A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Saturday, 14 November 2009


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

The beach at Sandwood Bay in the far north west of Scotland is one of the loveliest you might ever hope to find, and this is much to do with its remoteness. You can reach it only on foot. You park in a small car park just south of Sheigra - the tiny inlet where I'd wildcamped the night. (There's a small toilet block there, with facilities for a wash and brush up and for filling your water bottles.) Opposite the car park begins a path which takes you 4 and a half miles across grassy, heathery peatland, past a series of jewel-like lochs, to Sandwood Bay.

It was early in the morning and there were few other walkers about. After a couple of hours I crossed the machair and descended seawards through sand dunes bristling with marram grass. A few rag-tag groups of beachcampers had already struck camp and were heading back towards 'civilisation'. By the time I'd placed my first footsteps on the fine, silvery sand, only one solitary tent remained. I had the mile-long beach practically to myself.

I made for an outlying platform of low rocks half-way between the bay's twin headlands (see pic), then perched on one of the rocks and scanned around with my binoculars. Oystercatchers probed for cockles and clams in the wet sand of the shoreline. Gannets thronged the skies above, gliding on stiff, black-tipped wings and plunging for fish in the turquoise ocean. As they dived, their wings folded back in a streamlined 'W' pattern. Lone cormorants flapped over the bay in direct, purposeful flight; others hung out their wings to dry on a distant sea stack, looking for all the world like giant vampire bats. Twice I briefly glimpsed a large, black and white shape in the water. No sooner did I focus on it than it submerged again. Could this have been an orca, or killer whale? It's quite possible - there are regular sightings of killer, minke, humpback and other whales, not to mention basking sharks, dolphins and porpoises, round this part of the Scottish coast.

I turned away from the water's edge, and walked beyond the strandline and behind the dunes to sheltered Sandwood Loch. Here eight ringed plover scurried along the shingle rim of the loch, teasing out invertebrates among the stones. Every so often, after a spell of frenzied motion, they would freeze, their brown and white feathers and black and white heads (resembling highwayman's masks) merging perfectly with the pebbled background of the loch's foreshore. It was so tranquil here, so unspoilt, so utterly beautiful - I almost felt I'd reached the very gates of Paradise itself.

(Like Ben and Glen Nevis, the Sandwood Estate is owned and managed by the John Muir Trust. It's a very special, indeed unique place. There are two main types of rock: Torridonian Sandstone - formed around 600 million years ago - and Lewisian Gneiss, which is 2 - 3000 million years old. The pattern of rivers and lochs, cliffs and bays, humps and hollows tell a tale of moving glaciers and melting ice during the last Ice Age - a mere 10,000 years ago. The strip of grassland along the coast, known as the machair, supports an astonishing variety of plants and insects (200 kinds of wild flower have been recorded, including eight orchid varieties), and it's also home to such uncommon birds as the twite and the corncrake, and the increasingly rare skylark. Today, amongst the human inhabitants, crofting and fishing are continuing, important sources of employment, and the Estate has fifity-four working crofts.)


am said...

Thank you for writing more about the beach at Sandwood Bay and for the additional photos. The beauty of the place moves me.

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, it's very beautiful there, am. A special place.