318. Durness to Durness via Faraid Head and Keoldale

July 2018

The further north into Scotland I’ve got the more planning these trips take. This one was harder than most to arrange as I would be tackling Cape Wrath on this trip and I had to come up with a plan on how I was going to do that. Once I’d done that, my plan meant it was necessary for me to be staying in Durness.

Another part of the plan was that beyond Cape Wrath to walk this part of the coast there was a bus between Durness and Ullapool but it only ran in the school summer holidays (presumably because it uses a bus and driver that would otherwise be doing school routes). In addition the walk to Cape Wrath is over a military firing range for much of the way so I needed to pick a time this wasn’t in use and hence public access was permitted. The dates aren’t published far in advance but in general the range is open for the whole of the month of July. So between these three constraints I decided that this year I’d wait until the summer (July) to return to Scotland and make a longer trip instead. These trips take a lot of planning! (Still at least in 2018 I didn’t have the Government telling me I am not allowed to go on holiday which managed to ruin my carefully made plans for 2020 and has already ruined my plans for 2021, too).

So after some consideration of the limited accommodation options I decided, given the fact it was the height of summer, to camp for this trip and so I booked a pitch at the campsite in Durness, Sango Sands. I planned to arrive on Saturday and return the Sunday of the following weekend, making a 9 day trip. I booked return flights from Luton to Inverness and a hire car from Inverness airport. Given I was camping there was no way I’d be able to make it just hand luggage only, so I also booked a suitcase on the flight and hoped that I would be able to fit my tent, sleeping bag, other camping equipment as well as slightly over a weeks worth of clothes into the limited luggage space (I could … just!).

So I set off for Luton airport and took the flight to Inverness. Inverness airport was in a state of chaos as 3 flights had arrived in the space of 30 minutes (it’s a small airport and they clearly couldn’t cope with this) and on top of that the only luggage carousel was constantly breaking down and having to be fixed so there was a huge crush of people waiting for their luggage. Having been caught out with this before I decided instead to head straight for the car hire desk at the other end of the terminal to sort that out. This was a good plan as I didn’t have to wait long. I had booked the smallest car, which was described as Fiat 500 or similar. This time I did get a Fiat 500 (as I had last time). Fortunately this time it was maroon rather than pink!

Now I headed back to the other end of the terminal to find my suitcase had now been delivered, so I could head out to the car park to find the hire car. Last time I had found the Fiat 500 to really struggle, to the point I wondered if something was wrong with it (especially given how much petrol it got through). Well this one was much better. I’m not sure if it just had a better or larger engine or whether it just confirmed my suspicions there was something wrong with the previous one.

I only headed a mile or so from the airport and decided to stop at the large Tesco supermarket nearby for some provisions given I knew there were very minimal facilities between Inverness and Durness and I wasn’t sure what facilities would be in Durness when I got there (and if they would be open). I also got lunch here. Then I set off for the drive to Durness. This was scheduled to take well over 2 hours (in fact, closer to 3), as it’s a long way from anywhere. At least the hire car had a full tank of fuel so this time I didn’t have to worry about running out of petrol, having found out last time there are very few opportunities to fill up on the way. I did worry a bit what I was going to do for petrol once I did get to Durness so I was very pleased to find that when I did get there, it has a self-service pump, open 24 hours a day (paid via a card) so that was that problem solved.

The drive to Durness is very beautiful. I had to be strict not to keep stopping to take photos, or I’d never get there! From Lairg all the way to Laxford Bridge the A838 is a single-track road. I don’t like driving roads like that because in general in the south of England most single-track roads have high hedges on either side, lots of bends and few passing places so you often have to crawl along because you can’t see far ahead. Fortunately I found this road much easier to drive because it’s mostly very open, there are many passing places (which are well signed) and little traffic. This means you can usually see traffic coming the other way a long way ahead and work out what the best passing place to use is (if both drivers are on the ball it is often possible to do so with neither driver having to come to a stop). I stopped for lunch along here at a particularly scenic section.

I made it to Laxford Bridge OK and here, briefly, the A838 gets a lane in each direction. What luxury! It didn’t last though. At Rhiconich it went down to a single track road with passing places again. This time I was unfortunate to get stuck behind a long convoy of Belgium motor homes. (I find this is a problem during the day in the summer months), who mostly drove at 20mph and never went above 35mph and stopped at the first passing place if they so much as saw headlights ahead, even if they had enough time to go to several further passing places before the oncoming vehicles would arrive. Although signs advise “Do not impede traffic. Use passing places to permit overtaking” the Belgium drivers either did not understand it or did not follow it. It was not possible for me to get past and it was a very frustrating few miles. Of course, at Durness they all turned into the same campsite I had booked, so I had to wait behind them to check in too!

The campsite was beautifully located right on the cliff top above a gorgeous sandy beach (with steps down to the beach). The facilities were modern and clean too. The only downside was that it was very windy so I struggled to find anywhere sheltered enough to even pitch the tent. Even when I did find somewhere it was still pretty exposed and then tent was flapping about. I hoped the weather would calm down and the tent would still be there when I got back.

When I had eventually done that it was not far off 4pm! I had hoped to do a walk today, but it had taken longer than expected to get here and get set up. I had a quick look round Durness and found the facilities better than expected for such a small place. There were 2 convenience stores too, which was a bonus. Since I’d done little more than travel today and had been mostly sitting down I decided to forgo a hot meal this evening and instead bought food for a cold dinner from the Spar shop that I could eat on the way. Since it was July, at that time of year this far north in Scotland it is light until well past 10pm and even when the sunsets it takes a long time to get dark, so I still had plenty of time for a walk.

The obvious thing to do was start from Durness. I could see that north of Durness was a long thin peninsula called Faraid Head, which I’d return from at Balnakeil and then follow a path marked on the map around the coast to Keoldale (where the ferry to Cape Wrath goes from) and then follow the road back to Durness (about 2 miles as the road route back is much more direct).

So now I had a plan it was time to get under way. From the campsite I found a path north over fields to the cliffs above the beach at Geodha Brat. From here I could turn left to the back of the beach and descend down a path above the back of the beach.

Durness

It was a beautiful beach and access was down a steep slope of sand which was difficult but I decided to go down anyway. Getting back up was a bit more tricky!

Even under the largely cloudy skies, the sea here was a glorious turquoise colour.

Faraid Head near Durness

This is a really beautiful stretch of coast. I am able to follow a path through the dunes north to near the end of the headland.

Faraid Head near Durness

Faraid Head near Durness

Faraid Head near Durness

Faraid Head near Durness

The end is closed off by the MOD unfortunately, so it’s not possible to go right to the tip, but at least an information board has been provided to tell me about the area.

Faraid Head near Durness

Despite not being able to get to the very north east tip of the headland I was able to get to the north west tip where I had fine views over the Kyle of Durness to the hills leading to Cape Wrath beyond.

Faraid Head near Durness

Faraid Head near Durness

Faraid Head near Durness

I hoped, if all went to plan, I’d be there in a few days. It was an impressive, if slightly daunting, site.

Faraid Head near Durness

Now the sand had given way to rocks and there were some rocky craggs a bit inland too, a bit like moorland meets the sea.

Faraid Head near Durness

The cliffs on the west side of the headland are impressively tall, though sadly at the top of part of them I got wet from a brief but heavy shower.

Faraid Head near Durness

Faraid Head near Durness

Faraid Head near Durness

Thankfully it didn’t last long and soon I could see the long sandy beach at Balnakeil Bay ahead.

Faraid Head near Durness

Just before the beach I was surprised to come across this tiny harbour. It looked to be used by fisherman but they can’t have an easy journey here because there aren’t any buildings nearby and the (private) military “road” out to the end of the headland requires you to drive over the beach so you’d need an off-road vehicle to be able to transport the catch.

Balnakeil Bay

Soon I was able to drop down onto the beach and it was a glorious beach. It stretches for about a mile and a half and again the sea was a lovely turquoise colour, despite the overcast sky.

Balnakeil Bay

Balnakeil Bay

About half way along the beach are some rocks.

Balnakeil Bay

Balnakeil Bay

If the tide is out it’s possible to walk along the beach in front of the rocks. It wasn’t and it wasn’t, so I had to make my way over these rocks to the second part of the sandy beach beyond, but at least the height gained gave me a good view of the lovely beach I had been following.

Balnakeil Bay

Ahead I could now follow this beach to the south end, where there is a small car park overlooking the beach.

Balnakeil Bay

Of course a car park brings other people so here there was also someone else enjoying the view and what a lovely view it is.

Balnakeil Bay

I suspect there was once more of a community here than there is now because beside the car park was the ruins of a church. The outer walls remain but the roof has collapsed, though some of the graves look more recent, so perhaps the grave yard is still in use.

Balnakeil ruined church

Balnakeil Bay

Although the car park is at the end of the public road, the road actually continued west a short distance to the golf course, so I was able to follow that.

Balnakeil Bay

This is Durness which claims to be the most northerly golf course on the British Mainland.

Durness Golf Club

A quick glance would suggest that is indeed a true claim. Beyond the club house, a path is marked around this little peninsula and I was pleased to find that there was indeed a good path on the ground too. This soon took me a to a rocky little inlet, with a pothole marked on the map.

The coast near Balnakeil

The coast near Balnakeil

I didn’t explore this but continued along the path to the little tidal island of Eilean Dubh. As the tide was in, it was indeed an island so I couldn’t explore that, but it was small enough I could see it all from here, including the cairn marked on the map, that I could just make out.

Eilean Dubh, Balnakeil

Eilean Dubh, Balnakeil

Rounding the corner there was another brief shower, but at least it was now to the side of me rather than in my face. Now heading south I was heading into the Kyle Of Durness, which has sand along this eastern shore and low rocks.

The Kyle of Durness near Balnakeil

The Kyle of Durness near Balnakeil

In fact the beaches really were glorious and I was surprised to see no other footprints in the sand. Given the number of people at the campsite at Durness I was surprised that seemingly no one else had explored this lovely area.

The Kyle of Durness near Balnakeil

The Kyle of Durness

As I continued south there was an area of higher cliffs which offered some wonderful views over these lovely beaches. It was far prettier than I had expected and these look to be good sandy beaches but being difficult to get to seem little known, one of the pleasures of walking the coast is discovering places like this that most people never get to see.

The Kyle of Durness

Across the Kyle of Durness I could make out a white house. The map showed this as Ferry House and I was surprised to see people living there given how remote it is, with no access to the rest of the road network and only a seasonal passenger ferry. I presume to live there you must have your own boat.

The Kyle of Durness

The Kyle of Durness

I was nearing the end of the public road at Keoldale now and I could already see the buildings of this small settlement ahead.

Near Keoldale

Soon I was down to the end of the public road and the location for the ferry over to Cape Wrath. The information I had been able to gather about this before leaving home is that the ferry schedule is largely made up  on the day based on the weather and expected demand, but usually the first ferry is around 9:30am. It doesn’t operate to a formal schedule.

Cape Wrath ferry, Keoldale

The sign only confirmed the unreliability of the service stating “No ferry” for today and first ferry tomorrow “8:45-9:00am” (earlier than suggested).

Cape Wrath bus and ferry, Keoldale

The signage was all a bit rough and ready and low budget. I looked at the clouds gathering over the hills of Cape Wrath and decided to get moving.

Cape Wrath ferry slipway, Keoldale

Another sign here gave me the firing times of the range for the month of July and confirmed that the range was not active at any time in July, which was what I had hoped and expected. So all looked set for my trip over to Cape Wrath, I just needed to wait for a day when the weather was good.

I now continued on the minor dead-end road to Keoldale passing the large Cape Wrath Lodge on the left. This was once the Cape Wrath Hotel which might have made a good base for this trip had it still been operating as a hotel.

The former Cape Wrath Hotel, Keoldale

The Kyle of Durness

At the end of the road to Keoldale I reached the A838, so it was time to turn inland along the road. Fortunately by this time (it was now about 9:45pm) there was little traffic and in any case about half of it had a lane in each direction. I walked quickly making brisk progress along the road, as it wasn’t very interesting. I soon reached the turning for the Balnakeil Craft Village (probably a good place to take coaches of American tourists in the days when American tourists were still allowed into Scotland).

I was soon back at my tent, which I was glad to find was still in place and intact. Sadly what had been a nice quiet pitch suggested that it soon wouldn’t be. Since I had left the campsite, my tent had been surrounded by motorcyclists who I suspected to be doing the NC500 but where nowhere to be seen. They returned from a pub (I presume), not long after midnight (I am not sure how they managed that given the only pub claimed it closed at 11pm) and on going into their tents decided it would be highly amusing to see who could fart and burp the loudest. Just what I wanted. Unfortunately this set the tone for this campsite. Though the bikers had, fortunately, gone the next day I found myself being disturbed late into the night by anti-social fellow campers on most nights I was there. That ranged from someone coming back late at night and deciding to play the bag-pipes, others sitting in their camper-vans with the noisy diesel engines running and headlights ablaze late at night, others that turned music on really loud and left it on until well past midnight (despite others asking them to turn it off). I wondered if I might have been better wild-camping though I did like having warm showers and clean toilets, which obviously isn’t possible when wild camping.

This had been a far better walk than expected with lots of really glorious remote sandy beaches to be found and some stunning scenery. There were also some beautiful rocky sections with higher cliffs than I had expected that offered wonderful views. It had also allowed me get my first glimpse of the remote Cape Wrath peninsula that I would be tackling on this trip.

Whilst I did this as a circular walk it is possible to skip the section of road walking on the A838 between Durness and the turning for Keoldale by using one of the following bus services (the turning for Keoldale is between Durness and Rhiconich and the bus will stop there if you ask):-

Durness / Far North bus route 804 : Durness – Rhiconich – Kinlochbervie – Rhiconich – Laxford Bridge – Scourie – Kylesku – Skiag Bridge – Lochinver – Inchnadamph – Leadmore Junction – Ullapool – Ledmore Junction – Lairg – Lairg Station (for trains to/from Inverness). 1 bus per day Monday- Saturday during the local school summer holidays only (approx 6 weeks from early July to mid August).

Durness / Far North bus route 806 : Leirinmore – Durness – Rhiconich – KinlochbervieRhiconich – Laxford Bridge – Scourie – Laxford Bridge – Achfary – Overscaig – Lairg (for trains to/from Inverness). One bus per day each way Monday – Friday. There is an additional service Monday – Thursday on school days only that only runs between Durness and Kinlochbervie. On Fridays there is an additional service between Durness and Ardgay Station for connections to/from Inverness by train.

Finally Durness / Far North Bus also operate a dial-a-bus service in this area. This operates Monday – Friday and is open to all to use (you do not have to live in the area or even in Scotland) and must be pre-booked in advance on 01971 511223 or 07782 110007 so can be booked if the times of the existing scheduled services are not suitable.

Here are the complete set of photos for this walk : Main Link.

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7 Responses to 318. Durness to Durness via Faraid Head and Keoldale

  1. What a shame about the noisy campsite louts. beaches are very beautiful. I’m dying to get back up to Scotland! What a shame about the noisy campsite louts.

    • Sorry about the garbled post! Must have cut and pasted by mistake 😆

    • jcombe says:

      Thanks Ruth and nice to hear from you. Like you I am desperate to get back. I had already booked a week in early May in a hotel but I doubt it will be allowed (hotels in England will not be open then, so I doubt Scotland will have opened them). I have another week booked in July (this time I opted for self-catering because I found the “socially distanced” hotel experience up there last year terrible, such as when all pubs, restaurants, cafes were closed so there was nowhere to eat). However if the week in May is not allowed I’ll then be staying in the “wrong” place in July and have a gap I need to go back and fill, so frustrating.

      I tried to find self catering instead in June but all the places expect you to forefit at least some of the money if you book and are not allowed to go. For example one I was in contact with yesterday had a cancellation policy that you can cancel for free up to for 2 days after booking. After that you are expected to pay half the cost even if the Government won’t let you go. I tried to ask if they could be flexible since I would come unless the law prevented it, but they wouldn’t budge. A shame, but I don’t think its fair to expect people to lose half the money through no fault of their own. I had enough hassle getting money back last year, so I’m not prepared to book anything that isn’t flexible until at least a week or two before departure at the moment.

  2. 5000milewalk says:

    I’ve been thinking about wild camping for a while, especially in places like this where there are very few places to stay. I’ve done it when I was younger, but not sure if I fancy it at age 54! 😁
    There are some fantastic beaches up there.

    • jcombe says:

      Yes I must admit it sounds tempting to wild camp until you realise all the stuff you would have to carry for the night (factoring in things like food and water), or you end up wild camping next to a road instead, which isn’t exactly “wild”!

  3. John Lennon’s aunt is buried in that graveyard, but we couldn’t find her when we were there a few years ago. Balnakeil and Faraid Head are beautiful – although we got eaten by midges.

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