghost of the Bearded Sailor. And so many people had said, “If you’re going to the North West, you must go to Sandwood Bay”. I was half expecting a burger van and an ice cream stall, and “Coaches by Appointment”. But no. Although on the A838 near Riconich, a signpost screams out “Sandwood Bay”, from then on you’re on your own as far as navigation is concerned. First find Kinlochbervie in West Sutherland. Got it? Okay, some three miles north west of there is the village of Oldshorebeg. That’s the easy bit. A little further on, between Blairmore and Sheigra, you will find a track on your right leading into a peat bog. The closed gate is not to keep you out, but to keep the sheep in, and you’ll be quite welcome as long as you remember to close it behind you. If the ruts and potholes make you fear for the well-being of your suspension, leave your wheels here. But you can drive, with care, as far as Loch a’ Mhuillin. This will save about two and a half miles walking each way, and leaves a walk of around five miles from the parking area at the Loch to the Bay and back. But be careful – the ground can be wet and boggy. Don’t drive in unless you’re sure you’ll be able to drive out. The AA’s probably about three days away. So I struck off along the sandy shore of Loch a’ Mhuillin and joined the path at the far side. I was disappointed at this stage to find rutting and erosion, although this appeared to be not so much due to too many feet, but rather to water running off the hills and using the path as the line of least resistance. It was a bit like tramping along a riverbed, and pretty hard going in places. There were a few people about, but not enough to make a crowd. It can be amusing, and sometimes disturbing, to observe some folk’s idea of preparation for a walk like this. Experienced walk ers were easy to spot. They took their vehicles no further than seemed sensible. Then on went the walking boots, with waterproofs (this is Scotland, after all) and spare jumper into the backpack, along with a bite to eat and drink, and off they set, map in hand. At the other extreme were those on the “Sunday Outing”. The car was coaxed further along the rutted, boggy track than was either safe or practical, then mum, dad, granny, kids and dog – in tee-shirts and trainers (except granny and the dog) – picked their way gingerly for a quarter of a mile or less, then turned back to the car complaining about no tarmac and lack of facilities. This is wild country. Beautiful, but wild. Remember that. The path crosses rough, and at times boggy moorland, past Lochs Meadhonach and Clais nan Coinneal, then down on the right Sandwood Cottage is visible. At this point, the map shows the path diverging – one heading forward towards the bay, the other in the direction of the cottage. You’ll need better eyesight than me to figure out where the path to the cottage is. I could see no junction, and so followed the obvious route round the shoulder of Druim na Buainn towards the sea. And what a view! Two miles of white sand curved around a deep blue bay, with crescents of white living and dying as they rolled to the shore. Only a couple of distant walkers interrupted this panorama of peace. Behind the dunes lay more white sand, then Sandwood Loch, shimmering in the sun, rippling in gentle irritation at being cut off from its Mother Sea. Don’t rush it. I spent ages ambling along the sands and basking in the lea of the dunes. Once down on the beach, you can see the Shepherd – Am Buachaille – a pillar of Torridonian sandstone severed from the cliffs by ages of angry seas, and now standing sentry over the bay. Rather than return by the same route, I cut inland through the dunes, and follo wed the southern shore of the Loch for a bit. I was now to the north of, and below, Sandwood Cottage. Eager to view the haunt of the Bearded Sailor, I headed up towards the derelict house. Several tales have been told of walkers who have sought shelter in the cottage, being terrified by a bearded sailor appearing at the windows, resplendent in tunic and brass buttons. One report tells of a violent shaking of the whole house during the night, with two terrified walkers who were sheltering there leaving at first light and running for their lives to civilisation. The most intriguing tale concerns an Edinburgh lady who had never been to Sandwood Bay. She was given a piece of the cottage’s broken staircase as a souvenir, by a friend who had been there. Since then, several uncanny experiences befell her. Crockery tumbled inexplicably from the table. Knocks and footsteps were heard throughout the night. On one occasion she smelled tobacco, and turned to see the Bearded Sailor in her doorway. He watched her for a moment, then vanished. As I write this now, I feel my tongue creeping towards my cheek. But at the time, in the derelict cottage, I would have believed anything. Although as I examined the cottage, the only movement came from a passing sheep. (Which reminds me, mind your feet.) My feelings were a mixture of disappointment and relief. From the cottage, I crossed the heather towards the main path, blazing my own trail and still unable to find the route which was marked on the map. The absence of a defined path was only a minor inconvenience, but beware of the boggy areas and small streams cunningly concealed beneath the heather. It’s a tiring trek, but though the going is a bit rough at times, the beauty of the bay itself is a breathtaking experience, which is well worth the effort. There is simply no place like this which is readily accessible, and thank goodness, or it would be a holiday complex or a theme park by now. No pain, no gain. But there must be easier ways to find a sailor. (My love/hate relationship with Spellcheck has hit an all-time low. Spellcheck hates Gaelic.)