CCXVIII – Durness loop via Balnakeil and Faraid Head

Hasteful MammalI RETURNED to Durness in early October 2019, arriving mid-afternoon as that was the time that the one and only bus pulled into town. I made my way to my B&B (which had power this time — yay!) and sat and had a cup of tea.

‘Okay,’ I thought to myself, ‘now what?’

Except I already knew what as I’d planned that out already…

Durness

Warmer than Rain

When I entered Durness last time, I did so via the A838, taking a direct route into the village. A less direct route was available but I was at the end of a walking trip and the ground was mostly uncertain if it were solid or liquid. Now, however, I was fresh at the start of a trip and the ground was relatively firm. What is more, the sky was blue with an unfamiliar big yellow burning thing high in it, that I sort-of felt shouldn’t be there. But it was, which was certainly warmer than rain.

My plan, then, was to retrace my steps to the Keoldale turnoff and then follow that to its end, where I would find a coastal path. I would then amble around the coast and out to Faraid Head before returning to Durness via Balnakeil. Despite being essentially a net movement of zero miles (i.e. Durness to Durness), it would actually cover eleven on the ground, which should take the whole afternoon.

Sounded like a good plan to me…

Kyle of Durness

Keoldale Turn-off

I began, as per the plan, by walking the two miles back down the A838 to the Keoldale turn-off, where I once again encountered the burger van. The only thing, I thought, that could be better than a coast path amble under clear blue skies, is a coast path amble under clear blue skies that is fuelled by delicious bacon roll. I got right on that, squaring it away.

Kyle of Durness
I’ve got a strange feeling of déjà vu except that everything’s bluer. Déjà blue, if you like.
Keoldale

The next stage of the walk involved following the side-road around to its end at the ferry slipway. Less than a handful of farmhouses stood alongside it.

Road through Keoldale
That seems pretty straight forward. Except, y’know, apart from not being straight. Forward, then. It’s just forward. At least until it curves round…
Beinn Spionnaidh & Foinaven

I paused partway round to look up the Kyle of Durness towards Strath Dionard and the mountains of Beinn Spionnaidh and Foinaven. It being high tide, the kyle (strait) was full of flat water, its lazy ripples barely brushing the rocks and pebbles of the shore. At low tide, vast expanses of treacherous sand would have been exposed.

Kyle of Durness
Quick sands or slow water; those are your choices.
Keoldale House

The road was about two thirds of a mile in length, with Keoldale House near the end of it. This was built around 1805 as part of Keoldale sheep farm and developed into the home of the Duke of Sutherland’s local land agent.

In 1927, it became the Cape Wrath Hotel and functioned as such for eighty-odd years, closing its doors in 2008. It is now once again a private residence.

Cape Wrath Ferry

The actual end of the road was Keoldale slipway, from which the tiny Cape Wrath Ferry departs.

The slipway was constructed in 1829 to service supply of the Cape Wrath Lighthouse, which was built at around the same time. I had plans to cross over to Cape Wrath the next day.

Sign: Next Ferry Crossing will be at 2020
Well, so much for that idea (it doesn’t mean twenty past eight).
End of the Road

Though my plan for the next day was now already in tatters, that didn’t impact the walk I was doing right now. Granted, the road had just come to an end but I saw no reason why that should impose any kind of limit. Not that I had to do anything much like trailblazing…

Grassy path
Here’s a path we prepared earlier.
A Small Cove

The path continued in this gentle vein for about half a mile, whereupon it was intersected by a small cove, where an appropriately small rowing boat had been pulled ashore. An electric fence at first seemed to bar my way but I soon found the sections that permitted safe passage (I also realised it was possible to divert around it too).

On the far side of the cove, the path resumed as a precarious rocky affair clinging to a hillside and, while the rocks soon gave way to more grass, it continued to do the coastal slope thing for a while.

Dunes

Before long, I came to another interruption — a narrow inlet or geo with rocks below and a path, now sandy, climbing steeply. It was, in fact, steeper and sandier than I cared to attempt, so I backed up and found a different way up.

At the top of the ascent, the character of the path changed completely as meadow grass gave way to marram grass and my walk became a stroll across some dunes.

Dunes
By will alone I set my feet in motion?
Achiemore & Daill

I followed one of several indistinct paths through knee-high marram grass until it deposited me on a small but pristine beach. There, I was facing across the Kyle towards Cape Wrath and could see the white specks of two buildings — Achiemore and Daill — now empty and forlorn but thriving farmsteads until the 1930s. Achiemore (Achadh Mòr, ‘big field’) even had a schoolroom catering to ten children at one point.

Today, they are home to a military checkpoint, guarding the entrance to the largest bombing range in Western Europe.

View across kyle to Achiemore and Daill
Because it’s better to go out with a bang!
Eilean Dubh

My traipse through the dunes continued up to the mouth of the Kyle of Durness and Eilean Dubh (black island), where the marram grass gave way to just ordinary grass and I turned eastwards towards Balnakeil. Well, mostly eastwards.

Balnakeil Bay

An Anonymous Geo

A high-walled cove that looked suspiciously like a collapsed sea cave gave me cause to turn about and gaze across Balnakeil Bay to Cape Wrath. But turning around and looking in other directions is well within the limits of my competence; I’m not forced to stare in a fixed direction as though locked to a compass.

A geo
Although, having said that, I am facing vaguely north, here.

I was now, I suddenly realised, actually walking the north coast of Great Britain, having basically run up the island’s west side (more-or-less) until I’d run out of land. That was quite a pleasing thought and it cheered me so immensely that I almost didn’t mind when the path led me on into a hellish and repugnant landscape perpetrated by monstrous and diseased minds golf course.

On its far side, Balnakeil awaited.

Balnakeil House
Balnakeil House
Come on mammal, pick your feet up!

Balnakeil House can be excused for its impatience, it had been sat there since 1744 and I didn’t show up until 2019; I’d be tetchy too under those circumstances.

The current building was erected on the site of a 16th century predecessor and was itself remodelled internally during Victorian times. Some of its stones may have been recycled from a former summer home of the Bishops of Caithness, and Balnakeil House continued with the theme of being locally important by becoming one of the homes of the chiefs of Clan Mackay. This ended in 1829, when the house (and the rest of the Mackays’ estate) was acquired by the Marquess of Stafford (1758-1833).

Duke of Sutherland

The marquess was married to the Countess of Sutherland, who owned pretty much everything else for miles, and most of the roads I’d recently walked (and would be walking for much of the rest of my trip) were built on his orders, there having been little more than foot trails and pony tracks before, if anything.

In 1833, the marquess was elevated to a higher title of nobility, becoming the Duke of Sutherland, which he enjoyed for about six months before kicking the bucket. Balnakeil sheep farm — which includes the house — was later sold off by his descendants and bought by the Elliot family in 1904. They still own it today.

Durness Old Church

Balnakeil (Baile na Cille) means ‘church town’, although it’s really only a hamlet. And as for the church? Well, look:

Durness old church
On the plus side, no one can steal the lead from the roof.

This was the old Durness Parish Church, built in 1619 for Sir Donald Mackay of Farr (1591-1649), the 14th chief of Clan Mackay, who would be elevated to the peerage as Lord Reay in 1628.

Donald McMurdo

Entombed in one of the church’s walls were the remains of Domhnull MacMhurchaidh (Donald McMurdo, also known as Donald MacLeod), Mackay’s most feared henchman.

An assassin and alleged highwayman, McMurdo was said to have murdered at least 18 people, throwing their bodies into nearby Smoo Cave. One possible reason given by local lore for his entombment in the walls, rather than burial in the churchyard, is that he was so hated and feared that the people of Durness would have dug him back up and desecrated his grave.

Churches Before and Since

The 1619 church was not the first Durness parish church nor the last, though its 1814 successor was built on another site in Durness.

A previous church on the Balnakeil site dated back to at least the 13th century, as records dating to between 1223 and 1245 show that it was ordered to supply candles and incense for Dornoch Cathedral. Interestingly, even that may have been a Johnny-come-lately in church terms as, according to tradition, Balnakeil’s first church may have been a chapel established in the early 8th century by the Irish missionary St Maelrubha (642-722).

Faraid Head

Two Hours to Sunset

From Balnakeil, a road led inland to Durness but I wasn’t ready for that yet. For jutting north two miles into the sea was the sandy peninsula of Faraid Head (An Fharaird, ‘the projecting headland’). Checking my watch, I saw I had slightly less than two hours to sunset. That should be more than enough time to head out to the end and back.

Balnakeil Bay
Or is it? Let’s find out!
Beautiful Beaches

Initially, a track led down onto the beach shown above, and I followed that to its far end. There, the track became a metalled road, built for the Ministry of Defence in the 1950s. This climbed up amongst grassy dunes and snaked its way northwards along the peninsula, periodically disappearing under stretches of open sand. Even when the road had vanished its route was easy to follow, however — not only could it usually be spotted emerging up ahead but it had also been recently used by MOD lorries preparing for an upcoming exercise.

Immediately west of the dunes, flat sandy beaches faced onto Balnakeil Bay.

Beach facing onto Balnakeil Bay
Are you sure this is Scotland in October?
Bombing Range Control

As you can see from the photo above, the beach quickly came to an end and, as it did, so did the dunes. They were replaced with grassy hillsides, dotted with sheep and cows as the MOD road drew inexorably closer to its end — a gate flanked by decorative shells.

Gate to MOD bombing range control
If you were expecting seashells, then you really don’t know the British military.

Beyond the gates lay an establishment built in the 1950s as a state-of-the-art radar station. Except, with technology rapidly accelerating towards the space age, it wasn’t nearly as cutting edge as all that by the time it was built.

In later years, the radar was decommissioned and the site became bombing range control for dropping ordnance onto Cape Wrath. It still serves that purpose today and, as I turned away from the gate, I could see soldiers unloading stuff from the lorries whose tracks I’d been following.

Looking Back

Stepping off the road onto a muddy foot trail, I passed to the east of the MOD site and climbed to the highest point of Faraid Head (about 100 m). Looking out to sea, I could see, well, sea. Looking back inland I saw this:

Balnakeil and Durness, distant
Balnakeil’s on the right, the village dead ahead is Durness.

Rather than heading immediately back onto the road, I followed the foot trail down the east side of Faraid Head, sheep scattering before me with the absolute minimum effort required to stay out of reach.

A’ Mhòine

Looking east, I could see the mouth of Loch Eriboll (Loch Euraboil) and the peninsula of A’ Mhòine (‘the moss’) with Whiten Head (An Ceann Geal) at its tip.

‘I’ll soon be walking over there,’ I thought.

Whiten Head distant
That’s literally over, rather than around.
Deadly Dunes of Devouring

As I headed back towards Balnakeil, the foot trail became indistinct and confusing, so I cut back across to re-join the MOD road. I did so at one of the larger expanses of unvegetated sand, where I decided not to dawdle.

Hut swallowed by sands
This hut couldn’t run and now its fate is sealed. The hungering sands cannot be sated.

I was a hasteful mammal for two reasons. Not only did I not want to be eaten by Deadly Dunes of Devouring but also I’d already done more than enough dawdling and the sun was just about to set. The MOD road sped me back to Balnakeil, where the public road conveyed me onwards to Durness.

Closing the Loop

Balnakeil Craft Village

On the way, I passed Balnakeil Craft Village, a community of craft shops, galleries and the like housed in old RAF buildings constructed to service the radar post.

Dash Back to Durness

With the onset of twilight, the temperature was plummeting and I decided not to hang about. Barely even sparing the craft village a glance, I pressed onwards down the road, returning to Durness just as the streetlights came on.

Durness by twilight
Streetlights indicate a built-up area, so I’d better not walk faster than 30 mph.

I made it back to my B&B just as it was getting properly dark and cold. Wrapped up warmly, I then hunted down some dinner before retiring early for the night. I had a mad plan involving Cape Wrath for the morrow but it needed an early rise if it was going to work…

…which it didnt.


Distance Summary

Hasteful MammalThis time: 11 miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,858 miles

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