A Walk on the Wild Side

Anyone interested in a walk on the wild side should consider spending a day or two at Sandwood Bay in Sutherland. Bordered by dramatically eroded cliffs and backed by dynamic sand dunes the coastline curves away gracefully to the most north-westerly point on mainland Britain. I often ask myself what is it that makes the four mile hike over rough moorland so appealing and creates the desire to return – I guess two things; the first breath-taking view of the beach from Sandwood Cottage, high above the marram dunes and secondly its seclusion.

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The Blairmore car park is opposite the entrance gate to the Sandwood Bay track, which follows the old peat-road for about a mile before breaking off over the peatland. Often rough underfoot the path suffers from erosion in places as it winds it way between lochans towards the beach. Owned by the John Muir trust, the Estate is wild land, but not a wilderness, and the evidence of people who lived here before is all around - from prehistoric times to the Highland Clearances and to the 20th century. 

I recall my first trip to the beach. It was in early May, just at the time when there is explosive growth and a vibrancy in all things green. The sky was blue with white wispy cloud and it was one of those days that it felt good to be alive. I set off over the moorland, heavily burdened, not only with the usual camera equipment but also my camping kit – a tent, sleeping bag, mattress, stove, food and tripod all mount up to make the walk a little more challenging. Views to the east extend distantly to Cranstackie, and south east to Foinaven and in just a little over two hours I suddenly came to the point where the path drops and your toil is rewarded with the first sight of the beach. The white sand beaches, turquoise sea and machair grasslands create the illusion of an almost tropical paradise, to the extent that palm trees would not seem out of place. Under the clear blue sky an endless succession of waves washed the beach and the distinctive salty smell of the sea left an indelible impression on my mind.

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Am Buachaille, Sandwood Bay, Sutherland

I descended to the dunes and headed for Sandwood Loch, which is conveniently freshwater and pitched my tent on a suitable site. With the tide out, I walked along the sands heading for the two flat rocks, which stand in the middle of the beach and give access to deeper water. Encrusted with barnacles and limpets the rocks harbour deep saline channels in which beadlet anemones, sea urchins and kelp survive amidst the perpetual turbulence. To the southwest stands the eroded pinnacle of Am Buachaille (The Herdsman), which provides habitat for nesting fulmars and kittiwakes.

With so much to stimulate the senses, an aspect of Sandwood Bay, which is often overlooked, is its geology. The bedrock of Lewisian gneiss is one of the oldest known rock types, formed between two and three thousand million years ago and is overlain by Torridonian sandstone, a sedimentary rock laid down around one thousand million years ago – time spans which I find dificult to grasp.

The roofless ruin, which is passed as the path descends, is Sandwood Cottage and as legend has it, is said to be haunted. The ghost seen by crofters, fishermen and walkers, is said to be that of a bearded sailor, clad in sea boots, a sailors cap and a brass buttoned tunic who died when a Polish ship was wrecked in the bay.

In his book "Highways and Byways in the West Highlands" published in 1935, Seton Gordon says, "I was astonished at the number of wrecks which lie on the fine sand of this bay. All of them are old tragedies: since the placing of a lighthouse on Cape Wrath just over a hundred years ago no vessel has been lost here. Some of the vessels lie almost buried in the sand far above the reach of the highest tide."

I have never been able to locate any evidence of these old wrecks, which appear to have disappeared into the sand with the passage of time. I have often thought about the fate of the poor sailors who battled gale force winds to reach the safety of the shore, only to find a desolate bay with neither shelter nor food and four miles from the nearest track. Sandwood Bay, to these men would have presented a very different prospect from that which I was currently enjoying.

 As the sun dropped towards the horizon, the sky turned golden and orange and as I sat and watched the fading light a fox appeared on the dunes. It sat for a while and stared at me and then trotted off across the dunes in search of supper. In the growing twilight, the stars began to flicker and I reflected on the value of wild places to the human spirit. In a letter to a friend about wild places, I once wrote:

“The wild place is the hero and should be valued as such - places where the endless cycles take place as they have done since time began, free from the threat of development. For within wild places, men and women can be 'earthed' in much the same way as an electrical charge finds its way to earth. The key is to tune into the right frequency but once discovered, it’s like an energy which permeates every aspect of life.”

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Sandwood Bay is such a place.

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