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Durness, Scotland: Rugged and Wild


A driving tour of the Scottish Highlands is a rewarding way to discover the towns and villages of interest and the surrounding countryside. Be aware, though, that many of the Highlands roads are narrow in the extreme – even some that are designated as ‘A’ roads – and passing a vehicle coming in the opposite direction can be a major undertaking if a passing place hasn’t been carved out at the side of the road.


Someone will have to back-up until a point is reached where the two cars can squeeze past one another. Parts of the road leading to Durness fall into this category.


Durness is a village in the remote north-west of Scotland that lies on the North Coast 500, an 830-kilometre scenic route along Scotland’s northern coast that begins and ends in the city of Inverness. The landscape is truly wild around Durness with a rugged, rocky coastline and cliffs interrupted only by expansive sandy beaches. The area is a haven for walkers and mountaineers and those who just want to take in the views and spot some birdlife. However, it gets extremely windy here and was blowing at gale force when we were here.


The nearest towns of any size are Thurso, about 115 kilometres to the east, and Ullapool, a similar distance south. Before setting out from either of these points you should stock up on supplies and fill up with fuel, because there isn’t much in the way of amenities between the two that’s actually on the North Coast 500. There is a shop in Durness and premium-priced petrol is available from a self-serve pump, but that’s about it.


We began our journey even further east than Thurso, after disembarking from the Orkney ferry at Gills Bay and visiting nearby John O’ Groats.

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Scattered around a string of sheltered sandy coves and grassy cliff tops, Durness straddles the turning point on the main road as it swings east from the inland peat bogs to the coast.


On the shore just east of Durness is Smoo Cave, with a combination of sea and freshwater and one of Britain’s largest cave mouths – a massive 15-metre-wide gaping hole in the limestone cliff. There are 100 steps down to the beach from where the cave can be explored on foot up to a point, but then you have to be taken into the inner cave by rubber dinghy. We didn’t have time to do this, unfortunately, as we were due at Ullapool that evening.


The Cape Wrath Trail passes through here, a 322-kilometre hiking trail from Fort William in the Western Highlands to the north-west corner of Scotland. If you’re a hiker and fancy giving it a try, be aware that the trail is not waymarked, has few facilities en route and even fewer paths.


The terrain is often boggy, the rain frequently unrelenting, but the walk is described by all who’ve done it as magnificent. Clo Mor cliffs at Cape Wrath are the highest on mainland Britain and support huge seabird colonies including puffins, razorbills, fulmars, kittiwakes and guillemots.

These pictures illustrate how rapidly the weather can change in this part of Scotland.


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