Sea change

These waters are never still.  The perpetual motion of the tides carries drowned sailors south from Cape Wrath to rest on the shores of haunted Sandwood Bay.

I think of Lycidas drowned
in Milton’s mind.
How elegantly he died. How langourously
he moved
in those baroque currents. No doubt
sea nymphs wavered round him
in melodious welcome.

And I think of Roddy drowned
Off Cape Wrath, gulping
fistfuls of salt, eyes bursting, limbs thrashing
the ponderous green. – No elegance here,
nor in the silent welcome
of conger and dogfish and crab.

Norman MacCaig – Sea change, January 1978

Sandwood Bay ...
Sandwood Bay ...
Sandwood Bay ...

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Robert Louis Stevenson

This is just an excuse to repeat some words from Robert Louis Stevenson, a member of The Lighthouse Family – five generations responsible for the remarkable legacy of ninety six lighthouses around the coast of Britain, among them, Cape Wrath.

There is scarce a deep sea light from the Isle of Man to North Berwick, but one of my blood designed it.  The Bell Rock stands monument to my grandfather; the Skerry Vhor for my uncle Alan; and when the lights come out along the shore of Scotland, I am proud to think that they burn more brightly for the genius of my father.

For love of lovely words, and for the sake
Of those, my kinsmen and my countrymen,
Who early and late in the windy ocean toiled
To plant a star for seamen, where was then
The surfy haunt of seals and cormorants:
I, on the lintel of this cot, inscribe
The name of a strong tower.
Robert Louis Stevenson 1885

Cape Wrath

The sea rolls, boils and bubbles over the rocks off Cape Wrath, a happy linguistic coincidence, the name Wrath being derived from the from Old Norse hvarf , turning point; much like the fastest man on earth being called Bolt and the fallen Bulgarian hurdler, Stambolova.

I have passed through nearby Durness on a number of occasions and walked the beach at Balnakeil but until last week had never completed the journey to Cape Wrath and Robert Stevenson’s lighthouse at the extreme northwest corner of mainland Britain.  The trip starts with a half mile ferry across the Kyle of Durness, a rowing boat powered by an outboard, ferryman at the stern, ferrydog at the bow and a handful of passengers squeezed between.  From the slipway across the Kyle a well-worn minibus provides a teeth chattering 11 mile drive across a rough road which was built to service construction of the lighthouse in 1828 and has suffered little change since.  The first walled section hugs the edge of Beinn An Amair before entering the MOD bombardment range where the road descends to Daill and the bridge built by the army in 1981 to replace the sometime impassable ford.

As the road climbs to Inshore, three target vehicles become visible across the western ridge; two are in standard camouflage and the other is bright pink, courtesy of local schoolchildren who enjoy access to the ranges for natural history and modern art field trips.

The milestones carved by the keepers count down the miles, descending numerically towards the lighthouse, the centre of their world.  All are original except number eight which suffered stray artillery damage, the frequent roadside craters providing further evidence of why you would not want to travel this track when the red flags are flying.  The range finishes above the Kearvaig river bridge, this original arched construction being only just wide enough to accommodate the rattling minibus.

Beyond the bridge there are views towards the Kearvaig Stack whilst looking back from the old coastguard station above the lighthouse a white bothy can be seen nestling in the bay.

Sadly the lighthouse is now fully automated although not entirely deserted.  The Ozone café remains open throughout the year, possibly the loneliest outpost anywhere on the British mainland; not somewhere I would feel entirely at ease through the long dark nights.  Wild and empty the landscape may be but it is far from quiet; there is the constant noise of the sea and gulls, on firing days the sound of heavy munitions and on some days the scream of low flying jets as NATO allies practice bombing runs on the islands off the coast, occasionally the right ones.  Walk out beyond the lighthouse and there is evidence of yet more noise, the now abandoned foghorn.  Imagine this blasting into the dark night; enough to summon the dead souls of sailors washed up on the haunted beach of Sandwood Bay just down the coast.  Bustling civilisation has its compensations.

Down to the left of the foghorn lay the rusted remains of capstans, cogs and pulleys, evidence that there was once an intention to move the lighthouse onto lower rocks where it would less likely be obscured by fog.  A rusted name plate attributes manufacture to Taylor Pallister & Co Ltd, Dunston on Tyne, not that far from where this journey started in August 2011, a golfing pilgrimage that began in earnest on the first tee at Melrose and ended one year later on the eighteenth green at Durness.  That journey was about Golf in the Wild and will be a little longer in the telling.