Walking Cape Wrath

July 2018

Cape Wrath is the most north-westerly point on the British mainland. For anyone planning to walk the coast of mainland Britain, Cape Wrath presents a particular challenge. Some of the reason it’s a challenge are:-

  • Much of it is a military bombardment range, which is often closed to the public
  • There is only one (dead-end) road across the peninsula, from the Kyle of Durness to the lighthouse. Whilst this is a public road, the ferry across the Kyle of Durness is a passenger ferry only, so you have no way of getting your own vehicle onto it.
  • South from the lighthouse there are no footpaths or tracks at all. It is trackless, open moorland.
  • There are no mobile phone signals over most of the peninsula.
  • To do the complete walk, from the ferry to the next public road, is almost 25 miles.
  • The ferry service only runs in the summer, and only when the weather is suitable.
  • There is extremely limited public transport.

I had puzzled over how I was going to tackle this stretch of coast. Well I’m pleased to report I’ve now done so successfully and it was an amazing walk. It must rate as one of (if not the best) of all the coast walks I’ve done – though it is also one of the toughest.

Whilst I’m not going to write up this whole walk just yet (I’m writing them up in order around the coast), I thought this post might be useful for anyone else planning to tackle this difficult stretch of coast. I wanted to do the walk independently (without calling on friends or family to act as chauffeurs, support crew or whatever). Here is how I did it.

I did the main walk over Cape Wrath in a single day. However this required “setting up” the walk the previous day. As it’s almost 25 miles you need a day with good weather and you need to do it in the summer, partly because this is when the ferry runs and partly because you’ll need all the hours of day light to walk this far in a day (when I did the walk in mid July, sunset was around 10:15pm in this part of Scotland, meaning it was still reasonably light until around 11pm).

For this plan to work you really need:-

  1. To make sure the firing range is open, or you’ll not be able to do the walk at all
  2. Summer (really from late May through to mid August)
  3. Two days of fine weather (so that the ferry is likely to run)
  4. To stay overnight in Durness, so accommodation booked (or a tent, there is a campsite)
  5. A car (or someone to drive you).
  6. Some luck!

It’s also a good idea to tell someone when you are planning to do the walk and when you plan to return, so they can raise the alarm if you don’t (there is no mobile signal on most of Cape Wrath).

So first of all, the firing range. Check the documents here. You want to open the document for the month you are planning to walk for the Cape Wrath range and check that “No Activity” is shown for the day you plan to do this walk.  By convention, the military normally has no activity planned at all during July, so that is a good month to pick.

As I said you’ll also need to stay in Durness for this plan to work, or nearby Balnakeil. This is a small place, but because this is such a remote area, it has reasonable facilities and there are most types of accommodation available (prices are as of 2018):-

  • Hotel – Mackay Rooms a boutique (expensive) hotel. The cheapest room is £129 a night!
  • Hostel – The Lazy Crofter Bunkhouse. £20 for a bed for the night (shared rooms).
  • Guesthouse – The Wild Orchid Guesthouse.
  • Campsite – Sango Sands. Accepts tents, caravans, campervans and motorhomes. Electric hookup is available. No need to book if you do not require electric hookup. It is £9 a night for tents per person.

There are also a few self-catering cottages and B&Bs. As well as accommodation Durness has a bar and restaurant (Sango Sands Oasis). There is also a Spar supermarket and post office and a smaller convenience store (Mathers). The latter of these opens for an hour or two in the evening (the Spar always closed by 6:30pm). There is also a self-service petrol pump (diesel and petrol), which is open 24 hours a day.

The previous day I drove to the Sandwood Bay car park in the village of Blairmore (grid reference NC194600). Here I parked my car in the car park, to be left overnight. The car park is owned by the John Muir trust who don’t make a charge to park (but do suggest a donation). There is also a toilet and fresh water tap. From here I walked west along the road to Sheigra (and the campsite at the end). Then I walked east from there along the coast to Rhiconich.

Firstly there was a footpath between the beach at Bagh Sheigra and Port Chaligaig, and another from there to Bagh a Phollain beach. There isn’t a path but I could find a route over from there to the beach at Ann Meallan. From there I headed up to the road at Oldshoremore and then followed the roads all the rest of the way to Rhiconich (there is not much traffic).

Here are a couple of photos from this walk.

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At Rhiconich there are a few buses to Durness and you need to arrive in time to catch one of these to Durness. They go from outside the little police station, or from the end of the B801 if they have come from Kinlochbervie. The times of the buses are correct at the time of writing are below, but note that some only run on school days, or in the summer.

There are two relevant bus routes. Durness Bus route 806 and Durness Bus route 804. The latter of these runs only during the school summer holidays (the former runs year round). One or two departures also only run on school days.

I caught the bus from Rhiconich at 14:10 (which runs Monday – Thursday) back to Durness. If you miss this there is a later bus on Fridays or on route 804 if it is running that day. Note the Durness bus seem to operate only Ford Transit minibus, with the destination shown with a bit of wood at the bottom of the dashboard (easy to miss), so watch carefully for the bus to come (there is at least not much traffic). The bus company seem to use the name “Durness Bus” and “Far North Bus” interchangeably on their vehicles, so expect it to be showing either of these names!

The next morning from Durness I took the bus (route 806 again) at 08:05 and asked to get off at the end of the road for the Cape Wrath ferry which goes from the hamlet of Keodale. Note that the bus does not go to Keodale, but it will stop at the end of the road that leads there. It will get you there at about 8:15 to 8:20. From there it is a 10 minute walk along the road to the ferry departure point, at the end of the road (there is a bus shelter there, but little else). This gives you enough time to get there for the first ferry (on the day I did it, this was listed as “8:45 to 9am”). If you decide to abandon the walk, or find the ferry is not running this bus will go to Kinlochbervie where it’s a 4.5 miles onwards along the road to the car park.

When I did the walk the ferries were timed to connect with the mini-bus to Cape Wrath and were at 9:00am, 1pm and 3pm. In practice the ferry left late (because the tide was too low initially) and had to do 3 loads to get all the waiting passengers over (2 mini-buses were departing on the trip I did), and I ended up on the 3rd of these boats, so left Keodale at around 9:35am. At the time of writing, a single ticket on the ferry cost £5.

From there the first part of the walk to Cape Wrath Lighthouse is along the public road to the lighthouse. The first couple of miles or so are outside the range and hug the coast, with fine views over the Kyle of Durness.

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Soon the road turns inland, and climbs up onto the open moor.

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The only traffic is likely to be the minibuses taking tourists to and from the lighthouse. There are two turnings off the road, the first on the right to Kervaig (where there is a bothy, and a beach). Sadly I didn’t have time to do this diversion, because it is such a long walk.

The second turning, about a mile and a half later, goes off to the right to a jetty at Clais Charnach. So ignore both these turnings and keep on the road to reach the lighthouse.

Altogether, the road to the lighthouse is 10 miles or so and you can expect it to be lonely (other than the minibuses, I saw 2 cyclists, that was it). You’ll be relieved when the lighthouse comes into view, and you are, the most north westerly point of mainland Britain! I reached this point just before 2pm.

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Sadly you can’t visit the interior of the lighthouse, and many of the buildings around it are derelict. However one very useful amenity is the Ozone Cafe. This states that it never closes (I’d not rely on it, and bring plenty of supplies, though). I used the cafe for lunch. The only hot food available is soup, otherwise it’s sandwich, crisps, cakes, tea, coffee etc. Also note that because they have no water supply (only bottled water), the tea and coffee is expensive, but well worth it to refresh you for the journey ahead!

Now comes the tricky bit, since there is no track as far as Sandwood Bay. I re-traced my steps along the road for a little over 1 mile, to grid reference NC264730. Here I turned off the road over the trackless moorland, exactly due south to the Old Shielings, marked on the map. Then I turned slightly west to end up on the east side of the steep valley of the Allt na Clais Leobairnich.

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I then followed the south edge of the top of this valley to reach the coast, and it’s quite an impressive bit of coast!

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Once on the coast I found it was easier under foot. At times there was a feint path and for some reason some of the cliff tops are devoid of vegetation (salt water spray, perhaps) so you can walk over the rocks and gravelly stone at the top.

The only tricky bit comes at Bay of Keisgaig where there is a very steep descent (I had to zig-zag) and then you need to cross the river (after this long hot dry summer, there were easy stones to step over, but it might be harder after heavy rain).

There is a little flat area beside a ruined building at the other side of the valley. Just after this you’ll leave the military firing range, there is a fence at the boundary, but happily a stile is provided on the coast here. From there I continued along the coast to approach Sandwood Bay.

This feels a bit like the Scottish version of that beach in the film The Beach. It is famous for being the remotest beach on the mainland so it does attract visitors who walk just to the beach.

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The map shows 2 rivers flowing over the beach (the northern one, Amhainn Srath Chailleach the southern from Sandwood Loch). However I found a smaller narrower valley just north of this first river (approx grid reference NC233666), where I was able to descend down to the beautiful sandy beach. The river was easily wadable on the beach (no more than kneep deep) because the tide was out (if you’re not so lucky you might not be able to join the beach until further up). Here is the view back, after I had waded it.

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After all your effort, Sandwood Bay is a great reward! It’s about a mile and a half of glorious sandy beach, partly backed by cliffs and partly by dunes, which lead to Sandwood Loch. Things get easier now, just follow the beach south.

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Dunes develop at the south end of the beach. When you are ready to leave this wonderful beach, the path from the beach leaves at approximate grid reference NC218651. This is a good path all the way and you have around 4 miles to go at this point.

The path initially goes over the dunes, and is sandy underfoot.

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It soon improves to a track, where you get your last view of Sandwood Bay, as you climb away from the coast.

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The track is pretty good, almost a road at times, but with a few stepping stones over a couple of little streams. You’ll also pass a few attractive little Lochs and Lochans.

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This track continues to the road opposite the Sandwood Bay car park. I was very relieved to make it back here. I’d taken plenty of sugary snacks with me, so still had a surprising amount of energy!

I was very relieved to find my car here, where I’d left it around 36 hours previously, and with some extra drinks inside. I arrived around 8:30pm. From here it took me about 40 minutes to drive back to Durness. It is a spectacular drive, though almost all the road (even the parts that are an A-road) are single track with passing places, so how long it takes rather depends on whether you get stuck behind anything slow, or have to keep giving way to oncoming traffic.

So I hope this is useful for any fellow coastal walkers (or others that are interested in doing this walk) that are planning to tackle Cape Wrath.

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7 Responses to Walking Cape Wrath

  1. This is REALLY useful. Thank you for posting it up. I know I’m going to find this section a real challenge, but I’m sure I’ll find a way of doing it, and this information is so helpful.

    • jcombe says:

      Glad it helps Ruth. It is possible to split the walk into two to cut the distance walked in a day. The first day from the ferry to the Lighthouse, returning on the mini bus. The second day a walk from the Lighthouse (reached via the ferry and minibus) and from there down to Blairmore via Sandwood Bay, but it would still require sorting out the transport links for the second day.

  2. owdjockey says:

    Hi Jon, some very useful information there. I’m still on course for rounding Cape Wrath by the end of this year. My approach will be slightly different because I will approaching from the south. I’ll probably make use of Strathcallaich Bothy (Sandy’s bothy) and maybe even Kervaig Bothy. Obviously dependent on MOD activity. As I have chosen not to use ferries (just as well ‘cos the ferry would not be running after Septemebr!) I will have to round The Kyles of Durness, which does have a bridge across the River Dionard via some trackless terrain.
    Just back after 4 days on Skye…………….one word – Heaving!!!
    Thanks for posting

    • jcombe says:

      That’s going to be a tough walk, but probably a fun one. I really enjoyed it! I’ve spotted the bridge you plan to use I think on the map it does indeed look remote. I wonder if you might end up being the first person to have walked the entire mainland coast of Britain without using any ferries? John Merill was I think the first person to walk all the coast (or at least, to document it), but I think he did use ferries (I should read his book to be sure!).

      I’ve heard Skye gets very crowded. I gather it has becomes very popular with overseas tourists in recent years and I’ve heard you have to book a long way in advance to get anywhere to stay there now because it has become so popular. It does look very beautiful though, so I can understand why it is so popular.

  3. owdjockey says:

    Hi Jon, there are probably two historical blogger accounts I check. Nat Severs, a young chap that did the walk in a single outing go back in 2010 and John Gale who completed a couple of years ago doing 5 days or more sections before returning home. Nat Severs went over terrain I would never contemplate going over, but from what he has written he used the Ferry into Knoydart and the Durness Ferry. Its all swings and roundabouts Jon, because I doubt I will be as fastidious as yourself when it comes to the Suffolk/Essex marshes which you covered in great detail.
    Did you do further do days walking south after you rounded Cape Wrath on this trip?
    May I make a suggestion? That would be to write up your recently walked stuff now and carry on with the retrospective stuff in due course. Personally, I’m, down to the last 16 or so retrospective walks which I need to write up. Some of these are from the Pembrockshire CP back in the early Noughties!
    Hopefully our paths will cross sometime between now and December – hopefully it will be on some remote headland in Wester Ross.

    • jcombe says:

      Hi Alan. On this trip I covered the coast from Eribol farm (on the eastern banks of Loch Eribol, east of Durness, west of Tongue) to the viewpoint near Unapool on the A894 just south of Kylesku. My next trip to the far north of Scotland isn’t until October now and hoping to continue south from Kylesku then, though I’m also doing one (or 2?) shorter trips to south west Scotland (Dumfries, currently) before then.

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