Going to Extremes at Cape Wrath, Northern Scotland

Waiting for the Cape Wrath ferry…

I close my eyes with excitement, clench my hands around the hard wooden seat of the tiny boat as it surges across a narrow strip of sea. From here we’ll pile onto a minibus and be driven along a long, rough, winding road to the most northwesterly point on Britain’s mainland – Cape Wrath.

“Excited?” I say to my husband. “Not really,” he replies. He’s doing this for me. But if he regards this trip as a quick way to earn a lot of brownie points, I am alive with anticipation.

One of the most seductive words in the English language just has to be “farthest.”  Farthest north, farthest south, east, west…it’s so tempting to go just that extra step, to see what’s around the corner. And the beauty of the British Isles is that they’re small enough to allow a determined traveller to pick off the best bits.

In Your Bucket Because

  • It’s an extreme – and getting there will give you a sense of achievement.
  • There’s very little true wilderness in the UK, if any – but this is probably as close as you’ll get.
  • Great for not-too-intrepid adventurers and people who like to do things that are a bit different.

Some of them you’ll surely have heard of. Land’s End and John O’Groats (respectively the farthest points in the southwest and northeast of the British mainland) are well-developed tourist attractions: less obvious but also checked off my list are Dunnet Head and Lizard Point (farthest north and south) and the unspectacular resort of Great Yarmouth (east). I’ve even struggled to within sight of the magnificently-named island of Muckle Flugga, the most northerly point in the British Isles.

But Cape Wrath is the one that got away. Until now.

Cape Wrath and I have history. I first came to this part of the world many years ago when I camped with a friend on a perfect beach not far away from the ferry. We sipped champagne (it was my birthday) and gazed towards the tall cliffs, planning our trip to the Cape. Yet for some reason which I forget – but which can only be because the ferry wasn’t running – we never made it.

Right on the Edge of Europe

Years later I passed by again and saw the ferry ploughing its way across to meet the minibus. I stopped and looked longingly towards it. But I was on my way to a meeting and I couldn’t spare the time. Yet again, I vowed I’d be back. And today I am. I’m on my way. At last.

Cape Wrath isn’t remote in global terms, but in the UK it’s the closest to wilderness that you can get, diametrically opposite in every way from the country’s densely-populated south east. There’s no public vehicular access into the Cape Wrath peninsula and the minibuses that shuttle along the lighthouse road have to be floated across on giant rafts; the ferry that gets you to them runs only in the summer.

Cape Wrath isn’t easy to get to….

You can walk, of course – it’s only 11 miles – but as the route takes you through a Ministry of Defence firing range (the area is closed during exercises) you have to keep to the road for fear of unexploded ordnance. There are only a couple of houses and they have no electricity or sewerage. In the winter this place is easily cut off – the couple who live at the lighthouse were famously separated for a month a few years back when she went to buy the Christmas turkey just before a snowfall.

The minibus is packed. “This is known locally as the big stone bridge,” notes John, our guide, though in truth there’s not really a lot for him to comment on. “This is the little stone bridge,” he goes on, valiantly. “And this is the wooden bridge.” At this point, somebody laughs, perhaps with a trace of irony. But I’m not disheartened, far from it. “The cliffs are among the highest in Europe,” continues John, just as the cloud blows across them, “and full of wildlife.” But the road doesn’t go close enough to allow us to see so much as a puffin.

Cape Wrath Lighthouse and Cafe

After 45 minutes we arrive at the lighthouse, our heads full of facts about the Victorians and tall stories about the history of the place and the incompetence of the army. What is there to see? Just a lighthouse. We wander about on the headland, peering down over the steep cliffs, looking in vain for a golden eagle. “Is this it?” someone asks. On the face of it, it’s nothing special, but when I look around at my fellow travellers we all seem to be standing on the very edge of nowhere with rather silly expressions of wonder on our faces.

So what’s the secret, what’s the surprise? What makes this desolate place the object of my thirty years of wanderlust? The answer is all tied in with this idea of “farthest.” Cape Wrath isn’t just geographically distant – it’s the most physically extreme point in a part of Europe that’s marginal in many senses – culturally, agriculturally, socially.

Bleak, uninhabited, scenic…the far north west of Scotland

The ferryman chats on his mobile phone in Gaelic. The landscape is pockmarked alternately by the spots of high-explosive shells and the stripes where peat has been dug for fuel. Sheep risk becoming an instant mutton fricassee as they wander across the bleak moorland and at the edges of the peninsular the cliffs give way to the perfect white sand backed with wildflowers, creating a unique habitat known as “machair.” Cape Wrath may not look special but it is – there’s nowhere else like it.

Blown about by the wind we repair to Cape Wrath’s perfect gem – its café. Proudly boasting that it’s open 24 hours every day of the year (you never know when a stray hiker of sea kayaker is going to turn up) this restaurant-at-the-end-of-the-universe offers soup and snacks to all comers. Suddenly my husband’s enthusiasm catches light. “Cake!” he says.  And then, over-awed: “Home-made cake!”

On the way back we fall into conversation with an Australian couple who are on their trip of a lifetime and have made a point of including Cape Wrath. They have no family connections here but they, like me, just felt the call of the wild. “And it’s wonderful,” they say, with hushed reverence, “just wonderful.”

And it is. As we go back across on the ferry I look towards the sandy beaches of Faraid Head where I camped out all those years ago and dreamed of Cape Wrath. Now at last it’s ticked off my bucket list…and well worth the wait.

Practicalities

  • It’s not easy to get there. Drive to the village of Durness in the far north west of Scotland, a mere six hours or so from Edinburgh, and get the ferry – if it’s running. Then take the minibus. (These two sections of the trip are charged separately.) All sorts of things will conspire to stop you, including the weather, the tides and the Ministry of Defence
  • As an alternative you can walk along from the ferry but if you do don’t forget that there’s some serious high-explosive ordnance lying around – you MUST take heed of warning notices
  • There’s a café at the lighthouse which sells drinks, cakes, snacks and souvenirs – but there are no toilets (and no bushes either)

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