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Durness and the inlet leading to Smoo Cave

In the Highlands and Islands, unpronounceable place names of many consonants are usually Gaelic. Other names reflect the Viking heritage of the region, not least the county of Sutherland itself which just means ‘southland’ in Old Norse. Other names are Pictish which we’ll get to later. Durness derives from Old Norse which in Viking-speak means ‘deer headland’ and while we didn’t see any deer, we didn’t see a lot of people either because Durness is the most sparsely populated parish in Great Britain. Anyone we did see was in Cocoa Mountain nursing a steaming mug of hot chocolate so rich, it surely exceeds the recommended daily calorie allowance in one fell swoop. Who was counting? It admirably warmed up the parts that had been chilled by the winds that scud mercilessly across these treeless headlands and stormy waters. The aptly-named Cape Wrath, after all, is just a few miles to the west.

Balnakeil Bay with Faraid Head in the background

We had to wait for our cocoa because we sailed past Cocoa Mountain by mistake, though as a consolation prize we discovered Balnakeil Bay where a ruined church and an impressive graveyard sit on a low promontory above a beach of silvery sand, backed by grassy dunes. Founded by St. Maelrubha, of Innis Maree and bull sacrifice fame, Balnakeil was a center of Christianity from the 8th century and housed a monastic community that, remarkably, was wealthy enough to contribute funds to the Third Crusade. The church which dates from 1617 was abandoned in 1843. Inside the roofless structure is the tomb of the bloodthirsty Domhnull MacMhurchaidh, aka as Donald MacLeod, henchman to the chiefs of the MacKays until his death in 1623. It was popularly believed that he had murdered at least 19 people and disposed of their bodies down the waterfall of Smoo cave in Durness, safe in the knowledge that he would never be found out because the locals believed the cave was the haunt of the devil and wouldn’t go near it. 

The ruins of 17th century Balnakeil Church

Opposite the church is Balnakeil House, built in 1744 by the MacKay chiefs on the site of the former summer palace of the medieval Bishops of Caithness. In 1829 the house and MacKay lands were sold to the Marquis of Stafford, later known as the Duke of Sutherland. Prior to this, Lord Reay (the title given to the hereditary chief of the Clan MacKay), had begun to clear the land of people, a process that continued apace after the sale and resulted in the Durness riots. The land was turned into an extensive sheep farm, nonetheless. The house, which is A-listed, now belongs to the Elliot family who rent it out.

Kyle of Durness

On our way back towards Durness we finally had our hot chocolate, because by now we had figured out that Cocoa Mountain is part of the Balnakeil Craft Village, a community of artists and artisans, who work in a re-purposed site that was originally a military site built during the Cold War years as an early warning radar station.

Smoo Cave, waterfall

Fraser Eadie is a man who spends much of his time underground, digging holes in rock and showing Smoo cave to interested tourists. Smoo is the largest sea cave entrance in the UK, but it is the geological bits inside that interest him. You can wander into the cave, see the cavern and walk along a short boardwalk to the waterfall for free. But if you want to go further, you have to put on a hard hat, pay him £6 and step down into a zodiac boat which deposits you in the inner cave where you walk to a limestone formation of what looked to me like a cascade of maltesers, which every Briton knows are yummy, chocolate-covered balls. It’s a short tour but if you’re interested in all things cave, Fraser is an entertaining and knowledgable raconteur.

The sand dunes in and around Durness are some of the finest in the country. But they are a fragile ecosystem, stabilized only by the vegetation that grows on them. Mature dunes are densely blanketed in grass, moss and flowering plants which protect them from wind erosion, younger dunes are covered in long marram grass. Yet fragile or not, this part of the country has long been used for military purposes. On the clifftop above the inlet that leads to Smoo cave, are the remains of concrete structures that look like bunkers. Part of the early warning radar system at Balnakeil, the facility was abandoned almost before it began. But the Ministry of Defence still carries out exercises near Cape Wrath, while Loch Eriboll has for long been used as a deep water anchorage by the Royal Navy. HMS Hood was moored there in 1937 for several days and as my grandfather served on HMS Hood in WWII, this fun fact has a personal connection. (Fortunately he was not on it when the ship was sunk in 1941.)

Fragile ecosystem of sand dunes

Aside from the military, the energy industry has a great fondness for these parts too. Further east along the coast, the old nuclear power station of Dounreay which was built in 1955 is being de-commissioned, just as a new spaceport is planned for the A’Mhoine peninsula, west of Tongue. On the flip side – although not everyone agrees – wind farms dot many headlands and hilltops. Scotland bills itself as a leader in renewable energy and indeed the country has, on several occasions, been able to power itself for 24 hours using renewables. As for the space port, why is it a good idea to destroy an area of outstanding beauty with extremely unpredictable weather, for the sake of about 100 jobs? I suppose if everything goes pear-shaped and the thing explodes, only a few people would be directly affected because it is so sparsely populated. It’s a bit cynical but it’s hard to come up with any other reason.

Whiten Head, Entrance to Loch Eriboll

Old lime kiln and house on the Kyle of Tongue

We stopped at the Tongue Hotel for lunch and a yard of ale, before continuing across the top of Scotland along the Pentland Firth.  In the village of Bettyhill, east of Torriesdale Bay, Strathnaver Museum housed in an 18th century church, has a large section devoted to the clearances. The museum has a close association with the MacKay Country Trust, because the area was part of their ancestral lands. Bettyhill is named for Elizabeth – Countess of Sutherland in her own right – who, like her husband, remains a controversial figure in Scottish history for the forcible removal of around 15,000 tenants from her land. Many were resettled in coastal villages like Bettyhill, where it was intended they should work in the emerging herring industry. We didn’t have a chance to visit the museum, so I can’t say why it was assumed that subsistence farmers and crofters would know anything about fish.

Torriesdale Bay

Moss covered drystane dyke, or wall, Forss House

Late afternoon we arrived at Forss House, and after settling in, J and I set off for a walk through the woods behind the hotel. Many trees were uprooted, possibly due to a powerful storm of hurricane force winds back in 2013. It was another windy day and a chill wind at that – the intense blue of the sky and the bright sunlight were deceptive, but we gamely plodded on until we came to a gap where the moss-encrusted enclosure wall had collapsed. We looked at each other and without saying a word began to make our way back to the hotel in the direction of the bar. The sun had crossed the yardarm.