It takes a long time to reach Sandwood Bay in Sutherland, one of the most northerly points of the Scottish mainland. First it’s a six or seven hours drive north from Glasgow. Three lane city motorway turns into a single track road winding through crofting land and scattered townships. Nonchalant sheep nestle in crooks of the track, unconcerned by the wheels of the van inches from their face. At the end of the road there is a lonely cemetery. But you are not yet at Sandwood Bay.
Approaching Sandwood Beach
Now it’s a four mile walk across moorland, rock, sparkling lochans and peat bog. You hear the song of skylarks and see the scattering of moorland flowers. Behind you, to the east, are the hazy peaks of Cranstackie, Arkle and other mountains. It’s not the most beautiful of landscape, in less sunny conditions it would be bleak and treeless, but it’s a slow building drumroll to what lies ahead. The path rises, turns and there it is below you, beyond the bright splashes of yellow gorse. A mile and a half of pinkish sand is backed by dunes and Sandwood Loch. The beach is flanked by dramatic striated cliffs, including a sea stack. The bay faces north west out into a vast ocean. An edge of Britain. Next stop Greenland. On a less beautiful spring day it would be majestic in its broodiness, the North Atlantic storms pounding into the bay. Today the sea sparkles benignly in hues of turquoise and azure, topped with the white crests of waves. You can hear the slow murmur of the surf.
The dunes of Sandwood Bay
The dunes are a unstable, shifting world of towering sand dunes semi-colonised by marram grass, interlocking ravines and hollows. Sometimes the sand is satisfyingly pristine and unmarked, other times you can follow the tracks of other people or wild animals. I follow a ravine as it turned into an ever-narrowing twisting gully with a small stream. It breaks out of the dunes into the grassy machair. My appearance scatter some grazing lambs.
“Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another.” John Muir
Ghosts and shipwrecks
Even in glorious sunshine, and with a steady trickle of walkers along the moor’s path, it’s not difficult to imagine the more brooding, lonely atmosphere of Sandwood Bay. In 1935 the naturalist Seton Gordon wrote “I was astonished at the number of wrecks which lie on the fine sand.” These were “old tragedies” that predated the building of a lighthouse at nearby Cape Wrath in 1828. “Some of the vessels lie almost buried in the sand far above the reach of the highest tide.”
The legends suggest Viking longboats and Spanish Armada galleons could still be buried in the dunes with their treasure.
This graveyard of shipwrecks is associated with a great loss of life, time-shifts see a beach strewn with debris and bodies from disasters at sea. Not surprisingly Sandwood Bay has many curious incidents and tales of hauntings. Ghosts of mariners knock at the windows of Sandwood House on stormy nights. Strange figures appear and disappear from the sands, leaving no trace or footprint in the sands. Beautiful mermaids sun themselves on the rocks, alarming passing crofters. A bearded man clad in sea boots, a sailors cap and tunic wanders the dunes. A father and son gathering firewood are shocked by the sudden appearance of a huge man with a ghostly air shouting at them to ‘take their hands off what did not belong to them and leave his property’. Spooked they drop everything and flee.
Walkers wild camping in the cottage ruins are woken by shaking and sound of stamping wild horses, perhaps the each-uisge or mythical water horse, a dangerous shape-shifter that tears its victims apart in the deepest part of the loch, leaving only the liver to float to the surface.
Once the John Muir Trust (who own the Sandwood estate) was contacted by a woman looking for information on the bay’s shipwrecks. On a beautiful day she had sat down by the loch. It quickly turned cloudy and she heard weeping and wailing. She saw a group of people dressed in 18th century clothes walked round the loch in great distress, and then disappear.
The shifting sands and dunes can reveal new secrets after a large storm, burying the present, exposing the past, eroding the barriers between spiritual and temporal worlds.
Or maybe not.
Hermit and characters
Perhaps the sightings by spooked visitors of spectral sailors could be explained by the sudden hostile appearances of the local hermit, James MacRory-Smith. His story is as equally interesting and tragic as his ghostly counterparts.
James was driven to his lifestyle by a horrific car accident that saw his wife burnt to death. Their children were left with family and he took to the road, eventually living in Strathchailleach bothy, just north of Sandwood Bay. For the next thirty years until he died in 1999, James lived a primitive and isolated existence with no running water, no electricity and no telephone. He used what drifted in on Sandwood Bay for furniture and firewood; lived off whatever nature’s local larder could provide and left paintings on the walls of the bothy. He was not an easy character, drinking and guarding his sanctuary. “If he liked you it was alright,’ said a friend. “If he didn’t…he would come to the door with a hatchet.” Nor was it appreciated that James hijacked and refused to share what was supposed to be a shelter freely available to all.
Sandwood Bay attracts its characters, witness the tale of the 20 stone 80 year old who arrive armed with a brass diving rod and a map to treasure lost buried in the dunes. Halfway through walking in he gave–up and simply passed his treasure map on to a local. Everyone comes with a purpose, this is not a place you drift in. Yes it can be solitary but it also attracts a trail of outdoor specialists, bikers, dune time-lapse photographers, path fixers, walkers, bird watchers, trail runners and cliff climbers swapping tales of fulmers vomiting their foul fishy odours if they stray too close to their nests.
Characters who dream of Sandwood Bay where stories and secrets fly on stormy winds and churn in endless waves.
The John Muir Trust is a conservation charity dedicated to protecting and enhancing wild places in Scotland.
References and further information
Highways and Byways in the West Highlands, Seton Gordon, 1935