Sandwood Bay is one of Britain’s most remote and beautiful beaches. Flanked by grassy dunes and buffeted by the rolling breakers of the Atlantic Ocean, the swath of white sand is a wild and wonderful place. The only way in is on foot and the car park at Blairmore, on the narrow road between Kinlochbervie and Sheigra, is the perfect place to start.
Cross the road from the car park, go through a gate on the other side and set off along a track crossing grazing land above Loch Aisir. The route continues to Loch na Gainimh where it curves left, heading north to Loch a’Mhuilinn. The track ends here and a peaty path continues above Loch Meadhonach and Loch Clais nan Coinneal to the bay. Look out for red-throated divers on these lonely lochans.
As you begin the descent to the beach, make the short detour to Sandwood Lodge. The ruin enjoys commanding views over the bay and Sandwood Loch, a ribbon of blue water stretching inland from the dunes. A path drops from here to the beach.
Stepping on to the sand, you are immediately confronted by the rugged beauty of the place. At the southern end of the bay, a dagger-like sea stack – Am Buachaille – punctures the skyline while at the other end high cliffs – home to puffins and other seabirds – stretch north towards Cape Wrath. Devoid of human interference and protected by the John Muir Trust, the landscape dominates and nature reigns supreme.
Perhaps because of its isolation, Sandwood has strong links with unworldly phenomena. Sightings of mermaids were reported as late as the 19th century. Treacherous offshore currents wrecked many a ship and there are tales of ghosts too, one of the most enduring being that of a bearded sailor, said to be the spectre of a sailor who died when a Polish ship sank in the bay.
There are those who believe that later sightings may be linked to a real life character that frequented the bay. From the mid-1960s to 1994 James McRory Smith lived as a recluse in a tumbledown cottage at Strathchailleach, a mile and a half away. To reach Strathchailleach, walk along the beach to the outflow of Sandwood Loch.
There is no bridge and some paddling is required to ford the stream. Once over, climb the slope, bearing right of rocky outcrops. The path is vague, crossing rough heather where red deer graze to Lochan nan Sac. Head east, contouring round the hillside and descend to Strathchailleach.
Lost in the landscape, the cottage was built to house shepherds. But James McRory Smith made it his home. He collected driftwood from Sandwood Bay and cut peat for heat. He took his water from the adjacent stream and ate fish caught in lochans. Once a week James made the long trek to Kinlochbervie to collect his pension and provisions. For the rest of the time he lived in blissful seclusion, wandering the hills, communing with nature, reading and painting. Some of his pictures remain on the walls of the bothy, a memorial to one man’s wilderness living.
Return by the same route.
Distance: 12 miles/19.2km
Time: 5-6 hours
Start/finish: Public car park at Blairmore, on minor road between Kinlochbervie and Shiegra (GR: NC 194601)
Maps: Ordnance Survey 1:50,000 Landranger sheet 9 or OS Explorer sheet 446
Information: Durness, 0845 2255 121
Public transport: None
Route: as outlined above