The Road to Cape Wrath

While doing some housekeeping on the computer recently, I came across this piece. It was originally published in the EM2 Locomotive Society journal “Direct Current” in February 1995, and is one of a number I wrote for it over the years. The journey described is one I always look back on with some fondness.

It’s a dramatic way to wake up. Especially after, (or inspite of), the sleepless night on the upper bunk, kept awake by the muted roar of the tracks, swaying over junctions and round curves in the mountainous bits. I drew up the blind with heavy eyes to a bleak mountainous wilderness, miles from the darkened neon lit townscape I didn’t go to sleep with. I went out into the corridor, looked out of the open window and gasped at the cold air of the thin misty morning, letting it revive me. The train was crawling up the slope, ever higher, to a summit of almost 1500 feet, the “Highest Point on BR” as the large blue sign says.

The steward brought coffee which I gratefully sipped, black, drawing in the caffeine fumes, the bitter taste on my tongue a confirmation that I am actually here, not still at home, dreaming of journeys away. And this is only the start, there’s still a few hundred miles to go yet. Over the top, a gallop down the other side, another climb then a long drop towards the sea at Inverness.

I had a wait of two-and-a-half hours. A “hot bacon roll” had to pass for breakfast (why is it station buffets don’t do proper breakfasts anymore?) after which I sat on one of the circular benches and opened my paper. In between paragraphs, I’d look up as people and trains came and went; people in suits with briefcases, families, and others with huge rucksacks, lots of those.

“Would you mind keeping an eye on my bag for a minute?” said a voice.

I looked up and saw a woman divesting herself of a huge backpack. I’d bemoaned the weight of my own, yet this was several sizes larger, with numerous items strapped top and bottom, and at the sides. You’d almost need a fork-lift truck to take it on and off!

“Of course,” I smiled.

“I won’t be long,” she added.

She told me she was over from California, and had been travelling for several weeks through Ireland and the rest of Britain. She was en route for the Orkney Islands to see some of the prehistoric sights. I’d been there myself the year before, and could well understand her enthusiasm.

I hadn’t been relishing the long wait, but with someone to talk to, it passed pleasantly quickly. I told her I was heading for Cape Wrath, the most north-westerly point in Britain, something I’d wanted to do ever since reading Paul Theroux’ A Kingdom by the Sea a few years before. The chapter dealing with the run to the Cape, using the Lairg – Durness postbus was one of the most memorable of the whole book. The train was one of the ubiquitous two-car class 156 diesel units which soon filled up, and I was impatient to get going again. I felt nostalgic as the train set off, the memory of my first trip five years earlier a constant companion. This time, though, it was a warm, sunny June morning, rather than a freezing November dawn.

I said goodbye to my new friend at Lairg where I caught the postbus for the three hour, fifty-six mile run to Durness. It had clouded over, but was still warm, and there was a heady perfume of gorse in the air: the roadside verges were awash with their golden blooms. Clear of the village, the road was single track with passing places for most of its length, the bus stopping frequently as the driver delivered the mail to the remote houses and farms. For the first fifteen miles or so, the road follows Loch Shin, with the mountains growing gradually closer, though it soon clouded over and began to rain. Despite the narrow road, the driver didn’t hang around, and seemed reluctant to slow down, never mind stop: swerving into a passing place and powering out again as soon as possible! Not quite burning rubber, but not that far away. . .

At Laxford Bridge, we parted company from the Durness road for a while, and deviated a few miles along the Ullapool road to Scourie. “Lax” is apparently old Norse for “salmon”. The road had been following the river Laxford for several miles, and the there were low, rocky hills and numerous small lochs all around. I was glad to finally see it: a glance at the Ordnance Survey map for the area was enough to kindle an interest by itself, and I wasn’t disappointed. Apart from the weather, as the rain had become a torrential downpour. With the map open on my knee, I tried to pick out the features, and I wondered what all the Gaelic names actually meant, and how you pronounced them!

Back on the A838, another deviation came at Rhiconich, a few miles along Loch Inchard to the small fishing village of Kinlochbervie. After a few minutes unloading mail bags, the driver pulled in a few miles back down the road at Badcall, and disappeared for about ten minutes into one of the houses; for a not-so-quick cup of tea we passengers thought. I’d been sitting on the hard seat for almost three hours, so I got out to stretch my legs. It was still pouring with rain, so I didn’t stretch very much!

The driver finally came back, and we started on the last stage to Durness. After a short climb, the road swept gradually down on a long straight, falling from 337 feet above sea level to a mere 26 feet at the foot of the Kyle of Durness, across the Drochaid Mh¢r, or Big Bridge, over the river Dionard. There were mountains on either side, principally the Cranstackie/Beinn Spionnaidh massif to the east and the less imposing Farrmheall to the west, and the ground in between looked soft and wet, with very black soil. The sight of the Atlantic, grey and uninviting under the heavy mass of rain clouds, really emphasised the remoteness of the place: Durness, from the old Norse Dyr-Nes, meaning Wolf’s Cape, where the road, unable to continue northwards having run out of land, turns east; while on the empty ocean, fading towards the northern horizon, there’s nothing until you reach the Arctic ice.

The rain had stopped, but it was very windy. Even so, after over three hours I was glad to get off the bus. Home, in the north-west of England now seemed so far away as to be mythical, but it didn’t bother me; I felt a quiet excitement that I had come so far. Even Lairg seemed further away than its fifty-six miles.

After buying some food, I walked the mile or so to the Youth Hostel at Smoo. The road dropped near level with the sea and passed the beach at Sango with its brilliant white sand, then swung sharply back up again at about 1:6.

The following day, the wind had blown up into a ferocious southerly gale, and there were frequent heavy showers. I had wanted to head on up to Cape Wrath, but the ferry over the Kyle of Durness wasn’t running because of the weather, so I had to amuse myself for the rest of the day. After walking down towards Balnakeil, where there was a large rainbow draped lazily across the bay, I abandoned it as a bad job and returned to the village. I found a reasonably sheltered spot amongst the rocks on Sango beach, and sat and watched the waves breaking. The pub opened at midday, just in time as it had suddenly clouded over and started to rain again. In the afternoon, I sheltered behind a wall near Loch Caladail for a while, where it was unexpectedly peaceful, before taking a look at Smoo cave. The vast arch of its entrance, about 100 feet across and about 50 high, is a mere prelude to the smaller, flooded secondary chamber, into which roars a 70 foot waterfall. You cross a short plank bridge to a sort of balcony, and the spray drenches you before you reach the end.

When I woke next morning, I felt apprehensive as I looked outside, hoping I wasn’t in for another wasted day. It was still blowy and overcast, but the ferocity of the gale had eased considerably. I reached the ferry landing full of anticipation: I looked along the grey Kyle at the mountains on the other side, aloof and impassive as ever, dipping in and out of the passing clouds. Shortly, a landrover pulled up and the man told me that there needed to be at least four passengers to make it worthwhile for the bus driver. So far, there was only me and two women in the car park. The man shook his head slowly and said I should come back at one ‘o’ clock, then he got back in his landrover and drove away. That was almost four hours away, and it was three miles back to the village. I sighed, wondering if I’d ever reach the Cape. . .

I walked back to the car park, and saw some more people had arrived, so I told them the score. Two middle-aged sisters were good enough to give me a lift back up to Durness, and surprised me by suggesting I tag along with them. They seemed to take to me and it was rather like being out with your favourite great aunts!

After a visit to Smoo cave, where the waterfall was considerably swelled with the recent rain, we got back to the ferry just before one. Eventually, the dour man in his landrover came back, donned waterproofs and waded out into the Kyle to bring the “ferry” in: only a small fibreglass thing with an outboard motor! On the other side, everyone piled onto the minibus, which only managed a few feet along the road before grinding to a halt: there was a full load and it couldn’t manage the 1:6 away from the slipway! The driver apologised and asked for six volunteers to walk up the worst of the hill!

The road was a rough, pitted track for the eleven miles. After the sharp climb at the start, it rose over 200 feet in the first mile to take it along the cliffs. There was a fine view of the Kyle sandbanks below, with several seals basking on them. After plunging down at about 1:7 to ford the Diall river, the road climbed back up as steeply and headed inland through the mountains. It was a bleak, rather desolate place of peaty moorland, a feeling only emphasised by the roughness of the road, and it being deserted. The MOD use the entire area as a bombing range, and the frequent warning signs and notices with odd symbols on them add a surreal touch.

The road ends at the Cape Wrath lighthouse, built by Robert Stevenson in 1828, and is apparently one the few left that are still manned. “Wrath” is another old Norse word, meaning Turning Point; on clear days, you can see the Western Isles and the Orkneys, as well as looking along the cliffs to the south and east, especially the spectacular range at Cl• M¢r, looming at over 600 feet. Even from a couple of miles away, it’s difficult to appreciate their size.

The Cape is the sort of place you could just sit, staring out into the vast greyness of the ocean, listening to the waves crashing way below you; somewhere to just sit and think, or not; a feeling only emphasised by its remote location, and the way you reach it.

After half-an-hour, the bus started back. The tide had turned, and was rapidly going out, so the ferry couldn’t tie up at the quay as before. The man pulled it as close to the shore as he could, then helped people in, using his booted foot as a step! The sisters gave me a lift again, and when I got back to the hostel, it was like reaching home when I went into the dorm and saw my rucksack by the bed.

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